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‘The Inspection’ showcases what makes a family of choice

“The Inspection” (2022). Cast: Jeremy Pope, Gabrielle Union, Bokeem Woodbine, Raúl Castillo, Nicholas Logan, McCaul Lombardi, Eman Esfandi, Aaron Dominguez, Aubrey Joseph, Andrew Kai, Tyler Merritt, Steve Mokate. Director: Elegance Bratton. Screenplay: Elegance Bratton. Web site. Trailer.

Family has long been seen as an institution dictated almost exclusively by bloodline considerations. However, over time, this view has gradually shifted to one where family has become what we make of it. It’s a principle that has assumed many forms, too, based on an array of defining characteristics, some of which have deviated significantly from traditional models. But what’s most important behind this development has been the beneficial impact it has had on many individuals who simply didn’t feel as though they belonged with their blood relatives, regardless of how much they were pressured into trying to make such arrangements work. That’s the theme underlying a new fact-based story about one individual’s search for a new start that unexpectedly ends up providing him far more than what he was initially looking for, director Elegance Bratton’s autobiographical debut narrative feature, “The Inspection.”

Twenty-five-year-old Ellis French (Jeremy Pope) has been fending for himself since he was 16. As the gay son of Inez (Gabrielle Union), a hard-edged African-American single mother, Ellis was kicked out of the house over her disapproval of his “degenerate” lifestyle, one that she sternly believed ran afoul of her self-righteous religious beliefs. In that time, Ellis has been doing whatever it took to survive, bouncing from one situation to another (including some jail time) and making little personal progress along the way. He acknowledges that many of his friends have ended up dead or in prison, and he worries he might be headed for a similar fate. Indeed, as the film opens, he’s living in a homeless shelter in Trenton, NJ, with few hopeful prospects for the future. But, given how things have been going, he’s decided that it’s time to make a radical change: As a native New Yorker, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, he enlists in the Marines, hoping that it will give him meaningful purpose and set him on a new path, one that offers promise and potential unlike anything he’s experienced since being thrown out onto the streets.

Before leaving for boot camp, Ellis visits his mother to obtain his birth certificate to complete his enlistment. When she asks why he needs it, she laughs at his answer, convinced that there’s no way he’ll make it through basic training. She dismissively chides him, saying that he’ll easily be spotted for who he is, that he’s “gayer than two left shoes.” And, if all that weren’t insulting enough, as she hands the requested document to him, she says of it, “This is all I have left of the dream I held for you.” (Thanks, Mom.)

Despite his mother’s callous comments, Ellis is not deterred. He’s resolved to reach his goal, no matter what it takes. He’s also impelled to succeed by one of the homeless shelter’s residents, Shamus (Tyler Merritt), who says he hopes that Ellis won’t backslide and end up back in his company once again. And so, Inez’s disparaging remarks notwithstanding, he departs for his appointment with destiny.

Ellis French (Jeremy Pope, center) has something to prove to himself and others after years of wandering aimlessly when he enlists in the Marines, as seen in director Elegance Bratton’s autobiographical debut narrative feature, “The Inspection.” Photo courtesy of A24.

But is the new recruit’s optimism enough to carry him through what lies ahead? Given the time frame in which this story is set – the ʼ00s – circumstances are different from what they are today. The LGBTQ+ community at large, for example, still faced its share of prejudice at the time, and that was an even greater challenge for those in the military, who were serving under the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Also, it’s obvious from a number of small gestures that Ellis is a kind, compassionate, sensitive soul. Those undeniably admirable qualities are eminently noble, to be sure, but their compatibility with a culture often characterized by contrary attitudes and values could make fitting in difficult.

As Ellis steps off the bus that takes him to boot camp, his life changes in an instant. His initial indoctrination into his new world is characterized by rigidity, harsh discipline and intimidation. His drill instructor, Sgt. Laws (Bokeem Woodbine), barks orders and questions at him upon his arrival, including asking him whether or not he had ever been a homosexual. Laws is innately skeptical about Ellis’s negative reply, slyly responding with a sinister smirk and stating definitively that he will break the new recruit. (Of course, as a Marine drill instructor, that’s his primary goal when it comes to training all newcomers, a tactic intended as a means to help build them back up, but one that could prove particularly challenging for someone like Ellis, given his character and sensibilities–and Laws’s apparent intent to be particularly hard on him.)

