American Black Film Festival Diary: Day 2
The woman of ‘Central Intelligence’ and the changes in black Hollywood
There’s this strange combination of networks and distributors having low expectations of us and the products we provide. And the history of our business — of there not being enough work for us — is that we gotta take whatever comes our way because we don’t have a choice. It’s been a challenge throughout the years to say, ‘It doesn’t matter. I’m going to just keep showing up.’ I credit my athletic childhood: Sometimes you have to keep swimming. — Danielle Nicolet
Danielle Nicolet has been patient.
Very, very, very patient.
You know who Nicolet is — even if you don’t think you do. She’s had many quick-hit roles in her 24-year Hollywood career.
We saw her getting her calves tickled in that 1992 “everybody and their mama saw it” ABC TV series The Jacksons: An American Dream. That same year, Nicolet landed a role on Family Matters as Eddie Winslow’s (Darius McCrary) girlfriend, Vonda Mahoney. Hollywood can be a beast — especially to black women, for whom there aren’t all that many roles written to begin with. And Nicolet finally led her own comedy series on TV One — with the smartly written Born Again Virgin.
And now, Nicolet is finally getting the break she should have gotten maybe 15 years ago. She’s in Miami because she’s a part of a huge summer movie — prepare to see her trading funny for funny with Kevin Hart in his new film with Dwayne Johnson, Central Intelligence.
Patience, as they say, is a virtue. “It’s been hard sometimes,” Nicolet said. It’s another muggy day, and she’s been doing back-to-back interviews. “As an African-American actress … I think all of us — people of color in this business — there’s more expectation of us that we’ll just do anything. We’ll take whatever job. We’ll work for no money. And it doesn’t matter if the script is good, and it doesn’t matter how it looks.”
That’s not the problem this time, though: Central Intelligence is fantastic. It’s probably Hart’s best film, and the chemistry between him and Johnson screams franchise. If the film, which opens Friday, does well enough by Hollywood standards, Nicolet’s character — Hart’s wife — will fit right in should there be more films made. Not bad for a former competitive gymnast who also swam and played tennis. “My grandfather was an athlete,” she said. “My dad was an athlete. I was an athlete. I got from my dad, and from gymnastics, that you have to develop an alligator skin — in terms of recognizing that you’re going to be judged.” She said that as a gymnast, she was judged constantly. ‘I did or did not point my toes. I did or did not stick that landing.’
“On one hand, I learned to take responsibility for all that I can be responsible for — be prepared. Be appropriate. Break down that script. I also learned that judgment is subjective. ‘Someone doesn’t like my outfit. Someone doesn’t think I’m the prettiest girl in the room.’ I can’t internalize that. I have to just get up in the morning and do what I gotta do. That discipline I carry with me in a huge way. I am 100 percent responsible for what I bring to set every day. My mood. My preparation. All of it. I try to be conscious of that all the time.”
Nicolet’s real-life story arc registers loudly at the American Black Film Festival (ABFF), where many “are you that girl or dude from that one show?” folk work the crowd, engaging, being toasted and, perhaps, picking up future work. This day’s energy felt good, almost aspirational. Funnyman Chris Spencer hosted a brunch at hoity-toity Bagatelle for just such a crowd: Deon Cole, Robert Ri’chard and Nicolet gathered and feasted on baked chicken, steak and mahimahi while knocking back Tanqueray with watermelon and lime, and celebrating the 20th year of the festival.
Much of Thursday was spent with crowds filtering in and out of sessions — rapper/actor Common and TV One host Roland S. Martin’s conversation was one of the more popular events. Common was essentially mobbed by people with cameras up, ready for selfies. At Loews Miami Beach, at an event sponsored by Cadillac, festivalgoers were asked to participate in the future. They were to come up with and write down a fictional black character Hollywood has yet to portray. Once those generic descriptions were jotted down on white slips of paper, they posted them on a mural the automaker had commissioned for the film fest. As folks lined up to do this, rapper/actor David Banner came through and a small Snapchatting crowd gathered around the guy they recognized from a scene where he stares down a white man in Lee Daniels’ epic film, The Butler.
Nicolet, whose career trajectory feels a lot like the arc of black Hollywood itself, senses something good brewing.
“It culminated with #OscarsSoWhite,” she said. “We suddenly all talked about the elephant in the room. I know it was a bit of a challenge in the media and some people complained that we pushed too hard. But there had to be a high-level discussion and awareness of it. You have to desensitize people.”
On to Day 3.