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Exclusive: Erika Alexander Talks Black Women In Hollywood & Paving Your Own Way

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There are several iconic black leading ladies many of us grew to love and sought to emulate in the 90s. My favorite femme fatale during that time was a lawyer by trade, called a Brooklyn brownstone home, and had three homegirls standing to her left and her right who held her down through the ups and downs of being a single, sex-positive power woman in the Big Apple.


Maxine Shaw's brash humor, chic box-braided undercut, love of food, and sassy confidence drew audiences closer and closer to the TV every week, providing a unique depiction of femininity and ambition that held its own in an ensemble cast of entertainment powerhouses.

IMDB

Erika Alexander is the woman behind giving life to Maxine, lending her acting ingenuity and experience from working on sets of shows, including The Cosby Show and Law & Order, to the role. Since those days, she has continued to hold her own in Hollywood, acting in the Oscar-winning film Get Out, the HBO hit Insecure, and the hit OWN drama Queen Sugar. She's even taken her talents beyond the small screen, walking the presidential campaign trail with Hillary Clinton and producing her own comic book series.

When I got the chance to interview Alexander for an xoNecole exclusive, I went into full-on stan mode and was happy to catch up with her just as she was completing a Philly stop for the Keep It Colorful initiative, a collab project with her company, Color Farm Media, crowdfunding platform Seed&Spark and Black & Sexy TV. The initiative, one Alexander is very passionate about, seeks to give filmmakers of color a platform to get their projects green-lit.

"Everyone keeps talking about this so-called 'renaissance,' but [I think] it's not a renaissance. It's a resurrection---restarting what happened at the end of the 90s where we had black casts being successful in the world," she said. "We thought we should get together to invite creators of color to---from a grassroots point of view---fund their own projects. We chose streaming series. We've gone to many cities in America---Raleigh, Philly, Compton, Chicago, Atlanta, Detroit, and Cleveland. It's been really successful."

In addition to her current endeavors, Alexander talked more about the 90s role that inspired a generation of future independent go-getters, why she chooses the roles she does, and why she rides hard for keeping Hollywood honest by working to level the playing field for creatives of color.

Women are still inspired by the Living Single narrative and I know my friends and I tried to follow the show's example after college. It was literally life imitating art. How do you feel today when people say that you're such an icon in terms of portraying a strong black professional woman back then?

I think that that's a great compliment and it's really flattering to hear. I understand it because when I was growing up, there were very few black casts and the ones that were out there we revered. I loved Good Times, The Jeffersons, Sanford and Son, 227---I loved them. But we often didn't see any young people who were engaged in careers. Living Single was after A Different World and The Cosby Show. Both did a great job, but [Living Single] was one of the first times we saw young black professionals on their own, engaged in the world, not only in their careers and their autonomy as individuals, but [they were] also sexually free to be who they were, which is a big deal. So I understand how people might look at that now and still want that. It resonates with young people because they really do want a picture of successful, youthful images, but what it also says is there still must be a dearth of them, and that's unfortunate.

It's definitely unfortunate. But the good news is that you've since gone on to act in other projects that push the envelope and tell diverse stories, including Get Out and Queen Sugar. What factors are involved in choosing the roles that you take?

Well, you know, I wish it was just a choice. It really is what comes to you and then what you end up getting sometimes. I think that I try to choose roles that have some kind of substance or something unique about them in that the character will be fun to play.

For the most part, it's about whether they are coming to you and offering you a role that they think aligns with you. There are just too few roles for the amount of actors out there. And there are way too few roles for the amount of black women out there because you're also competing with the so-called diversity choice---which can be Latinx, Asian, or East Indian. Suddenly, that opens up a [population] of other actors and actresses who are competing for the same role.

"I try to choose roles that would be interesting, but they also have to choose me."

Erika's Instagram

That's an issue as well in that 'diversity' has broadened in meaning in almost all industries, especially in entertainment and media. How will your company and your own efforts address those issues of inclusion and opportunity?

With Color Farm Media, one of the reasons I created a space that I thought would promote inclusivity and diversity is because I knew that there was a lack of it. So we go around and we call ourselves the Motown of film, television, and tech.

"Our mantra is to provide a pathway of success for creators of color that is outside of the mainstream---not only in marginalized communities but also the new majority, which is made up of communities I just mentioned, as well as [LGBT.]"

