KiKi Layne has got next. Amandla Stenberg is a change artist whose roles get people talking. Regina Hall is a 20-year movie mainstay, who’s still surprising us, and the Black mother of Hollywood Jenifer Lewis is our reigning queen of inspiration.
The new cover stars of ESSENCE’s Film Noir issue are also this year’s honorees at ESSENCE’s Black Women In Hollywood luncheon, held each year ahead of the Academy Awards in Beverly Hills, California.
But before they go onstage to accept their honors, we invited each honoree to our cover set photo booth. Afterwards, each actress spoke with ESSENCE’s West Coast editor Regina R. Robertson about their journey in Hollywood and how they’ve lit up Tinsel Town with plenty of Black Girl Magic.
While Layne has been a fixture on red carpets recently — her daring style turning heads — her breakout role in If Beale Street Could Talk, the film adaptation of James Baldwin’s iconic novel, has been not only a boon for her career but an important teachable moment. In the film, the Cincinnati native portrays Tish, a young mother desperate to get her lover out of jail after he’s wrongfully accused of rape.
“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,” she explains. “I also learned to trust myself more and to know that what I’m bringing is enough.”
Stenberg’s mission in Hollywood is to create art that makes people “feel something.” It’s why she’s been spot-on with picking roles that not only speak to herself, but audiences worldwide — from determined Maddy in Everything, Everything, to quick- thinking Rue in The Hunger Games to the big-screen adaptation of the bestselling novel The Hate U Give.
But no matter who she’s portraying, the actress tells ESSENCE she brings a piece of herself.
“I look for characters and stories that conceptualize a Black experience without minimizing it or falling into harmful stereotypes. 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,” she says.
Hall may just be getting Hollywood’s attention after her turn in Support The Girls, where she portrayed Lisa, an ultra supportive general manager turned den mother to women working at a Hooters-style restaurant. Still, we fell in love with Hall 20 years ago when she made her film debut in The Best Man.
“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,” she says in the February issue.
Although she earned a master’s in journalism from New York University, Hall said her Hollywood journey is even ” better—and probably a lot more work, too! But anything worth having requires work. And with that comes joy.”
When Lewis stepped onto the cover shoot set, she immediately requested Aretha Franklin to play. And when the 62-year-old actress, and everyone’s auntie in their heads, asks for what she wants, she gets it.
The mother of Black Hollywood has been part of our culture for decades from playing iconic roles on classic shows such as The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and A Different World, to holding her onscreen Black family together on ABC’s Black-ish. Lewis knows that her career has come from a higher power.
“I’ve got so much talent, it’s crazy,” she shares in ESSENCE, “but that was a gift. And I honored that gift.”
Lewis credits the longevity of her career to how much she loves entertaining audiences on big and small screens.
“I entertain with my entire molecular structure,” Lewis explains, “and have been sustained in this business because I love what I do.”
ESSENCE’s Film Noir issue hits newsstands on January 25.