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Sanaa Lathan & Gabrielle Union Talk 'Nappily Ever After' & The Freedom Of Cutting Their Hair

Culture & Entertainment

Netflix held the premiere for Nappily Ever After in Los Angeles at the Harmony Gold Theater on Thursday (September 20).


Directed and produced by women of color, the film is an adaptation of the 2000 book by Trisha Thomas, and has been in development for more than ten years. Sanaa Lathan stars as the protagonist Violet, but what some may not know is that the film originally considered Halle Berry for its leading role.

"To be honest, when we thought about who to cast in this role, we thought of Sanaa. There's comedy in the movie, but it also has a lot of heart and depth, and she's just such a strong actress," co-producer Tracey Bing shared with xoNecole. "I think she's amazing in the film, as you'll see and she's very brave and she really went there. I'm really proud of her."

Nappily Ever After challenges the beauty ideals that we affix to our hair, specifically as Black women. In preparation for her role, Lathan boldly shaved her head, a decision that inspired her close friends and fellow actresses Nia Long and Gabrielle Union. Both were in attendance to support Lathan and the film.

Sanaa Lathan before, during, and after 'Nappily' transformationSanaa/Instagram

"When Sanaa told me, she was doing the film and she was shaving her head, I was like, oh my god! First of all, she has beautiful hair. And then I was like, omg she's really going for it," Long said. "This is what it is all about. She's making a social statement, but she's also reminding us to feel beautiful and be beautiful in our natural, organic state."

The journey toward self-realization, especially for Black women is an exhaustive one that takes longer for some than others. Union revealed that she didn't fully recognize her beauty outside of her hair, until this year.

"June. This June. This year when I cut it off," she revealed. "I realized I'm dope and amazing no matter what I'm doing with my hair, and my soul - the inside matches the outside. I'm dope regardless. So, when I saw my girl (Lathan), literally shave her head bald and she didn't miss a beat. Dope. Fly. Still talented. Still amazing. Still an Ivy League graduate. Still a great actress. Still everyone loved her. Still beautiful. I was like you think anyone would notice if I just cut my hair off? And I felt more dope and beautiful than I've ever felt in my life. At 45. I felt 16."

Gabrielle UnionMedia Punch/INSTARimages.com

"I'm dope and amazing no matter what I'm doing with my hair and the inside matches the outside. I'm dope regardless."

While Lathan's decision to shave her head may have inspired many, she admitted to xoNecole that she was terrified herself to do the big chop.

"I was terrified to shave it off and so surprised by the response that I got. From men and women about how beautiful they thought it was. We put so much time and energy - physical energy, mental energy, spiritual energy - into hair and when you don't have it, you have all that energy to put into other aspects of yourself. There's always this aspect of self-discovery and it's just been an adventure and I'm still on it."

Sanaa LathanGetty Images

"We put so much time and energy - physical energy, mental energy, spiritual energy - into hair and when you don't have it, you have all that energy to put into other aspects of yourself."

While it's refreshing to see Black women in Hollywood embracing our many different hairstyles, including natural, Hollywood has a long way to go before it's fully prepared to deal with Black hair off-screen. As we spoke with many of the actresses on the carpet, many of them revealed that they face ongoing challenges with hair and makeup stylists on set.

"When I walk into the hair and makeup trailer, there's not always someone there to represent me. And so, I walk around with a Ziploc filled with my own products. Because I'm nervous. I'm insecure. I don't feel comfortable," Long admitted.

Antoinette Robertson shared that while she's experienced these challenges, she's been fortunate to not have to deal with that on the Netflix set of Dear White People.

Antoinette RobertsonGetty Images

"I'll walk on set with my hair perfectly done if I don't trust someone, but our team on Dear White People - I have no issues at all. Dontay (Savoy) wants to take care of our hair. He cares about the integrity of our hair. I've gone to other sets where they don't necessarily care or place as much. They don't give us as much attention, because they're like oh it's done," she said. "I just feel like it's a lack of effort or interest sometimes, and that makes us feel bad a lot. So, I feel like I've learned I know how to do my foundation myself, just in case and know how to do my hair, because sometimes we're an afterthought."

The challenges in rejecting the Euro-centric hairstyles that have been projected onto us as the "beauty standard" are not just specific to Black women. Danielle Lyn, who stars in the film as Violet's co-worker, shared some of the issues she's faced as a Filipino actress.

