THE INSPECTION – Review
A homeless young Black man, rejected by his mother and with few options, decides to join the Marines, but the catch is the young man is gay and an earlier time when gays were banned from serving in the military, the era of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Gabrielle Union plays the mother of this young man, whom she kicked out ten years earlier, in this moving drama inspired by writer/director Elegance Bratton’s own experiences. The drama has garnered strong praise for its powerful drama, in an impressive directorial debut for writer/director Elegance Bratton.
Ellis French (Jeremy Pope) has been living on the streets since his mother kicked him out at the age of 15. Now 25, he sees little ahead for him and decides to do something desperate, specifically entering the military. Not just the military but the Marines, rather than a less-tough branch like the army or navy. However, before he can be inducted, Ellis must get his birth certificate from his mother, who does not want any contact with him. Showing up at her door, his mother (Gabriel Union), a ramrod-straight, strict corrections officer, is both shocked and cold towards him, treating her son as if he is a threat to her safety and barring the door to him. She responds to his decision to join the Marines with a mix of skepticism and mild amusement. Eventually, reluctantly, she warily lets him in.
Her behavior raises questions in our minds about their past history but the film offers little on that past. Her apartment is filled with objects that tell us she is deeply religious, so we guess that her religious feelings are at least part of why she rejected her gay son, but her reaction is so extreme, we wonder if there is something more.
Joining the Marines hardly seems like the best idea for a gay Black man in this more homophobic era, so his estranged mother’s skepticism about that decision might be something we share as well. Yet Ellis is making a very deliberate choice in picking the Marines. He is offering himself up to be remade, with a hope for a rebirth into a different life. That mix of desperation and determination drives him but it seems a long reach.
Marine boot camp is tough for any recruit but more so for someone concealing a secret like Ellis French. Induction calls for recruit French to declare he is not a communist or planning to overthrow the government, along with a litany of other things, including being homosexual. He does that without blinking. Once at boot camp, French finds himself among mostly white recruits, who already think of themselves as Marines. Yet he finds he is not the only one facing special challenges, including a Muslim recruit named Ismail (Eman Esfandi).
The drill instructors are led by tough Sergeant Laws (Bokeem Woodbine), a Black sergeant who, unlike the rest of the instructors, has actual combat experience. It is something he wears like a medal on his chest, something which both he and the other instructors clearly feel sets him on a different plane, but it also has a toxic effect. “I hate recruits,” Laws says early on, “But I love Marines.” Since both Laws and recruit Ellis French are Black, one expects a connection between them, but it is a Hispanic drill instructor, Rosales (Raul Castillo), who quietly offers some encouragement and something more, albeit more in private.
Jeremy Pope gives a moving performance as Ellis French, who reveals a level of commitment to his goal and courage in the face of the abuse he receives once they figure out he is gay, as you know they will. In an unusual role for her, Gabriel Union gives us a harsh, rigid and religious woman as Ellis’ mother, although we catch glimpses of a motherly impulse to hope for success for her son, even as she keeps him at arm’s length.
Other outstanding performances sharpen the raw emotion of this powerful drama, notably Raul Castillo as the more kind drill instructor. Bokeem Woodbine is alternately terrifying and riveting Laws, the hardened lead drill instructor.
It is a grueling experience, as one expects, but THE INSPECTION is unblinking and unrestrained in its depiction of the boot camp’s bullying, abuse and hardship. That brutal honesty goes a ways to elevating this film above the usual boot camp tale, but the film is also a salute to what the Marines gave Bratton, a personal rebirth on several levels. We have to assume French’s unseen ten years spent on the streets have given him an inner strength and resourcefulness we don’t expect at first. Along with the bullying and violence, we also see moments of friendship, humor, and even tenderness. It is not just a sense of camaraderie that grows between the recruits but a pride in accomplishment, and a deeper kind of personal transformation for the lead character.
The camera often focuses closely on faces, and a surprising number of scenes are shot in dim light or half lit, giving the film a far different tone than most boot camp dramas, one that is more contemplative. The pace is contemplative too, at least early on, requiring us to let things develop. We are given little about Ellis’ previous life, or details of what happen between him and his mother, leaving the audience wondering about what has to have been pivotal years. Instead, the focus is firmly on the boot camp experience, and its powerful ending, which eschews pat conclusions.
It is not a perfect film but this semi-autobiographical drama is surprising, effective and deeply, movingly human, and an impressive debut for writer/director Elegance Bratton, full of promise.
THE INSPECTION opens Friday, Dec. 2, in theaters.
RATING: 3.5 out of 4 stars