THE INSPECTION

Producers: Effie T. Brown and Chester Algernal Gordon   Director: Elegance Bratton   Screenplay: Elegance Bratton   Cast: Jeremy Pope, Gabrielle Union, Bokeem Woodbine, Raúl Castillo, McCaul Lombardi, Nicholas Logan, Eman Esfandi, Aaron Dominguez, Aubrey Joseph, Andrew Kai, Tyler Merritt and Steve Mokate   Distributor: A24 Films

Grade: B

In his debut fiction feature, documentarian Elegance Bratton draws on his own experience to fashion a blistering tale of a homeless gay man’s struggle to survive by submitting to the brutality of military training.  “The Inspection” tells a story that in many respects is emotionally manipulative, but does so in a gritty, bruising fashion that keeps it from descending into treacle.

It’s 2005, the era of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and Ellis French (Jeremy Pope) has been living on the streets of NYC since his mother Inez (Gabrielle Union), a highly religious corrections officer, tossed him out when he came out as gay at sixteen.  Now he’s decided to change his life by enlisting in the Marines, and visits Inez in her Trenton apartment to collect his birth certificate, a requirement for application.  She’s barely willing to let him in and treats him coldly while he’s there, but gives him the document with a shrug.

On the bus to basic training, French encounters two other recruits of very different persuasions.  Ismail (Eman Esfandi) is a Muslim rightly fearful of how he’ll be treated, and Harvey (McCaul Lombardi), son of a war hero, is the sort of gung-ho guy likely to harass him.  When they reach the camp, they’re all faced by officers who are also distinct.  Commander Laws (Bokeem Woodbine) is a fierce veteran who belittles them all mercilessly; his aide, Sergeant Brooks (Nicholas Logan), if anything, exceeds him in vitriol.  But a second drill sergeant, Rosales (Raúl Castillo), is a more humane sort, whose kindness French reads the wrong way after Harvey and others in the barracks have identified him as queer and decided to deal with him on their own.  Harvey will even stoop to cheating on a rifle-qualification test to get him expelled.

In many respects “The Inspection” follows a familiar basic-training playbook, but it’s distinguished by the fact that it’s imbued with the passion of Bratton’s own experience, which Pope conveys with absolute commitment.  As edited by Oriana Soddu, the training montages don’t stint on the punishing physical demands, but here they have the added element of bigoted harassment, not only by Harvey but by Laws, who almost drowns Ellis in one ghastly incident.  One can’t help but discern in the brutal prejudice Ellis endures more than a hint of suppressed sexual impulses on the part of his tormentors.  Meanwhile French’s gently protective attitude toward Ismail, notably in a scene when the young Muslim breaks down when he’s compelled to attend a Christian service, suggests the bond that develops between those deemed outsiders for different reasons under the rigors of an unfeeling system.

The director also secures a strong performance from Woodbine, who rivals R. Lee Ermey’s “Full Metal Jacket” drill sergeant in menace, and Castillo, who adds a note of ambiguity to Rosales that makes Ellis’ misjudgment about him plausible.  The remaining men in the barracks are depicted more broadly, but the supporting cast fill the roles reasonably well, even if Lombardi does come on rather too strong.

But perhaps the most revelatory turn comes from Union, who endows Inez with a fierceness that reflects the degree of anti-gay feeling that persists in some portions of the black community.  Her scenes at the start of the film are striking, but those at the close, when she faces her son again, are even more devastating, since they pose the question of whether the character’s biases can finally be overcome by love for her son, and Union captures the woman’s internal struggle perfectly.  Hers is an awards-caliber performance.

Throughout Brittan and his collaborators, production designers Erik Louis Roberts and Tommy Love and cinematographer Lachlan Milne, favor a gloomy visual style, bleeding the images of color to leave them in various shades of gray except in dream sequences that blaze in contrast, while Fernando A. Rodriguez’s costumes are sensitive to both period and culture.  The score by Animal Collective complements Brittan’s stylistic shifts imaginatively.

The undertones of “The Inspection,” which convey both homophobia and homoerotism, make for a complex mixture each viewer will have to decipher in his own way.  But how different it is from a film like John Flynn’s “The Sergeant” (1968), where a military camp was used as a crucible for gay self-loathing which, in a fashion typical of that time, inevitably resulted in self-destruction.  Here the milieu is employed as a venue for a gay man to prove himself without rejecting who he is, even if he can’t be completely open about it.