Gabrielle Union Should Be a Bigger Star. Why Does Hollywood Underestimate Her?
The star of ‘Breaking In’ has been breaking real-life barriers in Hollywood for years. Why hasn’t she gotten the recognition she deserves?
“You and everyone else.”
Gabrielle Union utters this halfway through Breaking In, as she’s cornered by one of the men who has broken into her house and held her family hostage, in response to him saying, “I underestimated you.”
The line feels incredibly meta, considering Union has also been underestimated by Hollywood. In part because Hollywood underestimates black women. Two years ago when Viola Davis won her Emmy for her role in How to Get Away with Murder, Union was one of the actresses she shouted out in her speech: “The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity,” Davis said. “You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there. So here’s to all the writers, the awesome people that are Ben Sherwood, Paul Lee, Peter Nowalk, Shonda Rhimes, people who have redefined what it means to be beautiful, to be sexy, to be a leading woman, to be black. And to the Taraji P. Hensons, the Kerry Washingtons, the Halle Berrys, the Nicole Beharies, the Meagan Goods, to Gabrielle Union: Thank you for taking us over that line.”
Two years later, Union attended the Emmys for the first time. Last September before the ceremony, she tweeted: “I’ve been doing TV since 1995. This will be my 1st time going to the Emmys & I’m presenting an award! 22 yrs later. #OvernightSuccess.” It’s evidence that the Emmys never paid much attention to black actresses before Davis’ win, or before Kerry Washington became the first black female lead on a drama in decades with Scandal. Union starred on BET’s Being Mary Jane for five years but Mara Brock Akil’s fantastic and critically lauded show never got the awards recognition it deserved for the barriers it broke.
So when Union demands respect from her assailants in Breaking In, she’s definitely talking to Hollywood. She’s a recognizable name in the black community but why isn’t she a bigger star? Perhaps because her shows have all been made by and geared toward black people. Being Mary Jane at its best was a portrayal of a black woman with a messy interior life unlike anything that had ever been on TV. But it took a black woman on mainstream TV to give Union her Emmys shout out.
This fall, there were hopes that she’d get her broadcast moment on NBC with LA’s Finest, a spin-off starring her Bad Boys character. She’d even managed to lure Jessica Alba to co-star, who hasn’t done TV since Dark Angel. But the network passed on the project, according to Deadline: “While not off the charts, LA’s Finest had garnered solid buzz and is a rare marquee drama title with two diverse female leads—something we don’t have on broadcast TV. It is not entirely clear whether NBC’s decision was based on creative or business reasons (NBC had been in negotiations with Sony TV on four projects—two pilots and two current series), but the answer is likely in some combination of the two.”
So a drama with two diverse female leads didn’t make it to air, meaning all we may see of Union on our screens this year is Breaking In. It’s a serviceable romp that’s highly entertaining, if a bit predictable—but it’s perfectly in line with the wild thrillers that women such as Taraji P. Henson and Beyoncé have starred in that drew audiences interested in popcorn thrillers starring black women.
The film is also exceptional in how it gives power to Aijona Alexus who portrays Union’s daughter. An important theme of the film is women taking care of one another, and Union passes on her strength to her daughter who fights back just as well as her mother. It’s rare enough to see a film where a woman fights back; it’s even rarer to see one where a woman inspires her daughter to do so too, and where both of those women are black—we’ve seen the white iteration many times (Panic Room, etc.).
Perhaps the best thing about Union is how unbothered she is by Hollywood’s standards for success. She has a voracious fanbase, just published her first book, a collection of essays called We’re Going to Need More Wine, and before the #TimesUp era was already an advocate against sexual violence (drawing upon her own well-documented account that needn’t be rehashed here). Union is a name that will go down in Hollywood’s history books even if she did nothing else beyond Breaking In. Lucky for us, she’s just getting started.