Gabrielle Union did not become famous when she landed the leading role on BET's Being Mary Jane. She has been a staple in Black Hollywood since I was a pre-teen. She was an original “mean girl” as one of the stars of Bring It On! — a prescient pop culture introduction to intersectional feminism, if there ever was one — in 2000. You might even remember her breaking the friend code in 10 Things I Hate About You when her character Chastity goes after her friend’s really sloppy seconds. Roles like these, showing Union as a conniving, shady, unpleasant woman, helped to shape my thinking about the actress for years.
I’d probably never be able to shake Tom Felton’s hand because I hate Draco Malfoy so much. I’m sure that I’d laugh in Jack Gleeson’s face remembering the satisfying death of King Joffrey on Game of Thrones. And I will certainly shrink in fear at the sight of Tony Todd because he’ll always be Candyman to me. Some actors’ performances leave us with a strong emotional aftertaste that lasts years after their credits stop rolling. That is the effect that Union had on me until very recently.
To her credit, this means she’s a damn good actress. She made me believe that she was the domineering force she played in Deliver Us From Eva and the uptight snob in Daddy’s Little Girls. There’s a smirk that Union can produce — similar to Kerry Washington’s on-the-verge-of-tears face — that makes me think of every enemy I ever had in high school. I would roll my eyes every time I’d see Union in a trailer as a result. She’s that good.
Recently, though, she has redeemed herself. In real life, Union has showed up to be a strong advocate for herself and other Black women. She started a plus-size clothing line because her sister is full-figured. She has opened up about her experiences as a survivor of sexual assault, supported other survivors, and critiqued rape culture — even at the expense of a film that she was a part of, The Birth of a Nation. I cheered for Union when she sued BET for breeching her contract as the star of Being Mary Jane, because we know that Black women aren't paid what they're worth.
Gabrielle Union is actually the real MVP. And while Mary Jane Paul is certainly not the kind of woman I would want to hang out with, Union definitely is. I just hope she never gives me that smirk.