By Shannon M. Houston | Photography by Jeff Walton | Styling by Dalia Macphee
“Whimsical” is not an attribute we’d typically assign to a story about a black family living in the civil rights era. But when Sharon Leal opens up about her new film, White Water, she uses this very word, making the project that much more interesting. Director Rusty Cundieff’s film takes a unique approach to a familiar narrative, and offers up a historical critique through the lens of a child with a seemingly simple dream.
Leal (who recently starred in Addicted) plays the protagonist’s mother, Annie, and Larenz Tate plays her estranged husband. White Water’s release is especially timely, given the recent resurgence of activism following the murder of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Although it’s troubling to consider the similarities between 1960s Alabama, and 2014 Missouri, Leal promises a hopeful—even playful—bent to the film. “Most movies set in the ‘60s aren’t told in this sort of storybook manner,” she says. “There’s a whimsical quality that the film has. Telling the story from the mind of a 7 year-old seemed beautiful, and different.” Leal goes on to say that, given the plot—which centers on her son Michael’s yearning to drink from the Whites Only water fountain—there are necessarily heavy moments. But ultimately, this is a story told “from a very sweet and innocent perspective.”
Leal describes her character as “that southern woman who’s just trying to keep her child alive.” Annie guides Michael with rules and religion. She’s hard on her boy, but Leal says, “you can tell she’s a bit of a softie.”
Leal’s personal narrative works in an interesting way with this story, as she also found herself veering away from her parents’ plans. Her family didn’t have a lot of money, and she was fully expected to become a doctor or a lawyer, “or maybe a nurse,” she adds, laughing. Leal found creative support in a mentor who “saw something” in her, and determined to involve her in the arts. As a result, Leal attended Roosevelt School of the Arts, a performing arts school (one of her classmates and friends is Tony award-winning Broadway star Audra McDonald), an education which she emphatically describes as “a lifesaver.”
“Those teachers and mentors are responsible for where I am today,” Leal adds.
And where is she, exactly, today? Leal happily admits to spending a lot of time in her head. For the actress, singer, and mother, mental well-being comes first. “When I am straight in my head, I can take the time to be with people that inspire me.” And Leal has definitely been around such people. Of Beyoncé (who she worked with on her first movie, Dreamgirls), she exclaims, “I don’t think people think about what it takes to be Beyoncé! My respect for her quadrupled.”
Leal also takes time to go on spiritual retreats with friends, and loves a good dance class. But she believes that “the key to everything” is in clarity of the mind. In a way, this idea connects her to the characters in White Water, who also had to find a certain inner peace to survive. Leal says she had long talks with Larenz Tate about their characters, and how—in spite (or because) of everything—blacks in 1960s America had to “ find their light.” And it’s clear that she has done the same for herself.
In finding that light, Sharon Leal has been able to bring to life one more empowering story of critical import, especially for those of us raising young black boys in America.