By: Aja Chestine
During the past four decades, Jenifer Lewis “The Mother of Black Hollywood” and Black-ish star continues to use her exemplary talent and contagious energy to evolve and evaluate. After over 300 appearances in film and television, the actress, singer, author, activist and philanthropist seamlessly maintains her voice as a powerful weapon. An unmasked and vulnerable Lewis recently discussed her trials and triumphs with bipolar disorder and sex addiction. She also speaks freely about why she chooses to be a political and social activist; and the impact and importance of a show like Black-ish in today’s climate. L
Last year, Lewis shared raw and passionate emotions in her tell all memoir “The Mother of Black Hollywood”. This year the memoir won the Non-Fiction Book of the Year at the National Book Club Conference. The book shines light on a long road to self-love after self-destruction, battling bipolar disorder and sex addiction. Lewis admits knowing for years something wasn’t right, suffering from extreme highs and lows before being diagnosed in 1990. She describes the use of sex, as a painkiller. “It was never about the sex, it was my psychological problems that cause the pain”. Needless to say she decided to stand in the gap for others, using her testimony as a blueprint towards recovery. “I felt it was my responsibility, to dispel the stigma, fear and just plain ignorance surrounding mental illness; particularly in African American community”. “It’s a hidden secret that has taken a terrible toll on our families and communities”.
Recently Lewis showed her support for Golden Globe winner and friend Taraji P. Henson, at the opening of the Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation. Which is named after Henson’s late father. The foundation is set up to bring awareness and highlight mental illness in African American Communities. “I’m always here for anything supporting mental illness and I’m always here for Taraji P. Henson. I’m very proud of her”.
Lewis has not done this alone, for the past 18 years she’s been in intense therapy; while taking medication for a significant period of time. Lewis candidly says, “You can rise up like a Phoenix, I did it step by step”. “You have to choose to be happy when the sun rises. Everyone gets to a point of being tired of being sick and tired”. She lays out how critical it is to balance both mental and physical aspects of your life. “No specific diet, just don’t eat meat and sugar all the time”. “Eat more fruits and vegetables”. “What exercise looks like for me, is simply walking. I love to walk or anything to keep my body moving”. Lewis echo’s the fact of cultivating the body holistically, mind, body and soul. “Sleep is just as essential as healthy eating habits”.
At 61, Lewis prides her recovery on the hard work she puts in daily. Lewis spirituality is at the core of her foundation, “I pray with every step I take”. She has received electrified standing ovations at Carnegie Hall, performed for Kings and Queens around the world and multiple Presidents at the White House; but she acknowledges that “my greatest accomplishment was looking in the mirror and taking responsibility for my actions”. “Self-love is truly loving yourself through the good and bad times”. “It’s not about what you are asking for, but the better question is what you are working for”. Deciding to tackle mental illness in the public eye, is just another example of her selflessness and concern for others. “What I’m hoping is that anyone who reads my book, receives the message I tried to express”. Lewis sets the bar high, as an example for others to use their celebrity in a positive light.
It is nearly impossible to have not seen Lewis in one of your favorite movies or TV shows over the years. Black-ish, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, A Different World, What’s Love Got to Do with It, The Preacher’s Wife, Meet the Browns and Think like a Man and Think like a Man Too just to name a few. She is one of the most recognizable faces in Hollywood. She truly is the “Black Mother of Hollywood”. Giving remarkable performances as mothers of Whitney Houston, Angela Bassett, Tupac Shakur and Terrence J. Lewis is an iconic actress with comedic genius. At times on screen her talent seems unmatched. Her relatability transcends today’s culture, from her viral social media videos to starring opposite Anthony Anderson, Tracee Ellis Ross and Laurence Fishburne in Kenya Barris hit show Black-ish where she portrays “Ruby Johnson”.
