Golden Brooks bares her soul — and a whole lot more — in her new film, Polish Bar. The Girlfriends actress plays a stripper desperate to keep her younger brother off the streets, and willing to go to startling lengths to do it. In the process, she turns what could have been a fringe character into the film's emotional and moral core.
Brooks, who took on the role after spending nine years playing Maya Wilkes on the groundbreaking comedy series, talks to us about being a Black woman in Hollywood, breaking stereotypes and her hopes for her own daughter.
How did you come to be in this film, Polish Bar. Your character Ebony is quite different from the one you play in Girlfriends.
After doing Girlfriends for so long, I wanted to take a chance and do a really dark, independent film. Actually, my roots are in drama. It's comedy I have to work hard at. It's easier for me to channel pain than to make people laugh. And I had to do that all the time for Girlfriends. I love doing it, but I knew I wanted to do more as an actress.
You play a stripper and you're not wearing much clothes in a lot of the film. But I heard you were hiding a little secret during the shoot, which took place in 2009?
I was pregnant! I was pregnant while we were shooting the film. I think I did a really good job of hiding it. But that definitely helped me add another layer of emotion to my character, who is really like a mother to her little brother. I could feel my baby kicking while we were shooting, it made me feel maternal even while I was pole dancing.
Did you have any reservations about playing a "stereotypical" character like a stripper?
You can think of it in a couple of different ways. You can think of her in a very superficial way, she's a girl who doesn't have any education, gets caught up in something, takes her clothes off for a living. But I tried to play to the humanity of her. The urgency of her wanting to get out, but this world sucks her in. The shame she feels. It brings a lot more richness to the character. And as a woman, especially an African-American woman, we have to really do the work to make our characters come alive.
What do you mean, the work?
I mean, whether you're playing a maid, a stripper, a cashier, you have to bring that emotional depth to your characters. Sometimes it's not on the page, especially with the kinds of roles we are getting. You have to create that. Halle Berry is a great example. She played a really controversial role in Monster's Ball, but she did the work so you have empathy for that character so she wasn't just some woman being screwed. And she won an Oscar for it.
You did Girlfriends for nine years, and that show broke a lot of ground in television. What did it mean to you to be a part of that?
We finished the show a few years ago, and you kind of forget the power that show has to connect with people. We were reminded recently when we all went to the Essence Black Women in Hollywood luncheon just before the Oscars, where the show was being honored. When we went to the podium, everybody in the room stood up. Oprah Winfrey was there! I was like, "Oprah, you watching the show?!" But to see her stand up and clap for us, that proud look on her face, I was like...it just hit home. Girlfriends changed me as an actress, it put me on the map.
That must have been such a proud moment for you.
Not just for me, but Mara [Brock Akil] said something really interesting in her speech that day. She started crying and said, all the years we did Girlfriends, she sat back and watched Friends and Sex and the City get Emmy nomination after Emmy nomination, and Girlfriends was never even looked at by the Emmy committee. Forget about nominated, it wasn't even considered. And that really hurt her. She knew it wasn't us, we were all doing our jobs episode after episode, it was just the state of the world we live in and how society sees Black women.
You have a 3-year-old daughter. Do you see that changing for her generation?
I hope so. I'd like to say yes, but I say it with a little bit of reservation. Even if you look at the Oscars this year, Quvenzhané [Wallis] is the only Black person to be nominated. If you look at it that way, it's discouraging. But if you think of the progress we're making across the spectrum, it gives me hope.
Did you get a chance to meet Quvenzhané Wallis personally at the Essence luncheon?
I did! She is so adorable! She has so much talent in that little body. She's gonna knock it out of the park, I can tell you that. She's on the brink of something special. And she's so sassy. You know they need you to be sassy, when you're Black and you're a woman, they want you to have that sass. [Laughs]
Polish Bar is currently on iTunes, Cable Video on Demand and Amazon.com.
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(Photo: Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)