As training begins, Ellis experiences his share of difficulties. He encounters institutionalized homophobia. He’s the subject of bullying (and not just from Laws, but also from fellow recruits). He’s even the target of sabotage by others who’d like nothing more than to see him fail. And, on top of that, Inez refuses to answer any of his letters, despite his sincere efforts at reaching out to keep her informed of his progress.

But, despite these difficulties, Ellis refuses to give up. He works harder when he needs to, in large part to earn the respect to which he believes he’s entitled. He also wins over allies, such as Sgt. Rosales (Raúl Castillo), one of Laws’s assistants, who takes a more sympathetic, more tailored approach in the guidance he provides to Ellis, both as a recruit and as a gay soldier. And, as training progresses, Ellis comes into his own. He even finds a way to remain true to his principles, such as his compassion in coming to the aid of others, like Ismail (Eman Esfandi), a Muslim recruit who’s often the target of unbridled prejudice and insensitive treatment from his fellow soldiers.

As a gay Marine recruit, Ellis French (Jeremy Pope, left) receives sound guidance for fitting in from a sympathetic drill instructor, Sgt. Rosales (Raúl Castillo, right), in director Elegance Bratton’s autobiographical debut narrative feature, “The Inspection,” now playing theatrically and soon to be available for internet streaming. Photo courtesy of A24.

In a sense, Ellis becomes a role model of sorts for his peers, inspiring them to adopt new attitudes toward him and to what it means to be a Marine. When they see him being unfairly targeted, they begin coming to his defense, making sure he gets a fair shake and congratulating him on his individual victories, no matter how small. The treatment he receives begins to change, and unfettered acceptance comes more readily, even from those who were once critical and despite whatever issues he may have encountered previously. In turn, Ellis begins to look upon his experience in a new light, one in which he finds himself in a brotherhood where others have his back as much as he has theirs and where inherent differences no longer matter when it comes to supporting a colleague, including those from whom such conduct and consideration are least likely expected.

The bottom line in this is that Ellis finds the family he always longed for but never had, a development he hadn’t envisioned going in. But, for those who’ve had to endure such circumstances, a change like this is truly welcome and heartfelt, even (or, perhaps, especially) if it arises unexpectedly. It may not correct the slights of the past, but it can certainly provide a meaningful basis of support for the future, and that can ultimately prove invaluable. A family of choice may not be the same as one’s biological tribe, but it can be equally nurturing and supportive, and there’s much to be said for that.

Of course, none of this likely would have happened were it not for Ellis’s determination to succeed. Despite what the naysayers may have said, he believed he was capable of accomplishing this objective, and this is crucial, given that our beliefs form the basis of our reality thanks to the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains we draw upon these resources in manifesting our existence, for better or worse. It’s unclear whether Ellis had ever heard of this school of thought, but he certainly made effective use of its principles and practices in the pursuit of his dream. When combining these concepts with his personal convictions, he was clearly setting himself up for success.

Despite his efforts at transforming himself into a Marine, one might wonder why he chose such a difficult path in reaching this point in his life. Why, for example, did he create nine difficult years of life on the streets leading up to his military experience? Wouldn’t it have made more sense to manifest something more productive and positive in the first place, especially since he was obviously capable of doing so, as evidenced by his boot camp experience? Perhaps, but maybe he needed to go through the ordeal of learning how to survive on his own under harsh conditions as a means to prepare himself for what he would have to endure when undergoing basic training. Similarly, perhaps he needed to experience the prejudice and homophobia he underwent with his mother and others to get him ready for what he would go through in a setting where such attitudes had become institutionalized. Indeed, sometimes we might not always understand what we’re manifesting and why, but, in hindsight, we frequently see that these “detours” serve valuable functions, providing us with the wherewithal to overcome the challenges we experience later.

Hard-nosed Marine drill instructor Sgt. Laws (Bokeem Woodbine) promises to break new recruits who undergo basic training with him in director Elegance Bratton’s autobiographical debut narrative feature, “The Inspection.” Photo courtesy of A24.

Another benefit to come out of such ordeals is the opportunity to overcome our fears, apprehensions and limitations. This was true for Ellis both while on the streets and during his boot camp experience. They helped him develop a thicker skin in facing the challenges that confronted him. They helped him to think outside the box and to devise innovative solutions for addressing the issues in front of him. They also helped him galvanize himself in his beliefs, reinforcing them to help him implement them in the pursuit of his goals. Such efforts can yield tremendous, enviable results, as Ellis’s experience so clearly illustrates.

