Lonette McKee is one of film’s greatest underused assets, a character actress who has steadily been working since her 1976 debut in Sparkle. “Underutilized” is how film critic Elvis Mitchell describes her in Film Comment, where he wrote that “Hollywood is guilty of a shameful neglect of an engagingly friendly, but lusty presence. Not girlish and insubstantial, she’s dynamic and indestructible.” If one of the central running themes of PopMatters’ Essential Film Performances lists is challenging preconceived notions of who or what performers are, than there is no one more likely on this list who personifies such an impressively extensive range of talents as McKee. The performer reputedly beat out more than 500 other women for the plum role of Sister in the film for which she appears on our list and for which the notoriously curmudgeonly film critic Pauline Kael favorably compared her to Ava Gardner.
A star by an early age, McKee was a Detroit native who came of age in the Motown Era, composing her first popular music hit at 13 (“Stop, Don’t Worry About It”). By 1983, she landed at the Tonys for her portrayal of “Julie” in the Houston Grand Opera’s staging of Showboat (the first African American actress to be cast in the role), and by the beginning of the 1990s, McKee had formed a lasting partnership with one of the most controversial, brilliant modern auteurs of our time, Spike Lee, for whom she acted in four films: Jungle Fever (1991), Malcolm X (1992), He Got Game (1998), and She Hate Me (2004).
But don’t make the mistake of pigeonholing McKee as simply a terrific character actress because this versatile veteran sings, composes, writes, produces and performs her own music; teaches master classes in acting and voice; and still occasionally finds her way to the big screen for acting gigs when the material is right (her searing turn opposite Kerry Washington in Lift is an absolute must-see). Having also apprenticed directing with Lee during their professional relationship, McKee is eager to secure financing to make her directorial debut with a script she wrote, Dream Street. “We’re still fundraising and of course, that’s like pulling teeth. They’re very resistant to first-time black, woman film makers, really women film makers of any color, but in this country, as a black woman film maker, you’ve got a large mountain to climb” said McKee when I spoke to her in June.
I had a candid conversation with McKee about the particularly nasty challenges a woman of color over the age of 50 faces in a film world full of white corporate elitists who often times don’t know their ass from their elbow, her passion for classic film, and why she is simply not willing to artistically compromise.
You’re a Detroit native, like me, and I think its great that you’re working there to teach actors. Detroit is such a great city and gets a bad rap. What is it like being in Michigan right now? What do you see?
Well, right now I see a grieving best friend whose son was just killed with five gunshots the night before last, black on black crime. So, to be honest with you, I don’t have a whole lot of positive things to say about Michigan right now. It hasn’t been the best experience for me since I have been here, for the last year and a half, as a matter of fact, I can’t wait to get out of here and get back to New York.
Well, let’s change the subject. When was the last time you saw Sparkle? Looking back at your performance in the film, what do you see?
That’s a good question. I haven’t seen the film in a long time. I’ve caught snippets when they air it on television, which lately seems to be more frequently than ever. I’m very proud of it. I’m very, very proud of the work, it’s a beautifully done film. I think it was way ahead of its time and I think that only now is it receiving the recognition that it should have received at the time it was released. But at that time, it didn’t make much money, they kind of brushed it under the carpet, but now its this big cult musical. So, it’s getting what it deserves now and it makes me proud to have been a part of something that was history-making.
How were you cast in the film and what other kinds of roles were available to African American actresses of your generation in the 1970s?
At the time, we were really limited and in many ways still are, believe it or not. Things have not changed in the arena of film making as much as I would like to say it has changed, it really hasn’t. We’re still very limited. I find that a lot of the stories that were written for us at that time, as well as now, were very one-dimensional. In those days, you were pretty much relegated to either playing someone’s mom or playing someone’s wife or girlfriend and it’s very much the same now. Now, slowly, slowly, I begin to see changes. I begin to see young black entrepreneurs coming up, usually out of the hip-hop or music industries and then they switch into film or television.
So, given that there are more black people in control of green-lighting projects and creating projects, that’s going to allow for more opportunities for people of color in general, because before these decisions were only made by white, corporate America, which I’m sure I don’t have to tell you, we haven’t been the fave among the white corporate crowd. They’re not that interested in black stories, never have been and probably never will be. But with the young black entrepreneurs coming up and having some power, some say in this industry, our stories are going to get told. Now what I’d like to see happen are more women getting the power to greenlight project or fund their own projects and that is very slow coming. So, they still pretty much want to relegate you to playing someone’s mother or playing someone’s wife, whereas if you look at a Susan Sarandon or a Sally Field or a Jessica Lange or a Meryl Streep, these are women who they are actually writing interesting storylines for, women in their 50s and 60s. They don’t do this for black women.
One of the most striking images of you in the film Sparkle is early on, with a red flower in your hair during the girl’s first performance—combined with the energy of these scenes—reminded me so much of Dorothy Dandridge in Carmen Jones, probably because the character arc of Sister is both mercurial and tragic. There’s singing, dancing, drugs, dramatics, death. What were the most memorable demands of the part that most excited you as a performer?
It’s funny, Sparkle was my first film and I remember my agent calling me, and I was actually not even signed to a legitimate theatrical agency at the time, I was signed to a modeling agency. I was signed to the Nina Blanchard modeling agency. I remember they had hired a young agent from New York to come and try to work with their models who they thought had some acting talent. I got a call from him—the guy’s name was Sid Craig—and he says ‘I want to send you up on this film, and if you could just put together a song. It’s a musical and you’re going to have to sing in the film. So if you could just put a song together….’
Well, of course, this guy didn’t know me and he didn’t know I was a child prodigy in Detroit in music, you know, I started in the industry as a (song) writer and a singer and played piano. So, putting a song together for me was no problem. As a matter of fact, I did one of my songs at the audition and played for myself. The challenge for me definitely wasn’t the singing or the dancing because I had been raised doing that, I was already onstage at five years old in Detroit. The challenge for me was the dramatics. My challenge was how was I going to step into the drama of this role? It was so dramatic. She was such a bad girl. So what I did was I chose a few people. I had an older sister, she was walking on the wild side, was always wild, was always a rebel, always doing inappropriate things, never conformed, thought she could break all the rules and did.
And so, I formulated my character on her real-life personality. I was never a bad girl, I was never really flashy like that, I never did drugs, I never was a bad girl, so I wanted to know where I could find this in me. I molded it on my sister and her friends and I took what I saw them doing in real life and I tried to apply it to that character for that film role and it worked. I found myself falling into it once I got the first couple of days laid out, I found the rest of the character in the script falling into place and I knew what to do with it.