How Vivica A. Fox Defied Hollywood's Odds
Vivica A. Fox
Photo by D'Andre Michael
Throngs of women in their best walking shoes, wallets at the ready, weave their way into the airy atrium of the Los Angeles Convention Center for the Ultimate Women's Expo, a chaotic carnival of consumerist girl power. Vendors hawk their wares from hundreds of booths, demonstrating contour makeup techniques and dispensing anti-aging serums. Speakers such as Phaedra Parks from The Real Housewives of Atlanta deliver audience-rousing aphorisms. Two sisters dressed alike in crochet berets wait for their mother to haggle over the price of teeth-whitening treatments, while another woman relaxes in a plush leather lounger, light blasting her teeth.
Nearby, a line wraps around a corner booth displaying hot pink Tasers, brass knuckles and pepper spray, while a soundtrack by two Power 106 DJs pumps hip-hop into the room. The expo has everything femme you could ever think of, including Vivica Fox Hair Collection wigs.
For Fox, the hair game is just a side hustle for her real day job. She's a prolific actress whose career was launched by the alien-invasion blockbuster Independence Day in 1996. In Kill Bill, Quentin Tarantino cast Fox as Copperhead to face off against Uma Thurman in what is one of cinema's most brutal and breathless fight scenes between two women. On June 24, Independence Day: Resurgence hits theaters, a return to the role that started Fox's career two decades earlier.
And here, at the Ultimate Women's Expo, she's the keynote speaker.
About 500 folding chairs face an empty stage where Fox will deliver her address. The chairs fill up with African-American women of all ages. The room is roughly three-quarters women of color.
Anticipation for her arrival is high, but Fox is running late. Her driver is lost.
Outside, it's like waiting for a presidential motorcade to arrive. People in black suits with walkie-talkies are ready to usher Fox from her car to the stage. When her black SUV pulls up, Fox emerges in a cobalt-blue jumpsuit, a matching blue stripe woven into the tight bun at the top of her head. She asks everyone, "Do you have everything you need? Are you OK?" She detests being late.
As she waits at the foot of the stairs to take the podium, Fox shoots the shit with folks backstage. "The A stands for Angie, my middle name," Fox says to a woman. "It's what all my friends call me. A casting director early on told me I need to use my real name with the middle initial. Vivica A. Fox. They told me, 'Watch, this is the name everyone will remember.'"
When Fox takes the stage, she's introduced as an "inspiration to all women." She's so glamorous that people in the hall stand up at the sight of her. "Let me let y'all get your pictures," she says, before striking and holding a variety of poses as flashes go off everywhere.
The woman is still getting her teeth blasted white in that dentist chair lounger. Only now she's applauding.
When Fox hinted at a sequel to Soul Food, the dramedy about the lives and loves of a multigenerational African-American family, the woman next to me nearly threw her nachos to the ground as she tried to stand up and cheer at the announcement.
Nearly every sentence Fox spins gets hollers and applause. "I've been able to declare my Independence Day!" she yells into the handheld mic she chose because she likes to move around. It's a nearly political moment.
The first question she takes from the audience is about Donald Trump and her time on Celebrity Apprentice. She's measured but says, "Trump the chump. I would be so grateful if I could wake up and not see his face on the news anymore." When she follows it up by revealing she often wears blue to support the Democratic Party, the room bursts into a proud fury. Since Bill Clinton's second election, Fox has been a celebrity surrogate for the Democrats, stumping for every candidate (and her disability charities in the process). When she says, "Hashtag, I'm with her," the women in the crowd lose their shit.
After Fox wraps up her keynote, women stand in line, crying, seeking advice from the star onstage. Fox retorts with adages on work ethic. She's already abandoned the stage, walking among the crowd. People want to touch her. They want things from her: a blessing, a hug, a job, some "good hair." The line to ask her a question stretches back to the teeth-whitening booth, but when a man gives Fox the signal, she must say her goodbyes.
She sneaks in a quick request of her own, asking the women to support her at the box office. "Stick together," Fox says, "make good choices, and vote with your dollars, ladies!"
