.Semper Fidelis

In ‘The Inspection,’ a gay homeless Black man joins the Marines—and finds himself

A young Black gay man in his early 20s decides to better himself by enlisting in the Marine Corps. We can already imagine the clearing of throats in the audience at this announcement. Ellis French (played by actor Jeremy Pope) is in for the shock of his life, we fear. The Marines are legendary for being tough on everybody—how is a gay recruit going to survive in that notoriously macho environment? 

Turns out filmmaker Elegance Bratton’s narrative feature debut, The Inspection, has a surprise or two for us. As announced by writer-director Bratton in a special introduction prepared for the Frameline LGBTQ+ film festival (but evidently not part of the movie’s commercial release), the fictionalized adventure of Ellis French is essentially Bratton’s own real-life story.

We pick up the thread of Ellis’ life and times in 2005. He is living in a homeless shelter in Trenton, NJ, hustling on the street, when he makes the decision to enlist. He has been on his own since he was 16.

His estranged mother, Inez French (Gabrielle Union), a state prison guard, receives the news incredulously when he drops by her apartment—her first action after inviting him in is to cover the furniture with newspapers to protect it from her persona non grata son. So long, see you later, kid. Inez never really accepts her son on his own terms. Ellis gets a warmer send-off from a senior gay man at the shelter, but really, everyone expects him to fail.

The Marines are a perennial favorite American movie subject going back more than a hundred years (cue Lon Chaney, John Wayne, Louis Gossett Jr., et al.). We fully expect Ellis will go through hell when he arrives at the Recruit Training Depot. Based on the methods of R. Lee Ermey’s Gunnery Sergeant Hartman in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, anything less than that wouldn’t “ring true” to audiences. 

But Bratton has a quite different ax to grind in The Inspection. Ellis’ motives are his own private business, until they become something else entirely. Bratton never lets us forget that. Ellis’ training is more of an interior emotional odyssey than a documentary.

Topic number one in American military life in 2005 is the 9/11 terrorist attack of four years earlier. Hard-as-nails Senior Drill Instructor Laws (Bokeem Woodbine) and his staff are personally pissed off about that event and naturally take it out on the recruits. One poor guy is a practicing Muslim, so his nickname automatically becomes Osama. And so on. Endless pushups and screaming ensue.

The would-be grunts fill their precious free moments with arguing about their favorite junk foods (really?) and masturbating under the blankets after lights out. Ellis throws his best efforts into his basic training, but nevertheless manages to get himself ostracized. It’s worth a beating for him to size up his situation thusly: “If I die in this uniform, I’m a hero, not a useless faggot.”

The film’s homoerotic impulse is undeniable, even though Bratton is careful to draw a distinct boundary line between Ellis’ sexual fantasies and the realistic meaning of his recruit ordeals. Aside from Ellis, the film’s most ambiguous character is Assistant Drill Instructor Rosales (Raúl Castillo), who doesn’t take part in the hazing with as much glee as the other NCOs. 

Whatever extra-military relationship Rosales and Ellis might have had, however, is decisively subsumed by each man’s utter devotion to the Corps. In that respect, The Inspection is every bit as much a hymn to military brotherhood as it is a coming-out-while-coming-of-age drama. It’s obviously the filmmaker’s choice. This is not a social problem movie.

Think of it as a promising, provocative feature debut for filmmaker Bratton, whose World War I movie, Hellfighter, is currently in production. Acting kudos for all the speaking parts, especially Pope, Union, Woodbine, Castillo and McCaul Lombardi as the chief heavy, a racist fellow recruit with a lean, mean expression.

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