“If we got rid of every gay man in the military, there would be no military,” a sympathetic officer told Marine recruit Ellis French in The Inspection. It’s an exceptionally open-minded approach to the US’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, given that pretty much every other Frenchman you meet at boot camp is openly hostile to a gay man among them. But writer-director Elegance Bratton made it through the system — like the character, he was lost and homeless for a decade before enlisting — and this deeply personal narrative debut is one gay black man’s way of showing how he not only survived this experience but was strengthened by it. “The few, the proud,” as they say.
To play himself – er, French – Bratton tapped into Emmy nominee Jeremy Pope (“Hollywood”), who will soon be starring on Broadway as Basquiat in The Collaboration. Pope gives a career-boosting performance in the role: a man who for a split second hopes the uniform might make him straight, but can’t hide how he feels when the men all shower together – a biological reaction, for which he is mercilessly beaten by his fellow recruits. Pulling himself back up after such humiliation is a rite of passage for French, who has much to prove to himself and to the terminally homophobic single mother who raised him (Gabrielle Union, only straining in the two scenes holding the bookend the film).
Prior to “The Inspection,” Bratton made an electrifying group portrait titled “Pier Kids,” which focused on queer youth of color congregating in lower Manhattan. The documentary was his generation’s answer to Paris Is Burning, and this, in turn, represents his best effort at what ballroom culture calls “military reality”: it’s a candid and compelling recreation of boot camp as he lived it. There is so much the films get wrong—or intentionally misinterpret—about the military that Bratton’s film hopes to correct and expand upon by stepping out of the long shadow cast by Stanley Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket.” in which a sensitive Marine-in-the-making was driven to suicide by pressure from an in-your-face drill instructor. (Meanwhile, other films such as Joel Schumacher’s “Tigerland” have taken up the homoeroticism of this hyper-masculine milieu.)
Between the influences of consumer advertising and identity politics, American culture today is all about expressing one’s individuality. But military service works on exactly the opposite principle, relying on officers like Laws (Bokeem Woodbine in Wolverine mode), Rosales (“Looking” Love Interest Raúl Castillo), and Brooks (Nicholas Logan, who channels R. Lee Ermey himself), to “break”. the spirit of the recruits and transform them into soldiers capable of sacrificing themselves for a greater cause. In a way, both perspectives are necessary for a functioning society: we define ourselves through our differences, but we also have to accept our place in the collective. Dramatically speaking, there is something terrifying about the process of self-denial that basic training entails, and The Inspection confronts this paradox head-on.
Becoming a Marine is as important to French as it is to the others, maybe more so, and yet he doesn’t pretend for a second that it’s not complicated. There’s the scene in the showers, sparked by a vivid gay fantasy – one of several that overwhelms French’s imagination as the entire film is filtered through his subjectivity – in which the other trainees become studs he crossbreeds in a bathhouse . And there’s the tricky quest of being on night watch while your uber-sexual comrades are all touching under the covers. Details like these are rarely, if ever, acknowledged in heterosexual accounts of the military experience — they’re the “truth” Tom Cruise can’t handle in “A Few Good Men.”
It’s a testament to the film’s honesty that Bratton doesn’t pretend that gay recruits are just like the rest. The same goes for female recruits, who only appear on the fringes of a few scenes – a reminder that the world could use a newer, more nuanced version of GI Jane. Equal rights doesn’t necessarily mean all people are equal, and The Inspection is remarkable for reminding us how without such a work of art we might not fully understand what Bratton had to go through to earn his spurs — off misogynistic language (with the men being referred to as “sissies” and “ladies”) to blatant abuse (embodied by “American Honey” Hunk McCaul Lombardi as the hateful squad leader).
The equivalent of a “Code Red” occurs in a somewhat confusing underwater drill where Laws orders French to save him from drowning and then holds him underwater until he stops breathing. If something like this actually happened to Bratton, it’s inexcusable. But it’s also telling that his character walks past it and reminds himself why he’s really there. Hardly anything that happens to the French in The Inspection is fair. Neither does life. The film also reveals another recruit, Ismail (Eman Esfandi), who suffers humiliation himself for no other reason than his Muslim heritage. Rather than delve into such grievances, Bratton shows how the characters rise above them and earn the respect of their peers.
Which brings us to Gabrielle Union’s second appearance at the end of the film. French wants to make his mother proud and is unprepared for the reality that awaits him. “I can’t love what you are,” she tells him in a moment of jarring frankness, threatening to sabotage everything her son has accomplished. It’s a confrontation unlike anything we’ve seen on film before, a new – but true – insight into the mother-son relationship. French’s answer corresponds to the Navy’s motto “Semper Fidelis”: He will always be loyal, to his family, to his men and above all to himself.
https://variety.com/2022/film/reviews/the-inspection-review-jeremy-pope-1235364162/ ‘The Inspection’ Review: Elegance Bratton lends military reality