Gabrielle Union Reflects on 'AGT' Investigation and Hollywood's Accountability Problem

When it comes to Hollywood's ongoing issues with inclusivity and diversity, Gabrielle Union says for true change to happen, "we have to hold people at the very top accountable."

Appearing on The Daily Social Distancing Show on Tuesday, the actress noted that especially now, as the country faces a growing fight against systematic racism, there's a stronger need than ever for the industry to address problematic practices and people. 

Before Union and Noah discussed the discrimination she experienced at America’s Got Talent while a panelist, the actress shared that between the pandemic and waking up daily to the "murder of Black bodies," being a Black woman in America right now is "just one big anxiety attack." 

"The nonstop onslaught of trauma... I don't even know if anxiety is a big enough word," Union said. "It feels like terror in my body. You try to figure out how best you can cope and then help."

Noah said the conversations happening at the moment around systemic racism are ones he did not expect to happen for nearly a decade in the U.S. When it comes to the ones happening within Hollywood, Noah said Union was someone in the industry who stood up to racism before it was "quote unquote cool" to bring up. 

Union had served as a panelist for just one season on the NBC competition series last year when she was let go following accusations that she experienced racial insensitivity and a toxic culture on the NBC competition series. A joint investigation by the network, producers Fremantle and Simon Cowell's Syco followed, and a conclusion in May noted the show "demonstrated an overall culture of diversity," though it did discover "some areas in which reporting processes could be improved." Union recently filed a new complaint against the show, asking California authorities to examine racism on the set. 

The actress reflected on her first day on AGT, saying she found Simon Cowell smoking cigarettes inside, something she said she'd never experienced in her work. "When your boss, the person who has ability to determine who gets opportunities, believes law doesn’t apply to him... and he does it in full view of NBC and Fremantle and Syco. And no one cares he’s exposing employees to secondhand smoke — that's day one, that's within the first hour — what message do you think that sends to anyone that has an issue with the very real racism and lack of accountability?"

Touching on the investigation itself, Union remarked "well, silly me" for thinking the independent investigation would be just that. "When NBC and Fremantle and Syco pay for that investigation, they control it."

Union continued that, overall, her goal is for employees to be treated fairly. "Nobody is asking for anything special, nobody is asking for somebody to separate their Skittles or M&Ms...just treat people fairly. Have mechanisms in place for when things happen, there are consequences."

The actress shared that amid the investigation, "inflammatory things or things that are not advantagous to me" were turned over to NBC chairman Paul Telegdy.

According to Union, Telegdy used "those things that he thinks are smoking guns to shoot down my claims. He then threatens my agent. 'Gabrielle better watch who she calls a racist' in the middle of an investigation about racism and discrimination. This is whats happening from the top of the company."

When asked by Noah what can the industry improve upon to help Black people on all levels, Union said the notion of "going along to get along" must end. 

"Trying to figure out how you work around the bad apples as opposed to addressing and making those bad apples accountable," she continued. "In front of and behind the camera, there has to be an increase in representation from across the board, from the top to the bottom — who gets to make the decisions of which projects to green light, who is a part of those development process, who gets to determine budgets."

"We have to be able to be okay with change that doesn’t always benefit us," Union shared. "Some people believe that leadership — the only way to lead — is to center yourself in every argument. What I’m learning throughout this whole process is sometimes the best way to lead is to get out of the way and make room for someone else. You have to dismantle the whole thing. You cant put a bandaid on a gunshot."