book excerpt

Dear Isis

Gabrielle Union writes about wishing she had done better by her Bring It On character.

Photo: Ken Jacques/Universal/Beacon/Kobal/Shutterstock
Photo: Ken Jacques/Universal/Beacon/Kobal/Shutterstock
Photo: Ken Jacques/Universal/Beacon/Kobal/Shutterstock

I should start where we met, Isis. We did the reading at a Hollywood theater, an assembly of actors where only a couple of people would end up landing the roles. I wanted this one. Setting aside my need to win everything, which I know we share, I needed the job. This is a big deal, I said to myself, holding the script just before the table read. But those words. Your lines were full of made-up slang that made me cringe.

As the only Black person at the reading, I already felt isolated. I didn’t want to read the words on the page, but I knew I had to because this was one step toward securing the offer. In the end, my fear of being maligned by my own community superseded my fear of getting replaced. I couldn’t live with facing Black people if I didn’t change that dialogue.

So, I said something, and the director, Peyton Reed, said, “Thank you for pointing this out. Let’s go line by line and just fix it.”

It’s part of the Bring It On lore, right? Gabrielle Union and Peyton Reed changed the dialogue on shooting days. I’ve said I wanted to make your character more realistic—more authentically Black—but Isis, one of my chief concerns was getting you to UC Berkeley. Torrance making it there, no one would question. She could use Valley Girl lingo the whole movie and no reviewer would say, “But is she exhibiting enough leadership qualities and intelligence to justify her ending up at an institution like UC Berkeley at the end?” No, she’s white. You don’t really see Torrance taking AP classes or studying, but somehow there’s no need to justify whether or not she earned her spot.

You, however, needed to work twice as hard as Torrance to go from East Compton to land in the UC system. You needed to be beyond reproach. Not just as a cheerleader, but as a community leader and student. And you had to do all that without sacrificing your Blackness. How was I going to accomplish this for you?

I was twenty-six, and I knew all the extra work I had done myself. I wasn’t that far removed from my own journey as a UC student when we shot the film in 1999. That was right after Prop 209 in your home state of California, which banned affirmative action not just in state hiring, but state university admissions. This move greatly reduced the number of Black students in the UC system. UC Berkeley alone showed a 25 percent average drop in Californian Black and Latinx enrollment.

Like so many Black mothers, I was working with the facts at hand. I knew you wouldn’t have the advantages of Advanced Placement college prep classes at your school back then. Black and Latinx students in public schools like yours were disproportionately disadvantaged by a lack of access to AP classes.

In 1999, the year I created you, the ACLU of Southern California filed a civil rights class action lawsuit, Daniel v. California, on behalf of public high school students denied access to AP courses. The ACLU saw the trap you were in: completing an AP course gave students an extra point in the University of California system’s calculation of their grade point average, so AP students had the advantage of going over the 4.0 “perfect score.” They highlighted a school near yours, Inglewood High, which had three AP courses, while Beverly Hills High offered forty-five. And guess what? The ACLU pointed out that UC Berkeley rejected eight thousand applicants whose GPAs were 4.0 or higher, and instead took the kids with even higher GPAs.

Black girls like you thought they couldn’t be less than perfect.

And even that wasn’t enough. I had more advantages than you, and I didn’t even take AP classes. To give myself even more of an edge — anything to be chosen — I took night classes at a community college my junior and senior years of high school. It was me and Todd Mann, this white kid who had a vintage BMW. Twice a week, we’d drive to Chabot College, a half hour out of town, listening to his tapes of the Jerky Boys and Andrew Dice Clay. We were the youngest students in those classes — history and English — with the oldest being folks in their seventies.

They valued the experience, doing the papers just because they wanted to. But you and I had to, Isis. Our actions couldn’t be driven by interest, but by necessity. Our other classmates could let time slip by, because their lives would be waiting for them, handed to them at graduation. Not us. We had to prove we were worthy.

