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Jennifer Hudson: 'The Secret Life of Bees'

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Not even Jennifer Hudson’s golden boy toy, Oscar, could’ve erased the color lines that were crossed in her latest film, “The Secret Life of Bees.” Of course it’s theatrical, but it struck an emotional chord so deep within the former American idol that it’s given her a new outlook on race relations. As Rosaleen, the nanny of poor White southern girl Lily (Dakota Fanning), Hudson fights the good fight in a rural South Carolina town who judges everyone by the color of their skin. ESSENCE.com caught up with the Chicago-area native to talk about being accused of stealing and the price she’s paid for fame.

ESSENCE.COM: As part of the cast of “The Secret Life of Bees,” your character, Rosaleen, had to deal head-on with racism. How did it affect you?
More than anything I would say it was very shocking. It was a time-period shock, culture shock—just shocking. At the end of the day, it was very shocking that these things actually happened, and the fact that I didn’t realize that racist people like that still exist was quite a discovery.

ESSENCE.COM: So Gina Prince-Bythewood told us she put you through a mock boot camp for racism to prepare for your role. Did you past the test?
I was given a bunch of documentaries and books about the Civil Rights Movement to build my character. It kind of brainwashed me to a certain extent. My mind was crowded of all the violence that occurred, so when I did arrive down south to begin shooting, Gina called and told me to meet her at this location but didn’t want to tell us what she had planned. She gave us $20 and a grocery list to purchase some items at this local store. Before I went in she said, “Whatever you do, don’t hit anyone.” We go in and all the clerks are White and I’m with Dakota [Fanning] and the clerk was extremely rude, ignoring me and treating Dakota like a queen. Then he accused me of stealing some batteries and asked me to empty my pockets. I’m like, “I didn’t take them!” All I could hear was Gina’s voice saying don’t hit them (laughs). Then one of the men said to Dakota, “She can’t be in here!” I’m like, Oh, I can’t? And I sat down and this man sitting next to me said something like, “Get this n—– . I’m trying to eat this food.” I couldn’t believe it. Finally, Gina let me know it was an exercise to prepare for the role. It was crazy!

ESSENCE.COM: The Boatwright sisters’ fiery, loving and independent spirits are so infectious that it changes Rosaleen in a positive way.
Yes, Rosaleen felt a sense of responsibility to them when they welcome her during her time of trouble. She immediately feels the connection between them and can’t help but [inherit] their spirits. It’s a new way of life for her. She begins to correct her grammar and makes sure to register to vote because she’s earned the right.

ESSENCE.COM: There was a scene where Rosaleen was physically violated and she reacted. Do you think in real life you’d have the same response?
Oh, absolutely. I know I would have responded in the same way and wanted to kick some butt. One of the reasons I can relate to Rosaleen is because there are some things in life worth fighting for. I’ve known what it’s like to be the underdog and that’s how my character felt in that moment. The film made me appreciate and opened my eyes much more to see where we are today as Americans. After filming, I went to the dentist, and I go into the office and I see a little Black girl and a White girl reading a book together. I got emotional, but before that I wouldn’t have noticed it, so again it has helped me gain a deeper appreciation for where we are in regards to race relations in America. 

ESSENCE.COM: So how has Hollywood changed you?
I can’t go out and shop anymore or drive in my own car I like being normal. I’m the same person in a new world—Hollywood. It’s the people around me who are like, you can’t do this and you can’t do that. Although sometimes people follow me, like the one time I went to my mom’s house and my car was surrounded by kids. Don’t get me wrong —I love my fans, but there’s a time for being a celebrity and there’s a time for family.