Fox is a Hollywood anomaly, which might somewhat explain the fanatical reception she received at the expo. Only 17 of the 100 top-grossing films of 2014 featured a nonwhite lead or co-lead, and women were only 12 percent of protagonists, with not one woman over the age of 45 cast as a lead or co-lead. Despite these grim statistics, Fox has been a continued and persistent presence in film — whether in blockbusters or in the low-budget indie black cinema she produces herself.
"She's never had a down slide," actress Jazsmin Lewis, from the Barbershop franchise, says. "It's important to have a woman who says, 'Whether you're 20 or 50, you can still go to work.'"
While the industry might be complacent about the slim fraction of roles — often stereotypical ones — available for African-American actresses, Fox thinks the key to success is knowing when and how to play the part you're given or break out on your own.
"I've seen so many people come and go in this business over the years," Fox says. "And those are the people who don't know that it's a journey, and you've got to find your next chapter. You can't play the young, hot chick all the time. You've got to mature."
Vivica A. Fox is a name everyone remembers.
For some, it may take some time to coax her face from the memory, but for others, she's a household name. When Lee Daniels, director of Fox Television's hip-hop drama Empire, saw her on Celebrity Apprentice, he cast Fox as the older sister to the show's bombastic central character, Cookie Lyon. In her first appearance as a guest star, Fox broke the show's small ratings slump.
Ironically, Fox says friends told her that doing reality TV would ruin her career, but she felt the itch to do something different. It paid off.
Fox's role on Empire was, as expected, epic, and rumors spread that there may be a spinoff. But the biggest rumor had nothing to do with the show.
In Empire, Fox was cast as the sister of Cookie Lyon.
A short-lived Twitter feud erupted from some shade and a misunderstanding between Fox and her ex, 50 Cent, when the rapper disparaged her openly gay castmate, Jussie Smollett.
When the name-calling reports rolled in, news sites posted articles with headlines like, "All You Need to Know About the Ex-Girlfriend Who Called 50 Cent 'Gay,'" giving cursory rundowns of Fox's career and focusing more on her breast enhancement than her film roles.
It was a bit mind-boggling for those reared in the heyday of '90s cinema who grew up watching Fox in F. Gary Gray's seminal all-woman heist film Set It Off (co-starring Queen Latifah, Jada Pinkett Smith and Kimberly Elise), or in family film Soul Food, or in ensemble comedy Kingdom Come, or in throwback action epic Kill Bill. These are all movies that made a lot of money — and, more important, made an impact.
Fox is so much more than Fiddy's "ex-girlfriend."
In 1997, Fox and Will Smith took home the little gold astronaut for Best Kiss at the MTV Movie Awards. It would mark the first and only time a couple of color would receive the honor.
Fox played Jasmine Dubrow, a single mother and exotic dancer, in Roland Emmerich's Independence Day, which was the second-highest-grossing film at the time of its release. The role for Fox was huge. Her character wasn't just the stripper-with-the-heart-of-gold cliché. It was a role in which Fox could shine, in an industry that all too often fails to offer nuanced parts to women, and especially to women of color.
Looking back, the 1990s feel, well, a little magical. Lower-budget studio hits with majority-black casts were a thing. Successful films like Boyz N the Hood, Friday, Waiting to Exhale, Love & Basketball, How Stella Got Her Groove Back, Above the Rim, Dead Presidents, Juice, Poetic Justice, Bad Boys, A Low Down Dirty Shame, Boomerang, Booty Call and so many other black-led movies hit wide release for mainstream audiences (read: white). But it was just one of many boom-and-bust periods in the black cinema timeline.
"The 1990s is an interesting time, because you do see a resurgence of African-American representation on screen, but we've been here, we've done this before," says Cornell University film scholar Samantha Sheppard. "American cinema had a crossover of race films all the way back to the '30s and '40s, and in the '60s, we had social-problem films and the 'model Negro,' with Sidney Poitier. After that, Hollywood was breaking down because of its monopoly system, and you had studio executives saying, 'Where are the audiences?'"
