Words: Shamika Sanders
Interview: Tarana Burke
You think you know Gabrielle Union, but you don’t. Yes, she is the beloved Hollywood actress with classic credits like Love & Basketball, Two Can Play That Game, Bring It On, Bad Boys 2 and Being Mary Jane on her IMDB, but underneath her youthful glow and sartorial style is a woman in a constant state of self-reflection. Union is as gutsy as they come.
The outspoken beauty and advocate for women’s rights joins season three of Apple TV+’s true crime drama Truth Be Told — a role unlike any we’ve seen her in before. As “uniquely qualified” as the actress-turned-author is to take on the part, she quickly learned it wasn’t exactly what she had signed up for. “The job shifted,” she explained during a candid conversation with friend and founder of the galvanizing “me too.” movement, Tarana Burke. I’m a proverbial fly on the wall as the equally accomplished women navigate topics that span the gamut of hair, mental health, trauma, marriage and motherhood with sisterly familiarity.
In Truth Be Told, Union submerges herself in Eva — a high school principal driven by her steadfast commitment to raising awareness around missing Black girls in her community. During filming, the charming screen queen experienced the 30-year anniversary of her own rape. She was confronted with suppressed feelings that seemed to rupture like aggravated blood vessels.
Union felt so raw in the final days on the set of the Octavia Spencer led-series, she’d run away “like she was chasing the ice cream truck,” as she joked at one point. Her behavior was so “prickly” at times, she felt it necessary to apologize to the crew. It begs the question of why anyone would ever subject themselves to re-living their trauma on a daily basis. But feeling a sense of responsibility to take on projects that make an impact, Union signed on to portray a character who resonated with her, and it uprooted the inner turmoils she had buried to survive.
Regardless, Gabrielle Union’s megawatt smile hasn’t dimmed. She arrives at Pier59 Studios promptly for our cover shoot. She’s tucked away in hair and makeup, but her presence is felt throughout the space. She emerges in a Richard Quinn headpiece, from his Summer 2022 ready-to-wear collection, and seemingly floats to her mark as her team primps and primes her first look, in motion. In between flashes, she pauses to make a simple request that stops the room. Can we change the music? If the Hollywood actress had a soundtrack to her life, it would consist of timeless ’70s jams. After all, she was born during the short-lived disco era.
At 50, Union has seemingly been reborn into an elevated version of herself. It was only a decade prior, she wore braids for the first time – a milestone in her life that marks the moment she said f*ck the white gaze and never looked back.
Today, Gabrielle Union is a proud mother, wife, friend and woman who has endured unimaginable struggles that have only made her stronger. She is tethered to the Black women in her tribe, who don’t see “protect Black women” as a mantra, but more of a law that must be upheld – women like Tarana Burke, who have experienced similar pain and are triumphant. Burke, whose bravery and vulnerability sparked a global initiative to uplift the voice of marginalized Black women and girls, has what Union calls “the range” to interview her about sexual violence against women in a capacity she felt wouldn’t result in a “fluff” cover story. She holds nothing back. Burke reciprocates her feelings in a way that is palpable. Their robust conversation is an hour-long peek into the highs and lows of Black womanhood; how we are conditioned from birth to believe white beauty is superior and the journey of unlearning it all.
Tarana Burke: Truth Be Told. The subject matter was heavy. Talk a little bit about why you took on the role and how you prepared for the role.
Gabrielle Union: After The Inspection tapped into darkness in me, I wasn’t prepared to confront it (in a healthy way), I was still reeling and unwinding from that. I was like, ‘I can’t do any more darkness, but I can coast through some comedies, so please let’s concentrate on comedies for 2022.’ My team was like, ‘I know you want to concentrate on comedies but we have this offer to do season three of Truth Be Told with Octavia. We know you guys are friends, but we just think this subject matter is something you might be interested in.’ Octavia must have hit me right after that, and we talked a bit. We have been trying to work together again for over 20 years. I trust her in a way that I don’t trust most people in this town in our industry, which is saying a lot. So if I was gonna do it, it would need to be with someone I trust, like Octavia.
