“If we got rid of every gay man in the military, there would be no military,” a sympathetic officer tells Marine recruit Ellis French in “The Inspection.” That’s an exceptionally open-minded take on the United States’ “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, considering that pretty much everyone else French encounters at boot camp is openly hostile to the idea of a gay man among them. But writer-director Elegance Bratton made it through the system — like the character, he’d been 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 the experience but was strengthened by it. “The few, the proud,” as they say.
To play himself — er, French — Bratton tapped Emmy nominee Jeremy Pope (“Hollywood”), soon to be seen as Basquiat on Broadway in “The Collaboration.” Pope gives a career-igniting performance in the role: a man who hopes, for a split second, that the uniform might make him straight, but can’t hide how he feels when the men are all showering together — a biological reaction for which he’s beaten mercilessly by his fellow recruits. Pulling himself up, again and again, after such humiliations amounts to a rite of passage for French, who has much to prove to himself and the incurably homophobic single mother who raised him (Gabrielle Union, wrenching in the pair of scenes that bookend the film).
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Before “The Inspection,” Bratton made an electrifying group portrait called “Pier Kids,” focused on queer youth of color who congregate 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 refers to as “military realness”: It’s a sincere and convincing re-creation of boot camp as he lived it. There’s so much the movies get wrong — or else deliberately misconstrue — about the military that Bratton’s film hopes to correct and expand on. Foremost in audiences’ minds, no doubt, is Stanley Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket,” in which a sensitive Marine-in-the-making was pushed to suicide by the pressure of an in-your-face drill instructor. (Meanwhile, other films, such as Joel Schumacher’s “Tigerland,” have embraced the homoeroticism of this hypermasculine milieu.)
Dramatically speaking, there’s something inherently horrifying in the process of self-effacement that basic training imposes, and “The Inspection” confronts that paradox head-on. Between the influences of consumer advertising and identity politics, American culture today is all about expressing one’s individuality. But military service operates on just the opposite principle, relying on officers like Laws (Bokeem Woodbine in wolverine mode), Rosales (“Looking” love interest Raúl Castillo) and Brooks (Nicholas Logan, channeling R. Lee Ermey) to “break” the recruits’ spirit and re-form them as soldiers capable of sacrificing themselves for a greater cause. In a sense, both outlooks are necessary to a functioning society: We are defined by our differences, but must also accept our place within the collective.
Becoming a Marine is every bit 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, which is brought on by a vivid gay fantasy — one of several that overwhelm French’s imagination, since the entire film is filtered through his subjectivity — in which the other trainees become studs he cruises in a bathhouse. And there is the tricky task of being on night watch while your oversexed comrades are all touching themselves beneath the sheets. Details like this seldom if ever get acknowledged in hetero 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 others. The same goes for female enlistees, seen only on the margins of a couple scenes — a reminder that the world could use a newer, more nuanced version of “G.I. Jane.” Equal rights do not necessarily mean that all people are equivalent, and “The Inspection” is noteworthy for illustrating all that Bratton had to go through to earn his stripes — from misogynistic language (whereby the men are referred to as “sissies” and “ladies”) to blatant mistreatment (embodied by “American Honey” hunk McCaul Lombardi as the spiteful squad leader).
The movie’s answer to a “code red” occurs in a slightly confusing underwater exercise, wherein Laws orders French to save him from drowning, then holds him under till he stops breathing. If something like this actually happened to Bratton, it’s inexcusable. But it’s also telling that his character moves past it, reminding himself why he’s really there. Hardly anything that happens to French in “The Inspection” is fair. Neither is life. The movie also depicts a fellow recruit, Ismail (Eman Esfandi), enduring humiliations of his own for no other reason than his Muslim heritage. Instead of dwelling on such grievances, Bratton shows the characters rising above them and earning the respect of their peers.
Which brings us around to Gabrielle Union’s second appearance, late in the film. French wants to make his mother proud, and he’s not prepared for the reality that awaits. “I can’t love what you are,” she tells him in a moment of devastating candor, threatening to sabotage all that her son has achieved. It’s a confrontation unlike any we’ve witnessed on film before, a new — but true — insight into mother-son relations. French’s response is true to the Marine motto, “Semper Fidelis”: He will always be faithful — to his family, to the men and, most of all, to himself.
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