Ellis (Jeremy Pope), a sweet 20-something gay Black man with a dimpled smile, whiles away his days at an urban homeless shelter. While watching TV one evening, he sees images of post-9/11 troops in battle, and in those images he sees a last-ditch chance to change his life: enlist with the Marines. Rather than ending up in jail or dying in the streets like his friends, he figures if he dies in a uniform at least he’d be a hero. Perhaps by becoming a Marine, he may also be redeemed in the eyes of his estranged mother Inez (Gabrielle Union), a bitter single mom who booted out her gay son when he was a teen. When Ellis stops by her apartment to pick up his birth certificate, she hands him the document as though it belonged to her dead child.
Once Ellis arrives at bootcamp, The Inspection sticks well to the tropes of basic training movies. Whether you are talking about Full Metal Jacket, An Officer and a Gentlemen, or even the comedy Stripes, the same basic ingredients are there: Our scrappy main character is thrust into the brutality of mental and physical challenges that will absolutely break him down (thanks to a sadistic drill sergeant and/or other sadistic recruits) only to build him back up, ultimately giving him a sense of pride, duty, and chosen family. But by adding in the queerness of the main character (in the era of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”), The Inspection treads fresh, if often frightening, new ground. Let’s just say, it doesn’t take long for the others to pick up on Ellis’ sexuality, making him a target of not just the other recruits, but of his drill sergeant Laws (Bokeem Woodbine, who can flip a switch between pointedly funny and cruelly brutal).
Writer/director Elegance Bratton based The Inspection on own experience, bringing a deeply personal angle to the story. While Ellis is obviously searching for a chosen family and a place to belong, he also deeply wants a relationship with his mom. As Inez, Gabrielle Union is terrific here, uncharacteristically glammed down with a sinister edge. Inez clearly struggles with loving her son (or at least with an idealized version of her son) while having absolutely no tolerance for his queerness. Ellis, ever-hopeful, can’t help but see the (tiny cracks) in her façade. Even if her religious conviction is an unyielding brick wall in their relationship, his boyish sense of hope combined with his slowly rebuilt confidence is both sweet and heartbreaking.
The rest of the ensemble cast is very strong as well, creating characters that go beyond just being a “token,” like the picked-on Muslim Ismail (Eman Esfandi) who “looks like the enemy” but is as American as the others, or the sympathetic drill instructor Rosales (Raúl Castillo) who watches out for Ellis (while creating sexual tension), and the entitled recruit Harvey (McCaul Lombardi), a bully who rides on the coattails of his father’s military reputation. As power struggles shift dynamics among the characters through revelations and sometimes even violence, Jeremy Pope’s Ellis stays grounded and totally believable. Ellis may seem, on the surface, different from the others–but it slowly becomes clear that it’s his outsider survival instinct that may make him a ideal Marine, and eventually… hopefully… his mother’s ideal son.