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.