Interview: Kellita Smith on Icons, Agency, and Legacy

Kellita Smith knows about representation in Hollywood. She was a part of the Black television. Smith claimed her space at the time and has not moved, creating an impressive filmography full of characters and stories. From her role as Wanda in the groundbreaking Bernie Mac show to her current work on Influence, Smith’s characters women are multifaceted, beautiful, Black women who all made their mark on American television.

I caught Smith for a chat after she had come from an audition. She was ready to talk about the industry, her work, and life as a screen icon.

On why the Director of Photography is important for Black actors.

You know, if I really had my druthers and it was just out of a hobby, I would want to DP (director of photography). I would want to create and design scenes for people of color because I’ve experienced on other projects where I happen to have been the only African American and they couldn’t light for me or they couldn’t create an angle that was complimentary. It would have taken an arc of seasons before it got realized. And before it even got in the right direction, let alone corrected.

Z NATION — “The Siege of Murphytown” Episode 313 — Pictured: (l-r) Kellita Smith as Warren, Nathaniel Zang as 10K — (Photo by: Daniel Sawyer Schaefer/Go2 Z/Syfy)

Yeah, lightning can do a whole… lightning can make or break your film. A DP is really important. A director is important, but a DP, a director of photography, can create the mood that’s not on the paper, or even bring the mood on paper more alive. And, everyone has different hues. Like there’s certain there’s a reason why certain lead actresses get the awards. It has more to do with the lighting. It has more to do with the setting. It has more to do with the mood. It has much to do with how those scenes really make you captivated before they even talk.

If we are in a scene with our counterparts that happen to be white, we’re not going to be lit. And, they are the lead, they’re paying attention to their look, not yours. We come secondary. Which is why it is a construct, it is a choice when they decide to pair a white person with a Back person. They’re really paying attention to what is going on–to what degrees of separation we’re going have to really configure in this film when it comes to lighting and shooting this [Black] person. That’s real talk.

On her fight with Black press to advocate for ALL Black creatives.

It is going to take some time, but I really think that it starts with your generation, and moving forward. You know, I remember going to Essence [Magazine] during the time that I was on the Bernie Mac Show. I was perplexed about why I got a chance to you know, do a spread, or a cover [in the magazine].

And I was thinking what we did was groundbreaking. We won an Emmy. [The Bernie Mac Show is credited with being the first comedy show to use the fourth wall conversations with the audience. Mac would talk to “America” about his problems and successes in each episode.]

I didn’t start as soon as I was on the show like, “excuse me.” We did some things, and we were a little groundbreaking.  I was challenged by the whole notion because I was told “no” several times. So, I decided to arrange a meeting. I flew myself to New York to have a meeting. I wanted to try to understand what was the problem. Or what is the hiccup? And there’s a young lady who happened to be running Essence at this point–because at the time it was just Essence and Ebony, that’s kind of all we had.

And, basically, what I said to her was, I said, ‘How do I cross over if I can’t even have a presence in my own community? If I don’t have a presence in my own community, no one is really going to acknowledge what I’m doing. So I am asking you, what is it or what does it take for me to be able to get a spread or be on your cover?’

And she said, ‘these are.’ She looked up and she showed me covers on her wall. She said, ‘they’re iconic.’

The late comedian Bernie Mac and Kellita Smith broke new ground on the show ‘The Bernie Mac Show’.

And it was only four people that kept repeating their photography, in her whole wall of covers. I said, ‘Excuse you, first of all, you’re only using this person, that person, this person, and that person over and over and over. We come from iconic blood. We’re descendants of iconic people. So please do not say to me that I did not rise to the occasion of being iconic. You have allowed a celebratory wall based on your choice of these people. If you start to promote certain photographers that are black, start to promote directors that are black, you could do a collage!’

Because, at this time, it was three black shows with three black women who happen to be part of a groundbreaking situation, which was My Wife and Kids, The Hughleys,  and [The Bernie Mac Show].

On the progress that Hollywood has made in including Black women since the 1990s. 

So I would like to say that since the beginning of my career, there’s been some significant changes for black women in television, specifically. I would say that I was one of, or part of the, group that was able to be the leads of certain networks that never had Black women as their leads before. So there’s Kerry Washington, there’s Viola Davis ABC. There’s Taraji for Fox, there’s myself for SyFy. There’s Gabrielle Union for BET. My girl for HBO, which is Awkward. Issa, thank you. Actually she [Issa] kind of came after us. I say “us” because we would see each other on auditions in the 1900s.

It was like, when the millennium hit, it kind of opened up those doors. Let’s say Shonda Rhimes did a great job of kicking those doors down, but I’m also saying the women that were leads on the shows prior to us really kicked those doors down. The Esther Rolles. The Ja’Net DuBois’. The Felicia Rashad’s. You know, they really opened the doors…And the Diahann Carrolls. She was the very first African American woman to lead her own series. So I think that in its slow crawl it still has its progress and it has its wins.

And with that [today], you get a crew or you get a group of people that are challenged by the fact that you are the lead of a particular series. For me, I was the only African American period–in the cast, in the production, period. So, it came with a lot of you know…people detested it to a certain degrees. There were, you know, things that they would do to try to make their opinion. Let’s just say that, to make that soft. I knew it was bigger than me, which is why I could not allow there opinions to be noise.

On staying beautiful, on top of her game, in the industry.

You know what..I love what I do. That’s all I can say.  I love what I do, and when you love what you do, it is the Fountain of Youth. It is anti-aging. Because you’re happy. You’re excited. You’re passionate. You’re giving. You’re receiving. You’re planning, moving, grooving…like Snap! Snap!

No, it is true. If you do what you love, it should lax you. It should lax the best side of you, and that happens to be how you see the rest of the world.

That’s deep I gotta write that down. Never said that before.


You can catch Kellita Smith on the legal drama Influence on BET+.

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