Thursday, November 24, 2022

Elegance Bratton | The Inspection

inspecting the self

by Douglas Messerli


Elegance Bratton (screenwriter and director) The Inspection / 2022


Although there are numerous “inspections” throughout writer and director Elegance Bratton’s moving new film The Inspection, the title, I’d argue, refers not to an incident, but the broader inspection of the central character Ellis French’s (Jeremy Pope) inspection of self and identity.  We’re not talking here about whether Ellis is able to accept his gay sexuality—he’s long known who he is after years of torture and punishment through the hands of his own mother Inez (Gabrielle Union) who threw him out of her house at age 16 and through living on the streets, mostly as a homeless man ever since. Ellis not only knows who he is but has without bitterness hardened into an identity that will help to protect him in the new world he has determined to enter.


     The inspection Ellis explores—based on Bratton’s own life experiences—concerns whether or not he is capable to fitting fully into not only the larger community from which he’s long been ostracized but the most exclusive and elite of worlds into which only a very few are invited, and even those often broken by their many initiations. As the commanding officer Laws (Bokeem Woodbine) makes clear from the beginning of Ellis’ internment, he would just as well send all the boys suddenly come under his temporary command home crying if they cannot become the toughened killing machines into which he will attempt to mold them. 

     What Ellis must discover is not only if he is able survive this new world into which he’s almost inexplicably thrown himself, but if despite the tough hide he’s developed against the sexual taunts and abuses of his life he can in seeking out this new unyielding identity still remain himself, actually a loving and caring man despite all the suffering he has experienced.

     Throughout the film, Ellis looks into a mirror to see who he now is and if he can still spot the truth of his full being behind the shorn haired image he sees looking back at him in the mirror. It’s not an easy mix.

      We’ve seen plenty of films about the Marines and other military initiations, including Full Metal Jacket and An Officer and a Gentleman (the latter not about the Marines but the Navy Officer Corps but similar in its initiatory activities) to know that the grit and grime of the daily grunt work, the dangerous episodes in trying to bring in a drowning man who in his fearful flailing can drown his savior, the gruesome target tests, and the final sprints through the gauntlet of mud, barbed wire, wall-climbs, pullups, high wire-like walks, leaps, and drops. But it is the daily grind of abuse and degradation not only by the commanding officer and his staff but from the fellow recruits who competitively battle each other with as much hatred as they have received from those above that most hurts.

      Add to that the sexuality Ellis must hide or in the case of one of the recruits Ismail (Eman Esfandi) the religious degradation he must endure, as well as the common problems that young recruits have with uncomprehending outside families and lovers, and multiply that by all the sleepless and sexless nights and you can only begin, perhaps, to know the horror of trying to fit in to the new family in which you’ve asked to become a member..

      In Ellis’ case his own body gives him away in the shower, as for only a few moments his mind wanders into a lustful fantasy involving all the male bodies within immediate reach. And erection spells his complete ostracization and continued taunting by his fellow recruits and yet further and more specific abuse from the likes of Laws who is not only ready but totally desirous of drumming out any insinuated queer. We must remember that the time of this film, 2005, still stood with the impossible military stricture, “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” which meant that even if, as does Ellis, one maintained complete silence with regard to sex, because they couldn’t ask, they simply presumed his sexuality and judged him unworthy accordingly.


      Amazingly, Ellis discovers a strength within that makes him a near perfect soldier. But nonetheless he is nearly drowned by the officer he is asked to save in the swimming maneuvers. Finally, coming to at the last moment Ellis is ready to report of the officer knowing that the action was quite intentional. He boards the vehicle that will take him to the head officers quarters but another officer of the group, who you might describe as the “good cop” to Laws’ bad policing, Rosales (Raúl Castillo) reminds him that he reports the incident, Laws and his type will have won, and Ellis will be forced to leave in one way or another. 

      Despite that fact that he can no longer even sleep in the same space as his fellow recruits and they have begun to completely shun him, Ellis returns without reporting the incident and moves on in quiet mental regurgitation of the facts, another aspect that he must inspect while looking upon his face: is he turning into a machine of anger and hate?

      A second test occurs during the shooting trials. Ellis shoots well, but with the help of the squadron leader (McCaul Lombardi) they report that he has missed the mark in all his trials. He challenges the report, and fortunately another of his peers saw where the bullets really landed. Laws is forced to give him another chance as the sun sets. And this time he proves his worthiness.

     Gradually others also begin to emotionally break down, at a Christian Church Service Ishmail, abused for being Muslim, has had enough and heads to the bathroom in tears, Ellis reaching out with a hug to him to reassure him that he still at least one friend.

     At another moment a recruit whose wife or girlfriend is obviously on the verge of leaving him, breaks down, and Ellis is there for him as well.

