September 9, 2021   No Comment   Articles, Interviews, Magazines, Photoshoots

I was a child the first time I saw Regina King onscreen, and she was a child too: The first thing I noticed about her character, Brenda Jenkins in 227, was that she looked like me. She wore her hair the way I did: large bangs falling across her forehead, top pulled back in a ponytail, hanging on the bottom, probably bumped with a curling iron. Her smile almost too big for her face. Even though 227 (1985–1990) wasn’t my favorite show, I liked watching it, mostly for Brenda, who resonated with me in a way the children of The Cosby Show or Good Times didn’t. The Cosby kids were too innocent, too precocious. The Good Times kids seemed kids in name and body only; so much of their actions and reactions were adult in orientation—too wise, too quick, too knowing. It is difficult to hit the sweet spot of truth writing children—they are often too naive and quirky, or too worldly. But through King, Brenda was the real deal. She was frank and inappropriate and funny and oblivious and messy and naive. She was genuine. There was much about her that I wanted for myself, most notably the ability to speak plainly from her perspective to adults, which was something I never saw in my world.

The next time I saw King onscreen, in John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood (1991) she had grown up, and so had I. Shalika, Doughboy’s outspoken friend, was my teenage opposite in almost every way: from her fashion, bold and confident, to her demeanor, brimming with agency. She took up space with her sharp mouth, her cutting eyes. She was quick to go blow for blow in spats with Doughboy, refusing to be demeaned or shamed. I envied her power of assertion even as I hid in plain sight in classrooms, under those childhood bangs. I lurked in libraries. In nearly every confrontation, I demurred. Rebuttals stuck like dry food in my throat. I wore shame like a shirt. In my secret teen heart, Shalika was everything I wanted to be.

Every time King is onscreen, she is real and immediate. There has always been an aspect of her characters I wanted for myself: Brenda’s humor, Iesha’s bluntness (Poetic Justice, 1993), Dana’s offhand humor (Friday, 1995), Margie’s passion (Ray, 2004), Sharon’s wisdom and tenderness (If Beale Street Could Talk, 2018), Angela’s self-assuredness (Watchmen, 2019), King’s own poise when she opened this year’s Oscars broadcast—a role she had only 24 hours to prepare for. King embodies her characters so fully, imbues them with such power, that it’s jarring to see her materialize on my computer screen, dressed casually. She seems smaller in real life, even in Zoom real life; something about the baseball cap she wears and the shifty focus of Zoom (no one knows where to look) gives her a guarded, vulnerable air.

King has been involved in many seminal Black projects in front of and behind the camera, all of which have informed my own life, and many of which were, like much Black American art, rooted in reality. Such art helps us confront and explore the realities of our existence; such art helps us navigate it. Her newer work seems to signal a flowering of experience beyond the real and into the surreal. Angela Abar in Watchmen is a superheroine. Erika Murphy’s world in The Leftovers is one shot through with mysticism. This, too, is a necessity; venturing into the fantastic enables us to envision what our lives could be.

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