Who you callin' a queen? Latifah on being just Dana

November 07, 1996|By Cheo Hodari Coker | Cheo Hodari Coker,LOS ANGELES TIMES

HOLLYWOOD -- "Hey, Dana! How've you been?"

Queen Latifah walks through the doors of Intermezzo, her favorite Melrose eatery, and warmly hugs Scotty Weber, the Italian restaurant's chef. Waiters and busboys also call her by her given name. "They spoil me here," she says with a wide smile.

When the pressure's on and her stomach growls, Latifah often stops here, a place that offers her more than her favorite Caesar salad in Los Angeles. Intermezzo is her sanctuary, a place where she neither has to shoulder the responsibility of being in the public eye as the head of a rap management company, as a Grammy-winning rap artist, or as Khadijah, the lead character of Fox's popular sitcom "Living Single."

Here, Dana Owens, 26, reigns, not Queen Latifah.

"Dana is just me," she says between sips of Perrier. "I can't give my whole life to the public, so they can have most things, not just everything." Soon, the public will have another aspect of Latifah's public persona to deal with: serious actress.

While many have seen her on television and in movies from "Jungle Fever" to "My Life," they've surely never seen the Latifah of "Set It Off," her new movie that also stars Jada Pinkett, Vivica A. Fox and Kimberly Elise.

In the movie, Latifah plays Cleopatra Sims, a mad-faced, trigger-happy lesbian bank robber who will mow down any obstacle to keep herself and her friends safe. The role is a departure from the carefully crafted image the rap star has built since her first album, 1989's "All Hail the Queen." In a genre that sometimes becomes obsessed with violence and misogyny, Latifah has been a voice of reason promoting black pride. Her songs call for an end to violence and for empowerment for women.

Latifah, a daughter and sister of police officers, was afraid but eager to portray a hardened felon who is also an overt lesbian.

"I needed to be somebody else to show the world that I had this gift -- something I can't do if I play Queen Latifah roles all of the time."

When she released "All Hail the Queen," Latifah not only was one of the first female rappers to inspire a commercial following among urban males in a phallicentric genre, she did it on her own terms. While other female rappers portrayed a "rougher than any man" image to counteract the misogyny prevalent throughout hip-hop culture, Latifah used her intelligence and noble image that many quickly respected.

The result has been a solid base of fans who regard her with almost a maternal reverence as one of the most influential and respected representatives of young urban culture.

When she first hit New York's rap scene in 1989, hip-hop was going through an Afrocentric phase. Radical, pro-black groups were all the rage, and even the toughest hustlers were trading in their gold chains and leather for medallions shaped like the African continent and kente cloth suits.

To call herself a Queen was an acknowledgment of her roots, and of the power and strength of black women, and her superior rhyme skills -- but not an entitlement for others to exalt in her glory.

It bothered Latifah that people started treating her like a queen, not someone who came up in rough-and-tumble Irvington, N.J., where she faced many of the dangerous situations others only rap about. "I stopped wearing the crowns that I used to as 'Queen,' because people seemed to get too caught up in that. I'm more than just a hat," she says.

The hardest aspects of playing Cleo for "Set It Off" centered on two issues: sexual orientation and death. "I'd be a liar if I didn't admit to my anxiety," she says. "Black people don't have as many versions of themselves, and so almost every character has to represent every black person in the world. But this film is not about Cleo's sexuality, it's about friendship."

Latifah's upward Hollywood trajectory seems assured.

"I want to be De Niro," she says. "I want to be Pacino and Foster and Hanks -- but black. And I've got to put in work to do that. There's always gonna be another wall to climb over, kick down, bust through or blow away. As long as life keeps going there and changing. I'll never give it less than 100 percent."

Pub Date: 11/07/96

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