     Often given night guard as punishment, Ellis must watch over a room full of men masturbating under their blankets lit up with small flashlights to see the porno pictures one of their group has smuggled in through the gift of a Bible.

    Homoeroticism is rampant in the world wherein one is required to rely on his nearest male companion for his very life; but let it sweep him away as it sometimes does Ellis, and he demolished. The very camaraderie at the center of the military world is a danger to Ellis’s survival.

      Despite everything, Ellis makes it through while still maintaining his humanity.

     But when he finally gets through to his mother in an illegal nighttime phone call in an attempt to plead for her to attend his final graduation ceremonies she is noncommittal and hangs up. He has no one to turn to but must bear his pain alone in the quiet of the night.

      His mother, Inez French, who works as a prison guard, does finally attend the ceremony, arriving at the last moment. And the proud marine now joyfully takes her to a lunch of lobster and seemingly excellent cuisine, about which she, who we’ve seen earlier eating stews she keeps simmering on the top of her stove, can only complain.

       Yet she too seems happier, for the first time willing to even talk to her son When he tells her that during the short leave he has before his assignment he plans to rent an apartment near her, she insists he return home—a ramshackle mess of an apartment which we’ve witnessed in that early scene. As an office, she beams, all the women in the neighborhood will line up for her son, the choice being his alone. He reminds her that being a marine hasn’t changed his sexuality.

        Furious, she stands attempting to expose him in front of all the celebrating graduates, their families. and the officers, for being fag. Ellis begs them to ignore her, and together they chant of the pride for their own kind, while an officer quietly escorts her out.

        Joining her in the hall, we see a broken woman, who knows she has forever lost her son to her own bigotry, despite his assurance that he has not abandoned her. Her final statement to him is a both an amelioration and a curse: “I’ll love you always until the day I die.” She pauses in might have been a resolution, “but I can never accept you for you who you are.” 

        What is clear, however, is that it is not Ellis who needs acceptance, but that she has lost herself into irreparable hate, her homophobia having so scarred her soul that it makes her own love meaningless. No matter what she might imagine, it is Inez who is now the bitter outsider.

      At one point, late in the film, after having several fantasies about Rosales, Ellis attempts to make sexual contact with the man who has helped to keep him going, the officer immediately telling him to leave the shower and wait for him outside. There he tells him he has supported him, perhaps even protected him not out of sympathy for homosexuality, but in an attempt to make him a soldier, not so very differently from Laws’ goals, simply through other means.

      He then says something that sounds quite nice in our seemingly open age of pretense about all things LGBTQ. If were to get rid of every homosexual in the military, he argues, there wouldn’t be a military force.

     It sounds nice. But I don’t believe it for one moment. Given even the current statistics of the percentange of homosexuals in relation to heterosexuals, and then accounting for those obvious fewer homosexuals who might sign up for military duty, the numbers—although the numbers may be far greater than we might imagine—simply can’t add up to make that sort of difference.      

      According to the newest statistics I could find on-line, only 6.1 % of the military today identify as LGBT, the Navy having the highest concentration of 9.1 %. The size of the military in 2019 was 1,388,000 individuals, which would mean that overall 85,000 men and women identify as homosexual. That is indeed a great many individuals in a world, remember, where you are now permitted to “tell,” about 85 battalions (battalions each made up of about 1,000 individuals).

     Moreover, the Marines is the smallest of the military corps in the US, with only about 220,000 currently enlisted. To take away the 6% of that number, 13,200, would leave a much smaller Marine corps of about 207,000 men and women, a whopping 16% of them being women. It certainly does change the statistics, depleting the service, however without truly wiping it out

      I think what Rosales is suggesting is that given the tight quarters and communal dependency upon one another demanded for survival, that many who do not identify as homosexual still engage in and depend upon sexual release in the company of and even perhaps engaging the bodies of one another. More importantly, if their stated mission to protect the citizens of the country, the complete banning of all homosexuals would create a kind of homophobia that would be as destructive as that from which Ellis’ mother suffers, making their love of country impotent and meaningless. In order to save a population you need to love it, not hate everything that stands in your way as Laws seems to imply. What Ellis himself has learned, and Rosales is reflecting upon is that Ellis is precisely the kind of man that through his introspection—his inspection of his own complex and contradictory being—that all the military forces most need. Men like Laws and the group squadron leader are naturally drawn to violence, but it is men who can employ violence if necessary but know the dangers it represents who are crucial for the survival of any military force. The outsider is perhaps what the insider most needs in order not only to survive, but as William Faulkner might have put it, to prevail.

     As Justin Chang nicely summarized the film in his Los Angeles Times review: “In its most moving and offhandedly momentous scenes, The Inspection becomes a chronicle of not just persecution and survival but also solidarity, in which this all-American brotherhood actually can function as advertised.”


Los Angeles, November 23, 2022

Reprinted from World Cinema Review (November 2022).

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