The entertainment world has been blessed with some phenomenal talent throughout the decades, but as many cross over the threshold of fame, very few stay standing in the spotlight.
Lynn Whitfield knew at 5 years old that she wanted to experience the power of the stage—the allure of acting. Growing up in Baton Rouge, La., the eldest of four siblings—her grandmother would sneak her off to the late-night movie. It was there she knew she wanted to make people laugh and cry. Encouraged by her family, her father a dentist and mother—Whitfield went on to attend Howard University, becoming a third generation graduate and earning her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree.
The theater community fit her like a glove, studying and taking on roles with the Black Repertory Company in Washington, D.C. and relocating to New York City to perform on off-Broadway productions. She would film her debut in the cult comedy “Doctor Detroit” starring Dan Aykroyd, which would lead to supporting roles in “Silverado,” “The Slugger’s Wife,” and “The Women of Brewster Place” in the 1980’s. As her face became familiar in both film and television, the starring role of “The Josephine Baker Story” would catapult her career as a household name. The HBO miniseries would earn Whitfield primetime Emmy, Golden Globe nomination and NAACP Image Awards for an Actress in a Television Movie, Mini-series or Drama.
Earning HBO some of the highest ratings at the time and opening the door for other Black actresses to also star in leading roles for the network, Whitfield never doubted her ability to carry such a high-profile role.
“There was never a question in mind. I just felt this was my opportunity, that I was pleading to let people see more of what I had to offer as an actress, as someone who could entertain as an artist. I was so grateful to do it. Out of that, the director and I got married, I had my daughter Grace,” she said. “Had my baby, gained the respect and started to build a fan base from that. So, it’s a whole lot of ‘thank yous’ and gratitude. The experience afforded me to establish myself as a reliable actress,” says Whitfield.
Since then, Whitfield has taken on numerous roles, sharing the screen with some the best talent in Hollywood from “A Thin Line Between Love and Hate,” “Eve’s Bayou,” “Head of State,” “Tyler Perry’s Madea’s Family Reunion” to countless others.
“If I feel like I can add more to the faucets to the character, if the story is good of course. If I feel like it has legs to be entertaining and gain an audience… But, consistently I try to choose—sometimes it’s ‘please may I have this part?’.” She says she enjoys playing women who “feel like I can make even more interesting.”
“I think dimensions are so important to characters. If I can add to the story, layering the story—laying the character—looks like I can score in it. Do something that will be memorable…”
Currently, her stellar performance on OWN’s drama series “Greenleaf” as the role of Lady Mae Greenleaf keeps Black twitter wagging as she personifies the wife and matriarch of one of the South’s prominent ministers.
“Oprah saw or felt that I was the right person for it and that gave me pause. I looked at it a certain way because she said she could only hear my voice in it. This is what I heard through the line producer.” In its second season, Whitfield says there was no particular first lady she tried to mimic in real life.
She explains, “The fact that I know so many great women who sometimes get a bad label…. Be labeled, the ‘b’ word or ‘controlling’. I believe that many women who can evolve (not that we can evolve because we’re queens anyway) but having a kingdom that they want to defend is a very interesting portrayal—an interesting character to portray so I see Lady Mae as a queen.”
Having Southern roots, Whitfield grew up in an educated and modest family where community service was interwoven into history. Her advocacy for women’s and African American civil liberties made her an active participant on the campaign trail for both President Obama and later, Secretary Hillary Clinton.
“People would come knock on his door and say, ‘Dr. Butler I’m sick.’ I would see him [my father] serve the community. I would see him get paid and barter for services and be owed a lot of money, but his doctoring was in service to the community. My mom and my aunt were very active in the NAACP. I came from a family of pontificating. We would sit around the kitchen table and have a lot of political and philosophical conversations about where we were. I grew up around people who were aware that you’re supposed to serve. It was a part of my training.”
Whether she’s having a heart-to-heart with her daughter Grace or speaking to students finding their way through life, Whitfield advises them to be “accountable for what you say you’re going to do.” With the platform of cyber space, she believes young people have done an incredible job having a voice.
But, she says it helps to lead by example. “I have a need to be connected to what’s going on. I can’t isolate myself from what’s happening in this country. I can’t isolate myself from what’s happening in the Black community. I can’t isolate myself from what’s going on with women in this country now. We’re going through a really tough time right now, but I really love my country.”
The five-time NAACP Image Award recipient recently wrapped up filming on “Nappily Ever After” co-starring Sanaa Lathan, and was recently honored in December at this year’s Café Mocha Radio “Salute Her” Luncheon in Chicago. Grateful for the flow of work as an actress, she’s not daunted by the glamour or glare of the industry. It’s the people who approach her on the street who she’s most impressed by.