From hood films to a "The Banker," Nia Long wants to change the narrative for black dreams

The actress appeared on "Salon Talks" to discuss how her film is an extension of her evolution as an artist

By D. Watkins

Editor at Large

Published March 6, 2020 5:00PM (EST)

D. Watkins and Nia Long on "Salon Talks" 
 ("Salon Talks")
D. Watkins and Nia Long on "Salon Talks" ("Salon Talks")

After the success of blockbuster films like "The Butler," "12 Years a Slave" and "Harriet," Hollywood is making an honest attempt at expanding the black narrative, and I'm here for it. One of the latest biopics to hit the scene is the AppleTV+  film "The Banker," staring Anthony Mackie, Samuel L. Jackson, and Nia Long. 

"The Banker," directed by George Nolfi, tells the true story of Bernard Garrett (Mackie) and Joe Morris (Jackson), two African American entrepreneurs who enlist a white man to pretend he's the face of their business, as they seek to combat the racist banking practices in America. Long plays Eunice Garrett, wife of Bernard, a strong and savvy social and business advisor to her husband and revolutionary in her own right.  

Long stopped by "Salon Talks" to discuss "The Banker" with me and the power of telling these stories that get lost in history. The Garretts, along with Morris, changed the face of banking in America – but neither Long nor I had never heard of them. One of my friends who works in banking, has an MBA and loves history has never heard of them either, and that's a serious problem. 

Long and I got a chance to talk about black history and how it's presented in schools across the country. You start with a little slavery, which leads to Rosa Parks sitting on the bus, Dr. King marching, and then Obama running. Maybe Malcom X or Jackie Robinson will be mentioned if you are lucky. And though school shouldn't be a child's only history source, they could do better, as curriculums need to be updated across the board. 

Long and I spoke about the way we are educated, why this was an important role for her, and what she is doing personally to permanently change the narrative. Watch my "Salon Talks" with Nia Long here, or read a Q&A of our conversation below. 

The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Your character Eunice is strong and supportive. You put your husband Bernard in his place when he needs to be. Tell us a little bit about Eunice.

It's interesting because on paper I sort of interpreted the role to be one thing, but then we got on set, I realized that it was a little bit different from what I had imagined or envisioned or sort of went beat by beat through as I was preparing for the role. And Eunice is really smart and I say that because during the time when black people were trying to find their voice, standing up for themselves, saying no to harsh treatment and being extremely present in the fight for freedom. Women oftentimes took the back seat to be the homemaker, to be the mother, to be the nurturer and she was all of that. But she was also the pusher, the pusher of all things great and free and just and right and correct.  Her role in the film is really to gently push Bernard in the right direction to make change for the community. Bernard Garrett really wanted to change those laws and to challenge the system. And Eunice was right there to push him along the way.

Did you get a chance to help develop her? How did you take what was on the page to the next level?

I really came in with guns smoking. I think she was strong, but she was silent and gentle in her strength and I was a little bit more . . . I would get into these conversations with George Nolfi all the time, the director, and I'd say, "Are you sure she wouldn't just say it like, 'Why are we beating around the bush?'" He's like, "Nia, this is, you are in 1948 right now." So I had to turn it down and tone it down in certain places, but I think it worked. I think it worked because what I liked about her is she still got her point across without being loud and proud. She was proud in a silent way and also very effective. 

I feel like some people like that don't get the credit they often deserve. Do you ever feel that way?

I think there are a lot of people that come on this planet and their purpose is to be a beacon of light and change. And I think what makes this film so great is there are very few times that black people get to see films that actually show our contribution to film and that we are heroes. And these two characters are just that because they actually changed the laws that led to black people being able to get loans and buy property and have an understand how to build a community.

"The Banker" is an important film. I would hope that they use it in schools just to show students this story. We're in Black History Month right now and you get the same stories over and over again — it's as if there was slavery, then Rosa Parks sat on a bus, Obama ran for president, and we're at February 28th and it's over. There are still so many stories like this that just need to be told.

The reason this film is important is because we have to start re-educating ourselves and our communities about wealth versus being rich. And this hopefully will set a foundation to open conversations on what the differences between the two. Oftentimes black people are taught to survive, not to succeed. And I think this film actually shows you that you can be a part of the change if you focus on the right things and it's a fun ride. It's not like some serious — it is serious, the subject matter is serious — but there are moments in this film that are very light and entertaining because I think it's got a good balance.

