New York Times
Featuring A Harlette: Jenifer Lewis Talks Activism, Kanye, Racism, And Bette Midler
By Interview by Lauretta Charlton
Oct. 30, 2018
Throughout your career, you’ve played various matriarchs — the mothers in “Poetic Justice,” “The Preacher’s Wife” and “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” the aunt in “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” and now the grandmother on “black-ish” — and you’ve named your memoir, “The Mother of Black Hollywood,” accordingly. Did you ever feel typecast? No, I love these roles. What has happened with the younger generation that started watching me on “Fresh Prince” is that I developed a relationship with them. I was parked on Santa Monica Boulevard just yesterday, and a young African-American woman stopped her car, and she just reached her hand out of the window and whispered, “Thank you.” What can I tell you, kid? I’m doing my best.
You write about learning to accept your bipolar disorder and how it was a challenge to admit that you needed help because it isn’t common for black people to even acknowledge mental illness in the first place. What do you make of Kanye West, who’s been in the news for possible mental-health issues? Someone in Kanye’s camp is trying to get me in a room with him. I know what mental illness looks like, and I know that if a person is not ready to get help, they won’t. I hope that he gets himself well. Nobody is better or worse than anyone else. This is not something to point your finger at and laugh. The only thing you can do for anyone else is to share your story of well-being.
Last month, you wore head-to-toe Nike on the Emmys red carpet in support of Colin Kaepernick. How did that come about? I was on the internet, and a video of Trayvon Martin’s mother crying came up. I was thinking about what I could do that was meaningful. So I drove to Nike. I said, I’ll stand and support and show gratitude for Nike, for leading the resistance. A company that big making a statement like that made me feel proud, so I just did it. Nobody called and suggested it. It was just me.
What started your career in activism? You also discuss a part of your life when you lost a number of friends to H.I.V. and AIDS. Was that it? Yes, I think that was the first time I was truly awakened in politics. My friends were dropping like flies, and the government wasn’t doing anything. You don’t watch an entire generation take water hoses and dogs on the front line during the ’60s or watch another generation perish from AIDS and then get to drive around in big cars and do nothing. At this point, I don’t think it’s time for any of us to sit down about anything.
You don’t mention much about encountering racism in show business directly in your book, but clearly racial justice is something that is important to you. Do you feel that black actors have it easier now? I think it will become easier because of what’s happening now. It’s going to be easier for young girls to come up in this business, thanks to the higher awareness brought about by the #MeToo movement. It will become easier because people are waking up now. You have the millennials — of all races — lying down in the streets to protest police brutality, for instance. These are not dark times. These are awakening times.
Your good friend Bette Midler was criticized on the internet for tweeting “Women are the n-word of the world,” a reference to a quote by John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Did you think that was a mistake? I don’t know if the people who were in an uproar knew that it was a quote. I talked to Bette, and I just told her to keep doing what she’s doing because everybody in the world knows how much of an activist she is, how wonderful she is. I was walking on the beach with Bette once, and she stopped to pick up trash. None of us are perfect in this struggle. We are outraged and sometimes will say things that are impulsive. We’re all on edge, and we all make mistakes, but when you’re a Bette Midler or a Jenifer Lewis, you’re forgiven. End of story.
Video: Jenifer Lewis – “I Know Where I’ve Been” – Sirius XM Live On Broadway – 2010
March 17, 2010: Veteran performer Jenifer Lewis sings “I Know Where I’ve Been” from the hit musical “Hairspray” by Marc Shaiman, lyrics by Scott Wittman and Shaiman at the taping of SIRIUS XM LIVE ON BROADWAY!