The Birth of a Nation - starring Nate Parker and co-starring actors Armie Hammer, Jackie Earle Haley, Aja Naomi King, and of course, Gabrielle Union - premieres as a film entry in the 2016 Sundance Film Festival. It is met with a standing ovation and walked away from the competition with the highest distribution deal in Sundance history. Fast forward several months later to August, another kind of controversy saw the light of day as media attention surrounding the film grew in ferocity. The scrutiny widened to reflect onto Parker's 1999 rape case where he had been accused of raping a woman.
As a star of the film, actress Gabrielle Union took the allegations especially personal, having been a survivor of rape herself. Union did what she did best, and sought to use her platform as a means to continue the conversation of sexual violence and the importance of teaching our youth the definition of consent in a finely crafted op-ed for The Los Angeles Times where she shared her thoughts on the ordeal:
"As important and ground-breaking as this film is, I cannot take these allegations lightly. On that night, 17-odd years ago, did Nate have his date's consent? It's very possible he thought he did. Yet by his own admission he did not have verbal affirmation; and even if she never said 'no,' silence certainly does not equal 'yes.' Although it's often difficult to read and understand body language, the fact that some individuals interpret the absence of a 'no' as a 'yes' is problematic at least, criminal at worst."
It wasn't surprising to me that Union took such a bold approach in giving her stance on the matter. I have known she was a rape survivor for almost as long as I've known her work, admittedly since she was that too-cool-for-school, almond-eyed, cocoa butter-skinned beauty reppin' for the Clovers in the film that rocketed her into mainstream success, Bring It On. The roles seemed to keep coming after that and I watched her proudly as she seemed to carve her own lane in the devil that can sometimes be Hollywood, all while being true to herself.
Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for Michael Kors
Being raped never defined her, killed her spirit, or held her caged as a victim, but it is something that did happen to her 24 years ago, the effect of which can still be felt to this day. She proudly advocates for the survivor and despite the art she believes in and the art she is a part of (The Birth of a Nation), Union can only be her truth.
In the midst of the controversy circling The Birth of a Nation and its upcoming nationwide release (in theaters October 7), the 43-year-old actress took the time to sit with us to tell us how she really feels about social injustices, sexual consent and what led to her feeling like her op-ed was something that needed to be heard.
xoNecole: When you published your op-ed addressing Nate Parker's personal controversy, Colin Kaepernick and several other athletes were being criticized in the media and lost endorsements for speaking out against social injustices. Was there any worry that if your op-ed came across as in defense of Nate Parker that it would hurt your brand?
Gabrielle Union: Everyone on my team was in sync about me doing an op-ed, in fact, they wished it had come out sooner. It took me a long time to craft what I wanted to say and it still be helpful. My first few drafts were not as educational, so I consulted a group of my close friends who are active feminists. I also spoke with several male friends, as well as my husband, and everyone had very different opinions. In talking to numerous people, most of whom are parents, I realized everyone had a different idea about what consent was. So if, as educated adults, we differ on what consent is, imagine what our young people are faced with. Through the op-ed, I wanted to make sure I was very clear that no matter where you stand on the issue of Nate Parker, moving forward, let us all come together and be affirmative what verbal consent truly means. I thought framing the piece like that was more helpful and more constructive.
In terms of going to the Toronto Film Festival and facing the press, there was concern about my brand and the other projects I have coming up. Being Mary Jane is written by a black woman, for black women, and women in general relate to the character so you don't want to alienate anyone. Some people have said, "If you're a feminist, you should boycott the film." And I was like, "But wait, my role in the film and the reason I signed on was to talk about sexual violence." So it feels ass backwards to shirk that responsibility when the controversy swirling around our film is around sexual violence so who better to speak on it than me? And if I take myself out of the conversation because it's uncomfortable and because I'm worried about my brand, then my brand ain't shit if I don't stand up for what I've always stood up for since I became a rape survivor.
While you've been very vocal about your experience with sexual violence, many survivors aren't comfortable disclosing that they've been hurt, especially if they know their attacker. What are some initial steps you'd recommend for victims to acknowledge the situation and begin the healing process?
