American actor Gabrielle Union was born in Omaha, Nebraska in 1972 but she and her family moved to California in the eighties where she attended UCLA and eventually fell in love with acting. Her professional acting career first began to take off in the nineties when she had minor guest roles in sitcoms like Family Matters, Saved by the Bell, Moesha, Smart Guy and Sister, Sister, but she also took dramatic roles, including a recurring guest role in WB drama 7th Heaven as Lucy and Mary Camden’s friend and fellow churchgoer Keesha Hamilton, plus she occasionally ventured into more fantastic genres when she starred in an episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine as Klingon officer N’Garen.
Union also acted on the big screen that decade, with small roles in the 1999 films She’s All That and 10 Things I Hate About You as well as Gina Prince-Bythewood’s sports-themed cult classic Love & Basketball (2000) starring Omar Epps and Sanaa Lathan as two aspiring pro basketball players from L.A. who fall for each other. But the film that really pushed Union into the spotlight was Bring It On (2000), a cheerleading comedy (and Ant-Man director Peyton Reed’s feature film directorial debut) in which Union starred opposite Kirsten Dunst, Eliza Dushku and Jesse Bradford as Isis the captain of rival cheerleading squad the East Compton Clovers. Despite film critics giving it only mildly positive reviews, that movie was a huge box office hit that led to a string of direct-to-video sequels plus one 2022 TV film that aired on Syfy.
After being cast in a supporting role in Gary Hardwick’s 2001 film The Brothers, Hardwick cast Union in a bigger role opposite LL Cool J in the 2003 rom-com Deliver Us from Eva, a modern take on William Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew and the first film to put Gabrielle Union’s name on the poster. Plus one of the songs on that film’s soundtrack “Paradise” was sung by LL Cool J and Union appeared in the music video for that song as well, not to mention future music videos by other artists like Busta Rhymes (“I Love My Bitch”), Ne-Yo (“Miss Independent”) and Rihanna (“Man Down”) which expanded her stardom even further.
Union credited Michael Bay’s 2003 buddy cop action comedy Bad Boys II starring Martin Lawrence and Will Smith as the film that truly elevated her career, playing DEA agent Syd, a role Union would reprise in the Bad Boys spin-off L.A.’s Finest, a TV series that aired on Spectrum from 2019 to 2020.
After that she starred in the audacious dark comedy Neo Ned (2005) as a mental patient who claims to be the reincarnation of Adolf Hitler and who hooks up with a skinhead played by Jeremy Renner, she played Alice Kramden opposite Cedric the Entertainer’s Ralph Kramden in the poorly received 2005 remake of The Honeymooners (although Roger Ebert gave it a thumbs up) and she worked with the reliable box office king Tyler Perry playing a lawyer/love interest opposite Idris Elba (a role Perry created with Union in mind) in the 2007 film Daddy’s Little Girls, an original story that was the first of Perry’s films not based on one of his own stage plays. Union enjoyed working with Perry so much that she would work with him again in the 2012 rom-com Good Deeds.
Observing Gabrielle Union’s immediate post-Bad Boys II career, there wasn’t a lot about her roles that stood out as truly amazing, but she did sometimes show her range with more adventurous roles such as in Cadillac Records (2008) and she would still occasionally have a box office hit like Tim Story’s romantic comedy Think Like a Man (2012) which was based on Steve Harvey’s book Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man, a huge seller in both book and movie form that would lead to a sequel in 2014 called Think Like a Man Too, which was also financially successful. Plus she never left the television industry even after becoming a big film star. She guest-starred in well-known shows like ER, Friends, The West Wing, Ugly Betty and FlashForward and was a main cast member in the medical drama City of Angels which was a rare network television drama with a predominantly African American cast. It aired on CBS for a single season in 2000.
In 2013, Union scored her biggest television role playing the lead in Mara Brock Akil’s BET drama Being Mary Jane, in which Union played news anchor Pauletta Patterson aka “Mary Jane Paul.” The series lasted five seasons consistently getting good reviews, and following her success on that show Union had a recurring role as the voice of Nala in Disney Junior’s The Lion Guard (2016-19), a short stint as a judge in season 14 of the NBC competition show America’s Got Talent and a big gig playing Tootie Ramsey in the Facts of Life segment of ABC’s TV special Live in Front of a Studio Audience created by Jimmy Kimmel and based on the sitcoms of Norman Lear, with a lead role in the third season of the Apple TV+ drama Truth Be Told still on the horizon.
As for her movie roles, those also got better. After starring as Chris Rock’s fiancée in Rock’s critically acclaimed comedy Top Five (2014), Union played a slave and a rape victim in the Antebellum South in the 2016 drama The Birth of a Nation, she found more success with audiences in Almost Christmas (2016), Girls Trip (2017) and Breaking In (2018), returned to both the world of sci-fi and the world of Disney animation voicing the pilot Meridian Clade in Strange World (2022) and continued to get out of her comfort zone in films like The Inspection (2022), a truth-based drama written and directed by Elegance Bratton and executive produced by Union in which Union plays the homophobic mother of a gay man played by Jeremy Pope.
According to Union the role signaled a deeper acting challenge. She described her career up to that point as one full of roles she could easily relate to and phone in. But she rarely did the kind of acting that required her to embody someone so different from herself, and this challenge was the reason she accepted the role in The Inspection, recalling that her friend and fellow actor Sanaa Lathan once told her any role that scares you is worth pursuing. If Gabrielle Union keeps accepting more adventurous roles in the future, I am definitely looking forward to seeing what she does next.