It’s awards season, and once again, Essence magazine is right in step with the moment by releasing its annual Black Women in Hollywood issue with four incredible cover stars—who also happen to be this year’s award honorees! Newcomer on the rise KiKi Layne, industry vet-turned leading lady Regina Hall, child star turned outspoken role model Amandla Stenberg and, of course, the “Mother of Black Hollywood,” Jenifer Lewis are all dressed in denim and ready for their closeup from photographer Ian Maddox.
Inside the issue, each of the actress gave their take on what it means to be a working black actress today, and how their roles inform their lives—and vice versa.
To say KiKi Layne is having a stratospheric start to her career would be an understatement. After attending Chicago’s DePaul University for acting and landing a single-episode television role on the hit show Chicago Med, Layne found herself submitting a taped audition for Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk—and landed the starring role of Tish Rivers. But Layne, who has already been owning the red carpet this awards season, tells Essence she didn’t always dream so big.
“Until Lupita exploded on the scene, I hadn’t really seen so much of myself in anyone,” she said. “That’s when I realized that I could work on this level too.”
And what did Layne learn from playing the sensitive and steadfast character of Tish?
“When I came to the project, I saw strength in being able to do everything yourself. But because so much of Tish’s strength comes from vulnerability and her commitment to love and being loved, I learned to tap into my own vulnerability. I also learned to trust myself more and to know that what I’m bringing is enough.”
Anyone who watches Black-ish knows Jenifer Lewis, the self-proclaimed “Mother of Black Hollywood,” is a scene stealer. But the multitalented actress, singer, activist, producer and writer says her success comes from owning all of it.
“I’ve got so much talent, it’s crazy,” Lewis told Essence. “But that was a gift. And I honored that gift. I entertain with my entire molecular structure and have been sustained in this business because I love what I do.”
And Lewis, who has been open about her diagnosis and struggles with bipolar depression, was candid about coming out on the other side.
“I’ve come through the fire, baby. Little Jenny Lewis had a dream, and I think she would be very proud,” she said. “As I tell the millennials over and over, find your passion. And dream. It will save your life.”
Amandla Stenberg has been a game-changer in Hollywood, whether as a character many presumed would be white in The Hunger Games, calling out cultural appropriation, turning down a blockbuster role because she believed a darker-skinned actress should play it, or living her truth as an openly gay ingenue in Hollywood. And her coming of age and into herself is a journey Stenberg hopes to share.
“My biggest hope is that a little Black girl walks into a movie theater and is able to see herself on-screen, and because she sees herself, doesn’t feel as if she has to make herself smaller in the world,” she told Essence.
And while we may not understand all of her roles, we trust that Stenberg chooses them with careful consideration. “I look for characters and stories that conceptualize a black experience without minimizing it or falling into harmful stereotypes,” she says. “I want characters who raise us up and show the nuance of who we are and how beautiful and multifaceted and colorful we are too.”
At 48, Regina Hall is enjoying the type of success that wasn’t always afforded to women who’ve already spent decades paying dues in Hollywood. But in addition to playing Stenberg’s onscreen mom in the critically-acclaimed The Hate U Give, Hall is now scoring Best Actress nods and awards for her starring turn in Support the Girls. This, after co-starring in the 2017 runaway hit, Girls Trip—which has us beyond excited to see her share a role with Black-ish’s Marsai Martin in the upcoming comedy Little.
“I like showing different sides of myself and humanity,” Hall says of her choice of roles. “I don’t judge a role as good or bad, but I will play it honestly. It’s about serving the story.”
Still, despite Hall’s extensive resumé, she tells Essence she’s enjoying this phase of her ongoing career—and it’s a lesson all of us can learn from. “It’s really exciting to say not only that you’ve been in a business for 20 years, but also that you’re still loving it and learning.”
The Glow Up tip: Essence’s Black Women in Hollywood issue goes live on Friday, January 25!