In an exclusive conversation with Hollywood Melanin, actress KJ Smith talked about the force behind her dedication to the art of acting, producing, and creating a bridge for other success stories to form. As a multifaceted woman of color, Smith plans to hold an unforgettable legacy.
Hollywood began to take notice of Smith after her breakthrough role in OWN’s drama series Queen Sugar, created by award-winning director Ava Duvernay and Oprah Winfrey. “Queen Sugar was the role that started me on the trajectory of really believing in myself,” the Florida native shared.
Before that life-changing moment, Smith honed her skills by often collaborating with friends and acting in their projects. “I started off doing a lot of free work, web series, and comedy skits for friends.” She was a “background artist” for years before booking her role on Queen Sugar.
Getting that first big gig did not just elevate Smith as a working actor but also gave her the internal push she needed at the time. “It did more for me mentally,” she shared, “Mentally, it reminded me to keep pushing, keep going, and that’s really what this industry is about.”
The never-ending process of motivating herself, overcoming doubt and fear of not using her gift had brought Smith into a new role as a producer. Her first feature film, The Available Wife, which she produced and starred in, was launched last year and nominated for Best Narrative Feature at the American Black Film Festival (ABFF).
In 2019 Smith landed one of the lead roles in Tyler Perry’s Sistas, a drama-comedy series that portrays life unraveling between four Black women living in Atlanta. Smith, Mignon Von, Ebony Obsidian, and Novi Brown play the main characters. The women face many complexities of thriving in their careers while managing romance.
The show, which BET has renewed for a fourth season, has been a great success. Sistas season two premiere was reported the “most socially viewed cable program,” generating over 1.8 million views on Facebook and Twitter. Smith’s character, Andi Barnes, is a high-powered attorney.
“I feel like [ Andi] represents a lot of Black women in America and all over the world honestly,” the actress said. “Right now, Black women are the most educated demographic in the country. Andi, she has it all: an education, a job, and in her mind, she has the perfect partner.”
…It’s so much bigger than me. When I made it about myself, I was unsuccessful
Personal on-screen success is not all Smith strives for. Pouring into others and working for the good of the collective community is the ultimate goal. “What I’m learning, especially through my mentees, people from my hometown, and my younger relatives, is that it’s so much bigger than me. When I made it about myself, I was unsuccessful,” she told HM. Smith wants to continue to hold the light for other people to achieve success.
Through her personal and professional journey, Smith stays focused on the bigger picture – it’s about helping others and being the example of what is possible. Part of her legacy is making the world a better place and focusing on unsheltered and fostered youth. “I want to do what women who I admire and aspired me, did for me. Which is to encourage me to keep going and be the best that I can be.”
As Sistas continues its run, Smith continues to book more roles. Last year, she starred in Netflix’s suspense thriller, Fatal Affair, with Nia Long and Omar Epps. She also made an appearance in Kenya Barris’ comedy series #blackAF. In addition, according to a recent announcement, Smith will join the Power prequel series Power Book III: Raising Kanan in a major recurring role.
Betti Halsell, senior writer at HM
‘A Snowy Day in Oakland:’ Nicole Ari Parker Stars in New Dramedy From ‘Sister, Sister’ Creator Kim Bass
A Snowy Day in Oakland is heading into theaters this week. The magical-realism comedy starring Nicole Ari Parker is gearing up to be introduced to the world on Friday, March 17. Hollywood Melanin sat down with the leading star to explore some of the critical issues addressed in the film.
At the center of the story is LaTrice (Parker), the successful psychologist from San Francisco who longs for a more purposeful life. Leaving her unfaithful, high-profile psychiatrist boyfriend and business partner behind, she establishes her practice in a vacant office space on a small commercial block across the bay in Oakland. Surrounded by minority-owned businesses, LaTrice is determined to provide support and gently guide the residents of this predominantly Black neighborhood to embrace the importance of communicating one’s feelings through therapy.
“I think there is an issue of trust in the Black community where we just keep our problems close to our chest,” Parker expressed while discussing mental healthcare in minority groups. “It’s also an expense. It’s an investment. So, when you are trying to make ends meet and prioritize your income, it feels like a luxury. But I think that that’s an expense worth taking.”
Helmed by Sister, Sister creator Kim Bass, the film was initially shot six years ago. Parker says she attributes her involvement in this project not just to the powerful and relevant script but also to “Kim’s vision, his magical realism, his playing with time, and his saturation of color,” she added, “We don’t really get to have that kind of whimsy in most independent Black films.”
Produced by Planet 9 Productions and distributed by People of Culture Studios, this dramatic comedy also explores other meaningful themes like navigating complex relationships and struggles of entrepreneurship. Those conversations are explored through the town’s biggest personalities, Davis (Deon Cole), Jeanette (Loretta Devine), Theona (Kimberly Elise), and Rodney (Evan Ross). The star-studded cast also includes Keith David, Marla Gibbs, Michael Jai White, Tony Plana, Arden Myrin, and others.
