The last few years have seen a rise in auto-biographical storytelling. With directors having the opportunity to make their passion projects, we’re seeing an uptick in nostalgic filmmaking. However, The Inspection from newcomer Elegance Bratton does not look back on his youth with fondness. Instead, his debut film as a director focuses on the toughest time of his life: becoming a Marine at 25. Thanks to a star-making performance from Jeremy Pope, The Inspection allows Bratton to show a stunning command of the camera. His film does not just contain an incredible emotional core but displays promise for his future as a director.
In his early 20s, Ellis French (Pope) finds himself homeless and isolated from his family. A gay, black man, he receives little help from his mother (Gabrielle Union), who believes he will always be trouble. When French joins the Marine Corps, he finds himself serving under tough drill sergeant Laws (Bokeem Woodbine). However, as he progresses through training, he finds allies and rivals that will push him to the brink.
Bratton relies on Pope to shine throughout his performance, and it’s clear he’s trusted the right actor. Not only does Pope provide the emotional journey to bring Ellis to life, but he transforms physically. A quick side-by-side of the actor from the beginning of the film to the end shows his physical transformation is not just muscle and strength. By the film’s end, he carries himself as a man of confidence haunted by self-doubt. He shows sly arrogance and the self-awareness to know it can go away in a minute. All this can be seen in every mannerism and movement. Pope and Ellis are one-and-the-same in this film. The actor simply disappears into the role.
Union, Woodbine, and Raúl Castillo each deliver surprisingly effective performances. Union gets the least screen time of the three, but her power holds over the film. Not only does she play Ellis’ mother without judgment of her own character, but she basks in the more problematic aspects of the role. She is very aware of how this will make her look to the audience, and Union instead doubles down on the upsetting nature of her performance.
Woodbine gets to showcase his intensity as a drill sergeant, but it’s clear he’s still haunted by the things he saw in limited-field action. A scene between Castillo and Woodbine in the officer’s quarters reveals each commander’s perspective on their job, and each pedagogy will take hold in Ellis. While Woodbine is here to make an ambitious monster, Castillo begs Ellis to push through the anger and showcase his talent. Even when the two find a point of contention late in the film, Castillo tries to explain his mindset and ethos to his protégé.
Bratton keeps his film a tight ninety minutes but still finds time for experimentation. He finds ways for the audience to experience Ellis’ sexuality. Bratton frames dreams as otherworldly experiences, pulling us into Ellis’ mind and understanding the euphoric and gravitational forces at play. However, we also see the consequences of these moments, which result in one of the more harrowing sequences in the film. Bratton marries these incredible images with an outstanding score from Animal Collective. Layering experimental mediums on top of each other create a sensation of a person swept up in the emotion of this experience.
Even though the film shows Bratton’s promise as a future filmmaker, there are elements that could use some development. Even though some side characters receive development, they are ultimately difficult to tell apart. This is certainly the point of the Marines, but as movie-goer, we need to see more differentiation. Furthermore, we skip the parts that endear Ellis to the other troops. There’s a feeling of whiplash where he suddenly becomes a hero for the group after being pushed around and tortured. Bratton tries to embrace the show aspect of the film, but he needs to add more of the tell to help the story feel fully cohesive.
Despite these flaws, Bratton still delivers a wonderfully emotional film. He goes beyond simply retelling his life. He found a way to make his own story universal. Thanks to Bratton’s open and vulnerable storytelling, as well as Pope’s dynamic performance, The Inspection should hold a special place in 2022 as the introduction of a new talent.