I thought I was prepared. I was not. We covered sex trafficking in Atlanta on Being Mary Jane. And through those contacts, through that information, I was able to plug back in. Cause you know who doesn’t sleep? Sex traffickers. And they have altered their strategies in the seven, or eight years since we covered it on Being Mary Jane. So I needed to know what the victims were experiencing today. What grooming looked like and what straight-up kidnapping looked like. Grooming takes a while, and the sex trade waits for no one. I just had to dive into personal stories of girls and women who have gone on record and shared their truths. And each one moved me closer to Eva.
Tarana Burke: Do you mind if we talk about the toll this role took on you?
Gabrielle Union: Initially, I didn’t really look at it as a sacrifice, right? I looked at it as an opportunity to expand the conversation to try to be impactful. I’ve been talking about this for 30 years. Literally had the 30-year anniversary of my rape during the production of Truth Be Told. I’m 50. I felt like, I’m in a solid place to do this job. What I did not realize is, during my rape, I disassociated. I can clearly describe the feeling of being in the midst of watching, like hovering over myself looking down and watching it happen. And just being like, ‘I can’t believe this is happening to me.’ And I remember thinking, ‘I’ve done everything right. I’m a good girl. I’m a good student. I’m a good athlete; this isn’t supposed to happen to me.’ There was disbelief and the way I’ve always told it, is as soon as my rapist asked me to hand him his gun is when the me from hovering above me slammed back into the me in my body. And I’ve been free of disassociation since then.
After 30 years kind of living half a life, it’s time to claim my fullness and release who I was so I can embrace who I am and who I will be.
I realized during the production, it was like there was a distance from the me that was being raped and brutalized from the me telling the story. It protected me and allowed me to speak and try to be as impactful as I could to change the outcomes for people around the world. As they say, the body remembers. So we’re a couple of days into production, and my body was like, yeah… I was not ready. It was like every day my brain pulled the veil back a little and gave me new pieces of information that it had decided that I could not handle at the time.
And I would come home and I would cry every day. I’m not a crier – that is not my ministry. And I would be shaking and crying at the end. I would literally run off of set every day like I was trying to catch the ice cream man. But I had to get away. There were days it felt like this job is really trying to kill me. It felt like terror. It just stayed that way for five months straight, just straight-up terror in my chest. And then as I got more details, like the smell and what the skin on his penis felt like — it was like I had a snapshot and I just sort of described this snapshot for 30 years and through this work and through this job, I got the full picture. I’m not exaggerating to say that if I fully understood it all at 19, I would not be here.
I left there. My friends took me directly to Malibu and I get out of the car and I just hear drumming. There were these West African drummers and elders. I just broke the down. Most of my friends were there and they had watched me break for months. I did this rebirth ceremony. After 30 years kind of living half a life, it’s time to claim my fullness and release who I was so I can embrace who I am and who I will be.
Tarana Burke: How do you feel about the statement Protect Black Women? And who protects Black women?
Gabrielle Union: Other black women. And that’s by and large. That’s really it. And even amongst us as Black women across the diaspora, there are some of us who have internalized misogyny and white supremacy and all of the things that separate us.
Tarana Burke: That makes me think of another thing that you talked about, internalized oppression and misogyny. The way you talk about natural hair and wearing your natural hair – I think that it’s not talked about enough.
Gabrielle Union: It was Almost Christmas when I wanted my character to wear Senegalese twists. And I had not worn braids, twists, anything other than a wig or a weave, or my own relaxed hair up until that point. And there was a very brief debate, which was quite one-sided, and I was like, ‘I’m gonna wear it and we’re all gonna get over it.’ It was at that point when I’m having conversations about Black hair with Black people and specifically Black men – it was an a-ha moment — going back and thinking about why I chose different looks for different characters and whether it was really character based or a pick-me thing and trying to appeal to my narrow window of potential suitors.
