“The Mother of Black Hollywood” by Jenifer Lewis candidly describes the underrated actress’s rise on Broadway and eventually in TV and film. On audiobook, she tells her story in her dramatic and comedic tone that brings on the entertainment and wisdom.
Born and raised in the historically Black community of Kinloch, Missouri, Jenifer starts her book when she jumps on a plane to New York City after graduating from Webster University. She books a Broadway show within a week while staying with a Dominican lover, Miguel, she met in college and navigating the city with her gay friends. Once that show ends, she keeps successfully auditioning with even helping mold the character of Effie in Dreamgirls; a role she assumed she would get after Jennifer Holliday dropped out, but that Jennifer came back. That same instance would happen years later in Hollywood, where she had already nabbed roles in “A Different World” and “Beaches,” when she works with Norman Lear in developing the wife character in the Black spin-off of “All in the Family.” By that time, she’s built a bicoastal career, and she shares her disappointment of not getting that gig. Jenifer talks about other setbacks in entertainment, showing how restricted opportunities can be for Black actors.
Despite the disappointments, she performs for years with Bette Midler and co-creates her own film, “Jackie’s Back!” a 1999 cult classic. As roles start and end, she’s slowly earning the reputation of being the mother/aunt of Black Hollywood. She’s Tupac Shakur’s character’s mom on “Poetic Justice,” Aunt Helen on “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” Tina Turner’s mom on “What’s Love Got To Do With It?,” Whitney Houston’s character’s mom on “The Preacher’s Wife,” and now most recently Anthony Anderson’s character’s mom on “Black-ish.”
Juggling Hollywood and Broadway roles isn’t easy, especially when she’s diagnosed with bipolar disorder. She details the struggles with her mental illness and how it leads her to reliving her hard-knock childhood with her mother, who raised Jenifer and her six siblings mostly alone. Jenifer depends on her therapist to reassess her behavior as she sometimes botches auditions and other opportunities because she’s not in the right state of mind. Her bipolar disorder also manifests into sex addiction, in which she talks about some of her most memorable encounters.
Overall, it’s a perfect memoir as it’s well-written, divvies up stories in a good sequence, shows the growth from the mistakes, and opens the reader to a somewhat hidden world behind the scenes of our favorite shows and movies. Jenifer reads the memoir brilliantly on audiobook without a dull moment.