The Inspection ****
Starring: Jeremy Pope, Gabrielle Union, Bokeem Woodbine, Raúl Castillo, McCaul Lombardi
Director: Elegance Bratton
In the autobiographical feature debut from director Elegance Bratton, Jeremy Pope (Pose, Hollywood) recently received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor in a Drama for his performance in this well-crafted independent film. Pope plays Ellis French, a twenty-five year old who has been living in abject poverty since his mother (Union - Birth Of A Nation, Bring It On) kicked him out when he was sixteen because of his sexuality. In 2005, a decade on, he decides to enlist in the marines, both to rescue himself from the streets and to seek reconciliation with his mother.
With the US military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy in full swing, he suffers rejection from his comrades as soon as they begin to suspect that he’s gay. With a bullying commanding officer (Woodbine - Fargo, Ray) and a toxic peer (Lombardi - American Honey, Patti Cake$) to deal with alongside the intense misery of bootcamp training, his only ally seems to be a kindly superior (Castillo - Looking, We The Animals), with whom he appears to share a bond.
Crisp cinematography and an unrelenting score, underpin this nuanced character piece that finds beauty in the mud, sweat and strain. Its palette is dark and gloomy, peppered with high contrast starched whites and long shadows. Exceptionally masculine, it avoids every gay trope with aplomb and though Pope’s affected tone is still present, this is a man just as strong and committed as his peers. And this film is all about their slow realisation of that.
The crux of the narrative centres around French’s quest for approval from his mother, which is based on Bratton’s own youth in the military. The scenes with Union are the strongest of the film, with her unabashed homophobia in seething clarity on screen. The bootcamp sequences are exactly as you would expect meanwhile: shouting aplenty, humiliation, multitudinous discrimination. And though the film effectively depicts the dogged destruction of the self via attrition that the military are famed for, the actual story within the camp is fairly clunky, with broad binary archetypes dominating long sequences with very little light or shade.
The scenes between Pope and Union are enough, however, to maintain the heavy heartbeat of this film. Their arresting acting is captured adeptly by a fledgling auteur in his accomplished debut. It finds equilibrium between the military’s attractions and horrors, compiling a subtle narrative anchored by a rounded and painfully human protagonist. But really, this is the Gabrielle Union show, who steals each and every one of her scenes.
UK Release: Out now on VOD, released by A24