Derrick B. Harden is a true renaissance man, motivated by his will to help spread artistic expression in the community. As a rapper, art curator, actor and filmmaker he has worked with Wu-Tang Clan, the Hole gallery, Dame Dash’s Poppington Gallery, HBO’s show Betty and the Harold Hunter Foundation, to name a few. Just this year Derrick self-released Super Thot Trilogy, albums for those that love underground hip hop. Derrick’s stories of growing up in Brownsville, Brooklyn, have sparked much interest in the film world. He is currently in development on a television project with a major network with co-creator Crystal Moselle. He is also writing a film project about forgiveness that focuses on his childhood growing up in Brownsville in the late ’80s and early ’90s. From his early days in high school playing the role of Rabbi in Fiddler on the Roof, to his time touring with rap acts such as Damien Marley, Cormega and Mr. Cheeks of the Lost Boyz, Derrick continues to lead with his creative eye and integrating his network and love for hip-hop and the urban community.
“Pain is a weakness in the body – let me see your warrior face.” These quotes feel like my childhood, wrapped up in a few words.
There is a piece of every man in Elegance Bratton’s The Inspection. It’s important for all to see. From the angry white boy, to the hood homosexual, to the quiet Muslim. On paper, they may seem like types, but the nuances bring the characters to life and create a vulnerability that is unmatched. This brotherhood between men is important for us to take a look at, because the idea of the brotherhood is under attack. We must create stories in every art form showing communities thriving, so that we can visually see a representation of how we would like to be and then lead by example. The Inspection does this and it inspired the hell out of me.
I personally think the ingredients of a good film are place, people and togetherness. Trenton, New Jersey, is a tale on its own. It’s hard. It’s different. It’s on the edge of poverty and working class culture. I am from Brownsville, Brooklyn, myself, and the two places share many similarities. They’re both communities that have been redlined, where there’s a lack of education, lack of government support and lack of social identity as Black people. Imagine having to solve all those problems daily. My deceased father was a lifetime heroin addict, and The Inspection brought me back to the everyday struggle to get on page one with a dysfunctional parent. Because of the social setup we inherited from the roots of slavery in America and its social construct, Black teenagers are often faced with adult decisions. As I did, living on my own at age 16, and as did the director, Elegance Bratton, in this true tale of his life.
The Inspection isn’t just an idea, it’s somebody’s will and testament to survive. We follow French (brilliantly played by Jeremy Pope), who represents the director’s younger self, as he goes on a journey of getting comfortable with himself and giving love and community a shot! The lessons French learns are ones I myself am currently learning in therapy: don’t pay attention to the outside world, accept one’s true self, surrender and become vulnerable. These threads run through the stories of all the characters in the film. Once French joins the Marines, we are given a firsthand account of what it’s like to be inside the veins of Marine bootcamp. We are immersed as participants, not as viewers, in this realistic world of training. You feel out of breath as French and the other recruits fight through the most difficult competitive training imaginable. French’s relentless endurance seems to be fueled by the secret that he is gay, and because this is 2005, it’s pertinent for his own survival that he tells no one. A simple setup that keeps the tension high.
One of the strengths of The Inspection is that French is not the only compelling character. We are introduced to an ensemble of men who all have their own story. Every version of male identity is here for us to unpack and examine. What I really loved was that Bratton subtly reminds us that nobody and everybody is the bad guy, including ourselves. Whether to ourselves or to others. Everything is a lesson and we have to let go of our expectations, letting the world take us along.
The mother-son relationship in The Inspection is a spot-on depiction of the dynamic in most Black American households regarding homosexuality. French yearns for the love of his mother. You can tell she is charmed by her son, but has a deep ingrained intolerance for his queerness. Will the Marines beat it out of him? What we soon realize is the true arc of this film is him realizing who really has his back.
The name “Elegance” is beyond fitting for the way this story is told. The performances are excellent, including Bokeem Woodbine, who plays the sergeant, a perfect example of tough love but nonetheless love indeed. And Eman Esfandi as Ismail, the coy Muslim man living in a time when Islamophobia was just as prevalent as homophobia. As we uncover each of their own unique “isms,” we can take a look at our own issues and the way we interact with the community around us.
I attended an afterparty for the Gotham Awards, where Elegance was nominated for the Breakthrough Director Award. I was introduced to him, a tall, good-looking Black man in an incredible outfit that resembled Hollywood glamour meets Army camouflage gear. I gave him a big hug and told him I cried watching his movie and how it gave me ammunition to exist as a Black man in America today. We exchanged anecdotes, trying to see who could make the other laugh harder. I saw in him a very warm, kind-hearted person who did not let the glamour of the situation get in the way of connection. We were just two Black men sharing a moment.
I couldn’t recommend The Inspection more highly. It will inspire anybody on their path to greatness, to become anything they want, whether it be a gangster or a baker.