In a season of semi-autobiographical films by directors like Steven Spielberg and James Gray, it’s refreshing to see Elegance Bratton’s “The Inspection” buck the trend on who gets to tell their stories. None of the other films depict a Black point of view, which makes this one rather disappointing in its conventionality.
Like me, Bratton is a Black man, a Gen-Xer, a member of the LGBTQ+ community, and from Jersey City, N.J. Also like me, he comes from a religious family that deeply believed homosexuality is a sin. “The Inspection,” which opens Nov. 23 in Boston, is not only about his relationship with his disapproving mother, who’s called Inez here and played by Gabrielle Union; it’s also about his journey to a stronger sense of self-acceptance through his time in the military.
As his stand-in, Ellis French, Bratton cast Jeremy Pope, an actor whose face alone can tell more tales than Scheherazade. So much of who French is reflects silently in Pope’s eyes, his jawline, his mouth. Much of that is pain, but there is also a steely determination, as if his power stems from refusing to let the system destroy him. It’s an impressive, nuanced performance that deserved more than the standard, familiar movie that surrounds it.
When “The Inspection” opens, French is unhoused and spending the night in a shelter. An older gay man tries to dissuade him from following through on a decision French has already made. “You don’t have to do this,” he tells French, before adding, “I hope I never see you in here again.” The elder man is referring to French joining the Marines. This is during the era of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” (Bratton served 2005-2010), so no safety net exists if one’s sexuality is exposed as anything but straight.
French’s secret is exposed to his platoon in the most physically telling way possible. In a scene Bratton stages as an exuberant, homoerotic fantasy involving the other bunkmates, French becomes aroused in the shower. The same men who entice him in this steamy bit of erotica suddenly turn on him, beating him brutally and calling him gay slurs. The tonal shift is not handled well in this scene, a problem “The Inspection” will have more than once.
Military movies cannot help but be homoerotic in some fashion, and it only becomes more blatant the harder a film tries to butch up. Bratton’s choice to enhance this eroticism reminded me of Claire Denis’s “Beau travail,” but whereas this idea of homoeroticism was baked into her movie, it’s only sparingly used here. As a result, “The Inspection” runs away from its most interesting viewpoint.
Every boot camp drama has its drill sergeant. As unit commander Laws, Bokeem Woodbine gets the thankless task of following Lou Gossett Jr. in “An Officer and a Gentleman” and R. Lee Ermey in “Full Metal Jacket.” “I will break you,” Laws tells his cadets, and he is not above attempted murder to prove his point. Woodbine’s masterful way of delivering a line — he never aims for a predictable reading — keeps his stock character interesting.
Even more interesting is Rosales (Raúl Castillo), Laws’s fellow officer, who is sympathetic to French and tries to keep him safe after that shower scene. Unlike French’s platoon, who are underdeveloped outside of the one Muslim cadet who catches hell from Laws, Rosales has intriguing potential. He’s a sympathetic mentor, but the film only hints at more complexity.
The most brutal emotional moments in “The Inspection” occur between French and his mother. She is a corrections officer and so strict in her religious convictions that she is willing to ruin her own son for the Kingdom of Heaven. Inez lives in my old neighborhood of Journal Square, a part of Jersey City seldom seen on the big screen. Their reunion occurs at her house nine years after she threw him out at age 16.
French wants his birth certificate for enlistment purposes. Inez makes him sit on newspaper she spreads out on the couch. Later, they will have a major fight at French’s graduation from boot camp, the one time Bratton challenges the familiarity of a “big moment” by turning the expected outcome on its ear. Union is garnering praise for her performance, but all I saw was a less ostentatious take on Mo’Nique’s role in “Precious.” Still, I knew people just like her, so there’s no denying her believability.
In an interview with Matt Fagerholm on rogerebert.com, Bratton said of his film, “It’s about someone who knows that he is gay and Black and is wondering where he fits in the world. How does he actually interact with this world and get out of a survival system into a thriving system?”
Bratton’s unique perspective is so much more interesting when you hear him talk about “The Inspection” that you often wonder where it is when you’re watching it.
Written and directed by Elegance Bratton. Starring Jeremy Pope, Bokeem Woodbine, Raúl Castillo, and Gabrielle Union. At AMC Boston Common 19, Landmark Kendall Square Cinema, and Coolidge Corner Theatre. 95 min., R (military-grade swearing, brutal violence, slurs, sex, nudity)
Odie Henderson is the Boston Globe's film critic. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.