After I was raped, the police came and they immediately took me to the hospital where I got a rape kit and went to the rape crisis center. The situation happened in an affluent community with an underworked police department and an overstaffed rape crisis center, so I had the most ideal recovery scenario situation possible. I had incredible support, which so many of us don't have. Both of my parents and my sisters were there, my boyfriend and his parents were there. Since I was assaulted at work, I had my hand held through the process of having workman's comp pay for my therapy. When I got to UCLA, their mental health services kicked in. I was never without a safety net. My journey is very rare so if another man or woman's experience doesn't match mine, that's okay.
Everyone's path to healing is different. If the path that I took doesn't feel comfortable for you, that's okay, it just means we need to find another route where you can feel safe and protected. As survivors, we compare our journeys and feel like, if I'm not on Oprah talking about my trauma or volunteering at a rape crisis center, then I'm doing it wrong. Or if I haven't gone to the police, then maybe my story isn't real or valid. Going through the criminal justice system is challenging physically, spiritually, emotionally, and financially. That's the path I took but I can't say it was a conscious choice because it happened so fast.
What is your advice to young women who are attempting to repair their self-worth and self-esteem after going through a traumatic experience like rape or sexual assault?
Firstly, you have to forgive yourself for doubting yourself and doubting your memory because so much of it is internalizing it all and feeling guilt and shame for something we have zero control over. Many of the people closest to us will say, "That's what you get for being fast,' or 'What did you do? What were you wearing? What did you say?" Because in a lot of our families, identifying evil that looks like us, that we've invited into our homes, is incredibly difficult, painful and can leave you feeling very powerless. It can be difficult to acknowledge that it happened which can lead to repressed memories which makes the path to recovery so much more difficult.
Forgive yourself for acting like a human and having to experience that excruciating pain. Forgive yourself if your family support isn't the same as someone else's.
I strongly encourage therapy. I've heard from many people, "I can't afford a therapist." There's free group therapy and other free and low-cost options available through your local rape crisis center as well as through hospitals. Money or a lack of resources should not be a hurdle to your healing. Regardless of your race, religion, gender, the help you need to move forward exists.
You have to become your own best advocate to overcome the hurdles that might be in your path. Sometimes the people that are holding us back are the people closest to us. Sometimes your mom, dad, best friend or boyfriend isn't supportive. Maybe they're blaming you or questioning your truth and sometimes the only way to get around that is to distance yourself emotionally because a lot of us may not have the luxury of putting a physical distance between the people that doubt you, but you can develop the skills that allow you to have emotional distance when you can't have physical distance.
After being a part of such a powerful film, do you think your The Birth of a Nation co-stars are more cognizant of white privilege? What types of conversations are you having with your colleagues about using this film to really incite change?
In terms of our cast specifically, the way my scenes were shot I didn't have the same downtime in between filming to have those conversations with my co-stars. I didn't get to really know them while we were shooting but from what I gathered they [Armie Hammer, Penelope Ann Miller, Jackie Earle Haley] are definitely aware of what white privilege is. Now how aware they are of their own privilege, I don't know because that comes with consistent behavior modification. We will see on their next film if they're still talking about the necessity of addressing oppression and racial inequality.
I have, however, had conversations with people that are on my team, the cast and crew that I work with, friends from high school, etc., and it's been very fascinating to see that so many people are so resistant to the idea of oppression in America. They think you can just pull yourself up by the bootstraps and work hard enough to achieve the American Dream. People will say, "My parents came from another country and didn't speak English," but even so you still get the privilege of whiteness. Most of the people that I know have never truly had to function on a level playing field. They'll say, "We all went to school together and worked our ass off to find jobs," and it's like no, you come from a family that went to the same Ivy League college for generations so you didn't have to have the same grades as a person of color to get in; you were accepted into this university based on being a legacy but no one ever looked at it as a leg up or affirmative action. Then after graduation, you got to work for your father's firm where everyone looks like you.
[During The Birth of a Nation press conference] I was challenging the journalists in the room to evaluate their social circles. What day-to-day work are you doing to recognize your privilege then actively dismantle it? The next step is figuring out what you're willing to do that may not benefit you but will benefit mankind. Most people are savvy enough to say the right things but when it comes to hiring someone that looks like them because it makes them feel more comfortable, that's an example of the big and the little things that go into dismantling the system of oppression that people who benefit from it aren't interested in tearing down. The reason why most people aren't willing to go the extra mile to really have equality is because it won't benefit them. Most people are self-serving, which is human nature so you have to fight back against that.
