Top Black Female Actresses Biography
Film, television, and stage actress. Film credits include Doctor Detroit, 1983; Silverado, 1985; The Slugger's Wife, 1985; Jaws: The Revenge, 1987; Mace, 1987; Dead Aim, 1990; A Thin Line Between Love and Hate, 1996; The Planet of Junior Brown, 1997; Eve's Bayou, 1997, Gone Fishin', 1997. Television work includes regular roles on the series Heartbeat, ABC, 1988-89, Equal Justice, ABC, 1990-91, and The Cosby Mysteries, NBC, 1994; Appeared in the television films The George McKenna Story, 1986; Johnnie Mae Gibson: F.B.I., 1986; The Women of Brewster Place, 1989; A Triumph of the Heart: The Ricky Bell Story, 1991; The Josephine Baker Story, 1991; Stompin' at the Savoy, 1992; Sophie and the Moonhanger, 1996; The Wedding, 1998. Other television appearances include "Zora is My Name!," American Playhouse, 1990. Stage credits include Owen's Song, Kennedy Center, Washington, DC, 1974-75; Showdown, New Federal Theatre, New York City, 1976; The Great MacDaddy, Theatre de Lys, New York City, 1977; and Tamer of Horses, Los Angeles Theatre Center, Tom Bradley Theatre, Los Angeles, CA, 1986-87.
Lynn Whitfield has enjoyed a busy career in film, television, and theatre. She is best known for her Emmy Award winning portrayal of legendary nightclub entertainer Josephine Baker in the 1991 cable television film The Josephine Baker Story. She also drew rave reviews for her performance as a sophisticated businesswoman tossed aside by a womanizing Martin Lawrence in the popular 1996 comedy- thriller A Thin Line Between Love and Hate. "Whitfield's performance is one of the memorable features of the film. As the psychotic woman scorned by Martin's character Darnell, Whitfield skillfully weaves a character whose increasingly violent behavior is both startling and evokes sympathy," wrote a reviewer for the Oakland Post.
Whitfield was born Lynn Smith in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in 1954. Her father, Valerian, was a dentist. Her mother, Jean, was an officer at the Louisiana Housing Finance Agency. The family included Whitfield's two younger sisters and a younger brother. Whitfield credits her Southern upbringing with giving her poise. "There's more glamour in the South. There, grace, ease, and charm are prized, and social life and lifestyle are more closely related," Whitfield told Town and Country. Whitfield's interest in acting developed during her early childhood. "My grandmother used to watch those old black-and-white movies with Bette Davis and Audrey Hepburn, and I knew that's what I wanted to do. Later, of course, I would fall in love with the acting of Dorothy Dandridge, Diahann Carroll, and Diana Sands," Whitfield told Patrik Henry Bass of BET Weekend Magazine. From the start, Whitfield was focused on not simply being an actress, but becoming a star. "When I saw Breakfast at Tiffany's I didn't think that I couldn't do the Audrey Hepburn role. It did not occur to me. That kind of naivete is just so wonderful. You step into the fire and that naivete keeps you from getting burned," Whitfield explained to Darrell I. Hope of Venice.
Whitfield received her introduction to performing from her parents. During his after-work hours, Whitfield's father organized a community theatre in Baton Rouge. Her mother was an accomplished amateur musician and costume designer. Whitfield's stable, middle- class parents had always viewed their artistic pursuits as leisure activity and were disappointed when their daughter chose a career in show business. "No, it wasn't acceptable to primarily be an artist and to have no other form of income. It was very frightening, it was not encouraged," Whitfield told Jacqueline Trescott of the Washington Post. After spending a year at Southern University in Louisiana, Whitfield transferred to Howard University in Washington, DC, becoming the third generation of her family to attend Howard, one of the country's premiere traditionally black colleges.
While a student at Howard, Whitfield acted with the D.C. Black Repertory Theatre in several productions including the musical Owen's Song, and the play Changes, in which she played a waitress at a "soul food" restaurant. During this time she married Vantile Whitfield, a founder of the D.C. Black Repertory, who was more than twenty years her senior. The marriage lasted about five years. "The first time I saw her I was struck by her presence. A lot of people don't come to the art form knowing this is what they want to do. They are "try-it"-type people. This is what Lynn wanted," Vantile Whitfield told Trescott.
