BET Experience 2016, the 4-day endless entertainment festival leading up to the BET Awards, kicked off with a stimulating array of performances, panels, and interactive exhibits. The Genius Talks series: a collection of panels/conversations featuring industry insiders, was included in the festival.

This past Saturday evening, #Nerdland, #BeingMaryJane, and general Hollywood fans alike were treated to “State of the Union: Black Women in Hollywood,” a poignant and necessary conversation with Gabrielle Union, led by Melissa Harris-Perry.

The overarching theme of Black voices being heard and having a seat at the proverbial table washed over the room like a thick mist. The two women dove right into the nitty and the gritty, musing on the recent consensus and criticism of “too many slavery movies” in relation to The Birth of a Nation, in which Union co-stars. Union quipped with a strong disagreement, arguing that slavery depictions are important to showcase just how much Black people were stripped of our humanity, biting back at the slavery film detractors as doing the same by noting:

 “There is no #OscarSoWhite without our humanity, and if you cannot see the humanity in a 12 year old child who is slaughtered for playing with a toy gun, by himself in an open carry state as he is gunned down, but can be outraged by Cecil the Lion’s death and a gorilla…We need to see more films like Roots and Birth of a Nation.  We need our stories told over and over again.  Anytime you see our history reflected, it helps. It helps to see our own humanity and it helps other people to see our humanity.” – Gabrielle Union

[bctt tweet=” If you can’t see our humanity in real life, you’re never going to see it in our art – @itsgabrielleu” username=”HBR_Media”]

This statement naturally evolved to a loaded question: Can art create a sense of humanity? And by extension, what is the responsibility of artists to create and/or showcase it?

We then shifted onto the weighted topic of being a Black woman in Hollywood, specifically, and navigating that very uniquely challenging road. Union ruminated on her evolution as a woman in Hollywood, divulging on an early moment in her career where she auditioned for a Tupac music video as an overtly-exploited video vixen and Tupac recognizing “something more” in her. This was a resonating moment for her as she declared for the audience, “If you are put in a position of power, you must be empowering.” To this point, Harris-Perry and Union bonded over being in “the room” and feeling alone as oftentimes, they are the only Black women in these rooms.

[bctt tweet=”If you are put in a position of power, you must be empowering. – @itsgabrielleu” username=”HBR_Media”]

For this reason, they heavily stressed the importance of community and sisterhood in a society where competition reigns. Union provided a great example in which she was at an event where a woman criticized — of all things — Beyoncé’s knees, hinting at the propensity to humble a status figure that appears to be “perfect” in every way.  Refreshingly, Union made a point to affirm the action of building each other up, as the latter speaks to a self-powerlessness

[bctt tweet=”Shining a light on you shouldn’t dim mine. – @itsgabrielleu” username=”HBR_Media”]

Another prominent theme surrounding professional women (with an added layer for Black women), is balancing professional and personal life. Union brilliantly touched on this, noting that red carpet questions surrounding that topic are always set aside for her, but never her male mate or counterparts. She stressed that women don’t have to just be one thing and more importantly (and less touched-upon), we don’t have to balance it all perfectly. There is an overarching idea that Black women be superhuman, so for Union to humanize this idea was extra refreshing.

The end of the evening cooled down a bit, wrapping up into a casual and sisterly chat about various fun topics from Union’s Snapchat account (and the various characters she has created, such as Delusional Debby) right down to her music playlist, which included a nice range of Whitney Houston, Journey and soca. I was also surprised to find out she has a new line of wine (Chardonnay, to be specific), exclusively available at Total Wine & More. She is definitely a well-rounded woman who is dipping her hands into all matters of things and is completely unapologetic for it.

Overall, being a Black Women in Hollywood in and of itself facilitates many ongoing and pivotal conversations and having these opportunities to discuss them among my peers (whether touchable or seemingly untouchable) are inspiring and I look for many more to come.

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About The Author

Tonja Renée Stidhum is a screenwriter/director with cheeks you want to pinch... but don't (unless she wants you to). She is made of sugar and spice and everything rice... with the uncanny ability to make a Disney/Pixar reference in the same sentence as a double entendre.

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