(AllHipHop Features) Everybody loves Erika Alexander. The beloved actress has played some of the most beloved, seminal characters known to Black America. Erika has portrayed iconic roles like lawyer Maxine Shaw on “Living Single” and Cousin Pam of “The Cosby Show” fame, but also Detective Latoya (“Get Out”), and Perenna (“Black Lightning”). She even renewed her kinship with Hip-Hop as Linda Diggs on “Wutang: An American Saga.”
These days, the Philadelphia-bred legend takes her trailblazing ways as the Co-Founder & Chief Creative Officer for Color Farm Media. The company has a new Magnolia Pictures-distributed film titled “John Lewis: Good Trouble,” a riveting documentary about the Triple OG Civil Rights icon and Congressman. In this interview, with Chuck “Jigsaw” Creekmur, Erika shares some lighter moments about where she’s headed and what she’s up to as a thought leader, activist, producer, and businesswoman.
AllHipHop: Tell us about this documentary. What makes it special and unique and different from other incarnations and visualizations we’ve seen about Mr. John Lewis.
Erica Alexander: Well, John Lewis is an American hero and icon. There are very few people that can dispute that. He showed us on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. He’s been in SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), as one of the students that went down to the South and fought for our voting rights and the right to vote. And to this day, he’s been arrested more than 45 times for the beliefs that he holds. And he believes that in America, civil rights is the cornerstone and the security that our democracy is based on. So, what makes this different, is that this is about his life. He’s usually seen next to Martin Luther King or Bobby Kennedy, or any of those other really big American figures, but I don’t think people knew about him and his life and how he got here as a congressman and his family and his wife, things like that. So that’s the difference. It’s his story. He’s in the spotlight.
AllHipHop: So who did you speak to in addition to him, and what revelations might we find or see, that we might not have known before?
Erica Alexander: We spoke to many of his colleagues in Congress from Nancy Pelosi to AOC. Like the people who know him best and who have worked with him in Congress to move legislation. We’ve also spoken to his son and talked about his wife, his past, and his brothers and sisters. He’s one of 12 children. You get to see him down in Alabama on their land, while he feeds the chickens. He has a famous story about feeding the chickens as a boy and wanting to go to school and not be a sharecropper, and running away and getting on the bus so he could go learn. And his brother, who was older saying “let him go I’ll, do his work share for him.” So you hear things like that. But you also get to see his run against Julian Bond in Atlanta and get to see that he’s an art collector. I think mostly you get to see an archive of him watching himself, and the lens through seeing his life transported back to him.
So I think that this is a really wonderful lesson for people who don’t know what it was like back in the day, for many people who are talking about not voting. This type of thing is an alternative. They need to see that there was blood, and there was murder and all sorts of other things sacrificed. So just walk up to a simple ballot box and vote.
AllHipHop: A lot has not changed in America for Black people. And he’s one of those who can really put that into context. Have you been able to offer or see any insight that he may be able to give us some context to this whole thing in 2020?
Erica Alexander: Yes, I think the biggest context is you see that history and change is slow. It’s a marathon. And a lot of people think these things happen overnight. They don’t. It’s called legislation. People need to know that the voting thing doesn’t [just] come up every four years for President. All politics is local. And you see this man doing the work, showing up for other people, supporting candidates that aligned with his views, making sure that he shows up and you see how long he has shown up. He’s an older man and he’s in great shape. After this, he was diagnosed with stage four, pancreatic cancer.
But he’s been everywhere fighting for this. And I think that that’s important for people to see. Because I think people do very little in order to understand how you get clean water or how your trash gets picked up, and they complain about everything. And I said, “did you do the simple thing of voting for your school board? Did you do you know that you can vote for your Chief of Police?” All these things and they don’t vote, then they complain. And so I think that we need to learn that civics, it is a contact sport, and you got to be engaged, got to read. And I think it’s important for people to start to take ownership and responsibility for their decisions to do it or not to do it.
AllHipHop: He’s in our prayers daily How is he mentally right now? How is he physically?
Erica Alexander: Chuck, I’m sure it’s difficult for him. I call him a true OG. Some people really had to deal with adversity and suffer through some things and put their own lives in danger for other people. For a person who’s done all that, this diagnosis (of cancer0 is what he eats for breakfast. He’s got to get up every day and he’s gonna do the thing, but it can’t be easy for him. He has good and bad days. He has great weeks and bad weeks you saw him, I don’t know a couple of weeks ago on Black Lives Matter Boulevard, which is the first time he’s ever gone out [post-diagnoses].