I decided you had to be studying at night for pre-college credits, too. This would have been off-screen, along with the parents of the Clovers they never showed in the film. I knew you had involved parents. Yes, I created a whole life for you, the girl who the screenwriters didn’t bother giving a last name. There was Torrance Shipman, Sparky Polastri, and the Pantones—Cliff and Missy. But us Clovers? Isis, Jenelope, Lafred, and Lava? None. No surname for you to claim, Isis. Or to claim you. So, you were my daughter alone.

I filled in the lines, putting you in those night classes, actually figuring out how you made it work around cheer practice. I had to instill that discipline in you. After all, I had to prep you not just to get in to UC Berkeley, but to stay. Because I had seen a lot of kids get in—but they couldn’t keep up, could they? There’s all kinds of reasons why Black and brown kids leave college, not just academic. But you would have to maintain a certain GPA to continue to play sports. And cheerleading, whatever people think of it, is a sport.

Which brings me to the scene everyone memes and loves. The scene so many people congratulate me for. What a proud mother I must be.

Photo: Ken Jacques/Universal

We filmed it on a Friday night in a borrowed San Diego high school standing in for East Compton. It was an outdoor shoot, right at the threshold of the gym. This was the scene where I confront Torrance and Missy, played by Eliza Dushku, after they travel to East Compton to watch us cheer. Missy takes Torrance there to show how Big Red, the former captain of the cheerleaders, had actually been ripping off Clover routines for years, the same routines Big Red had passed on to Torrance. They watch us perform and realize their lives are a lie. According to the script, you stop Torrance and Missy as they’re slipping out of the gym. You assume they’re stealing again, and want whatever videotape they took of the routines you invented. This was one of the scenes where the Black actresses had to finesse the script day-of to avoid the embarrassing dialogue that was initially written for us. Left to improvise, I had free rein to put words in your mouth and ad-lib your thoughts on cultural appropriation. Not just that: Race and worthiness. Who gets opportunities and why. The scene would give white people a chance to see themselves as complicit in cultural appropriation, but the takeaway for marginalized audiences would be different. It could tell them, “You’re not crazy. Your physical and intellectual labor really has been stolen and repackaged for profit. It’s real.”

I knew it was important, and I felt even more scrutinized because I had friends on set. Dulé Hill and two of my girlfriends, Lacondra and Kristen, had come down to San Diego for the weekend. I knew Dulé from working as two of the few Black people in She’s All That, a movie for which, by the way, IMDB has no account of our characters’ last names, as opposed to the other nine “leads.”

That year he had started filming his role as Charlie on The West Wing. It was and is a white show. There were no other Black people on that show but him, so Dulé intimately understood how challenging it was to have conversations like the ones I’d been having on this set. You get a script and there’s something in there that doesn’t ring true at all or it’s problematic. That dance that you have to do, and all the compromises you make.

In the scene, as Jenelope, Natina Reed says to Isis, “Can we just beat these Buffys down so I can go home? I’m on curfew, girl.” Isis, I had you tell Jenelope that hurting them would just clear their consciences about stealing from us. You let Torrance and Missy know the Toros had been stealing from the Clovers for years and profited from things they denied us—championships and ESPN exposure.

We ran through a bunch of takes, and I modulated your anger each time. And each time the director said “Cut,” I would go up to Dulé. “What do you think? What do you think?” And “Did I go too far? Is that too much?”

Dulé would just raise his eyebrows like a good therapist. “Is that … Do you think that’s good enough? How do you feel?”

I don’t know which take it was, Isis, but this is what made it in: “Every time we get some, here y’all come,” you say. “Trying to steal it, putting some blond hair on it and calling it something different. We’ve had the best squad around for years, but no one’s been able to see what we can do. But you better believe all that’s gonna change this year. I’m captain, and I guarantee you we’ll make it to Nationals. So, hand over the tape you made tonight and we’ll call it even for now.”

We’ll call it even. I thought you had to give them grace in the face of the thievery. You had every right to ask them to come forward publicly about what they had done, seek forgiveness, and work toward justice. But I made you educate, yet again, people who absolutely know better and still refuse to do better.