Lewis refers to the writers as the true stars of the show, “their ability to bring drama and comedy together is at its best. I think what makes our show so appealing to America, is we represented 3 different generations. It’s entertaining, educational and I am honored to be on this show”. After the announcement that show creator of Black-ish and Grown-ish Kenya Barris signed a 100 million dollar deal with Netflix and is leaving ABC, she was asked her thoughts. “Netflix is a huge force in entertainment. It is a sign of progress that African American producers and creators are being given big budgets and the freedom to tell stories that showcase African American experiences”. Now on the verge of completing Season 5 of Black-ish, Lewis is already thinking ahead “ I will be releasing the Paperback copy of “The Mother of Black Hollywood this November”. “I also will continue my book tour. I love meeting my fans in all corners of the country”!
Throughout her career Lewis has used her voice to bring awareness to social and political issues. Lewis decided to make a daring statement at the 2018 Emmy Awards; wearing a Nike outfit to show her support for ex San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernik. The response was overwhelmingly positive! The story traveled around the world. “My goal was to draw attention to the injustice of police brutality that targets African Americans. By taking this bold step, my hope was to encourage athletes and others to take a knee”. “There are so many reasons I use my voice! As Nina Simone said, “it is the artist’s duty to reflect the times.” “I am fortunate to have the attention of many, many people in many age groups”. “I believe it is my responsibility to speak my truth in the hope of contributing to a better world”.
With the new wave of technology, Lewis has utilized her social media platform on Instagram and Facebook to get the word out to promote voting, as well as protesting against inequality and political views. In a very short time, she’s become a viral goldmine with over 200 million views! Her hilarious and informative videos tend to empower and motivate people of all races, genders and religions. Lewis also spreads a message of hope and promise to reach young people. “I AM is the only thing that there’s no opposition to”, she often says.
Lewis’ longevity is a direct reflection of her passion and love for what she does. She credits her theatre background as an enormous springboard into Hollywood. “The theatre is my first love”. “It takes a certain discipline to get on a Broadway stage, it’s like participating in the Olympics”. “You sleep, eat and mentally train”. Lewis has been dubbed a national treasure by TV Guide; it’s unbelievable to think a few years ago she considered retiring from the industry. This was before having a conversation with herself in her garden that she remembered “Not even me can’t stop me”. “To retire from show business would be equivalent to retiring from the act of breathing”. “You have to be in it to win it. You have to stay up.” “If the elevator to success is broken, take the stairs. Well, I took the stairs”!
As Lewis continues to navigate her way through Hollywood year after year, she confronts controversial issues head on. Never backing away from voicing her opinion on topics such as President Trump, Kanye West and the Me Too Movement. “Recently Lewis hosted the Variety’s Power of Women luncheon, and spoke out about Kanye West ongoing behavior. “I want to say to Kanye, you have a mental illness”. “I know what mania looks like and that kind of mania is dangerous”. As a spokesperson and survivor of mental illness, Lewis plans are to reach out to Kanye. She’s willing to provide guidance and assistance if West is willing to accept it.
On the same lines Lewis calls out President Trump irrational and unpredictable behavior. Number 45, which she calls him “Plan is to take away every program that attempts to provide an equal playing field for all Americans. He can’t erase everything former President Barack Obama has done, because he led with love”. “Unlike the hatred 45 has promoted and tolerated these past two years”.“It’s like that mirror that is turned around”. “America is forced to stop and appreciate our freedoms, remembering how much Native American blood is in the soil”. “I personally stand up for the fight of our ancestors who faced being sprayed by fire hoses and attacked by dogs”. Lewis has lived through segregation, Jim Crow and African Americans finally receiving their rights to vote. Lewis sometimes reflects back when dealing with these daunting times we are subjected to. With strong principles and a sense of divine purpose she continues to forge ahead.
In 2018 the Me Too Movement took center stage in Hollywood. I asked if she had ever been inappropriately approached going up for a role. She replies with an outburst of laughter “Girl you know aint nobody came for my ass”. “My talent has always spoke for me when I entered a room”. “Seriously I’m excited and proud of the sacrifices and wherewithal of the women coming forward”. Lewis equates this movement to movements of the past. We have to stand together against violations of all human rights”.
As the interview came to a close, I was left with an astounding amount of respect for Lewis’ resilience, commitment to humanity and unapologetic views. I couldn’t decide which affected me more, her beautiful spirit or thought provoking wisdom. She hails supreme in comparison to most legends. Lewis will not only leave a legacy, but a master plan for generations to come.