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Lynn Whitfield: glamor and grace


What can I say about Lynn Whitfield that hasn’t been said before? It’s no wonder the Pan African Film Festival will bless the award-winning actress with its highest honor, a Lifetime Achievement Award for her work in television and film. Her career has spanned some 30 years thus far, and she is as beautiful, graceful and glamorous as the first day she set foot in Hollywood.

I first met Whitfield in 1986 when I interviewed her for my documentary focusing on Blacks in entertainment, “Unforgettable.” At that time Black actresses were in the same boat much as they are today, yet Whitfield and others like her managed to keep working. In 1986, she shared with me her philosophy regarding working in Hollywood and apparently its worked for her all these years.

“When you walk into an office, say, an agent, and that agent says, “darling, you’re too short, you’re too dark, your hair isn’t long enough. They’re not buying this season.”  What do you have to stand on at that point? Simply stand on what you know to be truth, what you embrace to be your reality, and your truth. And that is what you’ve received, this is what I want to do, this is what I’m going to do. I do not accept this to be my reality, and you move forth.” And move forth she has.

Whitfield is a native of Baton Rouge, La. There is this southern genteel charm she emits when you meet her face to face, and like a true southern belle, don’t confuse that lady-like demeanor with weakness.

Her acclaim began growing at the Black Repertory Company in Washington, D.C. Later she appeared in Off-Broadway productions, and eventually starred in the Los Angeles stage production of “For Colored Girls . . .”  Early on she made guest appearances in a number of television shows, and starred in two series, ABC’s “Heartbeat” (1988) as a doctor, and an anchor woman in “Equal Justice” (1990).

Whitfield made her film debut “Dr. Detroit” (1983) starring Dan Ackroyd.
In 1991, Whitfield starred in HBO’s “The Josephine Baker Story” and took the world by storm. She embodied Baker, who was among one of the most celebrated women in the world. Whitfield says she and the entire crew could feel Baker’s spirit as they went about working on the production.

Whitfield’s performance was flawless and for it she won the 1991 Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Miniseries or Special.

In 1992, she starred in one of my favorite movies, “Stomping at the Savoy,” earning her an NAACP Image Award in 1992 for her role in the mini-series. Directed by actress, and choreographer Debbie Allen, Whitfield starred as a low-down, back-stabbing friend of Vanessa Williams, Jasmine Guy and Vanessa Bell Callaway, and she was fine with it. If you’ve never seen this movie, make a point to do so.

Perhaps the one movie that resonates today with young women all over America is “It’s a Thin Line Between Love and Hate.” Whitfield says young women walk up to her to this day talking to her about that film. When I told a young woman in her early 20s I was interviewing Whitfield, she brought up that film.