In 1971, when Melvin Van Peebles made his inexpensive Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, he pretended he was making a porno so he could use nonunion actors — and Hollywood saw both black and white audiences respond. Sheppard says the studios went on to make "bad versions of those blaxploitation films until they decided they wanted more of a crossover, with black characters inserted into white stories. Then you have Eddie Murphy as one half of these buddy movies in the '80s. What Hollywood did was isolate him from his background as the only black character, with no black friends or family."
But no matter what Hollywood did, black filmmakers were making their own parallel indie industry. Sheppard says Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing (1989) didn't come out of nowhere — his 1986 film She's Gotta Have It was already reaching black audiences in the underground, but the type of urban revolt depicted in the former was the ingredient to appease Hollywood, so that's where the studios placed their bets. (Interestingly, the Academy has decided it doesn't like urban-revolt pictures anymore, shutting out films like Straight Outta Compton, while embracing the slave narrator as its current novelty.)
Fox's career also was caught in the crossfire of the upheaval in black cinema in the '80s and '90s; after doing a "crossover" film as the only black woman in Independence Day, she jumped to F. Gary Gray's Set It Off, which fits into that urban-revolt storyline. What's different, however, is that the film focuses on four women. Set It Off is also one of the great success stories of that time, earning more than four times its budget at the box office.
"I think Set It Off was so successful because of the director, F. Gary Gray," Fox says. "It's like the little movie that could. We made it for, back in the day, I think it was like $9 million, and still today, when it comes on TV now, I get tweets like, 'I'm watching Set It Off, and it's my favorite!'"
Sheppard says Fox is an actress who can easily shift back and forth from mainstream to independent black cinema. It's a testament to Fox's work ethic and ability to adapt to a market. "She's part of a small congregation of African-American actresses who has a long career, who is still in Hollywood," Sheppard says. "I think people will mistakenly see Independence Day: Resurgence and say, 'Oh, Vivica is working again.' She has been working, despite Kill Bill not getting her Angelina Jolie roles."
Mainstream casting directors just didn't know what to do with Fox. "For a long time, I was kind of stuck," she says. "I was in a really weird space for five years where people were like, 'Well, she's still kind of hot,' so I was the MILF, you know?" It was a repeat of her younger modeling days in New York City, she says, when people would tell her, "We've already got a cute black girl."
Long before her big break, Fox waited tables for many years. She says her mother told her, "Just because you're cute don't mean nobody's going to hand you nothing." Over the past two decades, Fox's do-it-yourself career as an actor and producer has been indicative of how African-American cinema adapted to the demands of the mainstream film industry.
While prominent roles were rarely, if ever, given to black women in front of or behind the camera, African-American actors did find a home on TV for a bit in the 1990s, especially on Fox, the fledgling network trying to make a name for itself. Vivica A. Fox herself appeared on Martin and was a lead on NBC's Patti LaBelle show Out All Night. When Monday Night Football legitimized the fledgling network, Fox TV had little use for the creators and audiences that got it there, and dropped the shows. (Sheppard sees a similar phenomenon now with UPN and The WB merging into The CW and dropping all their black-led content.)
What replaced those great 1990s television shows and iconic movies — with their multidimensional black characters — is still somewhat controversial to talk about and remains a divisive topic within African-American cinema: Tyler Perry. The 46-year-old has dominated the past decade of wide-release black-led films, churning out critically unpopular yet financially successful hits from the Atlanta empire he built through successful stage plays on the urban theater circuit. On the one hand, Perry's feats are admirable: He independently financed his work and employed many African-American actors and crews in a booming business (though he did squash his writers' unionization efforts). But for some film industry higher-ups, Perry became a bit of a Walmart of black cinema — the only game in town.
Fox, however, sees Perry in an optimistic light, as a successful role model. "Do I want to be the female Tyler Perry?" she says. "Yeah, absolutely. With my production company, I'm getting a producer credit, and I need to get funding for my own work. I figure if I keep putting it out there, someone's going to hit me. And now, I'm finally starting to get people asking me, 'What would you like to do?'"
She's shown that there is a way forward without the studios. Perry's example inspired Fox to produce her own material, even taking to the theater as Perry did, and slowly building her own empire in black cinema. Some of her films are direct-to-DVD, some VOD and limited theatrical release, and others made for cable networks such as Lifetime and OWN. But all are for her devoted audience. And yes, she works with women directors.
