Amid an awards season full of autobiographically inspired films, Elegance Bratton’s Gotham Award nominee The Inspection stands out due to sheer novelty. Let’s just say neither The Fabelmans nor Armageddon Time is depicting a Black, queer man striving for acceptance by enlisting in the Marines. Bratton has adapted his grueling bootcamp experience in the age of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell into another of A24’s quietly powerful character studies, a testament to the idea that the particular contains the universal.
As Bratton and his cast tell The A.V. Club, there’s an inherent—and unavoidable—power in that personal-to-public transformation. Jeremy Pope, who plays Bratton’s fictional stand-in Ellis French, says filmmaking can be “a shared healing process when you do the work.” Co-stars Raúl Castillo, Aaron Dominguez, and Eman Esfandi, who play fellow Marines, agree. And Gabrielle Union, who’s no stranger to therapy or entertainment but whose role as Ellis’ unforgiving mother Inez forced her to reconcile the two—delivering a deglamorized and intolerant side that audiences have never seen from her—likens the process to creating scars and scabs.
The A.V. Club: What, to each of you, is the relationship between telling your stories and processing trauma? Or put another way, how much is art therapeutic?
Elegance Bratton: Well, I guess I’ll start, because I need the therapy! Honestly, I came to filmmaking by way of a happy accident. I was kicked out of my house at 16, I spent 10 years of my life homeless. And I discovered filmmaking as a U.S. Marine. So this is my outlet, this is my poetry, this is my journal, this is what I work on. But at the end of the day, it’s not just about my own personal therapy. It’s about that sharing, right? It’s about saying to people, anybody who’s ever felt disregarded, anybody who’s ever felt oppressed, to watch a movie like The Inspection. You know by the end of that film, you’re going to find your power, right? So it’s not just about the kind of recollection of trauma for me, but it’s about the transformation into power, into joy, into purpose. That’s really what this film is all about.
Gabrielle Union: Hurt people hurt people. And I think that there are a lot of artists who have not worked through their hurt. And their art can be just other forms of torture and abuse. And some hurt artists, through the work, move from “hurt people hurt people” to “healed people can help impact the healing of others.” And I think in this piece, you see the transition, through the characters and through the work. I know—I could speak for myself, but I’d like to think I’m speaking for everybody here—I dove right back into therapy as soon as this wrapped. Like, I was like twice a week, two hours a pop!
EB: I couldn’t afford therapy. But luckily, I got to edit the movie for a year. [Laughs]
GU: Things come up. But it is also our responsibility as artists to not just leave the hurt and abuse. As artists, we have to constantly be working on healing and creating some scabs. There’s going to be scars, you know, that scab might open up. But it is our responsibility—we’re grown, we’re not children—to leave the abuse on the table and still call it art. There is a responsibility, I think—“Can I get some Bactine? A first aid kit?”—to move in the direction of healing, at least personally.
Jeremy Pope: Yes and amen! I think for my personal experience—she’s talking about “hurt people hurt people”—I came into my art, I moved to New York City, at 17. My parents were very frustrated with the idea of me being an artist. They were afraid of me being rejected because they didn’t know what that meant, what [it means for] an artist to be in New York and being creative. But I’ve been able to work with great individuals—Tarell McCraney, Elegance—who have taught me that my Blackness and my queerness is enough. So in me being an artist and that pursuit of chasing the art and using my God-given gifts, I’ve been able to find my own healing. So in this space, in The Inspection, because of the healing work I had done prior and because I am an out, queer individual, I was able to make space and room for [Bratton] to heal. And in that process, I was then able to heal. So I think there’s just a shared healing process when you do the work. Gab is about that life in real life. So she’s doing the work, she’s doing the healing. You know what I mean? It’s dirty, it’s messy, it’s painful. But because she’s doing that, she’s then able to dig deep and find those tools to tell a character that is not like her. And that can be the gift and that can be the beauty of paying attention to that healing process.
