The Inspection: a superb autobiographical drama about life in the Marines

Elegance Bratton’s film explores, to powerful and complex effect, the experiences of a formerly homeless gay Black man once he joins the Marines.

14 October 2022

By Violet Lucca

Jeremy Pope as Ellis French in The Inspection (2022)
Sight and Sound

As with guns, it’s nearly impossible to explain precisely how the military and its culture function in American life: both are so enormous and integral that inevitably you’ll forget something, be reductive, or say the loud parts too quietly. Knowing that recruiters target poor high-school students of colour, and that slick ads for service routinely play on TV, tells you everything and nothing about the reality of the American military. Yet Elegance Bratton’s superb autobiographical film explores the military’s complex, natural, problematic, potentially liberating, unique and curious place in the United States in a way that words often fail to.

The Inspection opens in 2005 in a homeless shelter. Ellis French (Jeremy Pope) travels from the shelter to visit his mother – evading the fare at every turn – in order to tell her that he’s decided to become a Marine. His mother is not only incredulous but actively disgusted by him; upon handing him his birth certificate, which he needs to enlist, she informs him that unless he returns as “the son I gave birth to, consider this certificate void”. But the reason for her disgust is more longstanding than her son’s new calling. It’s the fact that he’s gay, for which she threw him out of her house at 16. Now, homeless at 25, he feels that becoming a Marine is his only chance of survival.

The Marines are a branch of the US armed forces often described by members of the other branches as a cult. (One of Ellis’s drill sergeants later tells his fellow instructors that he’s in the business of making “monsters,” not soldiers.) Choosing to enlist at the height of the Iraq War, under the tacitly homophobic “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, speaks volumes about the level of desperation Ellis feels as a homeless Black man in the richest country in the world. He knowingly opts into the brutality of killing or being killed by his ‘enemies’, but also into the process of becoming a Marine. The usual clichés of basic training – jogging and chanting, getting screamed at by drill instructors, being beaten bloody by fellow recruits – are given new dimensions of hostility thanks to Ellis’s race and sexuality. Although it seems very much like a ‘pull up your bootstraps’ story – the sort of simple Horatio Alger tale beloved across the political spectrum – Bratton’s film embodies both a critique of the genre and gratitude for its possibility.

Ellis’s training starts off promisingly: he nearly becomes platoon leader, but is narrowly beaten by a white third-generation jarhead. However, after getting an erection in the shower, Ellis (known to his fellow recruits as ‘Frenchie’) immediately becomes a target for nearly everyone around him. There is some ambiguity behind the horrible treatment he receives – does his drill sergeant nearly drown him during an exercise in the pool because he’s trying to kill him, to make him tougher, by accident, or some psychotic combination of all three? Can he not read his mother’s letters because the military is withholding his mail, or because she’s not even writing to him in the first place?

The uplifting fact that the main character will grow up to become a successful writer-director is never overplayed – but neither is the bleakness of Ellis’s situation, where the ground is perpetually shifting beneath his feet. There are moments of humour and camaraderie, as when the platoon’s most brutal drill sergeant beams that Sam Mendes’ 2005 film Jarhead is the most realistic depiction of the Marines on screen, or when Ellis applies his warpaint like it’s drag makeup. More importantly, the more painful or vicious aspects of Marine life as experienced by other characters – a Muslim recruit forced to attend a Christmas service; a sympathetic drill sergeant having serious problems with his marriage – feel as real and thought-out as Ellis’s experiences.

The film’s final moments – a final confrontation with his mother at his graduation, his most brutal drill sergeant repeating the “it’s none of my business” line about Ellis’s sexuality, and an old Black military man thanking Ellis for his service – sit somewhere between endorsement and profound critique of the system. Ellis has left his mother for the military ‘family’ he has entered into, which garners him respect in new ways even as it carries homophobic, violent risks. This is the real world, not one with neat conclusions, and Bratton does not supply a happily-ever-after – even if the very existence of this hard-won, frequently beautiful film suggests there is one.

► The Inspection was reviewed from the 2022 New York Film Festival, but is also one of the Special Presentations at the 2022 London Film Festival; it is screening on 16 October.

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