Kimberly Elise: Giving ‘voice to voiceless’ on road to Black Hollywood royalty

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Actress Kimberly Elise at the Black Women’s Expo on April 7, 2018. | Max Herman/For the Sun-Times

Wearing a curvy black pantsuit, spike heels and cafe-au-lait colored camisole, Kimberly Elise rushes in, out of breath and apologetic, after getting caught in McCormick Place convention traffic.

When she flashes that smile, though, the one from the movies that speaks all innocence and sweetness, the delay doesn’t matter.

You’re transported back to every black urban cult classic film you’ve ever loved, and her consistent presence in them.

“I always want to do projects that resonate. I don’t want to make it to Black Hollywood royalty to do projects you forget,” said the 50-year-old actress, who got her film start in the 1996 “Set It Off.”

“I always want to give voice to the voiceless. And quite often, those are women in situations where they feel disempowered. But by the end of it, they are empowered, so that there’s a journey, and there’s a light, inspiration and encouragement,” said Elise.

Elise’s most beloved films have featured her as exactly that — black women struggling, and usually overcoming. Most featured a predominantly all-black cast, director or producer, long before mainstream Hollywood could see potential value in a “Black Panther.”

“Set It Off” for example, about four women bank robbers, had a $9 million budget, and grossed $41 million at the box office.

“Woman Thou Art Loosed,” the 2004 independent film about a woman coming to terms with abuse, addiction and poverty, was made for $3 million and grossed $6.8 million.

In 2005, Tyler Perry’s first film, “Diary of a Mad Black Woman,” about a betrayed wife who finally gets her revenge, cost $5.5 million to make. It grossed $50 million. And Perry’s 2010 “For Colored Girls,” with an all-star cast including Janet Jackson, Kerry Washington and Phylicia Rashad, was made for $20 million and grossed $38 million.

“When we did ‘Diary,’ no one in Hollywood knew who Tyler was. He was strictly performing in our community, and doing very, very well. I was coming off a bunch of movies. It was a risk for me, but I loved the character,” said Elise, in Chicago recently for the Black Women’s Expo.

Those movies she was coming off of included “Beloved,” alongside Oprah and Danny Glover; “John Q,” and “The Manchurian Candidate” – the latter two alongside Denzel Washington, with whom she again c0-starred in a third film, 2007’s “The Great Debaters.”

“I adored Tyler, his passion and his commitment, and just the innocence of the beginning of his journey. After that, everybody wanted to be in a Tyler Perry movie,” she said. “He was creating parts for black actresses and opportunities that we weren’t getting.”

Elise caught the acting bug at 17. Her first gig? Dancing with a hamburger in a Wendy’s commercial. After a communications degree from the University of Minneapolis, she married, had her first child, applied to L.A.’s prestigious American Film Institute, was accepted, packed a U-Haul and drove cross-country.

Her first TV job was on LL Cool J’s “In The House” series.

She divorced from Maurice Oldham, her husband of 16 years, in 2005, and he died in 2007, leaving her to raise their two young daughters — now 28 and 19 – alone.

“…Anybody who has been a single mother knows, it’s very difficult, very challenging. I think women, and especially black women, subject ourselves to the superwoman syndrome. But it also puts us in a state of fear and survival,” Elise said.

“I definitely had the syndrome, and also, I didn’t trust anyone with my girls,” she said. “You have to find a community that’s supportive. I was fortunate enough to meet a man, now in my life, who is so utterly supportive, I have to pinch myself. It’s really important as women to pick ourselves up after heartbreak, and not get locked there.”

Currently starring in “Death Wish,” with Bruce Willis, Elise’s next film projects include the sci-fi “Ad Astra” with Brad Pitt and Tommy Lee Jones, expected out next January. In between films, the vegan, and natural hair aficionado, promotes her natural hair care line, Kimberly Elise Naturals.

“I saw myself on the red carpet one day, in a wig that was not even remotely connected to my heritage, and my eyes became clear in a way that it hadn’t before. I was like, ‘I want to be me,’ ” she said.

“We as women really have to keep doing that inner work on ourselves. Prioritize ourselves. Trust in ourselves. I turn 51 this month, and I’m doing things now as an entrepreneur, and exploring parts of my life and the world that I never dreamed I would be doing. Keep going after those visions. It’s never too late.”

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