(Photo by Arturo Holmes/Getty Images)
After delighting us for decades in films like Bring it On, Bad Boys II, and Think Like a Man, Gabrielle Union steps into the producer chair once again this year and finds herself lavished with praise in her most critically acclaimed performance to date. Union’s new film The Inspection, a debut effort by writer-director Elegance Bratton, is an incredible standout in a full and varied filmography that already has Oscar pundits buzzing. Bratton’s story of a young army recruit who leaves for boot camp as a way to escape a life on the street after his mother disowns him due to his sexuality is based on his own experiences. Ellis, played by Jeremy Pope, embodies the director in the semi-autobiographical role, and Union plays his dominating and, at times, cruel mother figure. During the course of the film, we follow Ellis’ journey from homeless recruit to Marine. With literally nowhere to go, Ellis spends most of the feature battling the ever-present danger of his situation in boot camp at the height of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
In a brutally adversarial role that recalls other complex and traumatic parent-child dynamics we have seen on screen, Union elevates the film with minimal screen time. Critics and festival audiences seem to agree, with a 86% Certified Fresh rating on the Tomatometer and stellar reviews, particularly for the work of Pope and Union. Justin Chang from the LA Times called Union’s turn, “[a] revelatory performance which distills half a lifetime’s worth of bitter disappointment into a few extraordinarily chilling scenes.”
As both a producer and star, Union struggled with COVID restrictions and tight timelines but still delivered the powerful narrative flawlessly. Union has always had a passion for storytelling, which is reflected in her eclectic taste in film. Here are some of her all-time favorite movies with one honorable mention.
Starting with Eddie Murphy, Boomerang. It is a tour de force of Black beauty and fashion and what it means to be Black in corporate America. It was done in the most beautifully, purposefully, epically Black, thoroughly Black, hilariously Black way. It’s iconic, and I mean, I literally watch it every time it comes on. One of my favorites. All five could literally be just my favorite Eddie Murphy movies.
I love the comedic duo — the top, to me, comedic duo ever. Eddie is doing Eddie, but Martin Lawrence playing a straight man, which we’ve never really seen up to that point, is my all-time favorite. One of my closest friends, Sanaa Lathan, has a small part in it. Bokeem Woodbine, who’s in The Inspection, is also in it. Literally, so many people that I grew up with, who I’m friends with now, are in this movie. It explores the harsh reality of finding your humanity in an inhumane system that continues to be inhumane, that several states are voting to keep slave labor, which is dark. But it’s an indictment of, certainly, the southern penal system that hasn’t changed since that time. But they do it in a touching, if you will, hilarious way.
Also, a shout-out to Rick James.
Rick James, Heavy D. There are so many people. RIP, of course. I mean, so many people who are no longer with us, like Bernie Mac. So yeah, that’s an all-time fave.
Talladega Nights. My second favorite comedic duo is John C. Reilly and Will Ferrell. This movie makes me laugh-cry, no matter how many times I see it. It’s one of those movies I watch every time it comes on, and it’s hilarious!
And I’ve never been to a NASCAR race. You don’t need to be interested in NASCAR, but it’s just f–king dumb, hilarious, pure escapist humor. And I think I saw it when I was filming on location, and I was kind of having this solitary experience in New Jersey, and I found a movie theater, and I went to the movies, I think, with the makeup artist from the movie. And we just laughed our asses off, and we sat and watched it again. This was back when I didn’t care about stealing ’cause I got a free movie in for her.
Do you have a favorite quote?
“I’m all hopped up on Mountain Dew.” That’s my favorite.
Waiting to Exhale (1995)
I saw it after my first-ish early-twenties breakup. The soundtrack alone got me through, but “You’re the motherf–cking bad influence” will forever be in my heart. It was in the same era of Left Eye torching Andre Rison’s home and his things and Miss Angela [Bassett] torching Michael Beach’s things. I don’t know — it’s a love letter to Black women and grown Black women.
