Nia Long, Black Cinema’s Longtime “It” Girl, on Her Personal and Professional Renewal

The iconic actress opens up about the return of the ‘Best Man' franchise, being dragged into an NBA scandal and at last pursuing a career on her terms: “The days of being on the battlefield unnecessarily are over.”

Nia Long recently walked off a set for the first time in her 36-year career. “It broke my heart to have to do it because that’s not who I am, but I knew that I needed to do it because it didn’t feel good in my belly,” she tells me from across a booth at Culina, where we’re having lunch inside the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills.

Quitting a job in the middle of production may not be characteristic of the consummate professional that Long, 52, is known to be, but it reflects the woman she says she’s becoming. Having made a name for herself playing memorable leading roles in Black movies and sitcoms — she’s perhaps most famous for her role in the influential Best Man franchise, as well as Nina to Larenz Tate’s Darius in the iconic romance Love Jones, in addition to her seminal role in Boyz n the Hood — the veteran actress doesn’t feel beholden to what she calls “this competitive race to be the ‘It’ girl forever.” Besides, some 20 rap songs, dating back to A Tribe Called Quest’s 1993 release “Steve Biko (Stir It Up),” have already immortalized her status as such — an honor Long says she appreciates as a “true hip-hop lover.”

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“I’m just super Black, so anything that we’re doing, if I matter to us, then I know that I’m living in alignment with my purpose,” she says. It’s for this reason that Long intends to be more intentional about the roles she chooses, seeking projects that not only speak to her personally but also resonate with the collective effort of Black artists to have more say in Hollywood. This shift in focus has led to a number of fresh starts for the actress.

“2023 is like the year of new beginnings for me,” she says. “I couldn’t be more excited.”

Change is indeed the current constant for Long. The actress is in the midst of moving back to Los Angeles from Boston into a new home with her sons, Massai, 22, and Kez, 11, as Kez’s father, the embattled Boston Celtics head coach Ime Udoka, contends with a one-year suspension. It’s been an emotional year, made all the more so by having to say goodbye to a character she’s played three times over the course of her career: Jordan Armstrong. Long first portrayed the headstrong media mogul in 1999’s The Best Man and again in the 2013 sequel, The Best Man Holiday, which notably beat out Thor: The Dark World to top the box office on its opening day. Both films were written and directed by Malcolm D. Lee, who, along with the ensemble cast — including Morris Chestnut, Regina Hall, Taye Diggs, Sanaa Lathan, Terrence Howard and Melissa De Sousa — have returned for the forthcoming Peacock series The Best Man: The Final Chapters, premiering Dec. 22.

“I guess all good things must come to an end, but I also feel like this isn’t just about these characters,” Long says. “It was a decade of culture that we contributed to and that we inspired.”

Long and Chestnut have worked together on four projects, beginning with their breakout roles in John Singleton’s 1991 Oscar-nominated coming-of-age drama Boyz n the Hood.

“We never had any scenes together, but I remember how, just doing the table reads, she was just this fiery, cute chick that was playing a lead female role in the movie,” Chestnut recalls.

Their friendship goes back just as far, with Long calling the co-star her “therapist” while filming The Final Chapters. It’s a role he was happy to fill.

“I respect how she’s navigated this town the way she has for so long,” he says. “It’s rare for a woman to be 30 years onscreen in front of the cameras in leading female roles, so I have so much respect for her.”

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From left: Long and Larenz Tate in Love Jones (1997); Long with Cuba Gooding Jr. in Boyz in the Hood (1991). Courtesy Everett Collection; Columbia Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

Fans of the Brooklyn native have longed for her to reprise many of the early-career roles that cemented her girl-next-door allure during what is often referred to as the golden age of Black cinema. Nina Mosley, from the 1997 romantic cult classic Love Jones, is among them. Yet when it comes to the persistent inquiry regarding a sequel, Long says squarely, “I don’t think it’s necessary.

“I think one of the things that made that film so beautiful was that we were both so young and there was just this unfiltered approach to the work,” she says. “I would hate to disappoint anyone by trying to redo it or add another installment and then it just not be good.”

Good work that authentically represents Black experiences is what’s most important to Long at this stage of her career. The project she recently walked away from simply wasn’t up to her new standard.

“I felt like everything that was natural and organic for me wasn’t what they wanted, and I wasn’t willing to compromise what felt true for me. When I got on the plane to go home, I was so proud of myself, because the days of being on the battlefield unnecessarily are over. I just don’t have the capacity to hold that space anymore.”

It was a lesson she learned on her last major project, Fatal Affair. When the 2020 psychological thriller was panned by critics, Long, who was a producer of the Netflix film and the co-lead alongside Omar Epps, spoke up about the lack of diversity on set. Explaining that she joined the project too late to make the necessary changes to the crew, Long promised that her next production would be different.

“I’m learning to be a little bit more selective,” she explains. “I think some of my biggest mistakes in life have come from me assuming that other people would do what I would do or have the same understanding of something that I have. So that’s my bad.”

Walking away from this latest project was an affirmation of her new mindset. That Long’s co-star decided to leave with her made the moment even more powerful, she says.

“It felt like not only was I supported by my fellow castmate who was Black and who had a clear understanding of what I felt strongly about, but there was also this sense that the business I have to deal with at home is more important to me than teaching a white director-producer how to tell a Black story.”

That business was the Boston Celtics’ 2022-23 season suspension of Udoka for what an investigation by an independent law firm deemed to be multiple violations of team policies, including an improper relationship with a female member of the organization. Long and Udoka, who are co-parenting their son, Kez, began dating in 2009 and got engaged in 2015. “I went home to be with my son, and that was what was most important to me, because he was not having an easy time,” says Long, who would not discuss the status of her relationship with Udoka, nor comment on the conduct that prompted his disciplining.