In order for Ellis to succeed in these efforts, though, he had to be himself – his true self, the one whose actions align with his innermost beliefs, those that reflect who he innately is. This called for him to retain the compassion and sensibilities that shaped his character, no matter how much those traits may have gone against the prototypical image of a Marine at that time. It also called for him to be forthright, honest and unapologetic about his sexuality as a proud gay man. To that end, it meant being up front with Inez whenever she, in her unrealistic false hope, raised the prospect of Ellis finding a nice girl and settling down as a stereotypical family man who would be a good husband and father and give her the grandchildren she so dearly wanted. He needed to make it clear that such developments would never occur, no matter how much she might wish for them. In short, he needed to stand up for himself and inform her of the fallacy behind the often-widely held notion in the African-American community that “there’s no such thing as a gay Black man.” He was living proof to the contrary, no matter how unbelievable and offensive she may have found it.

Ellis wasn’t alone in this pursuit, though; he had his family of choice to back him up in those times when he was challenged on these points, including those with his own mother. The brotherhood held firm, supporting one of their own when warranted. And knowing that he had these kindreds to have his back enabled him to stand even more unwaveringly in his own skin, a successful collaborative co-creation if there ever were one – and one that emerged out of a seemingly unlikely set of circumstances.

In short, Ellis’s Marine experience truly made him a man – but not the uber-macho prototype one typically expects when hearing this expression. Instead, it made him the man he was meant to be, the one who could stand tall in his convictions and live his life in line with his authentic self. Reaching that point may not have been easy, both during his time in the service and in the years leading up to it. But, in the end, he was able to embrace and act upon beliefs that made this possible through actions that spoke to living his personal truth. And what better manifestation could there possibly be to come out of circumstances, principles and practices like these?

Proud Marine Ellis French (Jeremy Pope, right) seeks to impress his often-disapproving mother, Inez (Gabrielle Union, left), that he can live up to his potential, despite her doubts, as seen in “The Inspection.” Photo courtesy of A24.

Finding one’s family may not always occur where one most likely expects it. But, even if those expectations aren’t fulfilled exactly, what difference does it make if the sought-after result ends up being what was hoped for to begin with? Writer-director Elegance Bratton’s fact-based saga does just that, driving home that message with its poignant, moving, heartfelt story. In several regards, “The Inspection” echoes groundbreaking themes first addressed in “Moonlight” (2016) and in Bratton’s debut documentary feature, “Pier Kids” (2019), though with different but nevertheless equal significance. The film’s superb Independent Spirit Award-nominated performances by Pope and Union, along with fine supporting portrayals turned in by other members of the excellent ensemble cast (most notably Woodbine and Castillo), truly give this picture its razor-sharp edge and its touching moments of genuine compassion, an unusual mix of elements to come out of the same story, to be sure. Admittedly, the production could probably have benefitted from a little more back story development and slightly brisker pacing in the first half-hour, but those are truly minor shortcomings in the greater scheme of things where this film is concerned. If this ISA candidate for best first feature is any indication of what we can expect in future works from this filmmaker, I can’t wait to see what else he comes up with.

“The Inspection” is making a splash in awards circles so far, too. In addition to its three Independent Spirit Award nominations, the film also captured a Golden Globe Award nomination for Jeremy Pope’s dramatic lead actor performance, as well as being named one of the National Board of Review’s Top 10 Independent Films of 2022. The picture has an excellent chance of picking up more nominations in upcoming competitions, including possibly the Oscars. The film is currently playing theatrically and will be available for online streaming in the near future.

We’d all like to hope that we can feel welcome and accepted for who we are in our families of birth, but sometimes it doesn’t work out that way (and for reasons that may not always be entirely clear). Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean we have to live out our lives in loneliness and solitude. We can forge the family we need and live perfectly happy and contented lives if we put our minds to it. By being our true selves, we can draw to us those whose sensibilities mesh with ours and who can innately tell that we belong together, even if such associations don’t conform to conventional models. In the end, it’s the people who matter to us (and to whom we matter) who deserve to be in our inner circle of kindred spirits. Indeed, why would we want to bother with those who can’t live up to that basic human courtesy? To be sure, family is what we make of it, and, when we put in the effort to see that through, we can surely create one that’s positively great.

Copyright © 2022, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

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