The Inspection, about a gay man who enlists in the Marines after nearly a decade of homelessness, is based on the real-life experiences of the film’s writer-director, Elegance Bratton. It is dedicated to Bratton’s mother, a person who, as portrayed in the film by longtime LBGTQ+ rights activist Gabrielle Union, not only kicked her son out when he was 16, but also never found it in her heart to love or accept him.
THE INSPECTION ★★ (2/4 stars)
Union’s searing portrayal of unrelenting rejection is the sharpest thing in a movie that, despite its filmmaker’s intimacy with the subject, sheds little light on the nature of homophobia in the military, society in general, and the Black community in particular.
Of course, her performance needs to be that good; the abject cruelty she displays—when her son asks for his birth certificate so he can join up, she tells him that if he comes back gay, he can consider it revoked—must be so severe that the assaults and abuse he receives as part of his Marine training come off as preferable.
By crafting his unusual life story into his first feature, Bratton is put in the unenviable position of making the abuse he survives as a recruit somehow heroic and inspiring rather than criminal, which it clearly is. (At one point his drill sergeant, played with imposing restraint by Bokeem Woodbine, appears to attempt to murder him during an underwater exercise.)
It doesn’t help that the characters in the film, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and played at the New York Film Festival, are so thinly drawn. This is most especially applicable to the stand-in for Bratton himself, Ellis French, played nevertheless with sensitivity by the Tony- and Emmy-nominated (2020’s Hollywood) actor Jeremy Pope.
Despite being in nearly every scene, Ellis barely passes the second tenet of GLAAD’s Vito Russo Test, named in honor the late film historian and author of Celluloid Closet, which holds that a character should not be solely or predominantly defined by their sexual orientation or gender identity. Yes, we know that his mother is a jerk (the crosses on the wall of her apartment suffice as an explanation as to why) and that he was unhoused. Beyond that we know almost nothing about him.
Early on in his training, Ellis’ homosexuality is revealed inadvertently in a group shower; as a result he is severely beaten by his fellow recruits. It might have been valuable—at a time when homosexuality and gender nonconformity continues to be target in the culture wars, in the military and in society at large—to tell a story that went beyond this initial brutality and instead portrayed how Ellis and his fellow trainees negotiated this dynamic within the grueling conditions of bootcamp. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t evince a curiosity towards its characters to help illuminate and add to the conversation.
What The Inspection has going for it are moments of honest emotion that bubble to the surface thanks to performances that are good all around, and outstanding in the case of Union and Raúl Castillo, as a closeted drill sergeant who provides the one voice of support for Ellis during the homophobic hell of boot camp. Castillo — an Independent Spirit nominee for his wonderful work in Jeremy Zegler’s wildly evocative 2018 film We the Animals—is filled with both compassion and the hard-won wisdom of surviving military life in the era of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
There are flashes of raw, unprotected pain and exhaustion from Castillo that underline just how essential it is to tell stories like this one. But in the end it remains just that—a story—and nothing more. To be successful in confronting, understanding and dismantling the institutional homophobia that continues to be a cancer in American life requires depth, perspective, and a sense of inquiry—three qualities in short supply in The Inspection.
Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.