On Sept. 23, the Celtics called a press conference to address Udoka’s suspension. The decision was as unprecedented as the severity of his punishment within the NBA. “I think the most heartbreaking thing about all of this was seeing my son’s face when the Boston Celtics organization decided to make a very private situation public,” says Long, who took her son out of school when the news broke. “It was devastating, and it still is. He still has moments where it’s not easy for him. If you’re in the business of protecting women — I’m sorry, no one from the Celtics organization has even called to see if I’m OK, to see if my children are OK. It’s very disappointing.”

Long and fiancé Ime Udoka, in 2017. Paul Archuleta/FilmMagic

As news of Udoka’s transgressions spread across sports outlets that day, so did a swell of support for Long on social media as the disgraced coach issued a statement apologizing to players, fans and his family for letting them down.

“I literally felt like my heart had jumped out of my body,” she recalls of the media blitz. “And then what I found was this tribe of women and men who were standing up for me in a way that felt like I was in this bubble of protection, and that was very comforting.”

The balm of sisterhood is important to Long, who shares that she’s been having a lot of fun with her closest girlfriends lately. They’ve also been encouraging her as she sets her sights on directing a film for the first time. The project, which is in the early stages of development, is a love story set in the 1940s and one that she’s “really, really, really, really, really excited about.” Putting effort into passion projects, she notes, is a part of her quest to exercise more discipline in her life and career.

“I have to commit myself to that,” she says, “because I think sometimes when so much is happening, it takes your breath away and then it’s like you’re holding your breath, and you feel this angst and this panic of constantly being in fight-or-flight survival mode. I think mothers, Black women, we understand that more than anyone.”

Longtime friend and The Best Man co-star Lathan, who recently made her own directorial debut with this year’s On the Come Up, calls Long’s decision to get behind the camera “long overdue,” saying she’ll be there to cheer her on. It’ll be a role reversal of sorts — Long, who began acting around seven years before Lathan, gave her guidance on everything from auditioning to handling rejection early in her career.

“It’s a very unique, specific experience going through this business as a Black woman,” says Lathan. “Thank God it’s changed and there’s way more opportunity now. But going through it when we were going through it, you needed that person who could really understand.

“Even once you, quote unquote, ‘make it’ and you’re starting to actually work and people are recognizing you, it’s a battle sometimes behind the scenes,” she adds. “The actual business of acting is not for the faint of heart.”

Lathan’s words draw similarities to the opening of Will Smith’s acceptance speech at the 94th Academy Awards this year, when he received the Oscar for best actor for his lead role in King Richard. He stated, “In this business, you gotta be able to have people disrespecting you and you gotta smile and you gotta pretend like that’s OK.” I ask Long if that sentiment, as expressed by her former Fresh Prince of Bel-Air co-star, resonates with her at all. “Absolutely,” she says. “I think, if you’re not willing to be agreeable with everything that’s presented to you, you are criticized,” she adds.

She’s spoken to Smith since that night, when he infamously walked onstage and slapped comedian Chris Rock in response to a joke he made about Smith’s wife, actress Jada Pinkett Smith.

“I checked on him and Chris, because I’m friends with both of them,” Long says. “That was hard for me, because those are like my brothers, both of them. And I guess my prayer is that they can come to a place where they can at least be civil with one another and make peace.”

From left: Monica Calhoun, Long and Nikki Tillman in The Best Man (1999) and Terrence Howard and Long in The Best Man Holiday (2013). Courtesy Everett Collection; Universal/Courtesy Everett / Everett Collection

Before Long shifts her focus to taking the reins on set, she has two acting projects in early 2023. The first is Missing, a stand-alone sequel to 2018’s mystery thriller Searching that also stars Joaquim de Almeida and Storm Reid. The second is the ensemble comedy You People with Eddie Murphy, Jonah Hill and Julia Louis-Dreyfus.

“I’ve been wanting to work with Eddie Murphy my entire life and I’ve never gotten the job,” says Long, whose dream was realized this year.

The script, which follows a new couple as they navigate cultural and generational divides, was written by Hill and Black-ish creator Kenya Barris, who’s also directing the film. Long considers Barris one of her best friends in the business.

“I really think that what he does for Black people in this industry is cutting-edge. It’s perfectly inappropriate. It makes you think, it makes you laugh. It makes you go, ‘This guy is crazy.’ But the crazy is where we find the truth, and I respect him for that.”

This movie, Long feels, will be a continuation of that comedic legacy. “Right now, there’s a lot of talk about antisemitism and the Jewish religion experience, and this film explores the difference between Blacks and Jews in a very funny freaking way,” she says. “Hopefully we can find the funny in our differences, and appreciation and respect for our differences, for a better understanding.”

These projects will bring Long’s acting credits to a solid 70 since her first onscreen appearance, on a 1986 episode of 227. Noting that she hasn’t turned down many roles over the years, Long counts herself among the “handful” of Black actresses who’ve been able to work consistently. She also feels the best is yet to come.

“I’ve spent a lot of time inspiring others, which has been a blessing in my career, but I would like to feel more inspired by the projects that come my way and the things that I work on. I’m a very different woman today from who I was when people first met Jordan,” she says, referring back to her Best Man character. “I wasn’t a mom yet, and I was trying to figure out what it meant to be a woman and have a career. It was like I was peeking into my womanhood. And now, I think I’m there.”

This story first appeared in the Nov. 30 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.