The 'Journey to 50' star opens up to ET about her new documentary.
Turning 50 is a significant point in anyone's life, and Gabrielle Union marked her birthday in a major way. To commemorate her 50th last year, the Perfect Find star traveled through several countries in Africa, from the island of Zanzibar to the coast of Ghana to the parks of Namibia and the nightlife of South Africa, documenting her journey as she connected with the cultures and people in between.
The actress and producer was joined by her husband, retired NBA star, Dwyane Wade, and a group of family and friends for the excursion that will be shared with fans in a two-part docuseries special on BET+ titled Gabrielle Union: My Journey to 50.
"I've always had a lifelong thirst for knowledge. Connecting with the birthplace of civilization and my own ancestry helped me inch closer to my true self," Union said in a statement when the special was announced in March. "There was no other place I wanted to spend my 50th birthday. It was an experience I'll never forget and I'm excited for audiences to join me on the journey."
Now, as the streamer debuts the special on Thursday, Union opens up about the adventure with ET's Kevin Frazier, explaining how the trip had come to be and why it was so transformative for her.
Although the star has gained a reputation for being strong in the face of strife and adversity, she admits that it hasn't been easy being transparent with her fans. "I try to let my guard down a lot and then there [are] whole TikToks [about] 'Everything I've learned about Gabrielle Union I've learned against my will,'" she says wryly. "But I try to be more transparent."
Journey to 50 is a raw glimpse into Union's world, an intimate exploration that sees her tear down her walls on a new level.
"I had reached a breaking point right before the trip; coming off of The Inspection, how dark that was and where I had to go to get there, and going right into Truth Be Told season 3 that was dealing with sexual brutality of Black and brown girls in the Bay Area," she explains. "It coincided with the 30-year anniversary of my sexual assault as a teenager in the Bay Area. It was just too much. And that was just one too many things on my emotional house of cards -- I was dust by the time I got on the plane to come to Africa."
Union adds that "setting foot on the continent always brought me peace." It was with that mindset that she made the decision to travel there for her momentous birthday.
"And then slowly we figured out which countries where we might find the most interesting exchanges and the most interesting gifts for everyone involved," she shares. "So, there was different things, different people that sort of inspired why we chose different countries."
The Bring It On star reveals that although she and Wade wanted to bring all their children -- the couple shares 4-year-old Kaavia, as well as Wade's 20-year-old son, Zaire, 15-year-old daughter, Zaya, and 8-year-old son, Xavier -- their various schedules prevented everyone from making the trip.
"Kaavia was the only one that had no choice," she jokes, going on to add that she knew the trip would be especially poignant with her mother and her daughter along. "Having the [multiple] generations go to Africa [and] experience it at the same time... I wanted to see it, having my mom there and my daughter, who at the time was three, experiencing the same rebirth and being open to it. That's the best gift anyone could ever give me or I could ever receive."
"And she's so free. Her and Zaya both are free Black girls, and that is all I want," Union adds. "If I have done nothing else, I will raise some free Black girls who are only limited by their own imagination. And that's what you see in this docuseries. Kaavia James at three years old, she turned four during the trip, and you're gonna see her have her big strong opinions and you're going to see her be her full self and that we don't try to force her to be chips off the old block."
Alongside Kaavia, Union and Wade were joined by Union's mother, Theresa, her Aunt Katie, niece Chelsea, and sister Tracy, along with Adair Curtis, Essence Atkins, Angie Martinez and more.
According to Ebony, the special explores the traumatic history and lingering impact of the TransAtlantic slave trade, primarily at Assin Manso River and Salaga Slave Market in Ghana, with compassion for ancestral Africans who were kidnapped and enslaved that is rarely captured. It also offers an introduction to the Himba people, who still operate traditionally, but, as Union shows, face challenges that resonate now. For her actual 50th birthday, Union ventured to Zanzibar, Tanzania, with the main celebration held at the luxurious Melía Zanzibar which boasts stunning views and a pristine sandy beach.
"We were with other people who are making [a] change at the same time, different ways but the same time," Union shares. "So, by the time we got to Namibia -- and we chose Namibia because my friend, Lewis Hamilton, had gone over the summer with a group of his friends. And I hit him up like, 'You tell me everything,' and he was like, 'You have to go, you will leave there different.'"
Union admits she's unable to accurately describe her experience, saying, "I just don't think... I don't even know if I'm able to articulate enough the majesty of the red dunes in Namibia and the land, the topography, but it's the feeling. The feeling is like nothing I can ever explain. It just feels like being overtaken by goodness. And being able to see things realistically."
"A lot of times we are so programmed to see everything negatively and to see the worst pieces of each other. And it leaves no room for humanity or kindness or joy. It's always, 'I got to find the angle to get the upper hand.' For what, to harm someone? And it just gave us that extra space and that extra drive to see things clearly," she adds. "And as we climbed up that sand dune -- which is a lot harder than it looks -- there was something about reaching the top. I was just weeping... just weeping and I look and everybody made it to the top like me, but I'm looking and it's the same -- other families that were making the same trip weeping and that's why it's like you have to go. Don't let the pictures do it justice, which it does, but not the emotional impact."
The docuseries takes fans along with Union as she makes new connections with history, her legacy as a star, mother, wife and Black woman, and forms global fellowship through her joy in life.
"A lot of my relatives and a lot of my friends didn't make it out of their 30s, so 50 felt like, 'Oh. Oh, yikes.' I left there like, 'Oh, my grandma lived to be 110, I have so much more time left,'" Union recalls. "And I feel like a teenager. I feel young, I feel open to learning. There's that point where you kind of start to close the lid on yourself, like you become [a] little know-it-all. I like to think I'm a learning person, but know nothing, and when you humble yourself, you can learn a lot more."
She adds, "When you zip it, your ears absorb things that your heart didn't know were possible. And I'm just trying to be open to everything for the next 50 or 60 years."
Gabrielle Union: My Journey to 50 is now available to stream on BET+.