As an actor, you go back and forth from drama to comedy. How do you choose the films that you decide to participate in?

I have to believe in the character in the story and it really just starts there for me.

What kind of film does Nia Long say no [to]?

A lot. Nia Long says no to a lot. I have to be able to kind of read it and see what it's all about.

Do you feel like we're in a special place right now in Hollywood? We have these movements going on with #MeToo, Time's Up, and a lot of women being recognized for directing and taking leading roles in different types of stories. Have you seen change since you started?

I think we're seeing change all over, and it's a beautiful thing to see because women are allowed to be strong and vocal and honest and not in a sense have to play the background like my character Eunice. But the times are different. As we evolve, as society evolves, as women become stronger and more in touch with who they are and leading the path to success in many areas, film, television, music, life changes.

We all have to kind of go with the direction of that change. And so it is a great time to be a woman. It's a great time to be a black woman. It's a great time to try things that you would never try because there's a lane to do it. We're being heard. I don't know that we were always heard in the past.

When I first started writing books, maybe about six years ago, I couldn't write about happiness or joy. They wanted to know about the broken home and I had that. They wanted to know about the street stuff and I had that. They was like, okay, you can talk about the happy stuff later, but we want to hear about the times –

We want to hear about those dark, terrible experiences that you've had as a black person.

And now all of these different industries are being diversified. Can you speak to any challenges you've had to overcome as an actress?

I think when I first started in the business with "Boyz n the Hood." John Singleton is one of my heroes.

Was that your first film?

I had done a couple other smaller things, but that was the film that really put my name on the map. That was the defining moment in my career. And John was such a visionary, he was so ahead of his time in terms of what he could see in a person and how he would manifest the visions of his taking the writing and putting it to screen. He was a true filmmaker and he actually spoiled me because I would sit back and I was mesmerized by his process. And so it became, "Okay, hood films," and there were like five or six of those, but "Boyz n the Hood" was kind of the first one. 

Then there was the "Fridays" and the black comedies where we sort of talked about and exploited the hood experience, but with a comedic background. And then I did a love story and then there . . . so look, art is to inspire, right? But I think where we have to take a social responsibility as black artists is we have to say no to the things that start to feel like they're just draining the pockets. It's like, "Oh well, though the hood films work, so let's do 25 of those." No, you do a couple, you do them well and you move on because we have so many stories to tell us black people.

This was one of the things that attracted me to "The Banker." I haven't read a script like that about two black male heroes during the Civil Rights Movement ever. And so I was like, wow, this is going to be great. It's great for my children to watch. It's great for my son to sort of see that we can have a voice and a part in business. And oftentimes because we are raised to survive and not to succeed, we don't think long-term and ownership. We just are just happy to be a part of something where you're getting a steady paycheck. And oftentimes you'll hear us say, well, at least I'm getting paid. Well, getting paid is not enough. We need to have ownership, we need to build our communities. We need to have a voice in our community and we also need to support and lift each other up and not be afraid to say no. 

To actually say, what can I pour into the youth so that they come out of this experience or whatever the neighborhood is or wherever they are feeling like they are a part of something, that actually changes the trajectory of black people. Because to have financial literacy, to understand the economics of being a black person in America, you really do have to do your homework. And you have to make it a conscious choice from the beginning.

If you talk about Garrett in the film or if you talk about Nate Shaw and what he did after reconstruction or Black Wall Street and all of these different places where people were living in the worst situations under racism that we probably couldn't even imagine today, but were able to build industries.

Well right, so maybe this is like the start of a new trend. Maybe this is a start of exploring the heroic side of what black people have contributed to art, what we have now.

I also think "Boyz n the Hood," which you brought up, was way deeper and way more layered than just a regular hood flick. It has some serious layers in there.

Absolutely. John Singleton was genius. Where his genius really shines is he was able to create multilayered characters. And you will be surprised how many filmmakers don't really do that. They don't, they don't tap you on the shoulder and say, "Hey, try this." It's kind of like, "Oh well that was good. We got it. Let's move on."

People are complex; like, nobody's just one thing.

Nobody's just one thing, and on any given day I might have a different answer for the very same question depending on how I'm feeling, depending on my environment, depending on what's going on, and all of it can be my truth. We are not just one thing.

Moving forward, what other kind of roles would you like to play?

Anything that's good. I let the script kind of inspire me and then it seems like that becomes kind of a little bit of a trend in my path and in my experiences. And then I stop and I go to the next thing.

What kind of advice do give to aspiring actors?

