How Gabrielle Union Became the New Voice of ‘Birth of a Nation’

With Nate Parker distracted by rape controversy, Union has taken up the film’s message

Gabrielle Union
(Jesse Grant/Getty Images for NAACP Image Awards)

In the past two weeks, Gabrielle Union has emerged as the face of “The Birth of a Nation.”

Director Nate Parker has spent the publicity campaign for the film either answering or dodging questions about the 17-year-old rape case in which he was acquitted. With him distracted by those questions, Union is taking a more outspoken and commanding route, trying to reengage an audience that might be turned off by the director’s past.

Union’s comments at the Toronto International Film Festival followed her brave op-ed piece about her harrowing experience as a rape survivor. In the film, she plays Esther, a woman who is sexually assaulted.

“The once victim has become the person of power in this equation,” marketing expert Rachel Weingarten, told TheWrap, adding that Union has largely replaced Parker as the spokesperson for the film. “Nate Parker has for better or worse been painted as the villain in the story, perhaps rightly so.”

Union has reframed the dialogue around the film by tackling difficult questions regarding rape and violence against women. She has presented the film as part of a social movement for those oppressed by corrupt systems. In Toronto, she named Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old African American who was shot dead by police in Cleveland, Ohio, in 2014.

“If you are confused as to why Ryan Lochte was called a child, referred to as a kid, and was celebrated and rewarded with a ‘Dancing With the Stars’ appearance, but you’re wondering why Tamir Rice was never referred to as child, and was murdered within seconds for acting like a child? And you have a problem with that? This film is for you as well,” she told TheWrap at TIFF.

She also recommended the film to those who simply don’t understand “Black Lives Matter.”

Union’s experience with sexual violence has also made her a uniquely powerful voice in the film’s discussion of it.

“The Birth of a Nation” tells the story of Nat Turner’s slave rebellion. And Union said she learned to be a leader from hearing that story as a child.

In an interview with xoNecole, Union said her mother observed her assimilating to white culture, noticing that Union wouldn’t speak up on issues of adversity for fear of standing out.

“To stand up and lead makes you a target and I thought that being black was a big enough target,” said Union. “I didn’t want anyone to notice me, but my mother said, ‘That’s not the woman I’m raising. I didn’t raise you to be silent.’”

Union said in the xoNecole interview that she respects those who choose not to see “The Birth of a Nation.”

“I understand those who may have an issue with Nate’s past and if you don’t like the way Nate is handling the present, I absolutely understand if you chose to sit the film out,” said Union. “I respect it because I would be a hypocrite if I said I hadn’t chosen not to see films that made me uncomfortable for one reason or another.”

She has dedicated herself to pushing a film and messages that could have been lost in the conversation around Parker.

“This movement is big enough for all of us, if we are okay in having the uncomfortable conversations,” Union recently told a CBC reporter. “Burying our heads in the sand about the difficult issues and the facts of reality is not helpful for any of us.”