But he wanted to make sure that the young people knew that he was with them that he understood what they were doing. Overall, it was a good thing. And that’s an iconic photo now and that lifts his spirit. So let’s just hope, Chuck, that, for our own sake that he’s doing well because he deserves not to suffer and to recover as best he can.
AllHipHop: I hope he’s proud of us because we are continuing the fight in his honor as well as many others.
Erica Alexander: He’s very proud, by the way. Absolutely, especially Black men, because I don’t know if we are as engaged as we need to be with Black men. So many are feeling so disassociated from the process. But that’s up to Black men to come into the process and reclaim it. For whatever reason that turned them off or numbed them, they must see that, especially with all the Black men getting shot in the streets and also in jail and their families at risk, that the only way to change this away from taking up arms, is to vote and be in the process.
AllHipHop: I have some theories behind that. But that’s for that’s a whole ‘nother conversation on another.
Erica Alexander: I bet you do. I hope you run for office so you can put your theories into work so good.
AllHipHop: I’m like I don’t know, politics are dirty.
Erica Alexander: Politics aren’t dirty, politicians are dirty. Politics are very clean. Because if John Lewis tells us anything it’s that good people are there. We need more good people to run. And we need more people to be less cynical about it because there really are great things happening. I see every day in my neighborhood and inside of California, which is moving forward on environmental protections, moving forward on education, not reform, but restructuring and destructuring of what they’ve done. I see it happening. The problem is that there are people who do believe that politics matter and they run and they have horrible, horrible ideas. They’re not doing it against you, they’re just doing what they believe.
And I believe, Chuck, that if you really are one of those people in the community that people trust, and they see you up there trying to move the dial sure, it may seem like it’s not moving, but just your very face, it gives them a whole nother thing about the possibilities, and I do believe that politics can be different and difficult. And you can change the process. But I believe that you would be one of the people we need.
AllHipHop: I’ll let you know. If you run, I’ll vote for you too! I wanted to ask you just a couple of things about your own career. You were very vocal about “Friends” kind of copycatting off “Living Single.” It was a bite, it was jacked. And I hate “Friends” by the way. And this is before I knew anything about that I just hated it. I despised it because it was super duper white and I worked in a corporate environment at the time. It just reminded me of all the people I’ve worked with. But I’ve been speaking a lot about just systemic racism. And I think that “Friends” is an unfortunate byproduct of systemic racism on one level, which is Hollywood or the TV. Do you feel as though as you’re a pioneer in that respect to kind of leading the charge and highlighting these inequities or differences, or biases?
Erica Alexander: I think I put it upon myself to try to be a truth-teller where I can. I’m in an industry that I have made my living from. I’m very grateful and fortunate for the opportunities that have come to me. But I’ve also experienced and seen after 37 years, your right, systemic bias, racism, gender sexism, ageism, geography bias, all the way through this industry. It conspires silently to keep those out of power through the representation, through the studios…. all of that. And when people want to boycott the Oscars, I say “why that’s movie started years ago.” You would have to go not to the end-user, but to the people who precede these things in order to change the relationship between the color line and the way they think about film and television and our stories. So here’s the thing about the “Friends” thing:
I hadn’t signed up to be a mouthpiece for that. I just said what I felt was true when David Schwimmer was talking about, maybe one day there would be an all Black “Friends” and or all Asian “Friends,” he did not know that the year before he was ever on the same studio, Warner Brothers, that we had already been the template for him. And I was just stating it, as a matter of fact, not to blow the brother up or anything like that. He’s a really wonderful actor, and I actually do enjoy the show.
But I wanted him to see that and I think that the discussion, what it really set off, was that Black people have always been frustrated and just downright angry about the fact that when it’s done with white faces, it can get so much more marketing and play and even be called the original. When it’s done with a Black face, it’s not even seen. It’s not even acknowledged. So that’s what set it off….Tell the truth shame the devil.
AllHipHop: I gotta ask, Cousin Pam or Maxine?
Erica Alexander: Don’t be mad Cousin Pam people, Maxine. I didn’t know what I was doing on The Cosby Show yet and I was glad to get the gig and everything but no, it was much more fun to play Maxine. Although I gotta give props to Pam because she went to college and did her thing and it was really fun to be a part of that iconic show but every day all day, Max
For the full interview content, check out the video above.