Giving Us Something We Can Feel: An Interview with Lonette McKee

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.

What were the films and performances that most inspired you?

I loved the backstage scene in the mirror where Mary Alice touches your face and says “he’s just going to drag you into the gutter.” I’m such a fan of hers. One of the running themes of the Essential Performances series at PopMatters is inspiration and performances that inspire.When you were growing up, what were the films and performances that most inspired you?

I grew up in the Motown era, so really the people that inspired me were more from the music industry than from the film industry. I always loved films though and I was one of those kids that would stay up as late as my mother would let me to watch television all night if I could. Film after film after film. I identified, of course, with all of the black actors and actresses. Sidney Poitier’s A Raisin in the Sun, I loved the movie A Patch of Blue. I loved Dorothy Dandridge and every time Carmen Jones came on, I watched it. Porgy and Bess, I loved to watch that. We didn’t really have that many “black” films to hang on to in the 1970s. We had Pam Grier, [but] I never became particularly familiar with her and her Foxy Brown film. I never identified with the black exploitation film era. I think the only one I liked and identified with was Shaft.

Other than that, I was not into the black exploitation films, so I didn’t have those to identify with and those were a little before Sparkle. I would say I watched mainly the classics: Marlon Brando, Bette Davis, I adore them. I can watch A Streetcar Named Desire every night. I could never tire of it! Same with Wuthering Heights or Sunset Boulevard and all of the great classic films, I’m a fan. On the Waterfront? I’m a fan. Moreso even than [with] “black” films, per se. The great black performers, like I said, like Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee, Dorothy Dandridge, Diahann Carrol, I watched their films, but we know now that we didn’t have that much to choose from in the 1970s.

Spike Lee is a favorite director of mine — I think When the Levees Broke is just so brilliant and underrated — how would you describe both what it is like for an actor to work with an artist as visionary as Mr. Lee and how acting differs from working with him as a director’s apprentice?

Well, they kind of go hand in hand for me. Spike and I have always had a very close and very unique type of relationship. When I did my first film for him, which was Jungle Fever, he actually told me that he had been looking for me to do ‘Mo Better Blues but for whatever reason his casting director at the time claimed she couldn’t find me, which if you know anything about the industry we know this is a complete falsehood because all you have to do is call the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and you can find any SAG actor. Anyways, for whatever reason, his casting director didn’t want to find me for ‘Mo Better Blues, so I missed out on that opportunity with him but when he did catch up with me for Jungle Fever, while we were working on the film, he became interested in signing me as his first artist on his record label. We weren’t just working on the film as “actor” and “director”, we were working on the film now as “actor”, “director” and he was interested in my producing my music and writing my album on his label.

So, we’ve always worn different hats with each other, we became friends very quickly on the film and he came to my home many times for dinner with my husband and I, I’ve known his family and made friends with his sister, we developed the relationship and a wonderful rapport. We had a multifaceted, very diverse on many levels, relationship from the beginning. By the time I was doing She Hate Me, I was into film making and was working on my first script. Spike immediately came on as executive producer, even though he didn’t really have the time, on my film Dream Street, which is my directorial debut and my screenwriting debut. So, we have always had a deep, multi-dimensional relationship, where one [acting] goes hand in hand with the other [film making]. He’s always been very good to me. I don’t think he is necessarily really good to everybody but for whatever reason, he’s always been really good to me. Its always been a working relationship, never intimate or personal or sexual or romantic, it’s always been working. So, I value him and he has been a wonderful mentor to me. And he’s a genius so he’s the best kind of mentor you can have.

Your role in Jungle Fever was so complex and interesting in terms of exploring the point of view of a woman of color and her concerns about lightness, darkness and skin color, ageism, and sexism. I found those scenes to be almost electric. These are issues that rarely make it to the screen. What about that film and role did you find most intriguing?

I related to Jungle Fever on so many levels. When we made Jungle Fever I was actually married to a very handsome, blond-haired, blue-eyed guy. We had been married for almost eight years and I kind of was feeling that we were kind of near the end of our path together, so Jungle Fever kind of put the lid on that marriage, because it brought these issues to the forefront of my mind that I had been grappling with anyway during our marriage. One of the issues, which was very deep and very personal and true — and I would be remiss not to bring this up with this particular subject — was that I was struggling with being married to a white guy. I had been approached by a few black people at premieres and red carpet affairs and parties and stuff, and I had been approached by black folks and always asked, by several people, outright, ‘why are you married to a white man?’ And my response was always ‘because love is blind. I love him, he loves me and he asked me to marry him and why not? What difference does it make?’ But it did make a difference.

By the time I had completed Jungle Fever, I knew it made a difference. I no longer felt comfortable — even though my mother is white — I no longer felt comfortable being a black role model and walking the red carpet married to a white man. That’s just my personal story. I don’t say that anyone else should feel guilt about being with a person from a different cultural background or ethnic background, I don’t think that’s everybody else’s problem or cross to bear, but it had become mine by the time I started working on Jungle Fever and doing that film put my marriage over the edge. When I was done with that film, I had to walk away from my marriage. For those reasons I felt that I could no longer identify myself with a white husband and be a black icon or a black role model. It was hypocritical. It was very hard, very rough for me because my husband was very good to me and he loved me very much, but we’re still friends.

In addition to being a teacher, an actress, a singer, a writer and an activist, you’re also a prodigious musical composer. How does the “music” side of you show through in your acting?

Music is so much a part of my soul, my being, who I am, who I will always be. Any legacy I am fortunate enough to leave behind, music is going to be a major part of it. I feel most proud of that which I create myself, which is music and writing. I’m working on getting my first feature film, Dream Street, produced, and I’m most proud of writing the script because it came out of my imagination out of my soul, the same as my music. You know, you can teach people to dance, you can teach them to act, you can teach them many extraordinary things. What you cannot teach anyone is creativity. You can either create a thing or you can not. You can either write a song, write a movie, write an article or you can’t. It can’t be bought. So I am most proud of that ability, to be able to compose or to be able to write a screenplay.

Those are my most proud and most fulfilling moments, it’s not being onscreen, although I do enjoy interpreting the work of some of the great writers I have worked with. I love interpreting their work and I have a flair for it, but I can’t say that that gives me the most gratification. My most gratifying moments are when I sit at my keyboard and I compose songs because you can’t teach that. You can’t take that away and you can’t teach it. But there will be other great actors, there will be other great performers, but I don’t know if anybody’s ever going to be able to nail a song the way I can! (laughs)

What is going on with your directorial debut, Dream Street?

We’re still fundraising, our movie is budgeted at $7 million, its a beautiful movie, a bittersweet movie, about the struggles of people on the fringes, outcasts of society and how they can bond with each other and survive and change their destinies. It’s a bittersweet story, a tragedy. It’s an urban tragedy, I don’t write fluff and that’s another thing: if you’re going to get funded right now, if you write something that consists of black performing, you’re very likely to get your funding quickly but if you write an urban tragedy, its going to take you a while to get funded and that’s where we’re at and I refuse to compromise. I won’t compromise on my writing and I won’t compromise on my film making, as a writer, so I’ll just stay the course.