In order to begin to see change start to occur, we have to be willing to have conversations with people who have different opinions than us. I've already talked to Lena Dunham; I would love to talk to Kate Upton and Amy Schumer. Maybe I can help to explain the oppressive systems that have benefited and allowed them to say these careless, insensitive and offensive things. Those conversations are awkward as fuck and they get heated. Similar to watching people have conversations about consent.
People love living vicariously through the characters on Sex and the City or Girls, however, when women of color are sexually liberated i.e. Being Mary Jane, Scandal or How To Get Away With Murder, these fictitious women are labeled "hoes." What are your thoughts on the double standards of how sexuality is portrayed on TV? And as a dark-skinned woman, are you cognizant that you're helping to redefine the standards of beauty and sexuality in Hollywood?
As a brown skin woman, within my own community, I was never seen as a sex object; I was always the funny friend. If I was in a crowded room with a bunch of women, I was definitely not anyone that anyone else would have described as “sexy." Instead, people would compliment me on my great personality. For about the first 15 years of my career, I wasn't called upon for those types of roles. So I could give you a righteous answer about what I would and wouldn't do but no one ever asked me to be naked or overtly sexual. As I moved out of those teen roles into more mature roles like Bad Boys, I was in a bikini. And in Cradle 2 the Grave, I had a lap dance scene and I was terrified.
When I first read the script, there was no lap dance scene. When I got to work one day my character had evolved into a bank-robbing jewel thief lap dancer. It was the first time in my career where I was cognizant of the fact that there was this assumption that as a 'black woman,' I knew how to dance like a stripper, make my ass clap, and back it up into a camera while understanding my angles. Fatima Robinson had to be hired to choreograph the lap dance.
I was so scared that Halle Berry sent me a note through our mutual friend that basically said, "Nothing is worth your peace of mind and if you're that uncomfortable with the scene, don't do it and don't believe anyone that says your career will be over if you choose not to do it." In my mind I was like, "Of course she can say that. She's Halle Berry."
Eventually, I did the scene and afterwards, it changed how I was received in Hollywood. After I was in Bring It On, there was a certain level of respect people had for me. It was like, 'Yes! You fought against cultural appropriation, you held people responsible and were a leader!' Then after Cradle 2 the Grave, people were pausing the lap dance scene to take screenshots of my body, and as a sexual assault survivor, it was mortifying. I felt so naked, vulnerable and like a target. Strangely enough, after my first divorce, feeling like I failed publicly, no one is ever going to love me and I'm never going to be seen as desirable again, I get Being Mary Jane and she's this very sexually free woman at that time in my life, being 40, it felt very free to feel wanted even if it was for pretend. To play a character that was so desirable, confident and in control of her sexuality and sexual experience was amazing.
Then, you start to see the comments of people calling Mary Jane a “hoe" and a “home-wrecker," Olivia Pope [Kerry Washington] and Annalise Keating [Viola Davis] are hoes because on our television shows we're in control of our own sexual narrative? Damn, if that's the parameters then there are a lot of men and women that are hoes.
I choose to define sexuality differently and you have to figure out what you're comfortable with. Not everyone is comfortable with multiple partners or casual sex and that's okay; it doesn't make you a saint or me a sinner. If other people try to tell you what's acceptable when its comes to your sexuality, you have to call bullshit; last I checked, the only person my vagina was attached to was me, so anyone else's opinions about that are unnecessary, uninvited and unwarranted. For most of us, that's hard. I'm not Mary Jane but when I see the horrible things people say about the character, I feel crucified. In terms of sexuality in Hollywood, you have to do what you're comfortable with.
Your confidence and self-assuredness at 43 is admirable. How has your opinion of yourself evolved from when you were in your 20s? Did you have to work on finding yourself or did you always have a pretty good idea of who you were?
When I was a senior at UCLA, I had just started modeling but no one was checking for me when it came to my body or my face. I have great parents, I have a great support system, I had a job, I'm educated but, at that time, I wanted nothing more than to be cast in the 2Pac “California Love" music video. I stood in line with girls I knew from USC, UCLA, Long Beach State--educated, Christian girls, we all waited in line, for our chance to dance in front of 2Pac and 25 of his closest friends because there was something about being chosen that was so intoxicating that we objectified ourselves and we were okay with it.
I always come back to that experience because my self-esteem was so low that all I wanted was to be chosen. [The thought was] if that person chooses me then I must be worthwhile.
