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Girl Power is Alive and Well

Don’t exclude people


No doubt about it, Vivica Anjanetta Fox is what they call a “trooper.” Delayed at the Denver airport, she’s only had a couple of hours sleep before she arrives at Los Angeles’s L’Hermitage Hotel. But no matter: she enters the room like an energy tornado, not a trace of crankiness or exhaustion. The 36-year-old Indianapolis, Indiana native is known for her dedication, hard work, and good humor. Most people might still know her from her breakout roles, as Jasmine the stripper (opposite Will Smith) in Independence Day and as Frankie in Set It Off (both 1996), but she’s been busy for years before and after. Recall that she played the sensible Maxine in Soul Food (1997), Mickey Waters in Why Do Fools Fall in Love (1998), and the heroic Debi in Idle Hands (1999).


Fox has also worked in a range of tv projects: she played “Wicked Stepsister One” in Foxy Brown’s video for “Big Bad Mama,” appeared on Hollywood Squares, and starred in the sitcoms, Arsenio and Getting Personal, and in Steven Bochco’s hospital drama, City of Angels. (She recalls finding out that her character, Dr. Lillian Price, was written out of the show, just as the second season was to begin shooting, but, Fox laughs, “I’m not bitter! For me it was a blessing because I got to go back to movies.”) A graduate of Golden West College with an Associate Art degree in Social Sciences, Fox to this day maintains a keen interest in the ways that business and social relationships work. Her new movie, Doug McHenry’s Kingdom Come, focuses on a somewhat wacky family who comes together when the father dies. Fox plays Lillian, wife of LL Cool J’s Ray-Bud, and she spends much of the movie trying to hold everyone together.


We begin by reminiscing a bit, about Set It Off.



Cynthia Fuchs:

Set It Off was an early film to cross over genders: it’s not strictly a chick flick or an action flick.



Vivica A. Fox:

Oh yeah, doesn’t matter, you understand? I’ve had men come up to me with tears in their eyes. They thought they weren’t going to be affected, but they were. They really identified with it, and I wish we had known that as we were going in, because we wouldn’t have had all of us get killed. We could have done the sequel! It appeals to people of all nationalities, men, women, Mexican, white, black. It just surprised them, because we made for I think, $9 million, and it grossed over $50 million. And I went to promote it in Europe and they loved it. Studios here think African American films don’t sell across the waters, but they do.



CF:

What do you think about the ways that African American films are marketed?



VF:

I wish, to be honest with you, for African American films that we could get a few more theaters. They only open them in 1500 to 2000 for an opening weekend, and how do you expect us to compete. How can we go to certain box office levels if they don’t give us more theaters? If you’re going to release it nationwide, release it to more theaters—that’s a battle that I want to bring to people’s attention so they realize, that if this film, Kingdom Come only grosses $30 or $40 million, it does it in only 1100 theaters. Imagine if it was in 3000? People don’t always want to drive a distance or to a theater they don’t know, to see a film.



CF:

Your role in this film is pretty solid, compared to the other women in the film, Jada Pinkett Smith or Loretta Devine.



VF:

I get to play the peacekeeper, which for me is wonderful, because I usually play the one who’s speaking out or leading the pack or playing the tough chick. I got to play wife role, kind of submissive to her husband. I nicknamed her Little Miss Fix-It and I talked on a whole other level [of voice] that I don’t usually use [sweet and singsongy]: “Oh Ray-Bud!” So it was a good chance to show another side of myself as an actress. It’s easy to get pigeonholed if you’re attractive, and people think you can only do a certain thing.



CF:

This film is based on a play…



VF:

Yes! And it was written by a white guy! But for me, the film is like a sequel to Soul Food, because again, all nationalities can relate to it, see their cousins or their uncles in it. The main thing that attracted me to the role when I read it is that it’s about family.



CF:

What are your feelings about working in film or tv?



VF:

I prefer to do movies, just for the simple fact that in tv, there’s not much of a guarantee. They can pull the plug on you. When you do a film, you know you’re shooting for 6 or 9 weeks, you’ve got your cast and crew. Overall, no one can just pull the plug and say, “This isn’t working.” There’s just no security on television, especially for African Americans. It’s a tough market. Whereas with film, they can’t tell me it doesn’t work when the box office is there. It’s a battle I don’t want to fight anymore.



CF:

You also tend to work across the board, in integrated projects as well as so-called “black” ones.



VF:

Well, look at the world we live in! I don’t like to see projects that are all black or all white. It’s how life is. I do like to make sure that I do a nice black family film, that’s like keeping my home base. I do other things, but I like to always come back to a positive family film, because of all the negative influences today. Someone has to be responsible for making alternative images. Especially Hollywood, we get blamed for everything these days. So I try to always make something that’s about family and is positive.