And now, when I watch it as a seasoned grown Black woman, I appreciate it even more. I appreciate Miss Loretta’s character; I never really quite related to, in my twenties, but now I’m like, “Oh, I get it. I absolutely get it.” Every character is relatable, and all icons.
And then, of course, my all-time, all-time, all-time favorite movie that is on every list that I’ve ever given in life is Grease. Normally I’d give you Grease and Grease 2, but I had to really narrow it down for the top five. I’m just going to go with Grease. Oh, wow. It’s literally my favorite movie of all time. And recently, at a screening for Inspection, I met the director of Grease, who I would say was very happy to know was still with us.
Because he was talking to me about Inspection and his wife — I think — she mentioned that he directed Grease and that she knew how much of a fan I was. Like, my hotel and travel alias used to be Cha Cha DiGregorio, ‘The best dancer at Saint Bernadette’s with the worst reputation for many years’. But I changed it to Cha-Cha DiGregorio, which we thought she was saying until recently. I just got to lavish all of 40-plus years — s–t, yeah, close to 50-plus years — of praise on this man. Because I’ve been watching this movie multiple times a year since I was, what? Seven, eight. And I saw it in the theaters when we were visiting my cousins in Minneapolis one summer, if I’m not mistaken, or whenever we were visiting when this movie came out. But I definitely saw it in Minneapolis.
I adore it, too! Also, I do this quite a bit, and Grease 2 is a very popular pick. One person who likes it that may surprise you is Andrew Garfield. Huge Grease Fan!
Union: Oh, yeah? Well, there’s a crew like me. Eva Longoria, journalist Kelly Carter, and Jemele Hill. The Grease 2 love amongst women of color and people of color. Ira Madison III. There was a Grease 2 movement, which I thought I was like, me and my sister were the only ones. (laughs)
Little Darlings (1980)
As someone who fretted and read Judy Bloom since forever and thought an unusual amount about losing my virginity and what that may or may not be, Little Darlings was incredible. Kristy McNichol, first of all, was my all-time f–king fave. Years later, when I first moved to LA, I saw her at a gym, and I freaked out! Because Kristy McNichol is, to this day, is everything to me.
And it was Kristy McNichol and Tatum O’Neal. She got to be a teen, not like me working as a teen in my thirties. Both of them got to be teens. And it introduced me to one of my top crushes of that time, Matt Dillon.
(Photo by ©A24)
Jacqueline Coley for Rotten Tomatoes: Talk about your job both in front of and behind the camera as a star and producer.
Gabrielle Union: My first job as a producer was sliding into Jeremy’s DMs. After we sent him the script and they were like, “It seems like he’s interested,” I was like, “Well, let me do what I do.” And I slid into his DMs as a good producer does, and I said, “Yo, if you are truly serious about this, if you’re in, I’m in, and let’s make some magic together.”
Honestly, our hardest part happened after, during, and after. But yeah, we got all of our first choices, which, that’s never happened to me in my entire career. You make your list of everyone you want, and then you’re like, “Oh, okay, these first eight people pass.” And then now you’re like, “Well, so and so, maybe.” We got every top person that we wanted for this movie, which is wild.
I think some of the harder parts were Elegance lost his mom so quickly after we got the green light. And the grief of losing her was palpable, so as a human being, you want to be there for this boy who just wants his mother, you know what I mean? And wants his mother’s love and affection and validation, and that boy being Elegance, and then having to figure out how to be respectful and still get this movie done and remain true to the story. So that was more of a challenge.
And then we had major COVID battles once we started. So it just became a battle of schedules because we got almost all the way through, and it is Jackson, Mississippi, and the COVID rates. You’re working in a state that is the poorest in the union, and we’re not adhering to any precautions. No one else outside of our production was really adhering to that. There’s a whole pandemic happening. So that became our biggest challenge, and we had to shut down for months. And then trying to get everyone back together to finish was a big challenge.
