One cannot describe the accumulation of Lonette McKee’s talent, aesthetic presence and history with the word “actress”. Ms. McKee is an actress, producer, singer, director, writer, and activist. She has had a robust and uncompromising film career, which has included powerful roles in the films Malcolm X, Cotton Club, Jungle fever, ATL, Sparkle, Brewster’s Millions (with Richard Pryor), The Women Of Brewster Place, Round Midnight, and Gardens of Stone amongst other films. She has worked with Spike Lee, Robert Di Niro, Wesley Snipes, Francis Ford Coppola and many others in her 37 year career.
Ms. McKee studied film directing at The New School in New York and apprenticed directing with filmmaker Spike Lee. McKee studied singing with Dini Clark and ballet with Sarah Tayir, both in Los Angeles.
Ms. McKee garnered critical acclaim for her Broadway debut performance in the musical The First. She became the first African American to play the coveted role of ‘Julie’ in the Houston grand Oper’s production of Show Boat on Broadway, for which she received a Tony Award nomination. Her tragic portrayal of jazz legend Billie Holliday in the one-woman show, Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill won critical acclaim, standing ovations and a Drama Desk Award nomination. She reprised the role of ‘Julie’ on Broadway in the most recent revival of the musical Show Boat directed by Hal Prince.
Lonette McKee’s latest project is a film called Dream Street, which she has written and directed, and is working to bring to fruition in the coming months. Ms. McKee graciously agreed to entertain many questions from me concerning the particular challenges of African American women working in the world of film, and other issues, and was passionate, candid and mindful with her answers. The answers that follow are her words, with no revision or manipulative molestation by moi.
PH Lonette, I know you are working on producing and directing a new film entitled Dream Street. Can you tell us about it, including a bit about the genesis of the project, the premise if you can, and who is featured in the film and why.
LM Inspiration to begin my journey as a filmmaker came after realizing that the (film) industry systematically shuts out women of color when they reach a certain age of maturity. And by that I mean usually in our mid-to-late thirties, dreadfully young. Too many gifted women find themselves suddenly faced with the reality that ‘good’ acting roles are no longer available. The agents and managers start sending mediocre and uninteresting fare. We become only wives & mothers on screen, playing only supporting roles to the male leads. Granted, it’s easier for Caucasian actresses to continue to find interesting scripts in this age group, but those opportunities usually aren’t afforded to women of color at all. It seems those in charge of green-lighting projects feel that women are no longer attractive at that age and that our stories are of no interest or value to the theatre goers. We are no longer considered viable. Of course this is crazy and sickening along with being untrue. It’s discrimination at its worst. There is a huge demographic of baby boomers and women who crave entertainment that reflects their experiences.
Once I realized what my fate could be if I left my movie career to the decision-makers, I became determined to take charge of my own destiny and create and develop my own projects for the big screen & television. I decided to step out of the box and “dare to dream big.” I had always been a good writer and had written songs all my life. I had also read hundreds of incredible screenplays during the course of my career and worked with great writers and directors. I knew I could come up with stories just as good if not better and I had learned how to direct and produce from some of the best.
So, I cloistered away and set about creating a slate of projects for women… by a woman. Not to worry though, I’m also sympathetic to the plight of Black men in this business and have killer scripts for them too. That said, my feature, Dream Street is a character driven ensemble piece. Set against the hip hop music industry but is not a musical. It’s a drama which follows the story of an up & coming artist as she struggles to rebuild her life after a series of tragic breaks. It’s also the story of how those on the fringes of society may get beat down, but can ultimately endure and prevail. It’s quite an edgy even somewhat hard script with a universal theme of hope for the misbegotten and will appeal to a universal worldwide demographic.
PH Every artist has a core of inspiration that they work from that took seed in them at usually, a very early age. When did you first deeply recognize that you wanted to be an artist and wanted to distill some beauty out of what you saw around you and communicate it back into this world?
LM Well, first, my mother supported my being an entertainer. She encouraged my natural ability to write music and play piano and told me I could be a star. At four and five-years old I began playing piano, singing, writing songs and dancing. I entertained family, friends and neighbors with my “shows.” By seven or eight, I began performing professionally. I was soon taken in a recording studio by family friends to cut a song I had written. At fourteen, I began working with professional record producers and musicians and actually landed a bona fide hit single that made the charts!
I believe I’m an old soul reincarnated who has lived many lives prior this one. How else does one explain children born with abilities or skills without training? I had a sense of my career destiny at a very early age.
PH You have been in some films that I regard as being seminal, in that the stories are essential to a better understanding of not only our interior selves, but our culture, our sexual and power politics and poetics, as well as the history of the American and African American experience. I would consider Malcolm X, Jungle Fever, the Cotton Club, and Women of Brewster Place amongst these. Can you give us some insight concerning your view of the ability of films like these to further inform us, to give us significant insights into the culture?
LM Film, television, music and all other areas of entertainment have always profoundly affected social trends. Personally I’ve strived to do projects with meaning, stuff with a message. I’ve tried to seek productions or shows that rise above the run of the mill.I’ve never been interested in being “common”, or in doing “average” work. I’m a perfectionist when it comes to my work and my creative endeavors. Either I’m going to excel at what I’m doing artistically and it’s gonna be great… or I don’t do it. This could be a curse because the other side is that you work less when you’re particular… but that’s how I feel and I hope that’s what I’ve done.
PH I have been writing a bit about the idea of the “blood knot”. The sort of incestuous tango of regard and disregard that white and black play out together in America to this day, the tango of which is more pronounced in the south. In Hollywood this has played itself out in the crazy admiration and exploitation of the draw of certain black performers while keeping access to the “pie” of steady work and reasonable roles for Black actors/actresses at a minimum. What is your view of this dynamic in Hollywood over the last three decades?
