The real-life basketball wife flourishes in all your fave films — and Nia Long is still getting buckets
It’s the middle of June. The 2016 NBA Finals are in full swing, and even when there’s not a game on, there’s game analysis on a flat screen. Stephen Curry’s Golden State Warriors and LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers are in epic combat for world supremacy.
But in Nia Long’s household, she wins the remote control war — easily.
“Oh there’s no war,” said Long before chasing it with a giggle. “Ime will probably say, Babe, let’s watch your show. It’s only 30 minutes.”
Her new ABC comedy, Uncle Buck — she co-stars with Mike Epps — premieres on June 14. It happens to be an off-night for the NBA, but Long is engaged to “notable” San Antonio Spurs assistant coach (and former Spurs player) Ime Udoka, who surely wants to soak up all NBA everything.
His fiancee, though, is front and center on a major network. And there’s more cause for celebration — Long has been famous for 25 years this summer. Even she can’t quite process that 2 1/2 decades have gone by since John Singleton introduced the world to South Central Los Angeles in his gripping Boyz N The Hood. The 1991 film launched the superstar acting careers of Ice Cube, Angela Bassett, Cuba Gooding Jr., Morris Chestnut and Long herself. In it she delivered Brandi, who was girl-next-door perfection. It was the beginning of a long line of roles in which she was the classic bring-home-to-mom girlfriend.
Nobody doesn’t love Nia Long. The fact that she’s been relevant all this time, and is still — still! — slaying on magazine covers like this 2010 Monarch cover, this 2011 Ebony cover and this 2012 Essence cover even when she isn’t promoting a project is nothing short of amazing. Staying top of mind in Hollywood when there aren’t a wealth of projects designed for her undeniably black aesthetic? It is a huge victory in a world where classic American beauty is still defined by the Jennifer Lawrences — young, white and blond women — of the world.
“I’ve learned to care about the things that are worth caring about,” Long said, fresh from a meeting with her management team in Los Angeles. “And I just work from a space of authenticity and groundedness and patience. Patience is big. If you try to get it all at one time, you realize the foundation of whatever you’re building is not stable enough to sustain itself.”
For the longest time, she’s sustained.
Ahem. And then some.
Nitara Carlynn Long was born in Brooklyn, New York, and relocated to Los Angeles with her mom Talita when she was 7. Long’s acting coach was Betty Bridges (mother of actor Todd Bridges) and Long landed one of her first roles in 1986 as a guest on 227, the comedy series starring future Boyz N the Hood castmate Regina King. Long is a mother of two boys—Massai Zhivago Dorsey II, 15, and 4-year-old Kez Sunday Udoka — and she’s been engaged to Udoka since last year. They manage homes in Los Angeles and Texas (during basketball season) and her Spurs fandom runs rampant.
By her own assessment, Long is a straight, no chaser kind of soul. She doesn’t have much time for dillydallying, and she favors meaningful conversations with trusted voices. Long prefers being an entertainer to being a celebrity, and is not one for working a room filled with random people at a Hollywood-insider event. “I appreciate that about Ime, too,” she said. “He’s a straight shooter … and maybe one day he’ll be a head coach. That’s what’s going to make him greater. That ability to be very direct. Sometimes it’s rough, his directness,” she said, with a laugh, “but I appreciate it. I get a taste of my own medicine. I met my match.”
Long had a career before Boyz N The Hood — most notably in Guiding Light as Kathryn (Kat) Speakes, which started in 1991, before Boyz. She said she was on top of the world, depositing a $2,500 check every two weeks — “I thought I was rich!” — and rocking a coveted three-year contract that gave her a regular presence on daytime TV.
But real fame didn’t come until she became Catholic schoolgirl-next-door Brandi in Boyz, a character who was contemplating losing her virginity to her sweetheart Trey (Gooding Jr.). Boyz N the Hood earned director Singleton an Oscar nomination at age 23, making him the first African-American and the youngest person to have ever been nominated for a directing Oscar. And Long’s representation in the film influenced a generation. Youthful Gen X’ers from the ’hood to the sticks to the suburbs found themselves relating to her/Brandi’s balance of being the model student/child and wanting to give in, let go and give it up. She lived in a working-class black neighborhood that often fell prey to violence, but she had aspirations of going to Spelman College, and of not becoming another teen mom statistic.