Aaron Dominguez: Yeah, I think I love the mirroring that takes place. I think that oftentimes for me, the art form that I’ve chosen to take up is the one that deals with expression; our body, our voice, is the instrument. So oftentimes, depending on the project or on the character that you’re working on, you can always bring those things to the forefront. I think art and especially within acting, it challenges you to do so. Because once again, we’re just mirroring ourselves oftentimes and within the [characters] that we play. So for me, it’s very therapeutic. And it could go either way, it’s a yin and yang to life: Maybe sometimes I am forced to now go through something that I’ve had on the backburner that I haven’t dealt with, and then maybe a character takes me there. Or sometimes having already gone through something, then you can use that as a tool to enhance the performance or whatever it is that you need to do to get there.
Raúl Castillo: I’m first generation and my family is from northern Mexico. And no one in my family did any kind of art, theater, certainly not. No one acted. And I started doing theater in high school and I think part of why I fell in love with telling stories was because I learned about the world. I learned about human beings and learned about myself. It’s also what I love about cinema. You know, I come from a family that didn’t necessarily know how to process certain traumas. So I think theater and film has taught me a lot about the world, a lot about the human condition. I think the best kind of art has that. And that’s why I’ve never stopped acting. I mean, I’m doing a play right now at New York Theater Workshop downtown in New York City, and I’m playing a father in it, to a young queer boy. And there’s not a night that goes by that I don’t think of my own father. He kind of comes to me every night. So, yeah, I think there’s a way of understanding the human condition through that, which has been a real blessing to me.
Eman Esfandi: I agree with everything they said. I have found that I’ve been very fortunate in that I haven’t been acting for too long and every role I’ve had or been gifted is reflective of an unprocessed trauma. And it wasn’t conscious at first, it was something I didn’t realize. And then once I was in it for a few years, you know, I’d get a play from my acting instructor and be like, Oh, man, I know what this is for. I know why I’m feeling like this about that experience or whatnot. And then it became very evident from then on that most of the roles I’m playing are some sort of healing. That’s now the way I move forward: it’s now not only healing, but sometimes it can be empowerment or wanting to own a part of yourself that you’ve never gotten to. But initially it was very much therapy. I also didn’t do therapy until I was much older, until a couple of years ago. So unconsciously, I was gravitating towards this catharsis in characters and in films without knowing that it was such a release for trauma or unprocessed stuff.
AVC: I love the idea of the universe, or just Hollywood casting directors, know that you have stuff to process. Maybe they’re secretly amateur therapists?
AD: Just right off the bat, they’re like, “Oh, this guy looks like he needs this.”
EE: Yeah! That’s so funny.
AVC: Gabrielle, you’ve expressed how uncomfortable it was to connect with your character Inez’s refusal to see or accept her son’s sexual orientation. Can you talk about that tension, whether your process with Elegance was about harnessing that discomfort? I’m so intrigued by your idea of an emotional or psychological scab.
GU: I think in the process, there has to be some safety, right? In the process of figuring out your way in. Because that’s dark. Because when I was starting to excavate—“Okay, who is Inez? And then who am I as an artist?”—I realize I’ve been judging my characters and acting out that judgment on screen. Versus, “Okay, what is the common ground? Where is this person’s humanity?” And then working backwards. I realized a lot of the things that I was doing in the work, I don’t actually practice in real life. I’m trying to meet Inez in the middle, like, “Okay, girl, where do we meet? Where do we have common ground?” Right? And that is the fact that we are both willing to give away all of the most precious things to us. To try to be seen as worthy, good, worthy of opportunity, worthy of all of life’s riches, whatever that means to each of us.
But I realized I’ve lost so much. I’ve lost so much. And I’ll never get it back. I can get something different, but I’ll never get that back, all of those things I was willing to barter with. And it was incredibly difficult to come back from that common ground. Today I was going through Twitter, and somebody was like, “I don’t want to find common ground with a racist!” And I was like, word. [Miming tweeting] Like. But then I was like, wait, is that kind of the same? And I realized if I have to find common ground with people I would normally loathe, to help heal families, including my own, I’ll do it. Because my kid’s heart, all the kids’ hearts, big kids, little kids, they’re worth it. And I can be uncomfortable, annoyed, enraged. But if I can help you turn that corner and allow you to love your child completely and without condition, I’ll do it. And I wouldn’t have said that a year ago.