For Jeremy Pope, “The Inspection,” writer/director Elegance Bratton’s auto-fictional drama about a Black gay man entering a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” era Marine Corps to escape homelessness and earn respect from his homophobic mother, was itself “a job of service.”
That’s because Bratton, who based the narrative on his own experiences, was making an ambitious jump from documentary work with delicate material that required care at every stage of the production. “It felt like everyone was working to make sure that his first feature film as a Black man was going to be successful so that he could feel successful,” Pope said.
So far, it has been worth the effort: “The Inspection” was met with raves after its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September; in its first week in limited release this month, the A24 film has done solid business in a challenging theatrical market (it grossed $65.5k on just five screens ahead of its expansion over Thanksgiving).
Yet in the process of supporting Bratton’s career, Pope has also given his own quite a boost, and one that could help him sneak into the Best Actor race.
In a series of interviews with IndieWire, the 30-year-old Emmy, Grammy, and Tony nominee said that “The Inspection” answered a core question for him that applies to all his work. “I end up working with the playwrights and the producers, and directors again, asking them ‘Why? Why this story?'” he said. “And if you don’t have a strong enough ‘why,’ then how am I supposed to find and navigate my ‘why,’ if I don’t know it already?”
That may seem like a bold demand for a young actor making his leading role debut, but it’s an extension of Pope’s ongoing struggles to get this far. The actor has already been shaped by an adversity similar to the one his character Ellis French faces in the film.
His version of going to boot camp was moving to New York City at 17, much to the disappointment of his mother who wanted him to attend a four-year university. “I knew that I was not coming home unless I had something to prove,” he said. Attending a two-year acting conservatory instead, he was given unnerving advice by a lot of fellow gay Black peers, he said. “Hide that piece of yourself,” Pope recalled being told. “Don’t ever let the world know that because it will limit the jobs, it will limit the opportunities. Once you’re gay out loud, people can’t see you for other things.”
Pope had no plans to publicly come out — until he worked with eventual Oscar-winning “Moonlight” writer Tarell Alvin McCraney in 2013 on his play “Choir Boy,” a gay coming-of-age story. “I knew that the only way that I could tell it was to be truthful, and to be honest, and that people would smell the bullshit if I didn’t do so,” said Pope. “In centering myself with people that challenge me to do so, but ultimately accept me for who I am, and where I am on this journey of humanity, has given me so much courage and strength to stand in my truth.”
Pope came to NYC trying to prove an important point to himself. “I am worthy, and I am a creative and God has given me these talent to be used,” he said. But the move helped teach him another lesson: “I can stand in my Black and my queer [self], and I don’t have to hide that piece. That can be a part of my journey.”
Whenever the shoot felt draining — from the physical demands of military drills filmed in the sweltering deep South, to the emotional rollercoaster of his scenes with his mother (Gabrielle Union) — Pope kept his underlying goals in mind. “I had to think about the representation of what this film could mean and be for someone, and will be for someone,” said Pope. “Me and Elegance would go, ‘Well, God, we wish we had “The Inspection” or a version of it growing up.’”
In retrospect, Pope said, he appreciated the way his character’s decision to live out loud becomes infectious. “We see with French that, by him being his true, authentic self, he’s been able to heal his platoon, who are also going through their own things,” he said. “I think that’s a very specific and beautiful journey to witness.”
The film delivers a queer cinematic figure with no precedence in film history — a gay, Black protagonist in the military — and it allowed Bratton to work through the trauma with his mother, who tragically died shortly before production began. Pope sees the wider effect of “The Inspection” as “healing someone else on the other side, people coming to this theater and going, ‘Wow, I see myself, I feel myself,’ and knowing that it’s going to be OK,” he said. “That you don’t have to continue to pour [into] relationships that don’t serve you. And that you are more than enough. You have always been more than enough.”
“The Inspection” is out now in select theaters from A24.