Allow me to get this out of the way: Jenifer Lewis is most certainly my auntie in my head. Her vivaciously dramatic flair steals every scene and I live for each and every moment. Lovingly known as the “Black Mother of Hollywood” (which, you HAVE to cop her book), Lewis has ingrained herself into pop culture and basically… into our family. Her resume is longer than War And Peace, and the quality of her work is richer than Scrooge McDuck when the Dow is up. With every role, she is quintessentially, “Somebody’s Mama” and is the best to ever do it.
It is imperative to give people their flowers while they can still smell them. So, without further ado, I give to you, some of Jenifer Lewis’ most memorable TV and film moments. And yes, I’m counting entire roles of her as moments because well… they are.
- Zelma Bullock – What’s Love Got To Do With It
Tina Turner’s biopic is one of the most-quoted pieces of black cinema and arguably Angela Bassett’s most beloved role. However, it is Lewis’ portrayal of Anna Mae Bullock’s (Tina’s birth name) mother Zelma Bullock that shines in a subtle yet unyielding manner. Particularly, the moment when Ike Turner tries to persuade Mama Bullock to allow Anna Mae to come join his band is of note. When Ike slick talks her with the help of some cash, it is the look on her face that expresses every bit of skepticism and eventual succumbing to follow. Plus, she wore that green dress! If you don’t remember anything else about Miss Lewis, you remember she is the epitome of fabulous, okay?!
- Dean Dorothy Dandridge Davenport – A Different World
What makes Jenifer Lewis so great is that she is the type of actress that can turn a standard line into something legendary. Such is the case with the “Somebody Say Ho!” episode of the beloved spinoff of The Cosby Show. When Gina (Ajai Sanders) gets in trouble as the realized culprit and steps to the amazing Dean Dorothy Dandridge Davenport (what a name!), who says, “You are officially on academic probation… and worse… on… my… list!” The way she scribbles down her name with such hardened precision is everything Lewis embodies in a role.
- Aunt Helen – The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air
Every time Will’s aunties reunited, they’d greet each other with “Divas!” Well, as you can imagine, Lewis’s Aunt Helen’s was the sassiest and loudest. She knows how to enter rooms. As Fresh Prince fans knew, Uncle Phil (James Avery) was the butt of many jokes and Aunt Helen was no stranger to joining in. When Uncle Phil lamented that he wish he were pregnant (so he would get spoiled like Aunt Viv… OG Janet Hubert “Vivian,” that is), Aunt Helen sashayed across the kitchen with, “well, you certainly got the pants for it!” The sashay made it art.
- Jackie Washington – Jackie’s Back!
Robert Townsend’s Lifetime mockumentary chronicling the has-been diva who strives to make a fabulous comeback via concert has become a cult classic and Lewis has a whole lot to do with that. The entire film was basically an ode to Lewis’ panache, so it’s hard to pick one moment, but there’s one moment that is so blackity black, I can’t help but give it some shine: the snippet from Coco’s Revenge, aka “Jackie Washington’s First and Last Film.” Ya’ll see the way she put on that lipstick before she started to “kick butt?!” Classic Lewis. And of course, every single major and minor credit was attributed to Jackie Washington. Jackie was Tyler Perry before Tyler Perry! Oh and don’t forget auntie can sing! “Don’t look for me between 2 and 3 because I’m in the beauty shop!”
- Mama Odie – The Princess and the Frog
Oh yes — auntie did voice work as well! I mean, wouldn’t you if your voice sounded like hers?! Now, this particular one speaks to my Disney standom and love for black excellence since this movie stars Disney’s first official African-American princess. Lewis’ charisma shone through Mama Odie, especially in her character song, “Dig A Little Deeper.” Her ad-libs are everything and the way she says, “Open up the windows, let in the light, chirren!” brings me joy every time.
- Ruby – black-ish
This is another toughie. Tied with Diane (Marsai Martin), Ruby is easily my favorite character of this ABC comedy hit. First of all, one of my favorite things about Ruby is the way she specifically prays to “Black Jesus” whenever she’s verklempt, out-of-sorts or worried about her son, Dre (Anthony Anderson). And her soundbites are unmatched. The way she says “uh-uh!” to cut someone off is… majestic. Plus, her priorities are a mature mood: “God, Idris, alimony.” Boom.
There’s some honorable mentions such as Margueritte Coleman – The Preacher’s Wife (aka the movie with the soundtrack in which Christmas cannot begin without) and Milay Jenay Lori – Madea’s Family Reunion (“I give you Paris… in springtime!”). Of course, this is just a taste of the full course meal she has blessed us with… and we’re still munching on dessert! Lewis is here to stay and I look forward to every bit of fabulousness she decides to grace us with next!
Jenifer Lewis? You are a treasure: point, blank and period.