Dana Elaine Owens was born in Newark, New Jersey on March 18, 1970, the second child of Lance and Rita Owens, a police officer and a schoolteacher, respectively. The versatile entertainer first found fame in the world of hip-hop upon the release of her debut album “All Hail the Queen” while still in her teens. As Queen Latifah, she has since enjoyed an enviable recording and concert career featuring seven solo CDs plus countless collaborations with colleagues across a spectrum of musical genres.
“La” added acting to her repertoire in 1991, when Spike Lee cast her in Jungle Fever. Next, she made House Party 2, following that up with critically-acclaimed appearances in The Bone Collector and Brown Sugar. But it was for her breakout role as Matron Mama Morton in Chicago that she became the first rapper to land an Oscar nomination.
Latifah has been a bona fide box-office attraction ever since, starring in such hit movies as Bringing Down the House, Hairspray, The Secret Life of Bees, Mad Money, The Perfect Holiday, Barbershop 2 and Beauty Shop, to name a few. Meanwhile, among her impressive TV credits are stints on such sitcoms as Living Single, The Fresh Prince and Spin City.
Here, she talks about her new movie, Just Wright, where she gets to play the title character for the first time ever opposite Common as her love interest. Directed by Sanaa Hamri (Something New), the romantic comedy’s talented supporting cast includes Paula Patton, Pam Grier and Phylicia Rashad.
Kam Williams: Hey, Queen Latifah, I’m honored to have this opportunity to speak with you.
Queen Latifah: Please, just call me, La.
KW: Okay, La, what interested you in Just Wright?
QL: Actually, it was kinda something we just created from scratch. What we wanted to do was make was a romantic comedy that was both sexy and romantic and had some emotion, but at the same time wasn’t just a chick flick. And that had some action, some energy. And that’s where the whole NBA component came in with Leslie Wright, my character, being a big basketball fan, and a daddy’s girl. One of the ways that she and her daddy bonded was by his taking her to the games because he didn’t have a son. That made a really big fan out of her. So, the overall goal was to make a movie that was family friendly, but that at the same time had some action, some edge and some sexiness to it.
KW: Children’s book author Irene Smalls asks, what was it like being directed by Sanaa Hamri and working with Common and the rest of the cast?
QL: Oh, man, it was amazing! Honestly, I couldn’t have asked for a better group of people to work with. It was a true team effort. There’s no way we could have done this independently of one another. Sanaa was the perfect choice because she had a great vision for the film from the moment she first read the script. We interviewed a lot of different directors, but her take on it was something that we appreciated because she assured us that she planned to bring a certain style and taste to the production, that it would be elevated and classy, and have cools shots that would make everyone look really good onscreen. I think that she managed to pull it all off, and I’m really proud of her.
KW: Erik Daniels says, “I know you used to play a mean game of basketball back in the day.” [La played power forward on a high school team that won the NJ State Championship twice.] He was wondering whether you still find time in your busy schedule to shoot around at all.
QL: I do. Whenever a ball is around, you can’t help but pick that thing up and shoot it. You know what I mean?
QL: I was never the best player on the team, but I do love basketball and I have no problem shooting the rock. My body is not exactly as limber as it used to be in high school, obviously, but I still enjoy a good game of basketball.
KW: Erik also remembers that Spike Lee gave you your start in movies in Jungle Fever when he cast you as a waitress at Sylvia's Restaurant. He wants to know whether you’ve had an opportunity to dine there again.
QL: Oh, I’ve eaten at Sylvia’s a million times. I ate there before I got that job, and I’ve eaten there plenty of times since. She’s a staple in Harlem, and I’m happy that Harlem has enjoyed a Renaissance in recent years, so that she could be a part of it.
KW: Recent college grad Laz Lyles asks, do you think Just Wright will help revive the Black romantic film?
QL: I think you definitely see true Black love in this film. And I hope that it helps to revive the genre, but I can’t say whether it will be a catalyst for that. But Just Wright isn’t a romantic comedy just for Black folks. I think anybody who watches this movie is going to fall in love with the idea of love again. You get to see a strong male in Common’s character, Scott, and two completely different female leads in my character, Leslie, and Paula Patton’s, Morgan. And we also get to see them sort of be family and go through the types of things many families go through, yet still find love in the end. That’s the realistic image that we wanted to portray, not broad stereotypes with one swipe of the brush. We’re painting our pictures as vividly as possible.
KW: Professor Mia Mask asks, what about acting do you find most challenging, and do you think the range roles for Black women in Hollywood are improving?
QL: I approach the film business the way I feel about self-esteem. It’s something that has to be maintained. That’s kind of how I feel about positive roles in Hollywood. They have to be maintained. You have to purposefully, intentionally try to make the right type of films. And the more people that do that, the more things will continue to improve. Absolutely!
KW: Mary V. Bell asks, since you seem so together, she wonders if there’s anything you’re insecure about?
QL: I’m not always so together. Like I said, it’s not just a given, but something that has to be maintained. I’m as flawed as anybody else. I have my ups and downs, and people around me to help me fight through it.
KW: Bobby Shenker says, “I love Queen Latifah! She is the Empress! Tell her I can’t wait to see her bio-pic about Bessie Smith.”
QL: We’re working on that, Bobby. They’re writing that script right now for HBO, and we’re trying to make that happen.
KW: Reverend Florine Thompson asks, what is your favorite way to express yourself spiritually?
QL: To go to church.
KW: Her follow-up is, what cause are you most passionate about?
QL: I’m passionate about children, particularly, whether it’s education, HIV prevention, treating HIV and AIDS, or protecting young girls from being molested.
KW: Yale Grad Tommy Russell asks, do you think the Obama administration is doing enough for the Gulf coast in the midst of the BP oil rig disaster?
QL: Well, it’s obviously a daunting challenge, but I think he’s the right guy to tackle the problem because he’s very passionate about the environment. In general, I believe our president and his administration are doing the best they can with the mess they’ve inherited. I think they’re doing a pretty good job, considering how many different things in the country need to be fixed. So, we not only need to support him now, but for another four years so he can complete a lot of those tasks.
KW : Finally, Carmela Reimers asks, “Do you feel as beautiful as I think you are?”
QL: I don’t how beautifully she thinks I am.
KW: She says, “Very!”
QL: Well, thanks. I do think I’m beautiful after I get off the treadmill, when I’m real sweaty with no makeup. That’s when I feel I’m at my sexiest.
KW: Well, thanks again for the interview, La, and best of luck with Just Wright and your other upcoming projects.
QL: Thank you, Kam.
To see a trailer for Just Wright, visit: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r0NUHCbx4NA