Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Dec 02, 2022 7:02 pm 
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A Black gay man goes through Marine boot camp successfully but doesn't gain mother's acceptance

Elegance Bratton has declared his A24-released feature film debut to be autobiographical. He like Ellis French (Jeremy Pope, himself a queer Black actor) in The Inspection, is a gay Black man who joined the Marine Corps following ten years living on the streets in Trenton, New Jersey after his mother kicked him out at 16 for being gay. The tormented, still loving mother-son relationship is as central to this movie as the boot camp experience that fills most of the run time; shortly after graduation from the camp. the film ends, but not before a highly fraught meeting between mother and son. However rough in spots, this movie is vivid, intense, and felt.

Marine boot camp paradoxically treats recruits as non-beings and the training platoon Ellis is in is presided over by an aggressive Black training officer, Sgt. Laws (Bokeem Woodbine), who says he hates recruits and seeks to break them down, but when they're turned into Marines they become precious. Reluctantly, or with much hesitation, the very Christian but clearly tormented Inez (a powerful Gabrielle Union) attends her son's Marine graduation. The Marines, after a struggle, despite discovering that he is gay during this "Don't ask, don't tell" period (1994-2011) have somehow made Ellis one of their own, and once you're a Marine, you're golden. But when Ellis has to explain to the hopeful, delusional Inez who envisions his having a string of girlfriends now, "Mom, boot camp didn't make me straight," she withdraws her invitation to come back and stay with him for his month before reporting for service, and they are back where they started. Maybe the dedication to Bratton's mother at the end of the film, along with the information that Bratton indeed served in the Marines from 2005 to 2010, indicates some kind of truce between mother and son came about before her passing; alas, he says not.

The Inspection is a strong movie but despite its autobiographical origins, doesn't always seem real. Maybe it doesn't matter: it has an emotional reality. Screen versions of military boot camps tend to seem like mechanical ritual or absurd fantasy. Moreover, Ellis' personal gay sexual fantasies of the other men in boot camp are tormenting and as important perhaps, as his daytime challenges. (See Benjamin Lee of the Guardian for the review with a fuller queer perspective on this film.)

Bratton's need to work through his own experience of boot camp and his mother's rejection sometimes seems stronger than his desire to tell a story. Starting to write the screenplay in film school his memories of five years in the Marines may have been pushed out sometimes by movies. The representation of Sgt. Laws tends to be overwhelmed a bit in our minds and perhaps Bratton's by Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket and its classic boot camp sergeant Hartman played by R. Lee Ermey, who, under Kubrick's master hand, seems too good to be true, though Ermey was a ten-year Marine veteran as wall as an actor. Sgt. Laws isn't as enjoyably absurd, but his excessiveness, up close as seen here, is very theatrical. Ellis is also tormented by the chosen recruit squad leader (McCaul Lombardi), up close all the time too, who tries to get him disqualified but fails. (An Officer and a Gentleman is another classic training movie that will come to mind, and probably eclipse, this one.)

There are new wrinkles, like Muslim recruit Ismail (Eman Esfandi), who is forced to attend a Christian service conducted by a caricatural Southern chaplain (Wynn Reichert) with non-believing Ellis, and rushes out and is comforted by Ellis weeping in the latrine because he has realized the Marines will just equate him with the killers of their comrades in Desert Storm or Iraq. Sgt. Laws shows the recruits a video of Sam Mendes' Jarhead (which would have been new then), saying it perfectly shows their experience in Desert Storm. Well, that would not be a Marine recruitment film, and neither would this. It may be true, truth is stranger than fiction, but it also seems a bit implausible that Ellis would be spotted as gay because he gets an erection in the shower naked with other recruits. Tough luck if so, since showers are obligatory and collective activities. It's Bratton's skewed impression of the straightness of his fellow recruits that mail brings a bible with girlie photos crammed into it and that night they are all busily masturbating.

In the physical part of boot camp, the sit-ups and pushups and runs and obstacle courses, despite every effort to throw him off Ellis does fine. His relations with the other recruits are uneasy after the shower revelation. He performs at least adequately, perhaps well, in the crucial final rifle marksmanship test but his enemies try to falsify his failure. This is where it's clear he has some advocates, including an instructor (Raúl Castillo) who has confided in him, another person Ellis comforts, though when he interprets kindness as an opening to physical intimacy, he gets in trouble.

Having gone through Basic Training in the Army in earlier days, it was surprising to me how much these recent Marine recruits talk to the sergeants, always shouting out and prefacing all remarks with, "Sir, this recruit..," speaking of themselves in the third person. The progress of boot camp doesn't come through as a fixed set of training goals so much as a series of vivid memories, like eating with violent appetite (which I also remember; food never tasted so good and there was never enough of it). Sometimes the personal interactions feel contrived, heightened or condensed from real experience. But each test passed is a validation, and while the friendliness of the other recruits seems a bit sudden, Ellis' sense of accomplishment is something the viewer shares. Jeremy Pope has a jutting jaw and mouth, and his own special way of smiling that morphs back and forth into a frown. If the process sometimes seems contrived, his transformation seems real, the sense of identity in desperation achieved.

The Inspection 95 mins., debuted at Toronto Sept. 8, 2022 then New York Oct. 14, showing in a dozen other festivals, mostly domestic, but including London BFI. Limited US theatrical release from Nov. 18, 2022. Metacritic rating: 73%.

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