"When I went back to the Philippines, I realized that colorism exists. When I was there I recognized that pin straight hair, no frizz, very European 'throwback to colonization' was their definition of beauty," she continued. "This conversation is so overdue. Because it's worldwide."

Sanaa Lathan, Gabrielle Union, Nia Long, Robinne Lee at Special Screening of "Nappily Ever After" Getty Images

Nappily Ever After tackles issues surrounding Black beauty and much more through Lathan's character and her journey toward self-discovery. The film is hilarious, and has its moments that are all too familiar for young Black women. i.e. the many hot comb scenes with Lynn Whitfield.

So, at the end of this, what is the message that the cast and its filmmakers want Black women to take away from the film?

"That they should love themselves as they are. We're beautiful as we are. Our hair doesn't define us. This is a romantic comedy that's about falling in love with yourself. And we need to really pass along that message to our children," Bing explained.

"We're beautiful as we are. Our hair doesn't define us."

Long added, "I really feel proud of this, because I want people who don't understand the journey to have a learning moment. I'm just excited to know there's a message right now happening on Netflix that explores the journey of black women and their hair."

Nappily Ever After is streaming now on Netflix. Share your thoughts and hair journey with us on social media @xoNecole.

Featured image by Getty Images

ACLU By ACLUSponsored

Over the past four years, we grew accustomed to a regular barrage of blatant, segregationist-style racism from the White House. Donald Trump tweeted that “the Squad," four Democratic Congresswomen who are Black, Latinx, and South Asian, should “go back" to the “corrupt" countries they came from; that same year, he called Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas," mocking her belief that she might be descended from Native American ancestors.

But as outrageous as the racist comments Trump regularly spewed were, the racially unjust governmental actions his administration took and, in the case of COVID-19, didn't take, impacted millions more — especially Black and Brown people.

To begin to heal and move toward real racial justice, we must address not only the harms of the past four years, but also the harms tracing back to this country's origins. Racism has played an active role in the creation of our systems of education, health care, ownership, and employment, and virtually every other facet of life since this nation's founding.

Our history has shown us that it's not enough to take racist policies off the books if we are going to achieve true justice. Those past policies have structured our society and created deeply-rooted patterns and practices that can only be disrupted and reformed with new policies of similar strength and efficacy. In short, a systemic problem requires a systemic solution. To combat systemic racism, we must pursue systemic equality.

What is Systemic Racism?

A system is a collection of elements that are organized for a common purpose. Racism in America is a system that combines economic, political, and social components. That system specifically disempowers and disenfranchises Black people, while maintaining and expanding implicit and explicit advantages for white people, leading to better opportunities in jobs, education, and housing, and discrimination in the criminal legal system. For example, the country's voting systems empower white voters at the expense of voters of color, resulting in an unequal system of governance in which those communities have little voice and representation, even in policies that directly impact them.

Systemic Equality is a Systemic Solution

In the years ahead, the ACLU will pursue administrative and legislative campaigns targeting the Biden-Harris administration and Congress. We will leverage legal advocacy to dismantle systemic barriers, and will work with our affiliates to change policies nearer to the communities most harmed by these legacies. The goal is to build a nation where every person can achieve their highest potential, unhampered by structural and institutional racism.

To begin, in 2021, we believe the Biden administration and Congress should take the following crucial steps to advance systemic equality:

Voting Rights

The administration must issue an executive order creating a Justice Department lead staff position on voting rights violations in every U.S. Attorney office. We are seeing a flood of unlawful restrictions on voting across the country, and at every level of state and local government. This nationwide problem requires nationwide investigatory and enforcement resources. Even if it requires new training and approval protocols, a new voting rights enforcement program with the participation of all 93 U.S. Attorney offices is the best way to help ensure nationwide enforcement of voting rights laws.

These assistant U.S. attorneys should begin by ensuring that every American in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons who is eligible to vote can vote, and monitor the Census and redistricting process to fight the dilution of voting power in communities of color.

We are also calling on Congress to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to finally create a fair and equal national voting system, the cause for which John Lewis devoted his life.

Student Debt

Black borrowers pay more than other students for the same degrees, and graduate with an average of $7,400 more in debt than their white peers. In the years following graduation, the debt gap more than triples. Nearly half of Black borrowers will default within 12 years. In other words, for Black Americans, the American dream costs more. Last week, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, along with House Reps. Ayanna Pressley, Maxine Waters, and others, called on President Biden to cancel up to $50,000 in federal student loan debt per borrower.