There's also huge ageism in Hollywood. If you're over 45 and haven't gotten your career going, they feel like you don't exist. There are many people who are going to great lengths to get some rhythm and get their projects seen, but it's very difficult. We think that is absurd. There's nothing that should put you outside the bounds of being a powerful creative, and that's why Color Farm exists. We want to make sure that we connect with these people and create a space online where they can [be educated], have a way to promote [their projects], and be successful in entertainment careers.

Erika's Instagram

You're a veteran in Hollywood and still making boss moves in the industry. With the challenges that exist for black creatives---in front of and behind the camera--how can young women get their foot in the door and successfully launch a career they can sustain?

I believe you have to prepare yourself, if you are a person of color or woman of color, to get those jobs. Find internships or ways to practice, whether it's in your hometown [or Hollywood]. [Build] a resume that reflects what you might want to be a [director of photography] or grip or someone who does lighting---you need that practice. And there are people who are willing to give you a shot if you approach them and say, "I need more experience," or "I'd like to shadow you or get on your set and volunteer."

"We must do the best we can with what we have---the best way we can. We can align ourselves with people who are committed to [diversity] and there are people who, if you just ask, would say, 'Sure, we can make a space for you.'"

It's a corporate culture, by the way, so just because it's Hollywood and we're on film and doing television, it's still corporate. Wherever there's a corporate structure, there's a lack and there's invisibility that's inherent and we need to break it down.

For more of Erika Alexander, follow her on Instagram.

ACLU By ACLUSponsored

Over the past four years, we grew accustomed to a regular barrage of blatant, segregationist-style racism from the White House. Donald Trump tweeted that “the Squad," four Democratic Congresswomen who are Black, Latinx, and South Asian, should “go back" to the “corrupt" countries they came from; that same year, he called Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas," mocking her belief that she might be descended from Native American ancestors.

But as outrageous as the racist comments Trump regularly spewed were, the racially unjust governmental actions his administration took and, in the case of COVID-19, didn't take, impacted millions more — especially Black and Brown people.

To begin to heal and move toward real racial justice, we must address not only the harms of the past four years, but also the harms tracing back to this country's origins. Racism has played an active role in the creation of our systems of education, health care, ownership, and employment, and virtually every other facet of life since this nation's founding.

Our history has shown us that it's not enough to take racist policies off the books if we are going to achieve true justice. Those past policies have structured our society and created deeply-rooted patterns and practices that can only be disrupted and reformed with new policies of similar strength and efficacy. In short, a systemic problem requires a systemic solution. To combat systemic racism, we must pursue systemic equality.

What is Systemic Racism?

A system is a collection of elements that are organized for a common purpose. Racism in America is a system that combines economic, political, and social components. That system specifically disempowers and disenfranchises Black people, while maintaining and expanding implicit and explicit advantages for white people, leading to better opportunities in jobs, education, and housing, and discrimination in the criminal legal system. For example, the country's voting systems empower white voters at the expense of voters of color, resulting in an unequal system of governance in which those communities have little voice and representation, even in policies that directly impact them.

Systemic Equality is a Systemic Solution

In the years ahead, the ACLU will pursue administrative and legislative campaigns targeting the Biden-Harris administration and Congress. We will leverage legal advocacy to dismantle systemic barriers, and will work with our affiliates to change policies nearer to the communities most harmed by these legacies. The goal is to build a nation where every person can achieve their highest potential, unhampered by structural and institutional racism.

To begin, in 2021, we believe the Biden administration and Congress should take the following crucial steps to advance systemic equality:

Voting Rights

The administration must issue an executive order creating a Justice Department lead staff position on voting rights violations in every U.S. Attorney office. We are seeing a flood of unlawful restrictions on voting across the country, and at every level of state and local government. This nationwide problem requires nationwide investigatory and enforcement resources. Even if it requires new training and approval protocols, a new voting rights enforcement program with the participation of all 93 U.S. Attorney offices is the best way to help ensure nationwide enforcement of voting rights laws.

These assistant U.S. attorneys should begin by ensuring that every American in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons who is eligible to vote can vote, and monitor the Census and redistricting process to fight the dilution of voting power in communities of color.

We are also calling on Congress to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to finally create a fair and equal national voting system, the cause for which John Lewis devoted his life.

Student Debt

Black borrowers pay more than other students for the same degrees, and graduate with an average of $7,400 more in debt than their white peers. In the years following graduation, the debt gap more than triples. Nearly half of Black borrowers will default within 12 years. In other words, for Black Americans, the American dream costs more. Last week, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, along with House Reps. Ayanna Pressley, Maxine Waters, and others, called on President Biden to cancel up to $50,000 in federal student loan debt per borrower.

