The Inspection Review – Jeremy Pope Shines in Elegance Bratton’s Boot Camp Drama

Queer filmmaker Elegance Bratton utilises biographical elements in his film The Inspection. Where the line between fact and fiction blurs is something Bratton mostly leaves up to the audience; but what is true is that Bratton was rejected by his mother as a teen because of his sexuality, lived around in tenuous and often homeless circumstances (see his 2019 documentary Pier Kids for a more thorough understanding of the dangers young queer kids face without support systems) and joined the Marines as a last shot of hope before the streets killed him. Despite The Inspection hitting almost every other “boot camp” story mark, the fact that it is Bratton’s partial biography makes it curious but somewhat too invested in trying to explain what the director acquired from his time in the military.

Ellis French (Jeremy Pope) takes a train from NYC to New Jersey to visit his mother Inez’s (Gabrielle Union) apartment. The first words out of her mouth are “Are you in trouble?” which are not words of concern, but rather accusation. Ellis is there to collect his birth certificate as he has decided to enlist. Inez can barely contain her contempt for her son. She puts paper down before he sits on the couch and grabs a photograph of him as a child out of his hands before wiping it as if he carries some terrible disease. For Inez, Ellis’ disease is his sexuality. He tries to explain to her why he wants to be a Marine; “You have no idea how hard these past five years have been,” but her response is that he brought it all on himself by being gay. As she relents and gives him his birth certificate she warns him “This little piece of paper is all I have left of the dream I had for you. If you don’t come back the son I gave birth to, consider this certificate void.”

Bratton gives the audience a brief insight to the life Ellis has been living as he collects his meagre belongings to pack for boot camp. An old queen tells him that he doesn’t have to enlist as background footage of soldiers on television plays. There is a fatalism in Ellis’ response. In his mind he must join or he will end up like his many friends; dead or in jail.

On the bus to bootcamp Bratton subtly sets up the characters that will be French’s squad and also (and perhaps for the only time) suggests that the military is somewhere impoverished and desperate people go because they are out of other options. On the bus is a quiet Muslim recruit, Ismail (Eman Esfandi) who from the outset will be the locus for anti-Islam sentiment. There is also a generational Marine, Laurence Harvey (McCaul Lombardi) who will prove to be just one of the antagonists Ellis has to face.

Ellis has enlisted under the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” rule of the American Military. Yet one of the first things screamed at the new recruits is the question “Are you, or have you ever been a homosexual?” Ellis yells “No, Sir!” but it isn’t long before his sexuality becomes obvious to the other recruits and especially the deliberately sadistic Gunnery Sergeant. Leland Laws (Bokeem Woodbine) who helps orchestrate the brutal and almost fatal hazing of Ellis.

Boot camp films are often about the protagonist’s journey from idealism, through to disillusionment, deciding to quit, then deciding to stay on to prove that they are stronger than the system that set out to break and reshape them. The Inspection doesn’t move beyond these strictures in any meaningful way. What Ellis goes through is coordinated torture and the sympathetic officer Rosales (Raúl Castillo), whose kindness towards Ellis is misinterpreted by the young man as attraction, urges him to leave.

Dramatic beat after dramatic beat is hit without a deep investigation into what is really going on. We come to understand why Ellis is there, but do we really understand why Laws has decided to focus his hatred on him except that he wants to “turn him into a monster”? Laws’ Desert Storm disappointments remain in his psyche and he wants the next generation to be something more, but what, unhinged killing machines? If the point of training is to teach the recruits to protect the man on their left and the man on their right why does he allow French to be almost murdered in training? When Ellis finally releases some of his rage onto Harvey who has been the ringleader in most of the hazing, Laws smiles with satisfaction.

Although Bratton examines the institutionalised homophobia, racism, and misogyny of the Marines he somewhat excuses it. The ending is all too pat with the exception of leaving his relationship with Inez as still broken. For Bratton the Marines did provide him the opportunity to move into photography and filmmaking and his gratitude for that clouds his ability to properly assess what the Military Industrial Complex really does to the often disenfranchised people who join it.

Nonetheless, it is Bratton’s story and as such lives in his telling of it through excellent casting and performances over an unfocussed script. Openly gay actor Jeremy Pope is outstanding as Ellis, it is unlikely a straight actor could have given the role the deep nuance of queerness that cannot be hidden. Gabrielle Union in her brief but essential scenes is a revelation as Inez. Bokeem Woodbine is deeply sinister and unpredictable. The most interesting character beyond Ellis is Raúl Castillo’s Rosales, who perhaps exists as an apologia for the brutality of the Marines but is nonetheless compelling.

The Inspection may be generally opaque in its intentions, but Jeremy Pope’s phenomenal performance is enough to warrant audience attention. It isn’t the first time a gay filmmaker has tackled the boot camp story, Joel Schumacher did so in Tigerland and it also isn’t the first film about (probable) gay related hazing which we see turn fatal in A Few Good Men, but it is the first film that tackles the subject from the perspective of a queer director and first person queer character. Perhaps if Bratton was prepared to invite a less forgiving model of what the military can do to people, instead of what it did for him, The Inspection would be an important entry into queer cinema, but as it stands it equivocates too much to present anything but Bratton’s own experience – which is valid, but far from something an audience can fully embrace.   

Director: Elegance Bratton

Cast: Jeremy Pope, Gabrielle Union, Bokeem Woodbine

Writer: Elegance Bratton

Nadine Whitney

Nadine Whitney holds qualifications in cinema, literature, cultural studies, education and design. When not writing about film, art or books, she can be found napping and missing her cat.

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