Watch A Snowy Day in Oakland in selected theaters on Friday, March 17. Watch the trailer below.
‘Harlem’ Star Shoniqua Shandai Talks 3 Pillars of Success
Shoniqua Shandai is fully immersed in the study of her success. Through her determination, Shandai found a way to reach the precipice of her goals. In an exclusive interview with Hollywood Melanin, Shandai shared an in-depth level of self-perception. She provided personal definitions of courage, confidence, and self-belief.
The world is waking up to the power that Shandai holds. In the new hit Amazon series Harlem, the New York native brings Angie’s character to life. Many would look at her and say she is struggling, playing into the “starving artist” archetype, but if one looks closer, Angie’s only struggle is the battle with the conformity of the world.
Series creator Tracy Oliver worked with Meagan Good, Grace Byers, Jerrie Johnson, alongside Shandai, to share a raw narrative of Black women who have the goal of living out their version of happiness.
Angie embodies liberty, a freeform display of what it means to be dedicated to pursuing a dream. Off-screen, Shandai knows the level of commitment it takes to create a world that fits a personal vision. It takes a custom-made level of courage, confidence, and self-belief. It takes a personal standard of hustle.
Conquering the fear of being one’s true self ignites the labor in building confidence. Shandai admitted the process was in layers. “I found the confidence to be myself in having tried to be everyone else and it not working,” she continued, “I might as well show up as me–as vividly, as boldly, as audaciously as possible. You have to live for yourself.”
I found the confidence to be myself in having tried to be everyone else and it not working
Courage is defined as “the ability to do something that frightens one.” To be one’s true self is nearly impossible without courage. It’s the secret ingredient to personal success. Before every interview, the repeated chorus from loved ones is “to be yourself,” but that takes courage. Shandai opened up and shared her process.
“Courage came from having to build confidence – I am who I am.” The actor and singer continued to explain that her support from her mother, adjacent to her self-determination fueled her confidence.
Courage came from having to build confidence
To be unstoppable, there has to be a strong foundation of self-belief. The approval of others is fickle. Self-belief might be the only thread left to hang on to when no one else is willing to share blind faith in chasing dreams.
The Amazon series star considered the solution to working when the motivation isn’t there, “I am incredibly future-oriented. Being so future-oriented has saved my life.” Shandai said. She admitted to reverting back, and taking baby steps in order to prepare for bigger strides. Each day, she pulled herself closer into the vision.
Shandai said she is most happy when she is cooking success in multiple pots. Her next debut is coming in through audible wavelengths. As a singer and songwriter, she will be looking for a deeper level of self through music.
Her first single, with visuals directed by her co-star Good, is called, Something About You. Nothing has been officially released yet, but Shandai is ready for this part of herself to rise to the surface.
Through her personal definition of courage, confidence, and self belief, Shandai always finds the strength to keep extending her reach, to keep answering the calling on her life. Stay connected with Shandai on Instagram and Twitter. Bingewatch Harlem on Amazon Prime.
Robin Givens Talks Guest-starring on ABC’s Queens
Givens’ episode titled “Let the Past Be the Past” will air on Tuesday, February 8
Robin Givens is set to appear on the all-new episode of ABC’s music drama Queens. We sat down with the Ambitions star to discuss her joining the show and take a deeper dive into her pivotal scenes.
In Queens, we get a first-hand look at the dynasty built by the hip-hop quartet of women – Naomi (Brandy), Brianna (Eve), Valeria (Nadine Velazquez), and Jil (Naturi Naughton). Viewers meet the group on the verge of claiming their place at the top of the music game for the second time.
The upcoming episode titled ‘Let the Past Be the Past’ will feature Givens as Eric’s ex-wife, who will pay him an unexpected visit. Once the manager of the girl group, Eric will have to confront his former spouse to help save the future of Nasty Girl Records.
Last week ET exclusively released the first look images of Givens as Robin and her intense sit-down with Brandy’s Naomi – the woman who might’ve caused the breakup of her and Eric’s marriage. See the photos below.
The official ABC synopsis reads, “Queens follows a fractured girl group living in the shadows of their once prominent hip-hop dynasty. After their popularity skyrocketed with the success of their chart-topping single, “Nasty Girl,” they were once regarded as one of the greatest girl groups of their generation. However, the group was plagued by internal conflict and jealousy despite critical and commercial success. Estranged and out of touch, the four women, now in their 40s, reunite for a chance to recapture their fame and regain the swagger they had in the ’90s when they were legends in the hip-hop world.”
Watch Queens on Tuesdays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on ABC.