And trying to draft fantasy through character, which didn’t really have a lot to do with the character. It had everything to do with me and how I felt about myself. I had a manager once that said, ‘Gab, she’s like pork the other white meat.’ I had a Black boyfriend in high school who said, ‘Dating you was like dating a white girl without the hassle.’ And I took that as a f*cking compliment. The low self-esteem and the white supremacy I had centered in my life. I was like, ‘I’ve arrived.’
When you look at my early career, I was positioned like, ‘I’m not gonna make you uncomfortable,’ ‘I’m a safe black. She’s one of the good ones.’ And when you get put in that position, that means you’re open for all the f*ck sh*t – that you’re not going to say anything about anything cause you’re one of the good ones and you’re just grateful for these scraps that we’re giving you. Once I put all the pieces together, I was like, ‘I’m not going back.’ I may wear rock different wigs depending on the character, but it’s going to be character-based, not my insecurity-making decisions. I didn’t get a lot of hair stuff about my characters. But this was the first time people really wanted to know. I literally never wore braids in my life.
Tarana Burke: That’s so wild. You know, in my mind I’m racing through characters. I guess not.
Gabrielle Union: I was like, what happens if I center myself and my Blackness in everything I do? Why was I never an option?
Tarana Burke: The last thing we have in common is style. You are ripping the runway lately. I mean, you do all the time. But these clothes are just really amazing and I keep watching. I am also seeing that hubby is doing his thing. Who has more clothes?
Gabrielle Union: It’s not even close. He has storage units full of things. I’m not a hoarder, I’m more of a minimalist.
Tarana Burke: What do you think is the primary factor that keeps your marriage going?
Gabrielle Union: More than anything, that’s my homie. We have so much fun sitting on the balcony. I thoroughly enjoy his company. Like as a friend. I also really wanna f*ck him.
Tarana Burke: How much of your coming into yourself has been a part of your journey into marriage; as part of connecting to your finding the love of your life and becoming a mother?
Gabrielle Union: Finding the love of my life was also wrapped in traumatic f*ckery. A whirlwind of f*ckery. And I cannot separate my personal evolution from that trauma. And part of it is just really reclaiming my soul. ‘Cause I had kind of tossed the baby out with the bath water, and I saw myself circling the drain and was like, wait, ‘I might need that.’ I saved myself and I had to decide how I wanna move on from here. And I made the decision differently than when I got divorced. I need someone to love me for me, whether I have this wig, this weave or my natural hair. I need to love me, all of me. And I need whoever else claims to love me, to love all of me and to see all of me and to know what that even looks like.
Tarana Burke: What did you and Dwyane Wade learn about each other’s love languages?
Gabrielle Union: It’s a process. I would say that our love language started off Spanish and French, and I was like, ‘Yo No Se.’ We just were not on the same page. And now, it’s like we’re both speaking English, but like he’s from Scotland. And I’m like, ‘I don’t even know what you’re talking about.’ It’s a process and we are still learning. We continue, individually, to unpack our childhoods and how that trauma influences our reactions and our wants and our needs, and how we move through the world. We’re constantly updating our language.
Tarana Burke: Talk a little bit about the lessons you’ve learned on your journey of self-discovery that have helped you with your family.
Gabrielle Union: I think my journey to self – I had to go back to childhood and examine how I was parented. So when I became a stepmom I was like, I don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing. They have a mom, she’s alive. I don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing, but like I’m here with them every day. Am I supposed to be a friend? I had to figure out how to be consistent and nurturing and compassionate and love for each of them. I knew that one size fits all was not gonna work.
Tarana Burke: I love you so much. I really do. Lord, I love you so much. This was great.
Gabrielle Union: I love you and thank you so much.
Watch Gabrielle Union in season three of Truth Be Told on Apple TV+. New episodes every Friday.
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