‘Don’t be that ‘happy Negro’ in white spaces’

“I started my career being the Black friend in a bunch of teen movies,” says Gabrielle Union, “and it’s assumed that I had to do these white-centred films to be worthy for hire.” 

In her early years, Union carved out her niche as the bitchy hot girl in high-school movies starring white women – though she didn’t have much choice on roles back then.

“When you’re at that point in your career as a struggling actor,” she says, “you do become a ‘pick me’ girl to pay your bills.”

She was a glorified extra in Save The Last Dance, and Chastity, the best friend-cum-traitor in 10 Things I Hate About You. But it was Bring It On that made her a star. She played Isis, the lead dancer in a rival cheer squad from an all-Black inner-city school.

Union was quick-witted and assertive as Isis, but she’s since expressed regret at how she “muzzled” the character in an attempt to make her “the appropriate kind of Black girl”. 

So when she returned to acting after a break, and took on lead roles in predominantly Black films like Two Can Play That Game, she was nervous about how Black audiences might view her.

Would they look at Chastity and Isis and say she had sold out – that she had rejected her Blackness for money, recognition and social standing in white society? She needn’t have worried. They welcomed her with open arms.

“They were like, ‘We’ve been here all along,’” she says. “If you show respect, and support causes that impact the community, they’ll always be there… Why would I search for [white] validation from people who wouldn’t spit in my direction if I was on fire? Why would I base my whole life’s work on that?”

Union says all this with a smile. Even apologetically seated, trying to keep warm on this relatively mild London day – “It’s usually colder than this?!” she asks – she’s an animated presence, intense and forthright when it’s needed. She’d be deeply intimidating if she weren’t so personable. 

The past few weeks of her life have been hectic. Union travelled across the African continent and brought in her 50th birthday in Zanzibar (she also looks like she’s drunk from the fountain of youth, by the way, but more on that later), then travelled back to LA for the premiere of her new film Strange World.

Now, two days later, she’s shivering in London to promote it. She’d thought of skipping LA and flying straight to London, but “it was Kaav’s birthday at the same time as the premiere, so we wanted to celebrate that at home in LA”.

ALL ABOARD -- Walt Disney Animation Studios' original action-adventure 'Strange World' journeys deep into an uncharted and treacherous land where fantastical creatures await the legendary Clades, a family of explorers whose differences threaten to topple their latest and by far most crucial mission. The film features the voices of (clockwise from top left) Lucy Liu as Callisto Mal, the leader of Avalonia; Jake Gyllenhaal as farmer and father Searcher Clade; Dennis Quaid as diehard explorer and Searcher's father, Jaegar Clade; Gabrielle Union as pilot and mother Meridian Clade; and Jaboukie Young-White as the youngest Clade, Meridian and Searcher's son, Ethan. 'Strange World' releases November 23, 2022. ? 2022 Disney. All Rights Reserved. Strange World Film still Disney Image from https://dam.gettyimages.com/thewaltdisneystudios/uk-mediakits
Gabrielle Union voices Meridian Clade (front middle) in Disney’s Strange World (Photo: Disney)

“Kaav” is her four-year-old daughter Kaavia Union-Wade, whom she shares with her partner, retired NBA star Dwyane Wade (she is also step-mother to his two eldest children, Zaire and Zaya).

Kaavia has 1.2 million Instagram followers – or internet aunts and uncles – who have followed her young life since she was born. A-listers usually shroud their kids in secrecy to avoid rampant invasiveness, but Union has chosen openness. Maybe it’s because Kaavia was the result of years of fertility struggles, which she talks about candidly (Kaavia was conceived via surrogacy). 

Taking on her role in Strange World was in part inspired by motherhood. In the wacky adventure film, which follows a family of explorers as they try and track down the rare resources that can save the world, she plays Meridian Clade, the mother of the film’s teen hero Ethan.

While the film covers generational strife, trauma and environmentalism, what’s making headlines is that Ethan (Jaboukie Young White) is the first out gay teen character in an animated film. And it’s not just that: his sexuality isn’t a storyline – there’s no coming out, no tears, no trauma. He fancies his classmate but it’s treated just like any teenage infatuation. 

Union wanted to play a parent who “loved out loud” just as she does. Her 14-year-old step-daughter Zaya is trans, so “it appealed to me”, she says, “because I’m playing a demonstratively loving mother to an LGBTQIA+ child”.

