The United States military has historically been a hostile environment for LGBT individuals. The “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy forced those who wished to serve to conceal their identities or face expulsion, and its repeal a decade ago has hopefully improved the situation, though there is surely much work still to be done. But despite this harsh and restrictive culture, there have been many service members who do not identity as heterosexual, and filmmaker Elegance Bratton revisits his time in basic training for the Marines as a gay Black man in The Inspection.
Ellis French (Jeremy Pope), a character heavily based on Bratton, visits his mother (Gabrielle Union) to request his birth certificate, telling her that he plans on enlisting. He shaves his beard and heads to begin his training, where he finds himself emotionally and often physically beaten down by his commanding officer, Laws (Bokeem Woodbine). When his fellow trainees see him aroused in a group shower while his mind is on other things, they deliver a vicious message that he won’t be tolerated. While Laws encourages that response as part of his ultimate aim to break candidates so that they can come through the other side to become great Marines, another officer, Rosales (Raúl Castillo), offers French a supportive hand of friendship, seemingly able to relate to his feeling different.
The Inspection is not an easy film to watch. Laws explains his approach after he crosses a new line and French demands to know who he can report him to, which is to turn these men into monsters so that they can be capable of fighting and defeating the enemies of the United States. He describes a different era in which he and his peers fought, and how the “war on terror” requires something wholly fresh and even more horrific. That need to be invincible, as he puts it, justifies every tactic he employs, which also includes calling one recruit, Ismail (Eman Esfandi), Osama, among other reductive nicknames meant to penalize him for being Muslim and of Middle Eastern in heritage.
Laws’ unforgiving and uncompromising attitude is sharply contrasted by the humanity displayed by French as he begins working towards a purpose that he believes will prevent him from being homeless in the future and give him an attachment to something greater. While he does find that from a few other trainees, he also becomes the target of the cruel squad leader, Harvey (McCaul Lombardi), who values winning at all costs and won’t let anyone get in his way. Throughout it all, French remains resolute, and the compassion and kindness Rosales shows him makes a tremendous impact.
Pope turns in a focused and intensely physical performance, constantly made to pay for his alleged misdoings by demonstrating his prowess and pushing himself to his limits. It’s an emotional turn that Bratton credits as extraordinarily powerful, particularly in helping him to process so much of the trauma he endured while filming scene after scene. Woodbine and Castillo both play their parts well, fleshing out their conflicting perspectives on service and retaining individuality. The rest of the ensemble also contributes positively to the experience, as does Union in the role of a mother who simply can’t bring herself to accept who her son is.
The casting of a queer Black man in the main role was of crucial importance to Bratton, and both he and Pope described the impact having a film like this would have had on them at a press conference following a New York Film Festival screening. It holds nothing back and shows the truth bare, which can be miserable and almost unwatchable at times. But there is also no added or unnecessary violence that doesn’t convey the things that do unfortunately happen in circumstances like this, where a perceived toughness comes above all else. Showing French as a strong, capable future Marine who pushes himself to succeed in part to prove others wrong about him is affirming, and it delivers an inspiring message of perseverance and of the value of truly seeing and recognizing people for who they are.
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Following its United States premiere at the New York Film Festival, The Inspection will be released theatrically on November 18th.