After earning her bachelor's degree from Howard, Whitfield moved to New York City. She gained further stage experience in off-Broadway productions such as The Great MacDaddy, a musical covering African- American life in Los Angeles from the 1920s to the 1970s, and Showdown, a retelling of Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew in a contemporary black neighborhood in Philadelphia. A national tour of Ntozake Shange's For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf, co-starring Alfre Woodard and Mary Alice, brought Whitfield to Los Angeles. In 1983, she made her screen debut in a small role as a prostitute in the comedy Doctor Detroit starring Dan Ackroyd. Her next film was the 1985 Lawrence Kasdan- directed western Silverado, in which she played Danny Glover's sister. "It was a magical experience because everywhere I looked there were people I respected," Whitfield told Trescott about her work in Silverado.
For the next few years, Whitfield maintained an active career in films and television. She appeared with Denzel Washington in the 1986 TV movie The George McKenna Story, about a high school principal straightening out disruptive students in South Central Los Angeles, and had a role as a young mother who tragically loses her child in the acclaimed 1989 TV mini-series The Women of Brewster Place, co-starring and produced by Oprah Winfrey. "Having to go all the way to a victim place, to sustain that, was good training for me. I was able to relieve myself of some of my need to be a victim--ever," Whitfield said to Trescott about her role in The Women of Brewster Place. Whitfield had the title role in The Johnnie Mae Gibson Story, which told the story of the first female African-American FBI agent. During the 1988-89 TV season, Whitfield played a doctor on the ABC medical drama series Heartbeat, and in 1990-91 had a recurring role as an investigative television reporter on the ABC legal drama series Equal Justice. Her feature film roles included parts in The Slugger's Wife in 1985, Jaws: The Revenge in 1987, and Dead Aim in 1990.
Whitfield's breakthrough came in the HBO cable television film The Josephine Baker Story in 1991. Dozens of well-known actresses were considered to play the highly coveted role, including Diahann Carroll, Irene Cara, Jody Watley, and Whitney Houston. To land the part, Whitfield submitted a twenty-minute video audition to director Brian Gibson. Although Gibson was impressed with Whitfield's video, he asked her to audition again. Angered by Gibson's request, Whitfield arrived at the second audition in a fighting mood. "She was like another woman, and it wasn't Josephine Baker. It was more like Revenge of the Dragon Lady. She gave a powerful performance, but we weren't auditioning for Medea," Gibson told Tim Allis and Lois Armstrong of People. Despite this rocky start, Whitfield got the part. One of the most lavish and highly publicized made-for-cable films at the time of its release, The Josephine Baker Story was filmed on location in Budapest, which substituted for many locations of Baker's real life, including Paris, New York City and North Africa. Baker was famous for her semi-nude dances and the role required Whitfield to appear in extremely revealing outfits. At first, Whitfield was nervous about taking off her clothes for the camera, but she reassured herself with photos of young African women with, as she told Allis and Armstrong, "their breasts kissing the sky, their heads held high. If you do it in pride and joy, what people feel from you is difficult to misinterpret."
During the filming, Whitfield and director Gibson became attracted to each other. They married in London soon after the film was completed in the summer of 1990. "If we'd dated and gotten intellectual about it, we probably would have backed out ... I decided that if I found a soul I could walk with, I was going to do that without a lot of prejudgments," Whitfield told Allis and Armstrong. The Josephine Baker Story premiered on HBO in March 1991. Critics gave the film mixed reviews, but most agreed that Whitfield's performance was excellent. "Whitfield takes charge from the very beginning. Even though the film plunges forward at breakneck speed, with many scenes too short to take hold, Whitfield gets the most out of even the fleeting moments," wrote Tom Shales of the Washington Post. Robert S. Rothenberg of the magazine USA Today called Whitfield's performance "luminous." Whitfield won an Emmy Award and a CableACE award for her portrayal of Baker.
In 1991, Whitfield gave birth to her daughter Grace. "Having Grace was absolutely the most rewarding and best thing I have ever done in my life," Whitfield told Carol Schatz and Nancy Matsumoto of People. Her marriage to Gibson, however, foundered and the couple divorced in 1992. "We didn't know each other. It was like two strangers saying 'Okay, let's set up a perfect home right now.' It was just two people walking blindly into something, and we just as blindly walked out of it, out of fear," Whitfield explained to Schatz and Matsumoto.