Besides, in other bankable films she’s starred in, like Bad Boys II and Think Like A Man, “I’m either shooting someone or naked with someone, so this makes a change. It’s been nice to be in a film that Kaav can engage in.”

At the same time she was voicing Strange World, Union was filming The Inspection, in which she plays a homophobic parent to a child who is closeted in order to be in the military. “It’s a very dark and emotionally challenging role, and [my character] certainly wasn’t a good parent.”

Strange World helped to offset the gruelling task of playing a mother who was against everything that Union represents, but it’s not by accident that she took on a role that showed the spectrum of intolerance. Firstly, she’s an actor.

“On occasion, you get projects that feed your soul and sometimes the activist in me gets fulfilled as well,” she says. “It’s also not a hard sell when it comes to casting, because they know [what I stand for] in real life.” 

Being a vocal trans ally might be difficult at a time when trans rights are being increasingly “debated”. But it’s not in Union’s nature to shy away from injustice. “I usually occupy a space of militance,” she says.

“With some people, there’s no changing their minds, so you may as well know what you want to say and how you want to say it.” It’s important, she says, “to tell the truth, in interviews, on social media…”

Her interviews are forthright; clips of her often go viral – simple and clear vignettes on the importance of supporting equality, and appreciating where Black people – Black women – have come from.

It was Bring It On that made Union a star (Photo: IMDB)

Black creators in positions of power in Hollywood are a small but growing minority, and in order to escalate this number, Union pays her power forward to up-and-coming talents.

“We have to empower people. Don’t be that ‘happy Negro’ who is just happy to be in white spaces, who is just happy to be invited to the party,” she says. She emphatically cites the people who empowered her as a young struggling actor: “Tichina Arnold, Jennifer Lewis, Regina Hall, MC Light, Queen Latifah, Angie Martinez, Tisha Campbell-Martin”.

Campbell-Martin, in fact, paid for 10 sessions of therapy for Union when she couldn’t afford it. “She wasn’t interested in watching me crumble. She kept an eye on me to make sure I wasn’t falling in life.” 

After a 25 year-long career, Union now finds herself in their position. She owns a production company, I’ll Have Another, whose ethos is “for us by us”, which seeks to tell stories of marginalised communities by the people who have actually experienced marginalisation. (“Really?!” she laughs, when I note that the antebellum slave epic The Color Purple was directed by the white Stephen Spielberg).  

She’s particularly impressed by Insecure creator Issa Rae, who founded Hoorae Productions and who Union says has created an empire emboldening Black creators at all stages in their career. “There is no sport without Black folks, there is no entertainment, no industry… there has to be solidarity because we have the numbers and we can make change if we stick together.” 

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Before they travelled to Africa for that extended birthday trip, Union’s family all did their ancestry test. “D is basically all Yoruba, all Nigerian, not even little pieces of anywhere else,” she laughs. It put them on good footing as they travelled the continent, from South Africa to Tanzania, but it was her family’s experience in Ghana that proved life-changing. 

First they received Ghanian names (“Sarfoa for me and Kwesi for D”), before they headed to Last Bath, where slaves bathed before being taken into slave ships.

“We had a chance to physically get into the river and say our prayers and call to our ancestors… a few years ago they had done a ceremony so that I could have my child, and they did a similar ceremony for my husband and I this time round.” 

She can’t quite articulate what happened next (“magic seems too simplistic”), but she tries anyway, “We were all separate from each other and in the distance I see D with his arms outstretched as one of the chiefs pours water on him… next thing I know he lets out a scream. Some people are crying, some are silently weeping, some are anguished. It’s a boiling day, and as we walk out of the water, the skies open up and it’s a torrential downpour out of the blue.” 

Whatever happened only strengthened her resolve to centre her life and work on the causes she believes in. She’s acutely aware of the legacy she wants to leave behind for her kids, and in that river in Last Bath, “I felt like I was being fortified and forged in the fires of my ancestors”, she says. 

“I’d never been more clear. My soul has never felt cleaner or lighter. It’s my superhero origin story. If you thought I was a troublemaker before, you have no f***ing idea what’s coming.”

Strange World is out in cinemas on Thursday 24 November

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