As part of our coverage of the 60th annual New York Film Festival, Will DiGravio reviews Elegance Bratton’s debut narrative features, The Inspection. Read more coverage in our New York Film Festival archives.
Documentary filmmaker Elegance Bratton brings to the screen a solid debut narrative feature in The Inspection. The semi-autobiographical film follows a young, gay Black man (Jeremy Pope) who enlists in the Marine Corps to prove something to himself and his homophobic mother (Gabrielle Union). The Inspection is a deeply personal film that succeeds in showcasing the perseverance of the individual while falling short of totally engaging with the oppressive system it depicts: the United States military.
The film begins with Pope as Ellis French, who lives in a shelter and yearns to rekindle his relationship with his mother, Inez. Ellis returns to Inez’s apartment to retrieve his birth certificate. In one of the film’s many devastating moments, she puts down newspaper before he sits on the couch. He tells her about his plans to enlist in the Marines. She, skeptical, hands over the birth certificate, leaving us with the feeling that Ellis’s hopes for a reconciliation are delusional at best.
Bratton, who also wrote the script, shows himself to be a superb navigator of nuance. It would be impossible to totally summarize Ellis’s motivations for enlisting. They are numerous and ever-changing. His decision at times plays as uplifting (he is doing this to prove something to himself) and at others deeply distressing. How cruel is it that this is what Ellis feels he must do to win back the love of his mother? And that in the United States, inequality is so systemic and oppressive, the military is one of the only chances to lift oneself out of poverty?
The Inspection fits well into the tradition of boot camp films. Think Claire Denis’s Beau Travail. And Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. When Ellis arrives, he faces the usual trials and tribulations, including the violent hate of his drill instructor, Laws (Bokeem Woodbine). Ellis finds an ally in Laws’s deputy, Rosales (Raúl Castillo). Rosales not only encourages and sticks up for Ellis, but a sexual tension exists between them too.
Pope gives a rich, expressive performance. Ellis experiences a range of emotions while at boot camp. At times, he feels deep pride at what he has accomplished. Such moments of belonging then turn into sexual thoughts and feelings, which in turn elicit deep shame and fear. He encounters racism, homophobia, and other physical violence. He is at times disgusted by the system he has entered, and at others totally resolved to complete the task at hand. Ellis has no one else he can fully confide in. As a result, all of this plays out on screen via Pope’s expressions and gestures. Bratton and cinematographer Lachlan Milne do plenty of interesting things with the camera. But it is the way they capture Pope’s face that will linger most in the minds of the audience.
No film about the United States armed forces can exist without larger systemic issues coming to the forefront. Ellis enters the marines in the days before the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” When his fellow recruits begin to realize Ellis is gay, they not only haze him and threaten his future in the military, but his life. One of the few recruits with whom Ellis can somewhat relate is Ismail (Eman Esfandi), a practicing Muslim. Both men are constantly placed in physical danger by the very group they are trying to join.
Tonally, the film never quite finds the right balance between the personal stories of Ellis and the oppressive nature of the institution. Ellis finds his place. He grows and makes the most of his situation. At times, we see, the Marine Corps is good for him. However, just because one individual shows himself capable of enduring such violence does not mean the system works. In other words, one need not endure racism and homophobia to be a good marine. This is not to say that is Bratton’s view. But the film itself never quite offers a coherent view on questions of structure, thus leaving room for such an interpretation. Bratton certainly depicts the systemic issues prevalent in the military. He hints towards a larger critique. But the film never quite delivers a firm view. In this respect, the story is left wanting.
The imbalance between the personal and the systemic holds The Inspection back from being a truly great film. However, the personal narrative Bratton and Pope animate on screen is superb. Complex, evocative, and with a fine blend of humor and horror, The Inspection marks a phenomenal narrative debut for Bratton. All should be eagerly waiting for what he brings to the screen next.
The Inspection debuts in theaters in the United States on November 18, 2022.
Related Topics: NYFF