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A still from The Inspection shows a Black man looking concerned, pensively at something off screen while standing in uniform in line with other military members.

Observed Online Reviews

The Stunning, Queer Conviction of ‘The Inspection’

Set amid the era of “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” Elegance Bratton’s narrative debut shines for its refusal to require a renunciation of queerness.

by Beandrea July

Jeremy Pope in The Inspection (2022), dir. Elegance Bratton, courtesy A24.

When we meet Ellis French, the protagonist of The Inspection, he is already well out of the closet. Superbly embodied by Jeremy Pope, we learn early on that his cruel homophobic mother, Inez (Gabrielle Union) kicked him out of the house as a teenager. French is now living in a homeless shelter in an unnamed East Coast city. As we witness him on the subway, lovingly clocking his queer siblings and circling up with chosen family, it’s clear writer-director Elegance Bratton is clueing us into something important: this isn’t another story about a Black gay boy’s ennui about his queerness.

Rather, this is a story about something much more unwieldy: how and why does a young Black boy insist on finding belonging in the United States Marines, an institution that would prefer he not exist? And as he goes up against seemingly insurmountable odds to survive as a young recruit in  the era of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, we must sit with the inherent tensions in his desperate yet endearingly bold quest.

In Bratton’s semi-autobiographical coming-of-age tale, French knows who he is and still decides to enlist in the Marines anyway. In fact, as the director explained during a Q&A at the film’s world premiere at TIFF, this aspect of the film comes directly from his own experiences. Much like it was for Bratton, French’s options for escaping economic precarity are few, though he is nothing if not naively determined. In the film, Bratton is laser-focused on the arc of basic training, a wise choice that gives the story a steady pace,  imbuing it with the same blistering intensity of what the recruits endure onscreen. As we watch French undergo grueling physical and mental trials—all while facing  homophobic and racist violence from his fellow recruits—we also witness his emergence as a perceptive and resilient hero who, while acutely aware of the hostility that surrounds him, never turns against himself for being gay. French even finds fatherly solace in one military superior, Rosales, played by Raúl Castillo in a grounded, heartfelt turn.

The homoeroticism inherent in the military, and in the Marines in particular, is well-documented and constantly shows up as subtext in The Inspection.  In the first shower scene of the film, this subtext becomes text and unsurprisingly, French is met with violence by some of his  fellow recruits. But as the film progresses, Bratton proves insightful in his ability to lift the military’s silent, heavy veil over its unspoken sexual tensions. For example, one night on patrol in the barracks, French surveys the room of bunks as most of the young men masturbate in the dark with red flashlights shining eerily through their sheets. Each recruit is nestled into their own bubble of lust, with an unspoken agreement to pretend they are alone, yet the camera’s pan—Lachlan Milne’s spare cinematography is a boon to the film—creates the feeling of a collective erotic experience, bordering on an orgy.  The deeper implications of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” have never been portrayed onscreen with such stunning clarity. 

Gabrielle Union and Jeremy Pope in The Inspection (2022), courtesy A24.

Pope’s physicality in embodying French is a sharp through-line in the film, signaling his steady emergence. We watch him go from a slightly hunched over, timid recruit to someone who stands tall and never contorts into some inauthentic straight-passing version of himself. There’s a standout moment when French is reclining supine on his bunk, writing a letter. One of the recruits who has bullied him walks by with a menacing stance. French acknowledges him, but doesn’t snap out of his glorious perch of softness. The message is clear: French respects himself and commands this same respect from his peers even in an environment that doesn’t allow him to publicly express the fullness of who he is. 

So The Inspection then, ends up being a subtly-rendered affirmation of Black femme queerness nestled inside a veneer of Black masculinity. French passes the many spirit-breaking tests inflicted upon him and his fellow recruits by basic training officers (Bokeem Woodbine, Nicholas Logan) but Bratton doesn’t require that include a renunciation of his queerness. Indeed, there’s a scene where French reaches out for romantic connection and is thwarted, but not with brutality. 

What makes The Inspection a welcome addition to the cadre of films about young men going off to war is its subtle yet painstaking indictment of the pitfalls of the military industrial complex and its problematic entrenchment in hyper-masculine violence. This movie makes one sit for 96 minutes with the irony of the United States spending more on the military than it does on housing, the underlying reason French joined the Marines in the first place. And it also speaks to the enormous need in our society for spaces where young men can be initiated into adulthood and find belonging, without having to shoot to kill. 

The Inspection opens in theaters on November 18, following premieres at New York Film Festival and the Toronto International Film Festival.