(Photo by ©A24)
RT: This is a challenging performance for anyone, but as a mother, especially one who lives her life in such stark contrast to your character on screen, how hard was it to balance that with your reality at home?
Union: It’s just dark. It’s incredibly, incredibly dark because it’s what we deal with as a family. I wish the more recent public spectacle of it all wasn’t a public spectacle. Still, now people know what the hell we’ve been dealing with and why it was so important for me to have channeled the darkest recesses of my mind and soul to portray this kind of mother accurately and fully and not look for the bright side. Because there are not a lot of bright sides. You try to remain fair to your characters and not judge them, but the reality is there’s a depth of darkness that I’ve never had to mine before. I never was interested in mining. I didn’t think anyone was interested in seeing me mine that, because I didn’t know what was going to happen. Not to say I made fun of actors who were like, “I just had a hard time shaking it,” but I said, “Well, when they yell ‘cut,’ you shake it, right?” And then it was me, and they yelled, “cut,” and for weeks and months, I’m not okay. Not okay at all. And all I knew was I was like, “Please find me a comedy!”
In 2022, I only want to do comedy after that, because it just took me to a place I wasn’t ever interested in returning, and certainly not anytime soon. And it was the draw to these kinds of movies, thinking it’s going to lead to the kind of reaction we got — meaning critical reaction. Still, you want a human reaction, a regular people audience reaction, and you hope people see that perhaps they are the villain in someone’s story and take stock of that. But yeah, it just was very, very f–king dark.
(Photo by ©A24)
RT: Your co-star Jeremy Pope is incredible, especially in one of the most pivotal scenes in the film. How did you approach that day at the table, because it’s late in the story, and it is so crucial to how the film lands. It is all there, and if it doesn’t hit? That’s the film. Walk us through your work that day.
Union: Well, that day, we shot all day. We had a very limited amount of time, so we shot the graduation, the reception to the graduation, and the hallway scene all in one day. And we were racing against the light, so we didn’t have the luxury of time, so pretty much everything you saw was one or two takes. It was Jeremy and me literally staying. If we weren’t holding hands or being kind of snuggled up together physically, we wouldn’t have been able to deliver in the way we needed to. Because there’s all of us as human beings, there’s Jeremy and Gab, and then there’s Elegance and Chester. And then we all had to have similar experiences. And obviously, for Elegance, that particular part was true — wasn’t a lot of embellishment in that particular scene. And we all have to turn it all off to get it right quickly because we’re losing light, and we still have to shoot the hallway scene.
And that was a big “here’s what’s happening at our table” moment, and then there’s the whole crowd’s response to it. The rest of the Marines and background, they’re all there. So it was a challenge to get it and get it right quickly. And then to just stay in it all day because we just didn’t have the time to do much else.
In other productions, you hear people say, “You shoot that, and that would be your whole day.” We just didn’t have that luxury. So we literally held onto each other. When you see us on the press tour, and we’re literally still holding onto each other, we’re holding onto each other for a thousand different personal Gabrielle and Jeremy reasons, but where these characters take us, still to this day, and whether it’s being asked about or not. Because it’s personal. What it took to get us there is so personal, and it’s so dark. It’s the darkest pieces of our soul and some of our darkest experiences in life.
But we just had to get it right, stay in it, and not get out of it. Stay in it, stay in it, stay in it. Because we didn’t have rehearsal — you got to just be. And I don’t know what you call it; I don’t want to take away anything from our performance, but there was something bigger at play that used us, that came out in that moment that I had not practiced at home in the mirror, but whatever in my soul knew what needed to come out in that moment. So when I watched, it f–ked me up, to be honest. Because it’s like, “That lives inside of me somewhere, and I got to figure that out.”
The Inspection is playing in select theaters now.
Thumbnail images by: Everett Collection, ©Sony Pictures, ©20th Century Fox, ©Paramount Pictures