‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’: The Inspection goes deep on army trauma

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(MA) 95 minutes

The military boot camp is a time-worn movie setting. And the stories that unfold there are invariably peopled with a familiar array of stereotypes starting with the snarling drill sergeants who can be relied upon to welcome new arrivals with an ear-splitting torrent of abuse.

Jeremy Pope plays Ellis French, a young, gay, black soldier struggling to fit in, in The Inspection.

It’s unnerving and designed to become even more so as you watch these recruits being transformed from a group of individuals into a set of buzzcut automata. Then the picture changes again. When you peer at them a little more closely, you recognise the usual company of alphas, jocks, bullies and sensitive souls to be found in any film about a closed community, whether it’s a combat battalion or a high school classroom.

The Inspection, however, delves a little more deeply into the genre. Writer-director Elegance Bratton, who is black and gay, has mined his experiences as a trainee marine during the years when the US military pursued a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy towards homosexual recruits. For him, enlistment was a desperation move. After leaving home at 16, he had lived on the streets of New York City for a decade and saw the military as a means of escape. And in the end, it paid off handsomely, giving him the beginnings of a film career by training him as a photographer and videographer. But first he had to run the gauntlet.

Ellis French (Jeremy Pope) follows the same route. His mother, Inez (Gabrielle Union), has virtually disowned him because of his homosexuality. As we learn during an excruciating visit he pays her just before setting out for the camp, she regards him with exquisite disdain. First, he has to talk her into letting him in. Then she lays a sheet of newsprint on the sofa before permitting him to sit down.

He accepts all this with the kind of stoic misery that will stand him in good stead once his training begins. From the outset, he’s determined to get through. But once his homosexuality is discovered, the persecution starts. And he can forget about asking Laws (Bokeem Woodbine), his drill sergeant, for help. A combat veteran soured by experience, Laws merely thinks up more novel ways to add to his torment.

At this point, there are signs the film is going to embark on a trenchant interrogation of modern military values, given the lessons learnt by the US in Iraq and Afghanistan. There’s a young Muslim recruit in the company and he, too, is given a hard time, but he’s a subplot. It’s Ellis’s story and Pope, who earned a Golden Globe nomination for the role, keeps you on his side all the way with a performance so direct, intuitive – and restrained – that you feel as if he’s letting you in on his every thought.

Nor is there anything maudlin about the ending. While Ellis emerges from training with many battles won, we’re left with the sad but realistic thought there are some prejudices he will never overcome.

The Inspection is released in cinemas on May 4.

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