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Gabrielle Union

December 21, 2016 by
Photography by Contributed

Actress Gabrielle Union projects her natural intelligence and feistiness in whatever role she undertakes. The Omaha native is never at a loss for words or opinions. She decries Hollywood’s male-dominated, white-centric ways and lack of opportunities afforded to women of color. She recounts her experience as a rape survivor and preaches the need for women to speak up against violence.

It took Union a while to be regarded a serious artist. Early roles included that of a wealthy suburban teenager in 10 Things I Hate About You, followed a year later by a role as a cheerleader in Bring It On. Twenty years later she’s matured into a real force both in front of and behind the camera. She expertly balances being a fashion- and fitness-conscious celebrity, the wife of NBA superstar Dwyane Wade, and a mother, actress, producer, and activist.

It is not surprising that as her life has broadened, so has her work.

Ambitious projects such as Think Like a Man and Top Five find her giving deeper, more complex performances or satirizing her own mystique. Today, as the star of the popular and critically acclaimed BET series Being Mary Jane, she represents the modern American black woman navigating her way through personal and professional relationships. In mid-October, the actress sued for breach of contract and negligent misrepresentation, claiming the network is combining seasons four and five to lower her pay and extend her contract.

Further proof of her take-no-prisoners attitude was her role in one of the most talked about films of 2016, The Birth of a Nation.

The film dramatizes the historic Nat Turner-led slave revolt, a subject of interest for Union that goes back to her Omaha childhood.

“It was a story my mom made sure I knew about. I remember going to the library and her telling me to do research on him. It wasn’t until later I realized my mom had noted I was very passive in the face of adversity and injustice, and I wasn’t willing to speak up, not only for myself, but for anyone else. She thought I might need some additional heroes to look up to and she introduced me to the story of Nat Turner,” Union says.

The interest in Turner continued for years.

“In college I learned even more about Nat Turner and I was drawn to the sense of pushback against oppression–the idea that there are stories situated in slavery where we are not waiting for someone else to save us but that we were actively trying to save ourselves. Really the story of black resistance and black liberation, I’ve always been drawn to.”

gabrielleunion2When the script first came to her attention, she says she determined that, “I had to be a part of telling this incredibly powerful chapter of American history.”

That chapter took years to produce. The film’s producer-writer-director, Nate Parker, who also portrays Turner, had a hard time getting financing for the project.

“There’s a reason the Nat Turner story has never made it to the big screen [before now],” Union says. “There’s a lot of fear of black resistance and black liberation. We see that with what’s happening with Colin Kaepernick and the rest of the professional, college, and high school athletes who are taking a knee to combat and shed light on racism, discrimination, police brutality, inequality, oppression everywhere. We see the pushback, we see people protesting [being] labeled as unpatriotic. I feel quite the opposite. I don’t think there’s anything more American or patriotic than resistance to oppression.”

With such a struggle ongoing, Union says, “I think there’s never been a better time for The Birth of a Nation to come out.”

Union plays an unnamed character who does not speak. The part was written with dialogue but she and Parker decided the woman should be mute.

“I just felt it would be much more symbolic and realistic if we stripped her of her voice, of the ability to speak, of the ability to have power over her own body and over the bodies of her family and her community,” Union says. “That was true for black women during slavery, and it’s still true for so many women, specifically black women, who are voiceless and powerless at the hands of oppressors. Sexual violence and racial inequality have always existed for black women at that very crucial intersection.

She says it was liberating to play a background character.

“Part of that was just being much more committed to the character than when I was younger. When you’re starting out, you want to stand out in every single role. I’m not as concerned about that anymore. I have enough projects where my face is recognizable and my name is out front…I’m much more interested in being fulfilled creatively.”

The film was shot on an actual Georgia plantation that stood in for the site where the historical events took place in Virginia. The dark spirit of the plantation’s past weighed heavy on Union and company.

“Every actor of color on that set felt the pain and the horror that our ancestors felt. It’s in the soil, it’s in the air. You can’t escape it, you really can’t escape it.”

She is offended that the former plantation used in the film is rented out for weddings and parties.

“It’s unfathomable,” she says.

She considers the conversations she and Wade must have with their boys about the threats facing young black males “infuriating.”