We couldn't agree more. By forgiving $50,000 of student debt, President Biden can unleash pent up economic potential in Black communities, while relieving them of a burden that forestalls so many hopes and dreams. Black women in particular will benefit from this executive action, as they are proportionately the most indebted group of all Americans.

Postal Banking

In both low and high income majority-Black communities, traditional bank branches are 50 percent more likely to close than in white communities. The result is that nearly 50 percent of Black Americans are unbanked or underbanked, and many pay more than $2,000 in fees associated with subprime financial institutions. Over their lifetime, those fees can add up to as much as two years of annual income for the average Black family.

The U.S. Postal Service can and should meet this crisis by providing competitive, low-cost financial services to help advance economic equality. We call on President Biden to appoint new members to the Postal Board of Governors so that the Post Office can do the work of providing essential services to every American.

Fair Housing

Across the country, millions of people are living in communities of concentrated poverty, including 26 percent of all Black children. The Biden administration should again implement the 2015 Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, which required localities that receive federal funds for housing to investigate and address barriers to fair housing and patterns or practices that promote bias. In 1980, the average Black person lived in a neighborhood that was 62 percent Black and 31 percent white. By 2010, the average Black person's neighborhood was 48 percent Black and 34 percent white. Reinstating the Obama-era Fair Housing Rule will combat this ongoing segregation and set us on a path to true integration.

Congress should also pass the American Housing and Economic Mobility Act, or a similar measure, to finally redress the legacy of redlining and break down the walls of segregation once and for all.

Broadband Access

To realize broadband's potential to benefit our democracy and connect us to one another, all people in the United States must have equal access and broadband must be made affordable for the most vulnerable. Yet today, 15 percent of American households with school-age children do not have subscriptions to any form of broadband, including one-quarter of Black households (an additional 23 percent of African Americans are “smartphone-only" internet users, meaning they lack traditional home broadband service but do own a smartphone, which is insufficient to attend class, do homework, or apply for a job). The Biden administration, Federal Communications Commission, and Congress must develop and implement plans to increase funding for broadband to expand universal access.

Enhanced, Refundable Child Tax Credits

The United States faces a crisis of child poverty. Seventeen percent of all American children are impoverished — a rate higher than not just peer nations like Canada and the U.K., but Mexico and Russia as well. Currently, more than 50 percent of Black and Latinx children in the U.S. do not qualify for the full benefit, compared to 23 percent of white children, and nearly one in five Black children do not receive any credit at all.

To combat this crisis, President Biden and Congress should enhance the child tax credit and make it fully refundable. If we enhance the child tax credit, we can cut child poverty by 40 percent and instantly lift over 50 percent of Black children out of poverty.

Reparations

We cannot repair harms that we have not fully diagnosed. We must commit to a thorough examination of the impact of the legacy of chattel slavery on racial inequality today. In 2021, Congress must pass H.R. 40, which would establish a commission to study reparations and make recommendations for Black Americans.

The Long View

For the past century, the ACLU has fought for racial justice in legislatures and in courts, including through several landmark Supreme Court cases. While the court has not always ruled in favor of racial justice, incremental wins throughout history have helped to chip away at different forms of racism such as school segregation ( Brown v. Board), racial bias in the criminal legal system (Powell v. Alabama, i.e. the Scottsboro Boys), and marriage inequality (Loving v. Virginia). While these landmark victories initiated necessary reforms, they were only a starting point.

Systemic racism continues to pervade the lives of Black people through voter suppression, lack of financial services, housing discrimination, and other areas. More than anything, doing this work has taught the ACLU that we must fight on every front in order to overcome our country's legacies of racism. That is what our Systemic Equality agenda is all about.

In the weeks ahead, we will both expand on our views of why these campaigns are crucial to systemic equality and signal the path this country must take. We will also dive into our work to build organizing, advocacy, and legal power in the South — a region with a unique history of racial oppression and violence alongside a rich history of antiracist organizing and advocacy. We are committed to four principles throughout this campaign: reconciliation, access, prosperity, and empowerment. We hope that our actions can meet our ambition to, as Dr. King said, lead this nation to live out the true meaning of its creed.

What you can do:
Take the pledge: Systemic Equality Agenda
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Featured image by Shutterstock

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