Natina, for one, was not having it. She had her character Jenelope, her child, say, “What? Come on, Isis, let me do this.”

I had you refuse. Walk away. “You know what? Let’s go.”

“Wait a minute,” said Jenelope/Natina. “So that’s it? We’re just gonna let them go?”

“Yeah,” I made you say. “Because unlike them, we have class.”

I thought surrender was “class.” I didn’t know that I could give you “class” and dignity while also being very clear about holding people accountable. Beating them up may have been beneath you, but I wish I had even allowed you to be angry. To not muzzle any of that rage, including the justifiable anger of your teammates.

Because that scene at the gym was a rare opportunity for you and them. When you’re young and Black and in predominantly Black settings like you had, you don’t get to have those confrontations because white folks just aren’t around. It’s the blues riff taken by the British band and sold back to America, the TikTok girls stealing the Black girl’s dance. We don’t know it’s happening until it’s too late. But here you had caught them in this moment of potential accountability, and you had to wipe the slate clean.

It was a wrap. As Dulé, Lacondra, and Kristen drove with me out of the high school parking lot, I was still stuck on it. “I wonder which take they’ll use,” I said.

Photo: Universal/Everett Collection/©Universal/Courtesy Everett Col

You won—your team beat the Toros fair and square, and you had to be gracious about it.

I raise your chin, as if this was news that hadn’t occurred to you.

You answer: “We were, hunh?”

The bashful humility makes Torrance chuckle, and she walks away. Debt paid, conscience clear. They don’t have to think about what they did and how it affected the opportunities of a group of Black and brown girls down the freeway.

Now? I would do that line so differently. There would be no surprised “hunh,” and certainly no question mark. It would be, “We were.” Period. I’d give you the moment to be happy that you were finally being acknowledged as a champion. “Captain to captain,” I want you to say to Torrance, “you finally had to do your own work and you came in second. I’m sorry you are faced with the fact that when things are equal, you are not good enough.”

I couldn’t let you have that. I had to get you to Berkeley, right? We shot the ending with you and Torrance in Berkeley cheer uniforms, playfully squabbling over who would be captain. We filmed at the UCLA campus as a stand-in, and I was proud to be back at my own alma mater. A homecoming for me, and I’d gotten you there. Roll credits.

They cut the scene.

“It really kind of had no place in the movie,” the director, Peyton Reed, said in one of the many oral histories of the film. “It really didn’t feel like it said anything, or did anything, so we just decided to cut it.”

You never made it to Berkeley. Instead they ran a blooper reel, mixed with the cast lip-syncing to the song “Mickey.” I get it: it’s epic, and it’s something people remember.

You know what else people remember? You as a villain.

I once saw a poll of greatest movie villains and there you were. Why? Because you asked for accountability in the most civil tone I could manage? When people do their impersonation of you—to me!—it’s an aggressive, slang-talking girl threatening violence.

It doesn’t matter what you say, it matters how you make people feel. And you can’t control that. Knowing how you and I would be received, I should have just put the words in your mouth unapolo-getically.

So, I am here to apologize to you. When I said today that you didn’t go far enough, that was on me. I failed you and myself. I was the fourth lead, but my face was on the poster. You were the girl with no last name, but the star of every meme. You were only in about a third of the movie, and now I would know to fight for equal time to tell your story. Your iconic moments with the Clovers are what people remember, though I know it’s partly that we are bits of Black resistance dropped in the middle of the milk.

Your story, the real one, is that you are amazing with your rage. With your disappointment, your heartbreak, and all your complicated feelings. Never in spite of them or because you hid them.

I wish I had just given you the space to be a Black girl who is exceptional without making any kind of compromise. Because that’s who I want to be now. That’s what I am chasing, so much later in life than you: to be exceptional by my own standards. Unapologetically me.

This piece has been edited and condensed from its original.

From YOU GOT ANYTHING STRONGER by Gabrielle Union Copyright © 2021 by Gabrielle Union. Reprinted by permission of Dey Street Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

Dear Isis