The A Plus Interview

‘Black-ish’ Star Jenifer Lewis Loves A Good Laugh But Takes The Resistance Very Seriously

“You have to have a sense of humor about this shit.”

The A Plus Interview reimagines the celebrity interview by inviting artists to answer a short series of brief, poignant questions that strive to be more meaningful than those asked by others. Visit on the last Thursday of each month for the latest installment.

If you haven't been paying attention to Black-ish star Jenifer Lewis on social media, you're missing out on some real gems. Not only is the legendary actress proving that she will do anything for her memoir (The Mother of Black Hollywood, of course), but she is using her powerful voice to fight the good fight.

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"Show business has actually taken a backseat," Lewis told A Plus over the phone recently when asked what's next in a career that has seemed to encompass all realms of entertainment. "The resistance is more important to me than anything right now."

The Missouri-born star admitted that being unafraid to speak her mind is nothing new but that she is venturing into new territory by getting political — at once point referencing "the man-thing in the White House," leaving any specific name unspoken. Lewis has always been an activist and charitable, yes, but it goes beyond that. While you may not have seen her fired up like this before, she has been keeping a close eye on what's happening in the world and is ready to speak out.

Credit: Monica Almeida / Reuters

"It's a new fucking day and it's time to pay the fuck attention or we won't have a stage to perform on," the "In These Streets" singer said. "I think I'm going to be participating a lot in the movement. Let's just put it like this: I've built a foundation now that I'm proud of and I think I'm the most happy after laying my burden down in the book. I'm unafraid. I won't say I'm unapologetic, but I'm unafraid."

When it came to writing The Mother of Black Hollywood, Lewis admits that the biggest thing she learned about herself throughout the process was that each and every one of her experiences was real — from her battle with mental illness to the fact that she was sexually assaulted numerous times to her rocky relationship with her mother. That these events did happen and she went through them. Plus, having her journals, which detailed everything, certainly helped tap back into these moments.

"There's a part of the brain that — and it's God's gift — that we go into shock when shit happens just to save ourselves. It's the human protector," Lewis explained. "I think that's what really affected me most, was that I was like, 'Damn, I was there?' My whole thing to people is this: Pay attention and have as much fucking fun as you can because life is amazing — it's a miracle. It's constant change ... we just have to fucking change with it."

Credit: HarperCollins

Speaking her truth and writing it all down for everyone to read was not a problem for Lewis, she reveals, saying "there ain't no shame in my game, baby. Yeah, I did it."

"Let's just say helping people with my story out balances any hesitation. I had to lay my life on the page the way I did," Lewis said. "I turned 61 this year and I think life has just started for me. I think it's just starting. One thing about me that I've always admired — as I do in other people: I care. I just do."

Having lived the spectrum during her life — from poor to rich (joking that rich is better) — Lewis admitted that it's "damn near impossible not to care" for others. That said, she set out to not make her book too preachy, never wanting to tell others what they should do but to point out what she did and to share her journey.

Credit: Bob Riha Jr. / Reuters

"You want to feel good?" Lewis asked. "Do something for somebody — end of story — and then watch them smile. It doesn't get any better than that and it doesn't cost a fucking dime. Just walk the walk. If we all just walk the walk, the current bullshit that's going on in the world can't touch us because we'll know who we are when the shit hits the fan."

It's this idea that hits home an important point Lewis makes in a letter to readers at the end of The Mother of Black Hollywood, acknowledging her opinion that she owes others. She owes others because of the fact that she survived everything thrown at her during her life. She came to this conclusion, as she wrote in the book and recalled during our interview, after coming home from a monumental trip.

"There's no sugarcoating it: I had just gotten back from South Africa. You cannot go to where he [Nelson Mandela] spent 27 years and not come back eyes new, soul new," Lewis admitted. "You can't go there and be unchanged. You cannot — it's impossible. Not only for the horror of the poverty and oppression but for the beauty."

While there is this deep desire to give back by way of her book, Lewis also admits that she wanted readers to laugh throughout the book as well. That's why, when you're making your way through The Mother of Black Hollywood, you'll feel as though Lewis is speaking directly to you as if you were a friend, making you laugh at every page. It's undeniably her voice, and she notes that this was an important part of the writing process — to infuse her own personality into the words she typed. 

