Gabrielle Union on Speaking Out, How Companies Can Step Up and Who Inspires Her to ‘Bust Ass’

The actress, producer and advocate is one of Adweek's 2020 Women Trailblazers

Gabrielle Union
In 2018, Union launched her production company, I’ll Have Another, which is focused on telling the stories of marginalized communities. Thomas Whiteside / Trunk Archive
Headshot of Heide Palermo

In the early 1990s, Gabrielle Union was paying her way through college and studying for the LSATs when an internship at a Los Angeles modeling agency led to the opportunity to make $120 a day to be the “Black girl” in teen magazines. She said yes—after all, it beat her $7-an-hour gig at a local bookstore. And that decision changed her life forever. Union went on to star in sitcoms like Moesha as well as three of the highest-grossing teen movies of all time, including 2000’s Bring It On.

But life took yet another turn in November 2019, when Union was dismissed from her role as a judge on America’s Got Talent. She alleged that racist behaviors and unfair treatment of employees were the reason for her departure, and in June 2020, she officially filed a complaint against the show’s producers for discrimination, harassment and a toxic work culture.

Adweek chatted with her recently to find out where she gets her confidence, what real industry change looks like, and how she’s empowering and uplifting diverse talent through her growing production house, I’ll Have Another.

(Read the full list of Adweek’s Women Trailblazers here.) 

Adweek: Looking back at your early acting roles, from sitcoms like Family Matters to your first big movies, like She’s All That, how do you think the entertainment industry has evolved since then?
Gabrielle Union: It really hasn’t. I guess it’s evolved in the sense that there are more opportunities, but don’t mistake more opportunities for better opportunities. There are more streamers, more networks, studios and platforms, but in terms of how young people of color are paid or treated or how they’re able to advance and all of those things, not really much has changed.

Knowing what you know now after everything that has transpired with America’s Got Talent and the subsequent investigation by NBC, is there anything you would have done differently?
I did everything literally by the book. You know, everyone gets those corporate handbooks that say like, “We hope nothing happens, but if it does follow these steps.” Well, I followed all those steps, and I was still the one escorted out the door. … And this was not the first year that these things had happened. And literally people get protected and promoted and they get raises and the people who complain, they get rid of or they try to discredit you. And you wonder—people will talk about cancel culture, but someone said the real cancel culture are the people whose careers got canceled before they ever began because they dared to speak up.

People tend to think of systemic change as nearly impossible—that things have been a certain way for so long that we just have to accept it. What do you think it will take for real systemic change in the entertainment industry?
For real change, it takes all of those people who’ve been standing around watching it happen, letting it happen, being responsible for it happening. You have to call it out in real time and not let it go. And I think for most people, it’s terrifying—the idea of sacrificing your livelihood and how you feed your family. But if you’re in a position of privilege and you’re damn clear about that privilege and you do nothing, then you’re part of the problem. And it got to a point for me—it was like, how many checks do me and my husband need to have before I feel comfortable enough to stand up and say something? … When people ask, What does success look like? I’m like, “Freedom.” Success looks like being able to exist and do a job that I love and pull as many talented people up who’ve never been given an opportunity.

"...real cancel culture are the people whose careers got canceled before they ever began because they dared to speak up."
Gabrielle Union

This story first appeared in the July 13, 2020, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@heidefaith Heide is the senior director of brand community at Adweek and Editor of the Inside the Brand series, including the CMO Moves and Gen ZEOs podcasts, Innovators, Challengers, and Women Trailblazers. She also leads Adweek's Innovators Council.