As Brandi, Long was every brown boy’s crush.
“Nia has always brought a very unique perspective and style to her every character,” said Boyz co-star Chestnut, who is starring in his own one-hour drama, Rosewood, on FOX. “Brandi was the very cute, innocent, wholesome teenager with a little bit of edge and intelligence.”
Sounds a lot like Long, herself.
Though she said, “When I look in the mirror, I see 25 things that need improvement,” her beauty is legend. And her edge is constant. Long has long been name-checked in hip-hop songs. Kanye West rapped in 2005’s Touch The Sky”about being unable to keep it home / I thought I needed a Nia Long. J. Cole rapped about — pined for, really — Long as a dream girl in 2014’s No Role Modelz: My only regret was I too young for Nia Long / Now all I’m left with is hoes from reality shows. “He’s really not too young,” Long said in an interview with Larry King, “he just doesn’t know it.”
Long is humble, but beauty is serious business in Hollywood, and it’s easy for female actors to get pushed into a corner and become The Girlfriend, The Wife, The Lover and nothing more. Pushing past the pretty is an Olympic-sized hurdle, and Long has managed to remix her career to find substantive female characters who offer more than a flawless face, perfect smile and banging body.
“Nia, she’s a very smart woman,” said Chestnut, “And she brings that to all of her roles. She’s been in iconic films — Boyz, Love Jones and The Best Man series — and in large part, a lot of [what makes them iconic] is due to her.”
Long brought jazz-loving out-of-work photographer Nina Mosely to life in 1997’s Love Jones. The romantic drama follows a would-be perfect couple who struggle (and struggle!) to make it work. Love Jones is the standard-bearer for classic and rare black romances such as 2000’s Love & Basketball — another film that fought hard to portray educated black folks living their lives and daring to fall in love while doing so. Love Jones was also important because it was one of the only 1990s black films that reflected black life without violence or “urban” strife. These folks — Darius Lovehall (Larenz Tate), Nina, Hollywood (Bill Bellamy), Savon (Isaiah Washington) and Josie (Lisa Nicole Carson) — were perfectly imperfect. They loved poetry, they smoked cigarettes, and took part in enlightened, spirited conversations. It was jarring in the best way possible to see 20-something black folks be 20-something black folks. Drinking wine at the bar, loving poet Sonia Sanchez and trying to figure out how to make relationships work.
“One of the great things about a movie like Love Jones,” said Tate, who was Long’s love interest Darius Lovehall in the film and who most recently starred in NBC’s Game of Silence, “is that in that golden era, there were a lot of movies where black imagery projected negativity … This was the antithesis of that. It wasn’t a gritty movie about escaping some of the circumstances in our communities. We weren’t talking about the white man’s foot on our neck. This was a movie about hearts that were being honest. And emotions. It was nice to see two people very strong, very intellectual, but also vulnerable in a real way that allowed audiences — black, white, in between — to connect. There was a level of humanity brought to those two characters, and a certain realism.”
Long’s Nina Mosely was certainly real. She was the quintessential, cultured dream woman. She was smart. She was engaging. She was stunning. She was brown-skinned and she was on the big screen. She’s appreciative of those moments — still rare for black women in Hollywood. “Sometimes I have to just stop, and think, and take a deep breath and be grateful and thankful for having a long-standing career and not worry about what’s next,” she said. “And be in the moment and just enjoy it. When I was younger, I didn’t have as much fun at times as I should have.”
Her co-stars couldn’t tell. She’s always presented as an actor who dives deep into her work and fancies every moment of it. “Whatever project that Nia attaches herself to, or decides to be a part of, you know it’s going to be good,” Tate said. “She helps elevate projects.”
He notes of his friend and co-star that she’s flourished in a system that is toxic for female actors. “It’s hard, and challenging,” Tate said. “Hollywood is about how young you can be, and how young you can look. Women in their early 40s are not getting the same opportunities as women in their 20s.” Tate then added between laughs: “Nia hasn’t aged, FYI. Just so y’all know! Everybody is always talking about Nia Long and I understand why.”
The chemistry between Tate and Long helped make Love Jones a cult classic (directed by Theodore Witcher, a then-24-year-old who chose to never direct another feature film). But the film, made for about $10 million, earned little more than $12 million. “I wish Love Jones came out now,” said Long, who has called the film a “snapshot of her generation.” “Because now I think we’re ready for it. When Love Jones was released … my phone did not ring. It was crickets. People would come to me and say, ‘Oh, my God! I love that movie!’ But the film did not do anything at the box office.”