For so many of us, we chase that and it isn't necessarily just girls that weren't raised with a father--my dad was there every day. Woke up, he was there, went to sleep, he was there. He told me positive affirmations but my dad never said I was pretty. 'That's a great crossover', 'Nice jump shot', 'You're so smart,' but I was never validated for my looks. My parents thought that was the best route because you don't validate young black girls for their looks; you validate them for their achievements. Cut to me standing in a three-hour line waiting for my chance to objectify myself hoping to be chosen by 2Pac. And I see that played out every day. That longing for someone to validate you is exemplified all the time in reality TV, through social media, in schools and even in corporate America.
What advice would you share with young women in their 20s, especially those aspiring actresses and artists who are trying to find themselves while trying to make it in the entertainment industry?
I would tell my 20-year-old self, "You were fly, dope and amazing from birth. From the second you took your first breath you were worthwhile and valid and you have to find other ways to feel good about yourself that have nothing to do with being chosen by a man."
When people say, 'You're so lucky Dwyane Wade chose you,' I'm like, 'No, I chose myself.' Once I chose myself and realized I was my best asset, not who chooses me, that freed me up to love myself in a way that allowed me to love other people better, which allowed our love to finally come in after years of back and forth and mental chess matches.
There are people that have asked and assume that my greatest accomplishment is getting married and I'm like, "No, my wedding is not an accomplishment. The fact that I made it down the aisle with Dwyane Wade isn't an accomplishment. Graduating from UCLA is an accomplishment, being a sexual assault survivor is an accomplishment, being a part of The National Advisory Committee on Violence Against Women (NAC) appointed by President Obama-- that's an accomplishment" Getting this man down the aisle isn't an accomplishment. Just being chosen isn't an accomplishment.
For those people who don't want to support Nate Parker, who don't want to see “another slave movie" or for other races that think this is just a “black film," why are you so passionate about people seeing The Birth of a Nation? What's so important about the film that people have to see it?
My mother took me aside in high school to teach me the story of Nat Turner because she saw that I had completely assimilated into white culture. When she was around, she would hear adversity come up and she saw that I would never speak up, I was always the one that didn't want to draw too much attention to myself, I just wanted to fit in. So when I was 14, she took me to the library so I could research Nat Turner and I learned that what he did was a different type of resistance than Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King, Jr.
My mom saw that I wasn't being a leader; I was being complacent so understanding black liberation and black resistance in the face of adversity and the face of oppression was so desperately needed at that time in my life. To stand up and lead, makes you a target and I thought that being black was big enough target so I didn't want anyone to notice me but my mother said, "That's not the woman I'm raising. I didn't raise you to be silent."
Nat Turner was a tangible American hero that I could look up to that dared to fight back and push back. There are a lot of us that need to see it's okay to stand up and do what's right no matter the cost. Our country is built on resistance but we can't just acknowledge the resistance from British rule; we have to also acknowledge the slaves' resistance of oppression.
If you've ever been a position where you didn't feel strong enough to fight back and do the right thing, this film is for you. If you have an issue that you stand behind that you feel like doesn't get enough coverage or resources and you want to stand up and feel inspired to fight for whatever cause you believe in, this film is for you. And if you feel like there have been too many slavery movies…there have been too many slavery movies where we're not our own saviors. Instead, we're waiting for the same white people who oppressed us to save us.
This is not 'another slave movie.' This film is about black liberation, our humanity, our hope and our love and I haven't seen these topics portrayed in a film to this degree. There's never been a film like The Birth of a Nation.
But I understand those who may have an issue with Nate's past and if you don't like the way Nate is handling the present, I absolutely understand if you chose to sit the film out. I respect it because I would be a hypocrite if I said I hadn't chosen not to see films that made me uncomfortable for one reason or another, but my hope for those that choose not to see the film is that you're leading the movement from another direction and the conversation doesn't die because you decide to sit the film out.
I hope that if you choose not to see the film, you're still having conversations about black liberation, black resistance, racial inequality. This is still a part of our reality and we need to be a part of the solution and the healing so we stop hearing, "That happened to me too"' I just don't want anyone else to tell me, "Me too." I'm going to continue to live at that intersection because my womanness and my blackness are intrinsically linked. I hope that the film will inspire you to take the spirit of action, resistance and personal liberation and apply it to your own lives.
Originally published January 2016.
Featured image by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for Michael Kors