The Inspection has echoes of other military movies, most notably Full Metal Jacket. Writer/director Elegance Bratton’s signature is all over the story, though, giving the film a personal touch. Like Jeremy Pope’s Ellis French, Bratton was kicked out of his house as a teenager for being gay and spent the following years homeless until he enlisted. In one of the film’s many devastating moments, French says that he had two options: die a homeless nobody or risk dying a hero on the battlefield. Above all else, French hopes becoming a Marine will win his mother’s approval. However, the homophobia infesting boot camp may kill French before he even tries on a uniform.
French is initially accepted among his fellow recruits until they grow suspicious of his sexuality. Although French undergoes the most brutal hazing, he’s not the only one mistreated. Being set not long after September 11th, a Muslim recruit (Eman Esfandi) receives dirty looks from the ruthless instructor Leland Laws (Bokeem Woodbine). As commanding as Woodbine is in the role, Laws runs the risk of becoming a caricature. While the character never becomes sympathetic, he’s more nuanced than expected. Although he’s a homophobe, Laws’ intent isn’t to make French quit or die. He wants to turn French and the other recruits into monsters, believing only then can they take an enemy soldier’s life. To make a monster, you need to be a monster.
Another drill sergeant named Rosales (Raúl Castillo) takes a more humane approach. He not only looks out for French, but a sexual relationship emerges between them. The relationship can never be more than sex, however. While Rosales hasn’t been in the military as long as Law, he understands that he can’t be himself beyond closed doors. The scenes between French and Rosales bring some warmth to what can otherwise be a grueling yet honest portrayal of how the military can treat the LGBTQ+ community and other marginalized groups.
McCaul Lombardi plays another recruit who rubs his privilege in French’s face, bullying him around every turn. The film’s most despicable character, though, is French’s mother Inez, played by an unrecognizable Gabrielle Union. “Deglam” is a phrase that might get tossed around to describe Union’s performance. Union’s transformation goes beyond her physical appearance, however. Union is usually such a likable screen presence. Even in Bring It On where she starts as the protagonist’s rival, she wins our affection by the end. As Inez, Union creates an internally repugnant human being.
The Inspection builds to a brilliantly acted confrontation between French and his mother. While Inez’s comments are gut-wrenching, what’s even more shocking is how French responds. What starts as a film about the military evolves into a story about family, how they work, and how they don’t work. For some people, it’s easy to write off a parent who doesn’t accept them. For others, it’s an ongoing battle that they’ll never surrender. It’s debatable if the final scene is more heartbreaking or hopeful. However you interpret it, the ending is a deeply human one.