CF:

How do you think about the politics of appealing to a kind of “base audience,” a target demographic that’s founded in racial identity?



VF:

Oh yeah, you can have a base audience, but I also want to show them—Hollywood—that we can expand on that base audience, and make us more “colorless” to people, so it’s not just a black project or a black show. Integrate it. Don’t exclude people: coordinate us all together.



CF:

There’s a shift too, in how any base audience understands itself, I think.



VF:

Yes. Don’t you think the younger generation is a lot more open. They grow up more together, and their families haven’t taught them. The country’s changed so much in the last 40 years, as far as race and racism. I’m so glad our kids are coming up in a more integrated environment. I’ve got a couple of movies coming out that we’re going to market to the MTV crowd. Why? Because we know we’ll get more people in the seats, because the kids will go see it. They don’t care about those labels. They say, “I’m not going to see her because she’s black. I’m going to see her because I like her.” I love that!



CF:

On that tip, I have to ask you about Idle Hands, which some people might call a gutsy choice.



VF:

I loved that, but it was so sad because it opened Columbine time and that killed it. It was on Headline News: “Don’t go see films like ‘Idle Hands’!” I was so upset. But now a lot of kids have seen it on video and they come up to me and say, “Hey, it was really good!” It was stupid, but it was fun. They like that. That’s what I love about kids. They’re not so judgmental. Now, when you do certain kinds of films people ask me, “So, what are we supposed to take from this?” I don’t know, what did you take from this? I’m an actress, I did my part. One lady asked me about Kingdom Come, “What do you think the church people are going to say about this movie, because one of the characters drinks beer in church?” I was like, “I don’t know!” It’s a movie! It’s a dramedy, it’s not representing the church. I do think we have to watch some images , but let’s not take it too far.



CF:

Has your thinking about what you need to represent changed over the years?



VF:

It has changed, especially for females. I remember when we were all going up for that one token role, the girlfriend. But in the past five years, I’ve gotten to work with all of the other actresses now. It’s a wonderful change: I cannot stand walking into an audition and seeing them all standing there. You know, trying to be cool, “Hey, what’s happening!?” But it’s the business. I’ve had the good fortune of working with great people.



CF:

To what do you attribute that change?



VF:

There are more roles, mm-hmm. It’s a combination of a lot of things. It’s important, again, especially for females, to have some box office success, and believe it or not, Thelma & Louise helped the girl thing kick off. Then, Waiting to Exhale, first a best-selling book, then the movie grossed $70 million. It’s all about box office dollars with them. It just is. I just wish they would let more African American films go international. In Europe and elsewhere, they’re not as race-oriented as America is. I get fan mail from Holland, Germany, Spain, everywhere. The studio people don’t get that yet.



CF:

That’s obviously frustrating. So how do you deal with that, personally and professionally? I know you’ve been producing.



VF:

Yeah, I’ve been developing projects. Now they’re doing the whole female thing, where before they said, a black female couldn’t open a film. I just finished a film [title not yet set] where I’m hoping to prove to them that if it’s a good film, audiences will come see it. It’s a constant battle, but one I don’t mind fighting. I’m just glad I’m getting the opportunities, because when I started acting 15 years ago, I always had to play the girlfriend, wave the guy off into the sunset: “Save me! I’ll be here waiting on you!” You know, those days are over. Girl power is alive and well, and females support females. Look at it: the top male makes $20 million per film, the top female makes half.



CF:

Plus, women trying to make films.



VF:

It’s unbelievable what you have to go through to get even a little money. And then they go and waste like $20 or $30 million on Monkeybone! Give me a break! Then they use it as a tax write-off or figure they’ll make back in video rentals. Well, if y’all could just give us just $7 million, we’d be okay.



CF:

So you like to go back and forth between bigger and smaller movies?



VF:

No doubt. If it’s a good project, you take it. You never know. Look at Hilary Swank and Boys Don’t Cry. Sometimes it’s not about the money. But it is nice if there’s a good budget, you get a nicer trailer, cafe mochas come through. You know? On lower budget films, a guy yells out, “Ya wanna cuppa coffee?” So, sure, the fringe benefits, they’re nice. But I like to work, and I don’t always want to be the star. Like in this movie, I wanted to work with these people, with Jada, and Whoopi, and Loretta and LL And moving between film and tv, it’s cool too. Film, fashion, music, it’s all crossing over.



CF:

You’re going to be singing soon?



VF:

No! I won’t be doing V. Lo! I’d love to play a singer in a movie though. I have friends who are singers, like Whitney. The whole concert thing, what a rush! But no singing. I sing great in the shower. That’s enough for me.

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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