A faraway movie shoot brought the actress up close and personal with her own beauty myth.
When I was growing up in Tulsa, the kids called me "bubble lips" and "frog eyes." My mama always said, "Oh, you're such a pretty girl," and I believed I was, thanks to her encouragement. Still, this was before the "black is beautiful" era of the 1970s, and everything around me seemed to negate my particular look—especially the movies. The screen is one of the most influential tools in our lives, and if you don't see yourself represented, it's almost as if you don't exist. As I got older, I was drawn to the power and possibility for healing that cinema and the theater offered the world, and even though I didn't resemble the typical actress—or maybe because of it—I moved to Hollywood. At auditions I was constantly told that I looked too much like an African and not enough like an African-American. I thought, 'This is as African-American as you get—my family has been here for 400 years!' The hues of America were not being celebrated. Instead, everybody was trying to fit a homogeneous image.

Then in 1986, I traveled to Zimbabwe for the first time to shoot the TV movie Mandela. I felt as if I'd been given a pure shot of oxygen. Suddenly, I was part of the dominant culture. I saw people like me. They had round faces and large eyes, with skin so warm and lips so full that I almost wanted to kiss strangers. I'd been living in Los Angeles, a world full of cubic zirconias, and here I was in the land of deep, rich-colored, genuine gemstones. I felt organically beautiful for the first time in my life. It may sound immodest, but I realized that my presence in movies gives that same validation to other young black women. They can feel free to walk their walk, swing their hips, and flash their smiles because they see themselves up on the screen. Everybody has a part of her body that she doesn't like, but I've stopped complaining about mine because I don't want to critique nature's handiwork. There's no such thing as imperfection. My job is simply to allow the light to shine out of the masterpiece.


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