After nearly 30 years of working in Hollywood, Gabrielle Union is used to facing slings and arrows. Still, when she opens up Twitter and sees people attacking her trans daughter, Zaya Wade, it hits in a different way.
Or, as Union put it to me Thursday night on the after-party for “The Inspection,” which opened the Toronto International Film Festival: “You’ll be able to say whatever about me — normally, I’m going to come back with these fists, or I’m going to read you for filth. But when it’s your child, it’s a complete different ballgame.”
Because the loving parent of a trans teenager, Union and her husband, the previous N.B.A. player Dwyane Wade, have develop into outspoken role models for folks of L.G.B.T.Q. children. “Persons are listening to me,” Union said, “and I actually have a responsibility to try to achieve those parents if I can.” But in “The Inspection,” Union plays her total opposite: Inez, a flinty, chain-smoking prison guard whose homophobia is so deeply ingrained that she kicks her son out of the home at age 16 for being gay.
“None of our youngsters are disposable, but attempting to shove that down and convey Inez forward was the challenge of a lifetime,” Union said after the film’s premiere, adding, “That is a very powerful work I’ve ever done.”
The film, which is predicated on the writer-director Elegance Bratton’s own life story, follows Ellis (Jeremy Pope), who has spent years living on the streets of Latest York since his mother severed all ties with him. Eager to turn his life around, Ellis enlists within the Marines and faces a hellish boot camp made even worse by the homophobic hazing from his fellow recruits. Still, Ellis perseveres, hoping that if he makes it through, that triumph can begin to repair the rift with the mother he still deeply loves.
Union is best known for movies like “Bring It On” and “Bad Boys II,” and though she rarely plays roles just like the glammed-down, obstinate Inez, who’s so disgusted by her son that she puts newspaper down before allowing him to sit down on her couch, Bratton told me Union was at all times his first selection for the part.
“Within the Black community, she’s an icon,” Bratton said on the after-party. “I’ve at all times considered her because the Black Charlize Theron, and I’m like, ‘Where are the parts to justify how I feel about her?’”
Still, he confessed to an ulterior motive for casting her. Ever since Bratton was kicked out of his mother’s house as a young person, “an enormous a part of what’s driven me is the concept of being unavoidable to individuals who don’t need to see me.” With the cultural cachet Union carries, Bratton hopes her presence will make “The Inspection” unimaginable to disregard.
“Beyond her obvious talent, her beauty, and who she is as an activist and a superstar, she is a reputation that my mother would never have the ability to avoid,” he said. “Any person will come to her and say, ‘Hey, Gabrielle Union played you in a movie. And she’s going to see that movie, and I at all times hoped that when she saw it, it might change things between us.’”
Bratton’s mother died while he was putting the movie together, and as he watched Union channel her on set, things often got so emotional that Union would come to the monitor and luxury him after a scene.
“I say similar things to my very own child that I said to Elegance,” Union recalled. “I’m not his mom, but what I may be is a loving adult. So hopefully there was some healing in there.”
Did playing the character give Union insight into the individuals who attack her family on social media? Some, she said.
“For Inez, and for a variety of the people I do know, the commitment to the American dream — and the whole assimilation so as to be seen as worthy of upward mobility and opportunities — can literally drive you to desert your personal children,” Union said. “The lengths that folks will go, to seem worthy to individuals who wouldn’t spit on you for those who were on fire!”
The actress continued, “Anything outside of what a really wealthy cis-het white man with power tells you is appropriate or appropriate or reasonable, you’ll cut off your arm if that’s what they inform you to do: ‘You’ve got to speak this manner, you’ve got to walk this manner, you’ve got to be this manner! You’ve got to be straight and Christian! You’ll be able to’t have sex in some other position apart from the usual 6 o’clock with a really specific sort of person!’”
And the will to be seen as perfect within the eyes of the world isn’t value it, said Union, who mentioned LeBron James, her husband’s longtime friend and former teammate. “Everyone likes to carry him up for instance: Rose out of poverty, single mom and have become the most effective basketball player on the earth.” But even with all that power, Union noted, the front gate of his Los Angeles home was still vandalized with a racial slur on the day before he was speculated to take the court within the 2017 N.B.A. finals.
The lesson? “You’ll be able to comport yourself and shape-shift consistently, and it doesn’t matter,” Union said. “So be yourself, and don’t throw away your kids. You’re thinking that it’s going to get you additional? It doesn’t. All you’ve done is lose a chunk of you.”