NEW YORK—Queen Latifah has had her share of big laughs and bigger triumphs. And her comic timing is as reliable as a sitcom laugh track. But often the performers we’re accustomed to seeing playing to the rafters in lighter fare have the most power to surprise us in small, serious films.
And while Latifah has parlayed success in the hip-hop world into an impressive acting career—starring on TV’s “Living Single,” appearing in numerous comedies (“Bringing Down the House,” “Beauty Shop,” “Taxi”), some subtler films (“Living Out Loud,” “Last Holiday”) and being an Academy Award nominee for one Best Picture Oscar-winner (“Chicago”)—it’s the more intimate roles that affect her.
Queen Latifah, Anna Deavere Smith, Wendell Pierce, Evan Ross
Regular airtime: 10 March 2007, 8:00 PM EST (various dates/times thereafter)
That’s the case with “Life Support,” Nelson George’s highly affecting film about the AIDS epidemic in middle-class America, in which Latifah plays a wife and mother who is a reformed drug addict living with the disease. The film debuts Saturday on HBO—and for the star, it meant more than just another chance to anchor a film.
“I lost two cousins to AIDS,” Latifah says. “I lost friends to it, high school friends who never even made it to their 21st birthday.
“So for me—I’m way past the age of, `It’s so scary that I can’t even face it.’”
“Life Support” was filmed last summer in Brooklyn, and it brought Latifah (who was born Dana Owens in Newark, N.J.) back to the days before she was cutting records and scoring Oscar nominations.
“It was weird,” she says. “At 16, I was running these streets and I should have had no business being there! My (college) boyfriend lived in East New York. I used to go visit him and he lived way the hell out there. I used to hang out in Brooklyn even before him—just in my wilder days, a teenager trying to be someone. (Back then) if my mother knew I was way the hell out there, she would freak out!
“It made me really thankful that I made it through that stage in my life.”
Latifah—who’ll turn 37 this month—grew up in Irvington, N.J. Her mother was a teacher and her dad was a cop. She played basketball at Irvington High School but dropped out of college to pursue a music career. She released her first album, “All Hail the Queen,” when she was 19. A supporting role in Spike Lee’s “Jungle Fever” (1991) followed, and soon she was landing regular acting work, reaching a career high as prison matron Mama Morgan in 2002’s “Chicago.”
She’ll next be seen in another musical, director Adam Shankman’s upcoming big-screen adaptation of the Broadway hit “Hairspray.” She’ll play Motormouth Maybelle, record store owner and soulful musical guide to spunky teen Tracy Turnblad (Nicole Blonsky).
“Hairspray” may not seem to have much in common with “Life Support,” but Latifah says she approached both projects with the same strength of purpose.
“I play a totally different character in each, but I can never allow myself to forget that there’s still segregation,” she says. “There’s still racism. There’s still people judging other people because one person weighs more than the other person. As much as `Hairspray’ is a big comedy, those are the underlying factors. That has to be there for me. It has to be real.”
The story of “Life Support” is real to its heart. George based his screenplay on the life of his older sister, Andrea Williams, who contracted HIV in 1993 after having unprotected sex with her husband, an intravenous drug user. (Williams now and works at the Brooklyn nonprofit organization Life Force, where she educates women about the importance of HIV testing and safe sex.)
Some of the most powerful scenes in the movie are improvisational, and show Williams’ real-life peer group at Life Force having frank discussions about sexuality and the disease. These moments are so striking because viewers almost never hear women—mothers and wives—talk so openly about this subject on TV or in movies.
“It’s the invisible group—straight women,” says George. “Overwhelmingly, it’s been straight women, black women, minority women—they’re the new group that’s getting HIV in big numbers. And because of that, (they’re) invisible.”
The actress and the director are of one mind on the importance of keeping the story truthful.
“I was struck by Latifah’s commitment to the character, and to reality,” says George, a Brooklyn native. “She was very particular about things in the script. She was on the lookout for anything that seemed `Hollywood.’
“And the film is grounded in so many levels of reality (as well). There are no drug dealers in this movie,” he adds. “There’s very little hip hop. These are the people who don’t make headlines. No one is trying to be fabulous and fly.”
And Latifah, despite her status in Hollywood, has not forgotten where she came from. So when she met Williams, she realized, “We had a lot more in common than we didn’t.
“We ran some of the same streets and encountered some of the same challenges,” Latifah says. “I think Andrea Williams’ biggest impact on me was, I was remembering constantly that I’m not just playing a part—that there’s a person behind every word I say in this movie.
“This is not a fictional story. There are many Andreas out here right now who need to have their story told.”