An acutely personal drama shimmering with the raw pain, pride and hard-won elation of lived experience, The Inspection marks an accomplished narrative feature debut for writer-director Elegance Bratton, who draws on his own story to create one of the most stirring portraits of queer Black masculinity since Moonlight. This unguarded autobiographical work also provides a stellar vehicle for theater discovery Jeremy Pope in his first leading screen role. He plays a young man shunned by his family and determined to avoid becoming another casualty of life on the streets, who chooses the tough path of Marine Corps enlistment in order to prove his value as a man.
Bratton comes from a nonfiction background. He made his first feature doc with Pier Kidsabout homeless LGBTQ youth in New York, and was creator and exec producer of the Viceland series My House, on the underground competitive ballroom scene. He is based The Inspection on his formative basic-training experience following a decade of homelessness, which led to five years of active service as a US Marine from 2005-2010.
The Bottom Line
Vivid memories of a young man bruised but not broken.
The film premieres as the opener of Toronto’s Discovery section and next screens as the closing night presentation of the New York Film Festival, ahead of its A24 release Nov. 18.
Bratton dedicates The Inspection to his mother, played here with corrosive, bitterly conflicted anger by Gabrielle Union (also an executive producer). Inez French is a prison guard hardened by her work and by the self-imposed distance separating her from her son Ellis (Pope). She’s also a staunchly religious woman, making it hard for her to love even the perceived sinner, let alone the sin, since Ellis came out as gay. That kind of hardline homophobia in certain segments of Black Christian communities is rarely presented with such candor.
Their contact has clearly been minimal in recent years, as Ellis lived in homeless shelters. Ines keeps the door chained at first when he turns up at her apartment in Trenton, New Jersey; she only allows him inside when he explains that he’s come for his birth certificate, a requirement for him to enlist in the Marines. Even then, she puts the newspaper down before letting him sit on her couch. The exchange between them is cold and solemn, suggesting Ellis has only the smallest chance ever to win back her favor.
On the bus to base camp, Ellis shows kindness to Muslim recruit Ismail (Eman Esfandi), an instant target for the bullying of cocky second-generation white Marine Harvey (McCaul Lombardi). But no one gets a pass with the hardass unit commander Laws (Bokeem Woodbine), who is screaming in their faces and vowing to destroy them even before they’re off the bus.
Woodbine is convincing as a ferocious attack dog, relishing the fear he instills and any success he achieves at weeding out recruits lacking what it takes to move forward. This is familiar territory, seen in countless boot-camp movies — the terrific South African queer military drama, Moffie, is a good example. But the intimacy of Bratton’s attention for his stand-in gives the material a powerful emotional undertow, as does the danger of him being exposed, at least in the early days.
There’s also a second drill sergeant, Rosales (Raúl Castillo), who seems to have a conscience, a firm core of humanity. If Laws is there to break them down, Rosales is there to build them up. His basic decency, along with his hunky good looks, make him an object of dreamy desire for Ellis, which becomes obvious during a moment’s distraction in the showers. From that point on, he takes a hammering not only from the sadistic Laws but also from some of the other recruits, who suddenly regard him with suspicion if not open hostility, led with malicious pleasure by Harvey.
Bratton’s script does not dwell on the punishing ordeal of rigorous physical training coupled with verbal abuse and violence. But he’s more focused on the unyielding resolve planted in Ellis to prove everyone wrong, without making his alter ego a saint or a superman.
This is a guy who’s been taking care of himself since he was 16. As he explains in a quiet moment: “My Mom won’t talk to me, my friends are dead or in prison, so if I die in this uniform, I ‘m a hero, somebody, not just another homeless fagot. The streets are gonna kill me anyway.”
There are insightful observations of the one-size-fits-all aspect of Marine induction and the ways in which prejudices turn recruits into outsiders, challenging their staying power. This is true not only of Ellis but also of Ismail, who suffers an anxiety attack when he’s forced to attend a Christian church service. Laws, a combat veteran of the Gulf War, makes no effort to hide his racist sentiments towards someone who looks like the enemies he fought in that conflict. Ellis’ show of solidarity for the Muslim recruit is played with poignant feeling by both actors.
As they advance through training to the final test, known as “The Crucible” — which Laws refers to as “the last opportunity to rid my Corps of your sad and mediocre generation” — gentle notes of suspense are introduced. These apply not just to whether Ellis will overcome the odds and make the cut, but also whether Inez will respond to his pleading phone calls and be there for his graduation.
There’s brutality but also an understated hint of poetry in the way Bratton tells his story from deep inside it, making beautiful use of Baltimore experimental pop group Animal Collective’s richly varied electronic score, which often plays in gentle counterpoint to the harshness of what’s unfolding.
Without giving too much away, this is ultimately a story of struggle and personal achievement, of sheer strength of character as a relentless driving force. But there are no blasting notes of triumph, no fist pumps. Instead, the prevailing tone is muted, contemplative.
It’s no surprise given that subtle strain of lyricism running through the pacing, the graceful fluidity and the moments of sensuality, that Bratton cites Claire Denis’ homoerotic military classic. Beau Travail as a major influence. That’s evident also in the deceptively unfussy visuals of cinematographer Lachlan Milne, who brought the filter of memory to the rural beauty of Minari, and here brings the director’s gaze to a turning point in his own life. Bratton himself is both represented and unseen as a character, the older version of Ellis, observing, recalling.
Right up until the end, Ellis keeps almost screwing things up for himself, and that fallibility injects a lovely undertone of melancholy into Pope’s intensely moving performance — equal parts defenseless and unexpectedly tough, at times seeming to surprise even himself. (The actor instantly turned heads on Broadway with his knockout work in Choir Boy and the Temptations bio-musical Ain’t Too Proud.) His display of desperate loneliness and need toward Rosales, whose signals he misreads, yields a scene that will make you hold your breath in anxiety, and Castillo is also wonderful in a nuanced characterization that defiantly departs from the mold.
The one part in particular in which the churn of mixed emotions still clearly connects Bratton to these events like they happened yesterday is the scenes with Inez. Union is a revelation, finding a softness that her character has buried at great cost, yet remaining able to bend only so far and stubborn in her impossible need to see her son as “fixed.” Her final scene ends this bracingly tender movie on a note of both heartache and hope.
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