We couldn't agree more. By forgiving $50,000 of student debt, President Biden can unleash pent up economic potential in Black communities, while relieving them of a burden that forestalls so many hopes and dreams. Black women in particular will benefit from this executive action, as they are proportionately the most indebted group of all Americans.

Postal Banking

In both low and high income majority-Black communities, traditional bank branches are 50 percent more likely to close than in white communities. The result is that nearly 50 percent of Black Americans are unbanked or underbanked, and many pay more than $2,000 in fees associated with subprime financial institutions. Over their lifetime, those fees can add up to as much as two years of annual income for the average Black family.

The U.S. Postal Service can and should meet this crisis by providing competitive, low-cost financial services to help advance economic equality. We call on President Biden to appoint new members to the Postal Board of Governors so that the Post Office can do the work of providing essential services to every American.

Fair Housing

Across the country, millions of people are living in communities of concentrated poverty, including 26 percent of all Black children. The Biden administration should again implement the 2015 Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, which required localities that receive federal funds for housing to investigate and address barriers to fair housing and patterns or practices that promote bias. In 1980, the average Black person lived in a neighborhood that was 62 percent Black and 31 percent white. By 2010, the average Black person's neighborhood was 48 percent Black and 34 percent white. Reinstating the Obama-era Fair Housing Rule will combat this ongoing segregation and set us on a path to true integration.

Congress should also pass the American Housing and Economic Mobility Act, or a similar measure, to finally redress the legacy of redlining and break down the walls of segregation once and for all.

Broadband Access

To realize broadband's potential to benefit our democracy and connect us to one another, all people in the United States must have equal access and broadband must be made affordable for the most vulnerable. Yet today, 15 percent of American households with school-age children do not have subscriptions to any form of broadband, including one-quarter of Black households (an additional 23 percent of African Americans are “smartphone-only" internet users, meaning they lack traditional home broadband service but do own a smartphone, which is insufficient to attend class, do homework, or apply for a job). The Biden administration, Federal Communications Commission, and Congress must develop and implement plans to increase funding for broadband to expand universal access.

Enhanced, Refundable Child Tax Credits

The United States faces a crisis of child poverty. Seventeen percent of all American children are impoverished — a rate higher than not just peer nations like Canada and the U.K., but Mexico and Russia as well. Currently, more than 50 percent of Black and Latinx children in the U.S. do not qualify for the full benefit, compared to 23 percent of white children, and nearly one in five Black children do not receive any credit at all.

To combat this crisis, President Biden and Congress should enhance the child tax credit and make it fully refundable. If we enhance the child tax credit, we can cut child poverty by 40 percent and instantly lift over 50 percent of Black children out of poverty.

Reparations

We cannot repair harms that we have not fully diagnosed. We must commit to a thorough examination of the impact of the legacy of chattel slavery on racial inequality today. In 2021, Congress must pass H.R. 40, which would establish a commission to study reparations and make recommendations for Black Americans.

The Long View

For the past century, the ACLU has fought for racial justice in legislatures and in courts, including through several landmark Supreme Court cases. While the court has not always ruled in favor of racial justice, incremental wins throughout history have helped to chip away at different forms of racism such as school segregation ( Brown v. Board), racial bias in the criminal legal system (Powell v. Alabama, i.e. the Scottsboro Boys), and marriage inequality (Loving v. Virginia). While these landmark victories initiated necessary reforms, they were only a starting point.

Systemic racism continues to pervade the lives of Black people through voter suppression, lack of financial services, housing discrimination, and other areas. More than anything, doing this work has taught the ACLU that we must fight on every front in order to overcome our country's legacies of racism. That is what our Systemic Equality agenda is all about.

In the weeks ahead, we will both expand on our views of why these campaigns are crucial to systemic equality and signal the path this country must take. We will also dive into our work to build organizing, advocacy, and legal power in the South — a region with a unique history of racial oppression and violence alongside a rich history of antiracist organizing and advocacy. We are committed to four principles throughout this campaign: reconciliation, access, prosperity, and empowerment. We hope that our actions can meet our ambition to, as Dr. King said, lead this nation to live out the true meaning of its creed.

What you can do:
Take the pledge: Systemic Equality Agenda
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Featured image by Shutterstock

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