originally published August 2012 / ESSENCE
Nia Long asks to meet at a raw vegan restaurant with foods that will make you glow. The menu is full of enzyme-rich dishes that read like affirmations: I am pure… I am grounded… I am glorious… She orders usual—I am fortified—a plate of quinoa topped with lightly roasted sea vegetables. Eating living, uncooked foods is a growing trend on both coasts, and Nia, who’s wearing only the slightest hint of mascara, could be a walking billboard for the lifestyle. “Eating this way is helping me to feel better than I have in my whole life,” Nia testifies. “I’m in my forties, postbaby, and I’m thinner than I’ve been in years. Better still, I have more energy than I could have imagined. The last step will be letting my hair go natural. That’s when you’ll know I’m free.”
Indeed, the petite, beautiful actress with the always-perfect rich brown skin is glowing. Even more than usual. The restaurant is down the hill from her home in the Hollywood Hills, and halfway through the meal she orders her dish again, this time for her 12-year-old son, Massai, who so enjoys his mom’s quinoa leftovers that he’s asked her to bring him his own plate. As she’s placing his order, a tiny wet spot on her cotton tee begins to grow. She jumps up and says with a laugh, “I’m leaking!” She grabs her huge designer bag in which a breast pump is buried and runs to the restroom to create a carryout for her other son, her newborn, Kez.
At 41, Nia Long has grown up on screen. With her pixie cut and eternally young good looks, she’s the hip-hop generation’s fantasy girlfriend who exudes an earthy sex appeal in all her movie roles. Her career has been less mainstream than, say, Halle Berry’s, but she’s more widely beloved among Black folks, many of whom consider her character Nina in love jones to be iconic. “I was the first brown girl from my generation who got cast in lead roles,” she notes. “I saw Jay-Z at a party recently and I complimented him on his long run in music and he turned it around and asked me, ‘How does it feel to be every boy from the hood’s fantasy girlfriend for 20 years?’ It made me laugh. I hadn’t really considered it.”
She opened the door for more brown girls from her generation, stars like Gabrielle Union, Sanaa Lathan and Kerry Washington, but she’s found a balance in her life and doesn’t feel as if she’s competing. For Nia, it’s more like she’s part of a sisterhood. “I love those girls and am proud of them, but even as I acknowledge how few roles there are for us out there, I don’t feel competitive with them, I feel acknowledged by them,” says Nia. Indeed Union, as she introduced the presenter for director John Singletons award during the BET Honors show earlier this year, broke into a bit of improvisation, reciting some of Nia’s classic lines from Boyz N the Hood.
“I grew up in Los Angeles, so this is more than a working town to me, it’s my home,” Nia explains. “I don’t do much Black Hollywood hanging, but I don’t begrudge it. I see my colleagues, especially the girls, and I hug them up and give them love and keep it moving. I’ve always been that way, barely partying. I’m more likely to choose a backyard barbeque than a red-carpet appearance at some award show.”
After more than two decades in this business, Nia also doesn’t mind being called difficult if it means having things done right. “I’d like to think I have a reputation for being professional and being very clear about what I will and won’t accept,” she states. “And if you want to call me difficult because you’re not getting what you want from me, then that’s fine. At the end of the day I have to look in the mirror and like who I see and accept the choices I’ve made. And I don’t think I’m difficult, I think I’m clear.”
She shares a story that could give a star a bad rep but is perfectly reasonable when she unpacks it. “I recently showed up to the makeup trailer for a TV show and the hair and makeup people didn’t know anything about Black hair or skin—in this day and age,” she points out incredulously. “I could have sat there in her chair and come out looking worse than I showed up for the set, or I could pull out my own makeup and curling iron and do it myself. That makeup artist ended up offended. But she was only hired as some favor to the producer. Either that or I’m just there to fulfill a diversity quota. Either way, what ends up on-screen stays, and I know that, so I speak up for myself. I show up at the set ready to work. I don’t bring baggage. In fact, I arrive basically emotionally naked, ready to submit to a director’s vision of a project. But I want to go where I’m celebrated, not tolerated.”
Then Nia shares her own story. Her voice is matter-of-fact. “I was date-raped,” she says, making direct eye contact. “It took me a long time [to] be able to say that, but it’s true. I see him around L.A. to this day, frequently. One time I went up to him and told him ‘You’re a piece of sh__. You raped me and you know it.’ He never denied it. He tried to apologize and I just walked away.” She says she was in her early twenties when it happened. She continues, measured and serious, “There was a time when I may have internalized what happened or wondered if it was my fault or even felt shame about sharing. But not anymore.”
