Ja’Net DuBois knew how to make an entrance
Best known as Willona on ‘Good Times,’ the actress was a woman in control of her career
Ja’Net DuBois, who died Tuesday at the age of 74, knew how to make an entrance.
In the annals of television sitcom history, few actors injected their character’s on-screen arrival with as much eye-winking swagger as did DuBois in Norman Lear’s 1970s landmark series Good Times.
The running gag was that Willona Woods, the Evans family’s fiercely loyal, loving and unabashedly gossipy neighbor, never knocked. “Hey, y’all!” the gorgeous, outspoken queen would joyfully greet Florida, James, JJ, Michael and Thelma as she burst through the door looking as if she had just strutted off an Ebony Fashion Fair runway with her full-length leather coats, Technicolor silk scarfs, snazzy tam caps, and flowing dresses.
“My job as Willona was to make it right, fast and funny,” DuBois explained during a 2006 interview with Andy Cohen of Bravo. “It was a wonderful thing that happened. It changed the scene for the type of black woman being shown. The wigs, the hats, my everything was a dream come true.”
Of course, there were forever fresh predecessors such as Diahann Carroll’s Julia Baker (Julia) and Gail Fisher’s Peggy Fair (Mannix). Nathaniel Taylor’s Rollo Lawson (Sanford and Son) took it to glorious Superfly levels. And Fred Berry’s Rerun Stubbs (What’s Happening!!) introduced the West Coast street fashions of his pioneering dance troupe The Lockers to the mainstream.
This was the decade of supremely fashionable characters such as Mary Richards (The Mary Tyler Moore Show) and Kelly Garrett (Charlie’s Angels), as well as groundbreaking comedian Carol Burnett, who served up some of the most influential ’70s looks of the day from miniskirts and flares to power jumpsuits, floppy hats, and Bob Mackie dresses on The Carol Burnett Show.
But DuBois’ Willona represented an even bolder statement. Given that the at times controversial Good Times took place at Chicago’s infamous Cabrini-Green housing project, her impact as one of TV’s most indelible black style icons in a mostly white television landscape cannot be overstated. Way before Shonda Rhimes introduced us to Scandal’s Olivia Pope (played with ostentatious splendor and soaring attitude by perennial baddie Kerry Washington), DuBois was the personification of cool.
Plus, the risk-taking storyline of a divorced black woman, totally in control, with a rotation of suitors and who would later adopt a child (!!!) was shocking stuff on the small screen in those years.
“Better than any Sex and the City character! She was unbothered being single and loving her life,” tweeted a fan after news of DuBois’ death.
For Janet Jackson, DuBois was a beacon of light. “I saw firsthand how she broke stereotypes and changed the landscape for black women in entertainment,” the Rock & Roll Hall of Famer wrote on Instagram. “I’m grateful in recent years I had a chance to see her and create more lasting memories.”
Jackson played Willona’s adopted daughter Penny on Good Times. So it was only fitting that DuBois appeared as Jackson’s mother in her video for the chest-beating 1986 single “Control.”
DuBois had an impact beyond her effervescent portrayal as Willona. In 1970, she became the first African American female lead in a daytime soap opera after debuting on Love of Life. In 1975, she was tapped by Lear to compose and sing lead on the classic theme song “Movin’ On Up” for the long-running comedy The Jeffersons. Backed by a 35-person gospel choir, DuBois and co-writer Jeff Barry created a work that would live beyond the original series.
In 2016, the theme song was parodied in a 2016 Super Bowl commercial for Apartments.com featuring President George Washington and Lil Wayne (who shares a nickname, Weezy, with Mr. Jefferson’s better half) cooking beans on a grill. Going from the ‘hood to George and Louise’s “luxury deluxe apartment in the sky” was not lost on DuBois, who later told Jet magazine, “I moved my whole family … I bought [my mom] a house, bought her a mink coat. I did everything, retired her. I did everything I ever promised her.”
DuBois would do much more than take her loved ones to new economic heights. Over the next decades, she played television roles on A Different World, Beverly Hills, 90210, Home Improvement, ER and The Wayans Bros. DuBois also won two Emmys for her voiceover work on Eddie Murphy’s slow-motion animated series The PJs (1999-2001), popped up in Ice Cube’s stoner comedy Next Friday, appeared as Mama Bosley in the 2003 sequel Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle and in the satirical film Tropic Thunder. DuBois was what they call in Tinsel Town a “working actress.” No matter how big or small the part, she played it for all it was worth and then some.
In recent years DuBois would make appearances at Good Times reunion panels and fan meet-and-greets. Despite her wide-ranging accomplishments from sharing the stage in the mid-’60s with Sammy Davis Jr. in the Broadway musical Golden Boy and winning the 1995 CableAce Award for best supporting actress for her part in the Lifetime movie Other Women’s Children, she was never above revisiting the Good Times role that first endeared her to millions.
To the black film community, DuBois’ death has an even deeper layer. She helped established the Pan African Film Festival, which since 1992 has premiered such movies as Sarraounia, Lord of the Street, Love & Basketball, The CEO, 93 Days, Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary and Free Angela and All Political Prisoners. In a somber tribute, the Los Angeles-based organization called DuBois “Our Founder, Now Our Angel.”
Movin’ on up, indeed.