“The Inspection” Star Jeremy Pope on Bringing Black and Queer Stories to the WorldCinema
The American entertainment company A24 is known for stories dealing with diversity and discrimination, with works like Moonlight and Everything, Everywhere, All at Once. The firm’s 2022 release, The Inspection, tells the story of a young man rejected by his mother for being gay. After spending 10 years on the streets, he resolves to join the Marines, where his powerful convictions help him endure discrimination and violence. Director and scriptwriter Elegance Bratton based the story on his own life.
Jeremy Pope, who plays Ellis French in the film, is open about calling on his own experiences growing up as a Black, queer man for the role. He says, “I wish there had been a movie like this when I was a child, with a story where someone who like me approached life directly and powerfully.”
A Vessel for the Director’s Own Story
Pope has garnered praise for his work regardless of media, whether on the big or small screen or the stage. He also has experience playing roles based on real life, as in his 2021 appearance in One Night in Miami . . . playing singer Jackie Wilson, or as the artist Jean-Michel Basquiat in both the stage play and upcoming film version of The Collaboration.
While The Inspection is based loosely on the life of its director, Elegance Bratton, the character Ellis French is not an actual person. This makes it a little different from Pope’s past work portraying real people. As to the impact of this on his craft, Pope says, “I don’t really change my approach to performance. I find out as much as I can about someone, no matter who it is, but I’m not just trying to express their character. I want to get close to their heart and soul.”
He explains that expressing personality might help audiences feel closer to a character, but for performers, it’s about the heart. “I think we need to feel their truth. What did they fear, what did they want?” For someone like Basquiat, who is no longer living, that means looking for answers on his own. But in telling the director’s own story this time, Pope says having the person right there to answer detailed questions was a help.
Bratton and Pope share some life experiences, but there were also plenty of differences. Pope says that the short filming schedule of only 18 days left him little time to worry about those.
“We’re both Black men living in America, so that alone has given us plenty of difficulties. I’ve also experienced rejection for being queer, and while I wouldn’t say we bonded over our shared trauma, I do think that we shared a lack of support and love from our families and communities that instilled us with strength and perseverance. At the same time. I’ve never been to boot camp or joined the military. I’ve never even considered it, so that was a new feeling for me. That’s why I had to dig deep into why French would want to do that.”
French goes through physical and emotional abuse at the hands of his drill instructors, and when he is outed to the other cadets, he becomes the target of brutal hazing from his fellows, as well. Throughout the ordeal, French remains largely silent about his own thoughts. Pope says that in playing a role with so few lines, he actively worked to listen to the voices of those around him.
“The reason is that French is observing this new environment. Who’s safe, who isn’t, what are people talking about? Do I seem effeminate, or do I come across as masculine? He’s thinking about all of that and trying to blend in at the same time. I think one of the most interesting points of this piece is how French never tries to put his experiences and feelings into words more than absolutely necessary.”
Sharing Black, Queer Voices
Pope insists that he did not play the role of French and carry the story on his own. It felt like a deep collaboration with director Bratton.
“Elegance was always right there with me. He told the story himself, showing his vulnerability, and that made me comfortable enough to expose my own weakness and share things I had been too scared to talk about before. It healed me. This film helped me find release and know my own strength, beauty, and courage.”
In the film, French is deeply wounded by his surroundings, but Pope says that he himself was able to perform in a safe environment through the support of his costars. Although this role represents a large community, one he himself is a member of, he did not feel any pressure from that. Instead, he says, “It is an honor to play a black man who is both powerful and feminine.”
He goes on: “I believe that art reaches the people who need it. This film might not be aimed at homophobic people, but I’m sure it can change the views of those who happen to encounter it. That’s because it tells the story of people who persevere through hardship, and shows them that life has meaning, that everyone has value, and that we all have the right to richness, glory, and our dreams. There are scenes that are hard to watch. But for people on the margins of society, whether they’re Black or queer, that’s reality. This film is the story of one man, and about the human experience. I can only hope that it reaches the people who need it, including those who aren’t queer.”
Issues of Racism and Representation in Hollywood Today
Hollywood has been actively working to be more inclusive of people with diverse identities, including gender and race. Beyond A24, major studios have begun trying to ensure cast and crew diversity, as well as emphasizing stories portraying minorities. Some say there is a move toward better employment conditions, as well.
Pope, when discussing the industry today, says, “We’re in a time where so many people are willing to stand on the front lines. I’ve been blessed in the costars and directors I’ve worked with so far.” Apart from Bratton, costar Gabrielle Union, who portrays French’s mother, is a vocal ally of the queer community and founder of a hair care brand for people of color. Ryan Murphy, the creator of Pope’s Netflix series Hollywood, also continues to tell minority stories.
“Their work is so powerful,” Pope says of these comrades. “It can be scary because there’s often criticism, and no one knows how it will be received, but it is such important work. I want to use my position, too, as an artist to speak out not only for myself, but for the future, and for those who came before me and paved the way. I don’t want the industry to feel satisfied, because there’s still so much work to do. We’re still only part way to the empowerment of women, and the same is true for the queer community and people of color. I’m grateful for the attention on minority issues, but this isn’t something that’s one and done. I think it’s work that needs to go on into the future.”
Filming on The Inspection finished two years ago. Pope is now sharing his gratitude to A24 and distributors for the film’s worldwide screening, including here in Japan.
“I’m just so happy that everyone is watching. My situation now might be different from what it was during filming, but I’m glad the movie is still reaching new audiences. Of course, our being able to appear in this film and then that film going on screens around the world couldn’t have happened without someone giving it a chance and financial support. I pray that other work and other people get that same support in the future.”
(Originally published in Japanese. Interview and text by Inagaki Takatoshi. Banner photo: Main character Ellis French in The Inspection, played by Jeremy Pope. © 2022 Oorah Productions LLC.)