Stars of Sundance: Gabrielle Union

Stars of Sundance: Gabrielle Union

Back In January, V Caught Up With All Of The Stars Of This Year's Sundance Film Festival For Our Fashion & Film Issue. Below, Philanthropist and Rom-Com Vet Gabrielle Union, Stopped By To Promote Her New Film, The Birth Of A Nation

Back In January, V Caught Up With All Of The Stars Of This Year's Sundance Film Festival For Our Fashion & Film Issue. Below, Philanthropist and Rom-Com Vet Gabrielle Union, Stopped By To Promote Her New Film, The Birth Of A Nation

Photography: Charlie Engman

Styling: Emma Wyman

Text: Patrik Sandberg

"I had been joking with my manager for years that the movie I really wanted to make was the Nat Turner story. I didn’t think anyone would have the balls to actually do it.” Gabrielle Union’s sharp sense of humor precedes her. The girl who stole America’s heart in Bring It On is now an industry stalwart, known not only for her work in film and TV comedies, but for also being the type of celebrity that people love to love. The tabloids follow her, the talk shows book her, and whenever she gives a sound bite, you know it’s going to be good. At the time that we speak, she’s sent the Internet into adoration overdrive by throwing “eloquent shade” at Fox News correspondent Stacey Dash.

Never one to rest on her laurels, this year Union is taking everything you think you know about her and turning it inside out by appearing in Nate Parker’s Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize-winning film about Nat Turner and the rebellion he led in 1831, the biggest slave revolt in U.S. history. Titled The Birth of a Nation, it’s a counternarrative to D. W. Griffith’s pro-KKK silent film of the same name from 1915. The 2016 film was Sundance’s biggest sale of all time, netting $17.5 million.

“I got the script and it sat on my desk because I thought, Who the F would remake Birth of a Nation? That’s racist propaganda BS. After I hadn’t responded, they told me that it’s the Nat Turner story—they’ve reclaimed the title. So I read it, and then I began to stalk Nate. I’ve never been more dogged in my pursuit to be a part of something in my career.”

In the film, Union gives an unrecognizable supporting performance as a slave who is raped by a white man. “There was some fear on my part, as a sexual assault survivor, that it was too close,” Union says. “I’ve never played a rape survivor on screen because of the fact that I lived it, and I was always very strict about that. But, with this, I just felt that it was so important. I felt like there was no one better to portray Esther than me and, if I can get right with my truth and be secure enough in it, I thought it could be a very powerful role.” Although the character is billed as Esther in the script, her name goes unmentioned in the film. She also speaks no lines.

“When I first got the script, she had lines,” Union says. “Because of my own experience, Nate and I came to the agreement that she shouldn’t have any lines. Black women then did not, and to a certain degree, black women now do not have control over our bodies. At that time, we were voiceless and powerless, and I didn’t want that reality to be squandered with dialogue.” It’s a bold creative gesture for an actor we’ve come to associate with her gift for banter, and a reflection of first-time feature director Parker’s confidence. Critics are hailing it as an immediate Oscar contender.

“This movie is coming about at a great time and not a second too late,” Union says. “A number of conversations have been started and a number of issues have been highlighted across the board, whether that’s in Hollywood, in our country, or in the world, about how the growth of injustice happens day to day, and there’s never been a boisterous stage on which to have the conversation. It wasn’t lost on me as we were sitting in the theater at Sundance and the whole audience was just weeping. Part of what I was weeping for was that there’s a commonality in what we see today. I think the movie will spark a lot of more difficult conversations that we have successfully avoided in this country. The fact that there was a bidding war and it was the biggest sale in the history of the festival was just a cherry on top. The film is accomplishment enough. But it does feel good that our truth is worthwhile. When our truth gets told by us, it has an enormous value beyond what we think and feel and know.”

Clearly, this is one of those rare films that will be viewed a watershed moment in the life of a career actor. “Part of it was just the material. But a lot of it was the experience that Nate created for everyone involved. Now it’s like, I can’t go back to bullshit. I can’t. The experience of filmmaking and creating art has to be different. I can’t go backwards. Even if I’m doing a silly comedy, I want to make sure the experience that everyone has in front of and behind the camera is as magical as what Nate created. Knowing what he was able to do, on a budget, there’s literally no excuse for why the experience of filmmaking is anything less than magical. I can’t have that.”

This is an excerpt from V101

UNION WEARS CLOTHING FENDI SHOES GUCCI
Credits:

Makeup Carola Gonzalez Hair  Larry Sims Production Sylvia Farago LTD  Digital technician Jonathan Hokklo Photo assistant Michael Tessler  Stylist assistant Coco Campbell  Grooming assistant Tammy Yi  Equipment ACME Camera Company

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