It is a particularly cruel irony that weeks ahead of the press day for The Inspection – the debut feature film from writer-director Elegance Bratton, which follows a young, gay, Black man rejected by his mother – its co-star Gabrielle Union should face such a similarly violent denial of her stepdaughter Zaya Wade’s identity.
For many parents of LGBTQIA+ children, the self-reflection, care and learning that goes into navigating their child’s identity is a personal and continuous process. For parents in the realm of celebrity, this intimate space inevitably becomes a charged public arena, with questions of well-being and responsibility subsumed to the cruel spectacle of debate and so-called opinion.
This has certainly been the case for Union and her husband, former pro basketball player Dwayne Wade, who have been unwavering in their public support of 15-year-old Zaya, who came out as trans in 2019. Theirs is the kind of determined solidarity that’s all the more notable because of Union’s and Wade’s roles as public figures.
In Bratton’s The Inspection, Union plays Inez, the homophobic mother of Ellis French (Jeremy Pope), here acting as the audience surrogate for the director himself, who, after being kicked out of his family home at 16 for being gay, became homeless for nearly a decade before enlisting in the Marine Corps.
Union’s performance is sharp and potent – not just as a part of Bratton’s story, but that it stands in such stark contrast to the actress’s real-life advocacy. It’s the type of contextual impact that only intensifies the stakes in a film such as Bratton’s, a sentiment that has been clearly spoken to by both its maker and stars during press for the film.
Ahead of The Inspection’s theatrical release on Dec. 2, The Globe and Mail spoke with Union about the power of Bratton’s story and the impact she hopes that her performance can have on audiences.
Elegance seems so grounded and genuine in his work and outlook. What was it like working alongside him?
He’s such a lovely, gentle being and man. Getting to share space with him and [his partner] Chester says it all in regard to who he is as a person. It’s one thing to talk about someone being loving, but to see it in action is something else. It’s the care that he takes with everything, especially language. Certainly, with the earlier life that Elegance has had, he understands the power and importance of words, especially for people who have been cast off or rejected.
Can you talk about the nuance needed to play a character who is not only someone very close to this film’s maker, but also no longer with us?
His mom passed four days after we were given the green light so we weren’t sure if Elegance would even want to continue exploring this story, especially without his mom around to see it. But he did the work of healing and processing. And the way he held space for that healing – not just for himself but for all of us who are healing from unspoken trauma at all times – was remarkable. The love had to be there. It had to be in my performance and it had to be present at all times when we were together on set. Otherwise, it could very easily slip into a darkness where hope couldn’t survive. This story is about finding hope and finding what you seek from others within yourself, and we couldn’t offer that without a very demonstrative love.
A lot of parents [with queer and/or trans children] are searching for answers and we don’t have a clue, myself included. That search is rooted in love but oftentimes where and what it can lead to – [parents who don’t accept their children for who they are] – rarely feels very loving. I think it’s important to ask them: Are you moving from a space of love? Is your intention a loving one? Because it’s not landing that way.
They would all say they want the best for their child, they love their child, they want to protect their child, and they want to save their child, but they don’t realize that to deny your child’s identity is to deny their humanity. And nothing about love should ever feel inhumane. That all exists alongside love and to deny that would be to deny the reality of the relationship between Elegance and his mother.
There is an intensity – oftentimes a cruelty – to your character, that is obviously counter to your own experience of parenting.
I feel like it’s going to be a while before I completely come out of that darkness. How I figured out my way into Inez was to realize that we both shared a kind of darkness in trying so hard to be considered good or worthy. It’s a constant shape-shifting to meet the ideals of our oppressors – people who wouldn’t take the time to spit in our direction if we were on fire. [For parents like Inez], there’s this commitment to respectability politics to the point that they will gamble with their own child – they will put their own child out – in order to be thought of as good, worthy and deserving.
While I’ve never bartered with my children, I’ve bartered with my soul many times. I will never get that back. And facing that reality is tough and complex and dark. It makes me realize how I want to move through the world for the next 50 or 60 years absent of that. And do better as best I can.
What I hope [parents like Inez] take away from my performance is the ability to see themselves in her. That’s an uncomfortable feeling, but it comes with the knowledge that you can change course at any moment. Just because you’ve committed to one way of thinking or doing things doesn’t mean you don’t have the capacity to change. You can change now. You can believe that your children aren’t disposable, that they are worthy of unconditional love and celebration, and that they are the greatest gift you’re able to offer as a parent.
The Inspection opens in select theatres Dec. 2.
Special to The Globe and Mail