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“The Inspection,” Elegance Bratton’s debut film as a director, is a boot camp drama that follows the typical plot of the genre: a troubled young man enlists (or is drafted), endures a trying training period during which he is cruelly singled out by a drill instructor, considers quitting, but ultimately decides to persevere and graduate, finding strength he didn’t know he had.
However, this particular telling of the story is based on the filmmaker’s personal experiences as a gay Black Marine who enlisted following the 9/11 attacks. In other words, even if you’re seeing variants of the typical tale beats, they have distinct connotations and elicit more mixed emotions.
Ellis French, a New Yorker and the protagonist (Jeremy Pope, who shone in “One Night in Miami”), was recently released from prison. The first line of character dialogue in the movie is delivered by Ellis’ mother Inez (Gabrielle Union), who appears to resent her son for his self-destructive and aimless tendencies. Inez asks Ellis, “Are you in trouble?” when he arrives at her front door to ask for his birth certificate so he can enlist.
If he continues on his current path, Inez also advises him to consider his birth certificate “null and worthless,” making it obvious that she is not referring to his mustering up the courage to look for employment. Inez detests her son’s sexual orientation, which is the core truth of this relationship. Ellis brings that fundamental reprimand with him to boot camp, and the environment, people, and events all serve to amplify it. Ellis has never felt welcome in America, and although while the military was formally enforcing the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy during the 2000s, homophobia had been entrenched for generations. With Middle Eastern recruit Ismail (Eman Esfandi) becoming the go-to target of jokes about all the “terrorists” the Marines are eventually going to murder, there is anti-Muslim sentiment at play as well. Misogyny is also present; female recruits are disparaged and told that the Marines are the only branch of the Navy with guts.
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Ellis is a naturally kind person who offers a nervous fellow recruit a donut on the bus to camp and has the ability to reflect others when they’re upset, so he feels a little out of place in this situation. Gunnery Sgt. Laws, a Gulf War veteran with four confirmed kills, serves as the head drill instructor (Bokeem Woodbine). He focuses on Ellis, much like Louis Gossett Jr.’s character in “An Officer and a Gentleman” did with Richard Gere’s. He promises the assembled recruits, “I’ll break you. I’ll be the nightmare that prevents you from going to sleep. Even Law’s colleagues instructors warn him that he has over the line as a result of the customized emotional and physical abuse he administers to Ellis.
Is Laws’ hatred of Ellis influenced by internalized self-loathing? Possibly. That theme was present in “A Soldier’s Story,” a film about a murder inquiry of a Black drill sergeant who inflicted his own internalized racism on his cadets, and it recurs throughout “The Inspection.” While Woodbine is captivating and unsettling as Laws—often the star of the cast—his performance is opaque rather than transparent, inviting us to transfer our own problems onto the character. Laws doesn’t allude to any oversimplified one-on-one explanation of why he is fixated on Ellis in the story he tells the other instructors to express his thanks to the Marines and America.
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However, there are hints from time to time that Laws may be punishing Ellis in an effort to symbolically eradicate hidden inclinations inside himself. However, this results less from Woodbine’s performance or the dialogue of the character and more from the way Claire Denis’ “Beau Travail,” a dreamy, voluptuously homoerotic French Foreign Legion drama that loosely retells Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, is referenced in the movie. In this classic, the closed-mouthed Master-at-arms John Claggart torments the title character for being charming, handsome, and desirable. Bratton and his cinematographer Lachlan Milne light the action in hot, high-contrast single colors, as if it were taking place in a glamorous nightclub (or a softcore flick), and there are many Denis-ian moments of stealthy glances and extended looks at athletic physiques when Ellis (whose last name is French!) dreams and fantasizes sexual encounters with other recruits. Laws uses his index finger to lasciviously and painstakingly examine the innards of an empty firearm clip. This is another way of expressing that a certain current permeates the film even when the narrative doesn’t explicitly draw on it.
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What are we to make of the movie’s second half, though, when Ellis pulls together, not only makes it through boot camp but also helps others do the same? No overt cues suggest that the movie’s creator intends us to believe that the event (much less Laws’ part in it) was altogether positive or that the Marines “made a man out of” Ellis. Although everything we’ve seen Ellis go through up until that point necessitates a nuanced response, more than a century of boot camp movies that were almost exclusively about straight men and almost always ended triumphantly ensure that whenever “The Inspection” hits familiar milestone moments (like the hero deciding not to quit or donning his graduation uniform), we initially respond to it unironically.
The movie also doesn’t seem to know just what to feel. There are parts of “The Inspection” when it alternates between criticizing the establishment and wanting us to feel ecstatic that Ellis succeeded despite attempts to drive him out of the country or into an early grave (especially in the last section). It’s a reversal of the well-known Groucho Marx one-liner: he achieves his goal of joining a club that excludes people who look like him.
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There is something more gloomy and disturbing going on beneath the surface, and it’s difficult to say how aware the movie is of that deeper, more conflicted (or ambiguous) current. It’s not simply about Ellis demonstrating that he is stronger than the worst individuals in his life, which is healthy. “The Inspection” lacks clarity despite its focus on social, political, and psychosexual conditioning mechanisms. It’s a gorgeous, passionate jumble that someone with actual film sense created with amazing colleagues, including editor Oriana Soddu, who starts and ends shots a little earlier or later than most editors would, giving each moment a feeling of surprise.
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Given the amount of time that has passed since the events that inspired the movie and the events depicted in it, it’s possible that the director lacks the emotional distance necessary to bring the entire defining ordeal into sharp relief or the analytical ruthlessness necessary to tear it apart and reveal the inner workings of the machine that wants to crush Ellis rather than just its exterior.
To be fair, though, there are some experiences that are so profound (and/or traumatic) that words cannot adequately describe them. This kind of experience, which transcends boot camp and reverberates throughout our lives until the final trumpet fades, is the subject of “The Inspection.” Even in the conclusion, Ellis’ mother isn’t romanticized or made to seem nicer, but “The Inspection” is still devoted to Bratton’s own mother. We are free to read whatever we want into that, which is a credit to the movie.
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