Kicking off day one of the Toronto International Film Festival is a personal film from director Elegance Bratton making his feature film debut. Inspired by his true life story, the A24 movie The Inspection premiered this week at the festival. The film tells the narrative of Ellis French (Jeremy Pope), a man who yearns to be loved by his mother, Inez (Gabrielle Union), but is vehemently rejected by her because of his sexuality.
Ellis, an openly gay man, has been cast out of his mother’s home and forced to live on the streets. Five years have passed since he was removed from his home, and we see Ellis unshaven and unkempt. Although his mother is why he is going through this hard journey, he still comes back and is starved for her attention.
When he knocks on the door, she immediately assumes he did something wrong instead of asking him how he is doing. Inez, morosely, assumes the worst about her son. There is even a moment that still sticks with me when she invites him into her home. Before he sits down, she lays newspapers all over the sofa like lining to a kitty litter tray so that his foul scent won’t transfer to the couch. Ellis only lacks proper hygiene because he is homeless due to Inez kicking him out simply because she disagrees with his “lifestyle.”
Inevitably, Ellis takes matters into his own hands and decides to enlist in the Marine Corps. This plan doesn’t impress Inez much, but it’s what Ellis does, nonetheless. The plot shifts to Ellis’ stint in the military and the emotional and physical labor he has to endure from his unit commander, Laws (Bokeem Woodbine), and his fellow recruits.
In the beginning, Ellis blends in easily with the other soldiers. It’s not until one fateful day in the shower, when he gets physically aroused, that he is exposed as being homosexual. This now leads to bullying and further harassment from his unit commander. However, an understanding drill instructor named Rosales (Raul Castillo) helps to build Ellis’s confidence. Meanwhile, Ellis has also developed feelings for Rosales, which further complicates their relationship and his impending military career.
Jeremy Pope, an Emmy-nominated and Tony-nominated actor, best known for his role in Ryan Murphy’s Hollywood, delivers one of the most powerful performances of his career. His character Ellis French undergoes an emotional rollercoaster throughout the film. He takes a beating both literally and metaphorically as growth and development manifest themselves within the story. Pope, who is no stranger to TIFF, having played Jackie Wilson in One Night In Miami, a selection in 2020, shines bright in this leading role.
Pope is not the only actor that illuminates this motion picture. Actor Gabrielle Union, who hasn’t been allowed to play dramatic roles like this, completely transforms in The Inspection. Amanda Pepin and Natalie Young are currently credited as makeup department heads for the film. Their work reconstructing Gabrielle’s skin to have uneven dark patches and large pores were impeccable. As one audience member during the premiere mentioned, it was reminiscent of when Mariah Carey transformed her look in the 2009 film Precious.
Bokeem Woodbine’s performance as the callous unit commander shouldn’t be ignored. While his character gives off a 2-dimensional vibe at the start, it turns out that Laws has a slight redemptive arc of his own. Laws’ unorthodox methods of discipline blur the lines between what is legal and what is ethical. The complexity of how Bratton has elected to write these characters is intriguing. Ellis, a wounded soul who is consistently bullied by his peers, unloved by his mother, and rejected by society, finds compassion for others who are also hurt. Whenever Ellis sees someone else being bullied, he comes to their aid.
He reaches out to help, and he offers a hug or a listening ear. As a man who knows what it’s like to be the target of scrutiny and hate from others, instead of internalizing that and projecting it outward, he chooses the opposite. Ellis wants to love, show solidarity, and let others know he has been there too. That is the beauty of Elegance Bratton’s storytelling of The Inspection. As a Black queer man, he wants others to know what it was like to have these experiences and to understand that they are not alone.
The Inspection is a film, in large part due to its strong writing, compelling performances, and strong direction, that offers hope to people everywhere that you and your journey matter too. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
The Inspection made its world premiere at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival.
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Jamie Broadnax is the creator of the online publication and multimedia space for Black women called Black Girl Nerds. Jamie has appeared on MSNBC's The Melissa Harris-Perry Show and The Grio's Top 100. Her Twitter personality has been recognized by Shonda Rhimes as one of her favorites to follow. She is a member of the Critics Choice Association and executive producer of the Black Girl Nerds Podcast.