Following her award-winning performance in The Josephine Baker Story, Whitfield's career experienced a slow period which she attributed to a lack of substantive roles for black actresses. "One gets so tired of talking about the fact that there are so few interesting characters for women, and, more particularly, African- American women, to play. We've not had our Breakfast at Tiffany's or our Big Chill. It's not that I see it with any hostility, it's simply the roles just don't exist," Whitfield explained to Hope. The lack of sophisticated comedic roles for black actresses is particularly regrettable to Whitfield. "They don't allow us to do the Simonesque, Allenesque sort of things. I am not good at slapstick, I don't have an interest in it. But there is no reason why I couldn't do...Andie MacDowell in Green Card. I want to begin to jockey around for that sort of thing...I think we need to be more active in that arena," Whitfield told Trescott.
In 1992, Whitfield won an NAACP Image Award for her performance in Stompin' at the Savoy, a television film about a group of African- American women in the 1930s who work as domestics by day and, in the evenings, find excitement at a local dance hall. The film, in which Whitfield co-starred with Vanessa Williams, Jasmine Guy, and Vanessa Bell Calloway, was directed and choreographed by Debbie Allen. In 1994, Whitfield secured a regular role as a physical therapist on the short-lived television series The Cosby Mysteries.
Whitfield landed a substantial role when she appeared in A Thin Line Between Love and Hate, a comedic take-off on the 1987 thriller Fatal Attraction. The film was written and directed by Martin Lawrence, who also co-starred. Whitfield played Brandi Webb, a successful real estate broker who is dumped by Lawrence's womanizing character, Darnell, and takes drastic measures to let him know she won't be tossed aside. "Working with someone like Emmy Award winner Lynn Whitfield was most challenging, since her range of talent is so exceptional," Lawrence told Shirlane Hendrickson of Everybody's: The Caribbean-American Magazine.
Some commentators found Whitfield's presence in the raunchy comedy something of a surprise. "Lynn Whitfield has spent most of her 41 years perfecting an image of a woman you'd think would turn up her nose at a Martin Lawrence movie. And now she's in a Martin Lawrence movie," wrote Sonia Murray of the Atlanta Journal and Constitution in 1996. Whitfield explained her decision to appear in the film to Talies D. Moorer of the Amsterdam News, "To have a license to be a bona fide madwoman and have no one judge you is what excited me about the role. That's what actors live for, something meaty and challenging. Brandi lives in a castle of insanity. She is interesting because she is a bright, independent, attractive, successful functional psychotic and on the surface there's no hint that she would have a problem with her love life."
After completing A Thin Line Between Love and Hate, Whitfield appeared in another comedy, Gone Fishin', with Danny Glover, Joe Pesci, and Rosanna Arquette. "Lynn Whitfield is amazing. Not only is she beautiful but she has a kind heart and wonderful spirit," Glover told Bass. Whitfield's part in the film was not specifically written for a black actress. Whitfield told Kim Green of YSB that such casting is a "natural progression." Gone Fishin' was not well- received by the public or by critics. "It started off to be a story that was very interesting for the women but ended up not being very interesting at all for the women," Whitfield told Rachelle Unreich of Movieline.
Soon after her performance in Gone Fishin', Whitfield starred in the highly acclaimed Eve's Bayou, a drama about a young daughter in a prosperous black family in 1960s Louisiana whose life is shattered when she stumbles upon her father, played by Samuel L. Jackson, in a tryst with a party guest. Whitfield played the girl's distraught, overprotective mother. "This powerfully acted supernatural fever dream, which suggests Tennessee Williams filtered through Oprah, with a dash of voodoo, explores the ties that bind the women of the Batiste family, an affluent black clan who live what at first appears to be a robust fairy-tale existence in a steamy paradise," wrote Stephen Holden of the New York Times. John Petrakis of the Chicago Tribune gave the film similar praise, adding that "the cast is solid across the board, especially Jackson as the philandering husband and Whitfield as the superstitious wife." Eve's Bayou was written and directed by Kasi Lemmons. "It was great working with Lynn. She's a professional and has a great sense of humor. I would work with her again in a minute," Lemmons told Bass.
Whitfield has not remarried since her 1992 divorce. She told Bass, "I'm dating. But honey, I call having dinner with my daughter a date. I'm a romantic and an idealist. I'm looking for the right person who carries the right energy. Someone with a sense of humor...I have so many dreams. I think that things can be so much better. There are so many things I want to do."
Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Miniseries or Special, and a CableACE Award for The Josephine Baker Story, 1991; Howard University Alumni Achievement Award, 1992; National Association of Colored People Image Award, actress in a drama series, for Stompin' at the Savoy, 1992.
Top Black Female Actresses
Top Black Female Actresses