As she told the hundreds of women in line at the Women's Expo, clamoring to give Fox a hug, audiences vote with their dollars.
A recent MPAA Theatrical Marketing Statistics report says that blacks attend movies at a slightly higher rate than whites. That's despite the fact that they rarely see someone like themselves on screen. In 2012, 81 percent of the movies seen by black audiences didn't feature a black cast, storyline or lead actor, according to REEL Facts, a moviegoer consumption study. And when they are shown an African-American in the lead, black audiences show up with even greater frequency. In 2015, The New York Times reported that black-led films dominated the box office for five weeks straight when a rare confluence of multiple films starring African-Americans overlapped in theaters.
In Independence Day: Resurgence, Fox returns to the role that launched her career.
Photo by Claudette Barius
The few upcoming black-led films inching their way onto our most prominent billboards are safe financial bets. This year, two wildly successful franchise offshoots, Barbershop: The Next Cut and The Best Man Wedding, are a go. They're also productions of a single director, Malcolm D. Lee. Most films will continue to be "crossover," with only one or two supporting African-Americans in the cast, which is why indie black cinema — like the productions Fox helms — is so important.
Jazsmin Lewis, who has worked with Fox on four films, says it's not just Fox's productions that matter but what she actively does for others in the industry.
"She takes a leadership role on set," Lewis says. "She knows what she's doing. She's the one you want in your corner. She looks out for people coming up behind her. You want to run lines? She'll do it. You want a glass of water? She's on it. There are other African-American actors who've been around a long time — even longer than her — but they have not worked as consistently. They've taken breaks either voluntarily or involuntarily, but she has never taken a break."
Actress Wendy Raquel Robinson (The Game, The Steve Harvey Show) calls her longtime friend Fox the Norma Rae on set. "If there's something not right or inorganic, she speaks up in a way that's not insulting. I've learned through example that you don't get the respect you deserve if you don't speak up, especially as an African-American woman. 'You stay ready, you don't have to get ready' — she says that all the time. It's probably her mantra."
Fox sips a glass of white wine at Beverly Hills hot spot the Ivy. She says it's her first day off in six months. She just filmed a Lifetime reality series based on her film Chocolate City with eight black alpha-male exotic dancers. She has 10 movies coming out in the next two years. Later that day, there's an NBA playoff game, and she says she's going to drink wine and watch the game "By. My. Self." She's not dating, because it's too hard right now, she says. She wants an equal, like the one landed by Jasmine, her fictional character in Independence Day.
Underneath the good looks and diamonds, Fox is old-fashioned and Midwestern, a total bootstrapper. "Growing up in Indiana, I'm a Hoosier," Fox says. "My dad used to take us to the Pacer games. When I'm hanging out with the guys, they're always surprised." She played sports herself — basketball, volleyball, track.
Fox trained for six months to do 95 percent of her own stunts in Kill Bill, and she says she'd like to do what Tarantino did with Pam Grier for Jackie Brown. "That would be a dream role for me. I wanna kick somebody's ass!"
Fox, left, as Vernita Green, fights the Bride (Uma Thurman) in Kill Bill: Vol. 1.
There are few actresses who can do their own stunts and make it look natural, and even fewer who can also do comedy, but Fox is decidedly goofy, often self-deprecating while crossing her eyes and contorting her face for the joke.
Basically, she's not about to get snooty. She still prays over every meal, thankful. When she first moved to New York City after high school, she'd called her mom and said, "I think I moved to Hell," but she was saved by a friend and the late, great Prince, who let her stay in his penthouse. She says she learned her generosity from those early days in the big city. She even sent me home from the Ivy with three boxes of cookies.
While Fox will reprise her role as the heroic single mom in Independence Day: Resurgence, she isn't a mother. Yet she's a godmother to many of her colleagues' children. She's beloved in her community for being the matriarch, a unifier. She's the one you want in your corner.
If studios want a piece of her indefatigable energy, it's not surprising. But they should know, as Fox says, she's already declared her Independence Day.
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