Director/writer Elegance Bratton’s semi-autobiographical narrative feature debut captures the specifics of life as a gay Black man trying to find himself in the Marines but relies too heavily on war movie standards.
The Inspection, the narrative feature debut of writer-director Elegance Bratton, aims to be a fictionalized treatment of Bratton’s own real-life experiences as a young gay Black man attempting to turn his life around by, of all things, joining the Marines. As dramatic hooks go, that’s a compelling one, but the finished film seems strangely unwilling to grapple with it in any meaningful way. Instead, what could have been a unique, deeply personal narrative is eventually reduced to a well-meaning but largely undistinguished military melodrama that is ultimately too familiar for its own good.
Set in 2005, The Inspection follows Ellis French (Jeremy Pope), who’s lived on the streets since being kicked out by his deeply conservative mother, Inez (Gabrielle Union) at the age of 16. Now 25 with literally nowhere else to go and news of the ongoing War on Terror blaring everywhere, French decides that the only option left for him is to join the Marines. Perhaps by accomplishing this, he will finally earn the love and respect that he so desperately craves from his hateful mother, who is contemptuous of his decision when he comes to claim his birth certificate from her for his application. Even if he winds up dying in combat, that is still better in his eyes because he figures that dying in uniform will give his life some meaning, if only posthumously.
Along with his fellow recruits, Ellis arrives at boot camp and begins the inevitable harrowing routine under the steely gaze of his coldly cruel commander, Laws (Bokeem Woodbine). It’s an arduous task for the entire unit but especially so for Ellis, who must also keep his sexual orientation to himself at a time when the military was still operating under the dubious banner of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” The secret fails quickly as Ellis inadvertently outs himself during an incident in the shower and becomes a target for abuse by many of his squadmates. There are a couple of friendlier faces amongst them, however, including Ismail (Eman Esfandi), who is just as hated by many of the others for his Middle Eastern background. See also: Rosales (Raul Castillo), a drill instructor whose more humane approach towards Ellis might suggest a shared orientation.
When The Inspection specifically grapples with the issues involving an openly gay man trying to make it through the Marines—and the question of what parts of himself he’s willing to sacrifice in order to attain some degree of respectability in the eyes of the outside world, it’s interesting. The basic training sequence that leans heavily on homophobic slurs is a familiar part of war cinema, a part that hits harder here since both the audience and the characters on screen are fully aware of Ellis’s orientation. An additional twist arises in Ellis growing emboldened by the eventual acceptance of most of his fellow soldiers to not keep his orientation under wraps at all times.
This stuff is intriguing—at times suggesting an American equivalent of Beau Travail—but it only winds up demonstrating how forced and hollow the picture’s other aspects are. As The Inspection progresses, Ellis faces a number of conflicts, but they’re familiar from previous films pushing the notion that the military builds character. Nothing about the film’s take on them brings anything new to the table.
As Ellis, Pope does a good job charting his transformation in a convincing manner. Woodbine and Castillo also find ways to avoid most of the cliches associated with their drill instructor characters. Much less convincing is Union, who has successfully deglamorized herself here but who seems to be pitching her performance directly at the audience rather than anyone sharing the screen with her. The results may be “searing” but aren’t especially convincing. Since the entire film builds towards the question of whether Inez will attend the graduation of her prodigal child, her final confrontation with Ellis is nowhere near as emotionally charged or devastating as it should have been.
Bratton’s previous film was Pier Kids, an affecting documentary about homeless gay and transgender youth of color who formed their own community in order to survive on the streets, a subject clearly close to his own heart. Perhaps if he had taken a similar approach to the material here regarding his own life, covering the full arc of his transformation from homeless kid to Marine to filmmaker, the results might have been just as stirring and memorable. As it stands, The Inspection is a well-meaning but ultimately wanting work that trades in hard truths for mawkish melodrama and which ends just when it seems about to get interesting.
The Inspection opens Friday, November 18th, 2022.