By Nadine Matthews, Special to the AFRO
Golden Brooks spent much of her California childhood acting out plays with her neighborhood friends. However, acting wasn’t something she aspired to. “I wanted to be Barbara Walters,” she says. “I wanted to interview people.” Perhaps most known for the timeless comedy series Girlfriends in which she co-starred with Tracee Ellis Ross, Jill Marie Jones and Persia White, Brooks is one of the stars of the upcoming TNT series, I Am The Night.
Raised by a divorced mother, Brooks says she is mostly grateful for the way she was brought up. “My Mom worked two jobs to support my brother and I. We struggled but my brother and I were always in private school. My mother always made sure we had the best. She did all she could to keep us busy and exposed to different things.” Not having much left over for toys, Brooks was forced to use her imagination, which helped in her career as an actress.
“Code switching,” she says, was also a big part of her childhood. “I would go to these private schools and assimilate and then when I got back to my block I would be more the neighborhood girl. I learned quickly to navigate both worlds. It was what gave me the knowledge to build my character on Girlfriends.”
I Am The Night is based on Fauna Hodel’s memoir One Day She’ll Darken. In it, Brooks portrays the mixed-race Fauna’s mother Jimmy Lee. When Fauna learns some shocking secrets about her parentage, she sets off on a dark, sometimes terrifying search for her roots. Set in 1960’s Nevada and Los Angeles, it is part mystery, part family drama, part tantalizing film noir.
The relationship between Jimmy Lee and Fauna is complicated and Brooks drew from her experiences with her own mother to create the character. She says, “My mother has much lighter skin than me so there were a lot of things I would do she couldn’t understand. I used some of that for this character’s relationship with her daughter.”
Fauna, though white-passing, has always lived as Black. When she learns more about her family, resentment toward her mother grows and the tension between them escalates to dizzying proportions. Brooks can relate. “I didn’t look like my mom and at 15 you don’t understand why. You think, ‘If I just looked like this, I would have that.’ I went through a lot of that. A lot of that sadness and pain and anger I put into Jimmy Lee.”
Two things happened that began to solidify Brooks’ identity as a teen. “They began bussing kids from South Central Los Angeles and they would tease me that I talked like a white girl. Eventually though, those kids helped me feel more comfortable with myself.” Theater also entered Brooks’ life around that time. She recalls, “I found I felt safe in theater. So I engrossed myself in theater in junior high and high school. I could disappear into the characters and that’s where I felt most comfortable.”
As someone who majored in media representation at UC Berkeley, Brooks has an interesting vantage point from which to judge how Hollywood has evolved. She explains, “I started out on Showtime on a show called Links with Pam Grier and Tim Reid. He actually was doing what Tyler Perry is doing now. Tim had his own soundstage, everything. I’ve seen the exploitation, I’ve played the stereotypes. I remember when the CW was around and it was like what BET is now.”
She shares that she doesn’t encounter the blatant racism that she did even at the beginning of this century. “I used to get, ‘Can you just sass it up a bit? Yes, there was that code and I don’t hear that anymore. In the early 2000s you’d hear comments like that.”
Brooks credits Girlfriends with helping to create the more welcoming environment for Black actresses that exists today. “I can never talk about where we are today,” she states emphatically, “without talking about Girlfriends. It was the springboard for a lot of things. It portrayed four successful African-American women and I think it led to characters like Olivia Pope and the Cookie. We’re now blockbuster sensations. There’s no conversation about ‘Will they be successful?’ or ‘Are they gonna sell overseas?’ Yeah, we do! We stood our ground and things changed. It’s living proof persistence pays off!”