Just be honest. I think if you're honest and your work is coming from a place of truth, it has to be good. We're only not good when we try to pretend to be what we think they want us to be or when we're sort of manufacturing these ideas about a character that are not rooted. I always say like really good actors come from sometimes, a lot of pain, but you're not afraid to go deep with your feelings and your emotions. So that for me is what roots my characters. What grounds my characters is to know that I am okay to go really deep with whatever I think this person would feel or think. 

People want to watch something that they could go, "Oh my God, I've felt that." They want definitive— whether it's bright or light, happy or dark. And so I think for new actors coming into the business, they really have to be committed to not being afraid of going deep because that's another thing we're not taught to do. We're not taught to go deep.

To those places where it's dark and scary, where nobody wants to go.

Yeah, you got to go. You got to go to the dark and scary place to be good. You really do. And I think that that services you as a writer, a director, a parent, a supervisor. If you don't understand human behavior and history, it's almost impossible to make change. I've learned to just go, "I'm going to be who I am all the time." I know my heart, I know I'm kind, I'm generous, I want to do good work. I'm supportive of other women. I love my art.

I have a couple of things in development. I didn't really take time off, but what I will say is God has blessed me with such a beautiful career, but I've also been managing motherhood and work. And now my little one who was, he's 8, but those first couple of years, boy, you're going to see them. Those first couple of years kind of knock you off your feet if you want to do it the right way. Now that he's sort of on his way, and I've gotten older and I'm maturing in my craft, different types of roles are coming my way. It's been fun because I'm allowed to explore more of my womanhood.

The beautiful thing about being an actor is each and every time I play a character, I learned something about myself, in this case, history. It's like a measure of how I've grown to tap into that authenticity. So like I couldn't have played Eunice when I was 27, and Eunice could have been 27, but I didn't have that depth of understanding of my own womanhood. And I think women back then had to mature much younger than women do now because they were fighting for their lives. We are fighting for money and power, but they were fighting for their lives to survive.

You come from a family of artists. Are your kids growing into artists?

Oh my God, my one little one. It's so funny that you said that. My little boy is 8, and this weekend we had a homecoming from my father. He passed away recently.

Sorry to hear that, my condolences.

Thank you. It was really beautiful. All the boys went on a ski trip and all the women were home. And it was kind of nice to have girly time without the kids and the man and everybody was doing their own thing. And when my son came home, the little one, I go, "How was it? Did you have a good time?" He's peeling off all of his clothes. He's taking his boots off and he goes, "Yeah, it was great, but I just need to draw. I'm just going to go and sit down someplace quiet and draw." It made me so happy because what I realized in that moment is that was his way of staying connected to himself, to quiet the room down, to quiet down the energy, and to go someplace. And he would sit there, he will sit there for hours and draw quietly.

My mom's a singer and artist, a print maker. My dad is a writer, he was a poet. He was a really cool guy. I learned more about him in this last couple months than I probably know my entire life because your parents are your parents, but who they are in the world is oftentimes separate from the relationship that you have with them. And what I realized is there were times in my young life where I wanted him to be more a part of my daily life, to read me a story or to drop me off at school or to just be that daddy.

And I didn't have that experience with him because I realized he was busy pouring into his community in Trenton. And when I went there, and they have this tribute and they showed all of the things that my father has done, I thought of this film because those are the things that we're supposed to be doing. We got to pick up where the last generation left off. So my father is now pouring into this community of artists and poets and writers and dreamers and service men and women and immediately like all of the things that were hard for me as a young woman became —

Like a part of your healing.

Part of my healing because I know now that he knew in some sort of way, or God knew in some sort of way, that I was going to be okay. I have these two amazing parents that are so strong and excellent artists. My mother's voice, I don't even sing because her voice is so good. I won't even sing in the shower.

So, I'm proud of him. I'm proud to be his daughter. And my hope is that when people see "The Banker," they can find a lane for themselves to know that we don't have to just be artists, we can be bankers, we can be business owners, we can be in real estate, we can do all things. It starts with how we educate and what we pour into our children. We have to change the narrative.


By D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a writer on the HBO limited series "We Own This City" and a professor at the University of Baltimore. Watkins is the author of the award-winning, New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America”, "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir," "Where Tomorrows Aren't Promised: A Memoir of Survival and Hope" as well as "We Speak For Ourselves: How Woke Culture Prohibits Progress." His new books, "Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments," and "The Wire: A Complete Visual History" are out now.

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