In her gripping new thriller Breaking In, Gabrielle Union plays a mother who has to break into a fortress-like house in order to rescue her children. She talks about the movie’s feminist theme, the Me Too movement, and her desire to see more racial diversity onscreen.
As a young actress, Gabrielle Union was known for playing strong, feisty characters in classic teen films like She’s All That and 10 Things I Hate About You, where her beauty and confidence were perfect for playing one of the popular girls.
But even in teen comedies, Union was still bringing issues such as sexism and racism to the fore, particularly in the surprisingly woke Bring It On. In that movie, she played the head cheerleader of a majority black school, whose routines and hard work were being stolen and culturally appropriated by a privileged white team.
Now 45, Union is still acting, but her activism has become more pronounced, both on and off the screen.
A vocal supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement and Me Too, she has written about experiencing racism and being raped at gunpoint aged 19 in her brilliant new book, We’re Going To Need More Wine, which also addresses her struggles with fertility and miscarriages.
Now the proud stepmother to the three children of her NBA player husband Dwayne Wade, her appreciation for motherhood is what sparked her interest in Breaking In. The thriller, which Union also produced, sees her character have to break into a fortress-like house in order to rescue her children, who are being held hostage inside.
“The film came out as an extension of reality,” says Union. “Women everywhere, moms, are superheroes capable of performing superheroic acts – and we don’t get acknowledged. We don’t get appreciated and we’re underestimated. When we think of heroes, we still think of men coming out with all their brawn and saving the day. But women have been saving ourselves and our families for a long time, and we need to be celebrated for that. We need to acknowledge the heroes in our own lives. That’s why I loved this film – it’s about a smart, capable woman saving her own damn self. She doesn’t doubt herself, and the only people who doubt her pay the price.”
For Union, who also stars in and produces the television series Being Mary Jane, it was also important that we get to see women over 30 onscreen and kicking ass.
“As I’ve gotten older,” she says, “and also as a black woman, it’s a daily struggle. Again, people underestimate you. When you see the roles that I and other black women get offered, you’re seeing what roles people think you’re worthy of, and they’re not much. They’re cardboard cut-outs: ‘insert woman here’ or ‘insert older woman there’. They’re not meaty or complex, and that’s not the way anyone I know is. We have full interior and exterior lives, yet we never really get to explore any of that.”
The actress has been following the discourse around racial equality and representation closely.
“There are rudimentary steps that need to be taken,” she says, “but we’ll see over the next few years how much actually gets done. I think it’s easy to focus on the positive films that are making strides in representation, but real change has to happen across the board, so that the old tropes and damaging portrayals in mainstream films change. Because those are the movies the majority of audiences see, that’s where the messages about humanity are getting transmitted. And in terms of that representation, we are so far behind, pitiably far behind. So we shall see.”
Producing has given Union the opportunity to implement real change and to encourage diversity both in front of and behind the camera – and she says she’s not interested in anything less.
“I want real change,” she asserts. “I’m not trying to sit at the table of the people in power if they’re only interested in tokenism – I want to sit over at another table, where there is a chair for everyone. I want to get to a place where we believe in real inclusion, both in front of and behind the camera. I don’t buy into this idea that there are only so many slots. So many of us refuse to prescribe to the ‘there can only be one’ theory. It’s a new day. So we’re not going to simply be content – we’re going to keep employing people. And I hope it catches on at every production company, network, corporation and household.”
I ask Union how she feels about the Me Too movement, which has faced some criticism for not being inclusive, and centring on the stories of white cis women – a sad irony given that the movement was originally started by the black activist Tarana Burke.
“It’s interesting, given that – as you say - the movement was started by a black woman and women of colour, specifically for women of colour. And it was done to capture the pain that has been hidden, silenced, erased, from a lot of the work surrounding sexual violence. It is painful – as a person who has heard the phrase ‘Me Too’ for 25 years – that now the stage is much bigger, the pain of marginalised communities has fallen to the back.
“It seems as though the pain of white privileged survivors has been prioritised, and it’s their pain that has been used as the poster child for the movement. So I will continue to do the work. My community has been doing the work for two decades and we will continue to do so, to make sure that the Me Too movement and the Time’s Up movement are catering to the very important intersections of our gender and our race, as well as all of the other intersections. Because if you don’t, you’re going to have a movement that is leaving out those who have already been marginalised. We have to engage with the voices and testimonies of the women and men in our most vulnerable communities.”