LM We touched on this previously. Here’s the thing, there’s a disproportionately small amount of high-earning jobs for Black folks in any career in this country if you think about it. We’re live in a racist society. Black folks don’t get promoted or make salaries on par with whites – with the exception of sports figures and the breakthrough entertainer… like Oprah or some superstar recording artists. The decision makers, primarily white, don’t fancy Blacks that much to begin with. Entertainment after all is merely a reflection of societal issues. So, yeah a few of us slip in. Maybe we’re even encouraged to run with a ball or entertain – I see it as kind of a “minstrel show.” That’s why I’m so determined to write, produce and own my projects. I strive for a more cerebral success if you will. Anything I do from now on in this business I intend to own.
We have little to no clout in the Hollywood machine. Hollywood is run by white boys that have little or no regard for people of color or women unless there’re incredibly big bucks to be made. Then they may push their bigotry and chauvinism aside for the sake of making money… for a minute; that is until we start wanting to help other Blacks or let more smart women in.
New York is a little better. In NY if you’re talented, you have somewhat of a fighting chance to be successful in entertainment. NY seems to respect talent more and see color less. It’s such a melting pot of ethnicities that folks are accustomed to different colors & cultures and perhaps become more “tolerant.” Plus there are so many people jammed into Manhattan that I think it forces all of us to accept one another’s differences and live together.
PH The territories of both “indie” and “art” films have been largely off limits concerning story lines that deal directly with persons of color, no matter what the content. For instance a film about the life of Langston Hughes could be a profoundly “bohemian” story that could appeal to an “indie” audience. Why are these types of films not being made?
LM As I said, because people of color don’t make the decisions regarding which projects get green lit since rarely are we in positions of ownership or control. We have to go to the white boys for funding so they get to make the decisions as to which films & projects get made. That’s why when we act silly or like buffoons, we’re more likely to get funded. Similarly, that’s why when we attempt to make projects of substance and significance (and/or wish to own it) we can’t obtain the finance.
But most unfortunate is that we are still recovering from what our slave masters whipped into us about ourselves and our own people. We are woefully reluctant to support each other as Blacks. I may be wrong, but it seems like other ethnicities such as Middle Eastern, East Indian & Asians are quicker to help each other get started with businesses when they arrive in this country. Our people sometimes embrace a bit of the crab-in-the-barrel syndrome. But then again, we’ve been through a different type of torture & oppression, unique to the African American in the US. Those peoples weren’t forced here as slaves as we were. And it wasn’t that long ago we were getting hosed down and made to sit in the back of the bus. All things considered I think we’ve done exceptionally well. But we have a ways to go. Sometimes I think they taught us well to hate ourselves.
PH You have worked with an amazing array of actors, directors, artists, musicians, and performance artists, from Spike Lee to Carl Hancock Rux. What have been some of the more unique experiences and exchanges you have had with any of these?
LM Yes I have I’m proud to say. I’ve been blessed to work with some of the greats for sure and they taught me a lot. I’m always amazed by our strength, creativity, humanity and compassion given what we’ve been through. We’re a smart, warm, kind and forgiving people with incredible survival skills second to none.
PH I have to ask the inevitable Spike Lee question. What is his working process? How much leeway does he give the actors to react within the context of a scene? Is his process more organic or strictly planned?
LM Spike has been a good friend and he’s mentored me as a filmmaker. I’d say Spike’s process is both free and structured. If a shot or scene is very technical then the actors have to stay within the parameters he sets. In a scene like the “girl-talk scene” in Jungle Fever, he gave us quite a bit of freedom and we adlibbed a lot. Least I certainly did.
PH What precipitated your move to Detroit and the formation of your own film production company?
LM I wanted to take a break from my performing career and the hustle that often accompanies that grind. I was yearning to spend some quality time with my aging mother and I have a sister I love very much who has cerebral palsy and mental disabilities. I’m also working with associates here in Detroit to set up a few projects.
PH You have been recognized almost from day one in your career as a great beauty. ) How has your identity as a beautiful woman affected how you have managed yourself within the context of your career?
LM Not much. We rarely see ourselves as others do. Besides, beauty is fleeting and not the stuff of life. I guess in my youth I was considered a looker… but come on… you’re the psychologist, I doubt I need to explain to you the pitfalls of taking looks too seriously or relying too heavily on them. How far can looks get you unless you’re a model? I pride myself on my mind, my heart, my spirit, my talent and creativity and smarts. Hopefully I will make some small difference and contribution to the planet and mankind that makes this world an ever so slightly better place for my having been here. I love animals and nature and perhaps I can use my creativity to have a positive affect on how we treat them and interact with them; whether or not they survive the torment we humans cause them. Maybe I can even help ensure that the planet itself survives. I dunno, maybe that’s a too-grand wish. But I am surely most proud of that which I write, think and create. How we look is of little importance to me, maybe that’s why I refuse to wear makeup when not working and choose to live in jeans and T shirts.
Frankly I prefer spending time in the country around nature, the earth and animals. Nobody cares how I look there. I like to think I live in a finer energy. That’s the stuff I care about.
PH Sparkle has achieved cult-film status over the years, and was an undeniable precursor to Dream Girls. You are absolute magic in that film, and the camera loves you. Did you think it would be a huge catapult into other opportunities?
LM No, of course when we’re doing the nuts and bolts work on a project we don’t expect them to be anything really big. We might hope for that, but just like life in general, nothing is guaranteed in this business and it’s always full of surprises. Best to just concentrate on working hard and doing good work and then all the right things will follow.
Thank you for the thoughtful and provocative questions, Mr. Howard.