Nia’s mother, Talita, is a Brooklyn-born artist who made her way west to California after her relationship with Nia’s father disintegrated when Nia was just a toddler. “I didn’t have much of a relationship with my father growing up and I’m sure I thought that didn’t affect my romantic relationships, but now I know it did,” Nia says carefully. “I watched my mother make so many sacrifices. It was always just the two of us, and she tried to hide them from me but I remember her frustration in those long-distance calls asking for help. It made me never want to have to depend on anyone, to not have to ask for anything.”
After an engagement to her older son’s father, actor Massai Dorsey, fell apart, Nia says she began examining the roots of some of her less-than-healthy emotional patterns more closely. “Massai’s dad and I have had the most challenging times, and I wasn’t always sure we wouldn’t end like my mother and father,” she says. “But we’ve arrived at a place where I can truly say he’s not a baby daddy, he’s my friend, finally. He is an amazing father. He’s helped me in ways that exceed my expectations. We got to a place where we decided to be on the same team for this little guy.” Now in a relationship with professional basketball player Ime Udoka, whom she met through a mutual friend, she not only grew her family, she says, but for the first time she feels grown-up herself. “I now know what ‘emotional maturity’ means,” says Nia.
When photos of Nia pregnant began showing up online, a decade after her first son was born, the marriage rumors started flying. But Nia’s not in any rush to put a ring on her finger. “Marriage is not a priority for me,” she insists. I’m not saying I’ll never do it; it’s just not where we are as a family. For some reason that disappoints people. I’ll be at home with my man, having perfectly loving time, and I’ll see all these comments on some site about how wrong I am for not being married. I’ve never seen a marriage work, which makes me sad to say, and it’s not just residual stuff from my childhood, this is among my peers. But I don’t feel less loved or less loving because I’m not married.”
Around her, the love continues to multiply. She’s recently grown closer to her father, who is now more present in her life than he’s ever been. Doughtry “Doc” Long is a tall and scholarly gentleman, still handsome, with boundless intellectual curiosity from his years as a high school creative writing and literature teacher (he’s retired) and a poet. At his daughter’s request he traveled to Manhattan, from his home in New Jersey, to be interviewed about their renewed relationship. He considers their second chance a “gift.” “The past is the past. You can’t live there,” he says. “Now that Nia has grown up and been engaged and is on her second son, I think she understands how complicated emotional adult life can be.”
Nia says Doc’s visit to California over Christmas holidays was just what she and her boys and, even Ime, needed. “My father and I are in such a good place and he has so much to teach my boys,” she reflects. “He’s been such a good grandfather. It’s taken us a long time to be okay. Our relationship has helped me deal with some of my relationship stuff. I’m a lot calmer. Less clingy and demanding. When Ime has to be gone for long stretches at a time, as he had to the first few months after Kez was born, I took it as an opportunity to nest. It had been a minute since I had an infant and I had to get back into the rhythm of being a new mom. I really enjoyed having the space to do that at my own pace. But poor Ime; he missed Kez terribly. Both of his parent’s have passed and we’re his family.”
The day after lunch, Nia is at her home in the Hollywood Hills balancing Kez on her hip as Massai shows her a colonial-era costume he designed for a school presentation. Massai has a role in the play as an abolitionist. “Motherhood is not easy, but it’s natural,” Nia reflects. “I worked hard to have the career I wanted, but I’ve also been deliberate about my personal life. None of this is a mistake.”
As she breast-feeds Kez on her couch, she shares the secret to her hard-earned serenity. “I made a real commitment to emotional maturity, to peace in my home,” she says. “It wasn’t some title of a self-help book that’s just lying in my bed. We underestimate the lives we can provide for ourselves. As women, if we can imagine the life we want to live, we can have that. We’re magicians, we’re conjurers, we can manifest the kind of lives we always dreamed of having.”
Hollywood, famous for discarding its middle-aged stars, is no place for women of any age to be demure, insists Nia. “Sometimes as a woman you have to put your balls on the table,” she explains. “We aren’t born with them, but you have to get them to do what I do and you gotta know when to tuck them and know when to put them on the table.”
Unlike much of Black Hollywood, who work hard to stay visible in between infrequent castings, Nia is deliberate about how she uses her long-standing celebrity. When she’s not working on indie films like last year’s Mooz-Lum, in which she plays a fiercely protective Muslim mother, or in talks about the sequel to the Best Man, she’ll fund-raise for president Obama or mentor homeless girls. Last year she accepted an invitation to Barbados, where she visited the girls who were living at St. Ann’s shelter, a sanctuary for homeless youngsters in that island nation. She shares a picture on her phone of her posing with a half-dozen pregnant teenagers. One of them, she points out, is only 12. “Some of them were raped,” she says. “Even if they thought they were in a relationship, it was with adult men.”
She talks about the shocking, recent Black Women’s Blueprint study that shows 60 percent of black girls in the United States are victims of sexual assault by the time they’re 18. “So much of what happens with girls women is untreated trauma,” she says.