For Nia Long, whose acting career spans more than three decades in film and television—and who is cited as the pinnacle of beauty and sex appeal in more than a few song lyrics— performance remains about art. Fame and fortune were never the goals for the now-veteran actor. Instead, stepping in front of the camera was a catalyst for something more primal: survival.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., Long, 51, is a second-generation Trinidadian American; her grandparents, she tells me, moved to the U.S. after many years of saving. The 2022 Black Woman in Hollywood honoree is speaking from her home, still in Brooklyn, where she appears to be sitting on a cushion on the floor, from what I can see via Zoom. Her back casually resting on the bottom half of the couch, Long describes her grandmother as the kindest person she knew, adding that she was an entrepreneur. Her mother, Talita, a trained artist, and printmaker, strived and struggled to give Long the best life she could while raising her on her own as a single mother.
“We have so many other tragic, life-changing events that happen in the midst of just trying to live and survive,” Long says of being Black in America. “And so I had this burning desire to really help my mother and try to fix things.”
Long moved to South Los Angeles when she was eight years old, after spending a period of time in Iowa. She tells me she grew up something of a latchkey kid while her mother, despite her extensive art education and training, struggled to find work. Eventually, her mother became a city bus driver—a job Long describes as “probably the worst for a Black woman in the late ’70s, early ’80s.”
Observing her mother’s efforts left a lasting impression on Long, who saw that the pursuit of the American dream was far more difficult for people who look like her. But it also strengthened her resolve to ensure that her own career pursuits would allow her family the stability she yearned for.
As a teenager, she attended Westchester High School in Los Angeles with actor and director Regina King, who invited her to take acting classes. Initially, Long—who had taken arts and performance classes in early childhood—thought acting might be merely a hobby. But King, who Long describes as “a natural” even then, inspired her to take the field seriously as a potential career.
Long doesn’t know for certain, but she credits King as instrumental in her landing her first acting job—on the 1980s sitcom 227, which the latter also starred in.
“I remember saying, ‘Okay, well, this is step one of many steps—and hopefully this evolves into something bigger and meaningful,” Long says.
It would take several more acting jobs, in the mid to late ’80s, for Long’s profile to rise—but her big break came with her role as Brandi in the John Singleton 1991 classic Boyz n the Hood. Recalling Singleton, who died in 2019 following a stroke, and remembering his contribution to her career, Long cries again.
“John was defiant in the most beautiful way, because that’s the only way he was able to create change and to be heard,” she says. “It’s a combination of God’s grace on my life and the moments being aligned where John Singleton chose me—because he could have chosen anyone.”
Long’s performance in Singleton’s coming-of-age hood drama propelled her into subsequent roles in film and television, and these showcased a versatility and depth that only a handful of others can replicate. In the ‘90s alone, Long starred in the stoner favorite Friday, led in the ahead-of-its-time romantic-drama-turned-cult-classic Love Jones and was a part of the star-studded cast of the family comedy-drama Soul Food—George Tillman’s first feature film, which he also wrote.
When Tillman and Long worked together on Soul Food, it was their second meeting; the director had been introduced to her while visiting a friend on the set of Love Jones. According to Tillman, at a producers’ meeting for Soul Food, Long had inquired about who wrote the script, as someone had taken his name off.
“She was like ‘Who wrote it? I know you’re directing it, George, but who wrote the script?’ I was like, ‘I wrote it.’ [Then she asked,] ‘But why’s your name not on it?’ She kind of stood up for me,” Tillman says over the phone, laughing.
He says he appreciated that Long cared about all aspects of filmmaking and was someone who always spoke up.
“If she has a point of view, she’s definitely going to let you know—and her point of view and how she brings that out actually come off very authentic and very real to her characters,” Tillman says.
And Tillman’s words on Long almost precisely mirror the actor’s own view on the importance of having a perspective. “To truly make an impact and to be true to the art, an artist needs to be heard,” she says. “Because I come to the table having really studied what I’m doing, not just showing up.”
Without naming any show or movie titles, Long says she struggled in roles when her voice was ignored and she felt unprotected as an actor.
“I was told what I was supposed to do, and that was very uncomfortable for me, because I’m not a robot,” she says. “I’m actually portraying a woman, a Black woman, a character, a story—and if I can’t have the space to make wrong choices or correct choices in the process, then it’s not worth doing.”
Still, Long says she often took roles because she was simply trying to survive; and that she felt she had arrived only upon starring in The Best Man, in 1999—which fans of the movie will be happy to know has an upcoming limited series sequel on the streaming service Peacock.
“I worked a lot. I remember coming home just tired. A lot. I missed parties. I missed friendships…I worked, and I worked, and I worked, and I worked,” she says. “And it was a blessing, because I was able to help my mother buy her first condo in LA. I was able to take care of myself.”
Through those many years of working, Long starred alongside Omar Epps multiple times, including in 1999’s In Too Deep and 2004’s Alfie. The pair later reunited for Netflix’s 2020 thriller Fatal Affair, for which Long also got her first producing credit. Epps, who has been friends with Long for decades, says their time onscreen replicates their real-life draw.
“We have such a creative shorthand, where I think that we sort of give each other the space to be vulnerable,” he says over the phone. “I think that chemistry is…you can’t fabricate it, right?”
It’s hard to imagine that Long has fabricated much of anything throughout her career. Her charisma and directness shine through in the many roles she’s played and in how she’s facing the industry today: with honesty about its sexism, racism and ageism. Long’s body of work, and her navigation of Hollywood as only herself, reveal her as more than worthy of the esteem she receives from peers and from multiple generations of fans.
“I didn’t realize the contributions I was making as the contributions were being made, right?” she says. “The greatest part of my journey has been that I’ve been able to maintain my authenticity.”
Fashion in order of appearance:
Dress: Sebastian Gunawan Couture $15,000, sebastiangunawan.com; Earrings: Ananya Mini Scatter Diamond Hoops $11,600, ananyajewels.in; Rings: David Yurman $5,800, $8,500, davidyurman.com; Shoes: Stuart Weitzman Disco Platform $495, stuartweitzman.com.
Dress: Fendi Gold Silk Mini Dress $3,890, fendi.com; Earrings: Jennifer Fisher Samira Hoops $500, jenniferfisher.com; Ring: David Yurman Stone Cluster Ring $3,900, davidyurman.com; Shoes: Giuseppe Zanotti Lilii Borea Gold Mule Sandals $995, giuseppezanotti.com.
Suit: Sergio Hudson Catsuit & Coat $1,295, $2,695, sergiohudson.com; Earrings: Alexis Bittar Twisted Gold Earrings $275, alexisbittar.com; Rings: David Yurman $3,900, $8,500, davidyurman.com; Shoes: Giuseppe Zanotti Akira Shine Black Sandals $1,550, giuseppezanotti.com.
Writer: Kovie Biakolo @koviebiakolo
Photographer: JD Barnes @jdthecombo
Hair: Ursula Stephen @ursulastephen for Living Proof @aframe_agency
Makup: Renee Garnes using Chanel Les Beiges
Stylist: Scot Louie @scotlouie for the @thewallgroup
Stylist Assistant: Adrienne Anderson @treatment28
Fashion Market Editor: Marissa Pelly @marissa_pelly
Set Stylist: Caroline Colston for Halley Resources Inc @halleyresources
Video: Jean Paul London @jeanlondondia
Editor: Amir Muhammad @amwfilmz