“How do you explain that to children?”

She’s banking on Birth to trigger change.

“What we keep saying is, it’s not a movie, it’s a movement. No one I know who’s seen the film is unmoved and unchallenged to re-examine everything. So I hope people walk out of the theater energized and inspired to do better, to really identify oppression and to fight back against it.”

Visit bet.com/shows/being-mary-jane for more information.

Damon Bell

June 15, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

This story was published in the June 2015 edition of Her Family.

Damon Bell took one step onto the Edmund Pettus Bridge and heard silence. Real silence, the kind that made him pause and remember.

This was where 600 people marched 50 years earlier, hoping to complete the 54-mile journey from Selma to the state capitol in Montgomery. Instead, they were brutally assaulted by Alabama law enforcement officers, beaten with billy clubs, crushed by horses, and attacked by dogs in what would be known as “Bloody Sunday.” It would be the same path the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., would take in his dress shoes in second and third marches to the capitol.

Now, here was Damon trudging along in his gray and white Air Jordan sneakers. He could feel this in the silence—the weight of history heavy on his 12-year-old shoulders. His father, Jermaine, had tears in his eyes.

“They always say you don’t know where you’re going until you know where you’ve been, so I’m going
to get a chance to find out where I came from.” 
-Damon Bell

A white man sauntered up to Damon and his group near the middle of the bridge. He was holding a huge white sign that read simply, “I’m sorry.” He explained how he had lived in Selma when the marches happened and thought there was just nothing he could do to help.

“It was a sight I’ll never forget,” Jermaine recalls.

Damon wanted to explore the rich history of his people’s struggle. So, when the Omaha Housing Authority sponsored an essay contest in which students were asked to detail why they would like to make the trip to Selma, Damon just had to enter.

He wrote, “They always say you don’t know where you’re going until you know where you’ve been, so I’m going to get a chance to find out where I came from.”

OHA football coach Gannie Clark hosted the contest, wanting to share the experience of Selma with a younger generation. He agreed with the sentiments in Damon’s essay.

“We need to teach tolerance before we are doomed,” he says.

OHA wanted to offer a chance for young people to participate in events surrounding the 50th anniversary of the marches that led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which banned racial discrimination for voters. Despite the thousands of people in attendance, Damon says, the entire day “was peace, a lot of peace.”

He saw influential black leaders such as President Barack Obama, Rev. Jesse Jackson, and Martin Luther King III. And he talked with actor Chris Tucker, who gave Damon his autograph

At a museum in Selma, Jermaine noticed Damon on his phone as they observed the footage of what happened that fateful day on March 7, 1965. Damon just couldn’t stand to see people get hurt.

Jermaine told his son he needed to watch it even if it was tough.

“He needs to know what actually happened,” he says. “Our right to vote came with blood, sweat, and tears.”

Damon feels everyone should vote and even if someone believes it doesn’t really matter, it is important to take the chance.

Clark, who lived about 90 miles from the bridge, says the outing was good for Damon and the other kids to see a different perceptive. “Racism in Omaha is like racism in Selma,” Clark says. “I told the boys during the trip to use their anger to speak out, use their anger to fight against any kind of injustice. It isn’t a black/white thing. It is an American thing.”

Racism is getting worse, Jermaine believes. He doesn’t feel people are making progress. Damon knows it is still an issue, but feels like the world is changing.

He hopes the future will be full of peace. His goal is to someday be a professional football player or an engineer.

When Damon is not attending Scared Heart School as a sixth grader, his classroom is at Goodwin’s Spencer Street Barber Shop where his father has worked for the past 20 years. Damon is a fixture there almost every day, listening and learning from such men as owner Dan Goodwin and others. Goodwin marched on Washington and shook hands with Malcolm X. A shop window broken over 46 years ago—intentionally left unrepaired to this day—is a powerful reminder of racial tensions in Omaha. A bullet (Goodwin believes fired by police) smashed the pane during the 1969 riots that erupted after a police officer shot and killed an unarmed girl, 14-year-old Vivian Strong.

Jermaine says that is what makes his son a smart kid, learning both sides of the table.

Despite living in “the hood,” Jermaine will never leave. “I love North Omaha,” he says proudly.

Damon Bell 1