At the time Long was 26 and concerned about what Love Jones’ lack of financial success might mean for her career. That movie was a chance for her to test the market as a leading woman, prove to studios that she had the kind of growing star power and acting chops to pull an audience. But that film’s staying power taught Long a lesson: “Cut to 19 years later and, yes, it’s a cult classic, and, yes, people can watch that film today and still feel moved. To me, that’s more valuable than huge box office numbers. I want to be around for a long time. I want my body of work to reflect the world we live in. I want my body of work to reflect who I am.”
Smartly, Long’s body of work has been varied.
She’s had roles in major projects such as 2000’s hilarious Big Momma’s House, indie films such as 2000’s dramatic Boiler Room, cable TV projects such as Showtime’s critically acclaimed House of Lies (with Tate again), network TV shows such as Fresh Prince of Bel-Air where she was Will Smith’s girlfriend and significant cable movies like HBO’s impactful If These Walls Could Talk 2. She’s picked characters that stick with you: The Best Man’s Jordan Armstrong is a stylish, career-driven journalist still in love with her would-be college fling and searching for someone who can live up to their intense, unrequited chemistry.
The original The Best Man is another cult classic. And after much fan bemoaning, a sequel arrived 14 years later in 2013. Best Man Holiday — a comedic tearjerker — tore Hollywood up. It earned $10.7 million the Friday it opened, besting the mainstream Thor: The Dark World for the No. 1 spot that day. It became the No. 2 film that weekend, earning $30.6 million, and it ultimately collected more than $71.5 million — a major win for black stories at the box office. Once again, fans are waiting for the third film in the franchise, the previously announced Best Man Wedding.
Thing is, most of those same actors all now have primetime shows on major networks — Howard has Fox’s Empire, Chestnut has Fox’s Rosewood, next year, Sanaa Lathan’s highly-anticipated Shots Fired will premiere on Fox and Long is on ABC. No one knows if that film will ever see the light of day. “I have no idea,” Long said. “I know there was an availability issue and I’m sure [director] Malcolm Lee has a plan and a script in his back pocket that he hasn’t shared with us yet. I think we’d all love to do it, it just has to be the right timing and storyline for all the characters, and needs to make sense for our core audience.”
Black actors who are busy and who are in a position to negotiate?
It’s a good problem to have. Long is philosophical about it all.
“Sometimes it’s one project that catapults you into superstardom and sometimes it’s a collective journey of different characters that you play,” she said. “It’s been a slow and steady process. Mountains and molehills. Ups and downs. Laughter and tears. That’s what makes it beautiful because anything that’s perfect all the time is just not going to be that interesting. And it feels too safe. I like to live on the edge just a little bit.”
Jordan Armstrong, whom she has portrayed twice, had a good role model in Long. Outside looking in, Long’s career has been constant, steady, even. But she’s had moments; she still does sometimes. In that same Larry King interview she said: “Here’s the thing: I’m 45, I’m black, and I’m a woman. So those are three really hard things to deal with … except I’m always working, but I work really hard to get — sometimes — crumbs.”
She thrives nonetheless.
“I feel different as a woman, you know? I’ve had wins, I’ve had losses, I’ve experienced love and death and all the things that you have to experience to be a fully evolved person,” she said. “And I still have so much to learn. I was looking at my older son just the other day and I was like, ‘Wow, you weren’t even around when I did Boyz N the Hood. You weren’t even around when I did Friday. Like, you don’t even know how hot your mom was back then. You see me sitting on the couch in my sweats right now, baby boy, [but] back then it wasn’t like that!”
She pauses a few beats, and added: “He goes, ‘Mom, you’re still hot. You’re in, like, all these rap songs!’ ”
Truth is, Long has grown up to be exactly who we might have imagined young Brandi from South Central would become: a woman with fourth-decade wisdom who finds insight from her youthful decisions.
“Twenty-five years in this business is a big deal and it’s a beautiful thing,” she said. “And I’m just grateful that I’m happy and I have some babies and I have a great man and I’m still doing what I love. I don’t feel like I’ve even chipped away at my possibilities. I’m just trying to figure out how to have time — and still do what I love.”