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by tt stern-enzi

My first professional encounter with Gabrielle Union came during press for Deliver Us From Eva back in 2003. She was leading the black rom-com charge along with Sanaa Lathan, but was poised, it seemed to strike out into more mainstream roles. Bad Boys II put in right in the middle of things between Will Smith and Martin Lawrence, giving her the chance to display her action chops as well as her firmly established tough & tender moving on up around the way girl persona. Despite my initial dislike for Bad Boys II, I appreciated what Union brought to her role, especially in those quiet moments with Smith’s character. From the near shock following her first high-speed car chase and live round fire fight to the lead-up to finally standing up to her brother (Lawrence) regarding her relationship with his partner and best friend (Smith), there’s an understanding of the need for (and an effort to present) real emotional connection.

I’ve been reminded of her awareness of emotion and mood in a pair of recent performances. In Ava DuVernay’s short “The Door” commissioned by Miu Miu, Union takes center stage as a nameless woman caught in the first stage of despondency after the end of her marriage. We see her barely able to drag herself to the front door as the a friend (Adepero Oduye) comes to help her take the first step back to life. At dinner, Union captures the emotional emptiness that almost renders her character to weak to even pick at a plate of food. Yet, by the time a second sister-friend (Emayatzy Corinealdi from DuVernay’s Middle of Nowhere) arrives at her door, ready to take her out for a night of dancing, we spy a glimpse of an awakening of her spirit, a quickening of her heartbeat as it matches the pulsing music of the club, and by the time a third sister (singer-songwriter Goapele) invites her out to a performance where she is serenaded into full bloom, Union has walked us through each distinct mood, each step along the pathway that ends with her finally emerging through her front door on her own for a final visit (with Alfre Woodard) before achieving a sense of peace and the strength to set this painful burden aside.

“The Door” forced me to sift through the pile of DVDs sitting on my desk in search of In Our Nature, an indie project from writer-director Brian Savelson featuring Union as Vicky, the new (younger) girlfriend of Gil (John Slattery), who end up spending a weekend in a gorgeous cabin in the woods with Gil’s estranged son Seth (Zach Gilford) and Seth’s girlfriend Andie (Jena Malone). Full of talky family dysfunction, In Our Nature barrels along towards Lifetime television movie cliches with a series of herky jerky shocks seemingly intent on producing emotional concussions in each of the characters. An old school pitch might attempt to frame Nature as the Evil Dead of family psychodrama, but instead of a Book of the Dead that unleashes the hounds of hell, you’ve got a shop-worn copy of the Book of Resentments. All of the perceived slights and alternate perspectives on pivotal moments are laid bare in the shallowest of graves out there in the woods.

But, rather than triggering a quick and itchy fast forward through these seemingly endless recollections, each member of the cast pulls us into their personal head (and heart) space. Union, in particular, embodies the conflicted and complex realities of an outsider, the new woman dropped into a volatile and fragile nuclear unit, and that is all without race directly becoming a factor. Often when we discuss the colorblindness of certain stories, we are responding to a filmmaker choosing to ignore race or the kind of blindness that speaks to Ralph Ellison’s “invisibility,” but Nature, thanks to Union’s awareness and presence, sees her as a strong dynamic black woman. She brings and represents “black femininity” without having to ever “discuss” it.

Which takes us back to “The Door” because this commercial short communicates emotional depth without words as well. Color and music highlight and accentuate performance, but it begins and ends with the actor, and Union delivers. In each case, she proves ready to step forward, away from the Eva-types of her past, towards a future of more fully realized interpretations of her more perfect Gabrielle Union.