"After the book was all written and done, that's when I went through it page by page and just put the humor in there — and I think you're the first person I'm telling this," Lewis said. "I had to put the humor in there because that has also saved me. You have to have a sense of humor about this shit. Come on, this shit is hysterical. All of it. Life, it's funny, every minute. Humor and love, that's what you've got to surround yourself with. Surround yourself with beautiful things. Surround yourself with things that make you smile and laugh."

Though intangible, Lewis has surrounded herself with a career full of triumphs. As the self-proclaimed mother of Black Hollywood, she has — by definition — played mother to many Black actors and actresses during her time. And, like any of us would, Lewis has favorites.

When it comes to these onscreen children, Lewis points to working with Taraji P. Henson on 2009's Not Easily Broken as one which stands out from her career. She says Henson is "amazing" and "brilliant," describing the Empire star as "a meteorite."

"I mean, just being in makeup and hair with Taraji was interesting," Lewis said. "Listening to her prepare to go out and slay as only she can. And then getting there with her — that toe to toe, face to face, hip to hip, eyes to eyes, hair to hair — it was very powerful. She is the real deal — as a person and as an artist — who I'm extremely proud of."

As for career highlights, Lewis looks to 1993's What's Love Got to Do With It as a standout role, playing Zelma Bullock (Tina Turner's mother) to Angela Bassett's Tina Turner. Besides working with the film's cast — which included Black-ish co-star Laurence Fishburne as Ike Turner — it was the overall level of happiness in life that made this an enjoyable experience for Lewis, who calls it "such an amazing time in my life."

"When I got to set for What's Love Got to Do With It, I was so filled with happiness and possibility, and I was able to really do the whole work to develop the character I think the performance was really one of my best because the stars were aligned," Lewis explained. "And I knew that woman! I mean, I'm from St. Louis, so I knew who Zelma Bullock was. I think I pulled three of my aunts plus my mother and developed the character because they, in fact, were St. Louis women like myself."

Beyond this trip down memory lane, it's the breakthrough role Lewis currently inhabits on the small screen that perhaps defines who she is today: Ruby Johnson on Black-ish alongside the likes of Fishburne, Anthony Anderson, Tracee Ellis Ross, and a slew of talented young actors. This sitcom, to her, is the role of a lifetime.

"Ruby is amazing. All of Ruby's colors, levels, and background. This is a woman who has lived a full life and survived. I love Ruby — she is insane and she is a hot mess, but she gets the job done. What Ruby has that saves the is her warmth and love she has for her grandchildren, but most of all it's that she is honest. Ruby and I have that in common. I have boundaries, but Ruby has none."

Lewis with Black-ish co-stars (l-r) Laurence Fishburne, Tracee Ellis Ross, and Anthony Anderson. Credit: Mario Anzuoni / Reuters

Aside from Ruby, though, Lewis doesn't hesitate to mention Kenya Barris and all of the Black-ish writers who are "leading the resistance." Who wouldn't want to be a part of that, Lewis asked, rattling off an ever-growing list of current topics that the ABC series doesn't shy away from covering. Lewis notes that they're "addressing everything" and that just being a part of it all is an honor.

It's at this point in her career that Lewis feels she can look forward with fresh eyes into an endless expanse of possibilities — be they in entertainment or otherwise. And, while her sights are set on being a part of the political movement happening in America, don't count this diva out just yet because she has some yet-to-be-revealed projects waiting in the wings. For now, though, Lewis is doing everything "for my book," and is moved each and every time someone tells her they are moved by what she wrote.

"It never stops. When I hear somebody tell me they enjoyed it, it just fucking washes my soul," Lewis explained. "The compliments about the book hit me deeper than any compliment I could have gotten from performing onstage — and that's huge because the stage is where I breathe. It's my life."

So, if you're going out to conquer the world, Lewis would probably want you to hear this little pick-me-up line from her, one she is very fond of: "Go get 'em, tiger."

The Mother of Black Hollywood: A Memoir is available now.

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