I was a fan of DeWanda Wise before I met her. Introduced to the stunning actress by way of Netflix’s adaptation of Spike Lee’s classic film She’s Gotta Have It was just the beginning. I had the distinct pleasure of meeting the two-season star during my trip to Atlanta. When my best friend and I went down to 21Ninety’s #Summit21, we met the stunning actress at a Barefoot activation where we took pictures with fake emoji props and real bottles of wine. Here I am nearly two years later, connecting with her over our similar hair journeys.
“I mean, I talked to my therapist today,” Wise paused before she laughed after I asked her how she was doing. The longterm chronic stress of the pandemic, left Wise, like others, to focus on her mental health.
“For a lot of people, especially Americans, there’s a lot of propensity to want to push past, push through and be like, ‘Everything’s fine today so everything’s fine,’ and sh*t just creeps up on you. I’m on top of it,” Wise said as she applauded herself about her mental health management.
As a rising Black actress, Wise has been vocal about the colorism she’s experienced as a brown girl in the television industry. In 2019, she penned a timely essay in The Guardian about colorism in Hollywood. After a long pause, Wise recalled a conversation she had with a cast member a few months back when she realized she was being gaslighted.
“I always have this framework in my head that I was a late bloomer in the attraction department and it was because I was thicker when I was younger but I’m also from Maryland so it wasn’t really a big deal,” she started. The Someone Great actress described herself as “bigger in high school” and told me that she knew she wanted to be an actress at the age of 15, which in her head meant that she had to have a smaller frame. “Growing up, I always thought, ‘You have a pretty face but if only you could be smaller.’”
Fast forward to her mid-20s when she began to, as she put it while laughing, “lose your baby fat.” “Or you don’t, which is f*cking beautiful and socially acceptable now. Where was this body aesthetic when I was in my early 20s?,” she joked. “It really wasn’t until very recently – I mean literally within the last six months – when I realized that so much of my experience and walking through the world – with people not considering me beautiful or having to executive produce and star in a movie myself to be seen in a certain light, attractive, intelligent or an object of affection – I’d always just be a like, ‘You’re a late bloomer,’ and it truly attributed to colorism. I just did it and didn’t even think about it.”
In retrospect, Wise said that she should have thought about it and noticed the roles that she was playing earlier in her career began to mimic. “I love them by the way. I’m an around-the-way girl, but at the same time they were very specific types of roles. I underestimated a number of things. One, the imprint of colorism on my career and two, thankfully, blessedly and graciously, I’ve always had this very helpful and obvious naivety. A very narrow, kind of stubborn, persistent, ‘if it doesn’t exist, I’ll build the sh*t’ mentality.” And that’s what she wants for everyone. Not everyone has the mother, community or supportive friends that Wise has but she wishes that for everyone.
“I take it as a matter of personal responsibility. It’s absolutely a challenge not to slip into scarcity mentality or victimhood. It’s very vital to tow the line between being aware, knowing if I’m audition for something and it’s likely to go in a direction because of some bullsh*t,” she said while crediting her on-point discernment, “and not taking on the bullsh*t that society throws on you. That, and obviously why I have a therapist, requires work but in order to do the work that I want to do and live, breathe and enjoy my life, I refuse to take it on. It’s very real, it’s ongoing, it’s laughable in many ways and thankfully, I’ve been able to regard it with a certain degree of stoicism and observation, and not allow it to penetrate my spirit.”
Transitioning the conversation to hair, she and I bonded over our big chops and to my surprise, she read my essay about my decision to shave my head. “I love it. I read that article and I loved it,” she said to me about my hair journey. Talk about nearly losing your mind while keeping it professional during an interview. The “She’s Gotta Have It” star revealed to me that she actually had two big chops – in college, which had nothing to do with the politics of Black hair and all to do with the inconvenience of a long distance stylist, and again in 2019. Wise continued to express to me her thoughts on how every Black woman should shave it all off at some point.
“There’s so many ways that Black women and Black actors, and probably all actors of color, feel like they’re always proving themselves and always having to start over. There are hoops and hurdles that we have to jump through that I doubt my white cohorts have to jump through. That’s in every industry, Black people 101, gotta be ten times more – the whole thing,” she said while cutting herself off as she continued to explain.
“Funny enough, I actually cut it before ‘She’s Gotta Have It’ was officially cancelled – like a week before. It was the summer of 2019, I had just come out with three projects in a row; they were all offers. ‘Someone Great,’ ‘Twilight Zone,’ and ‘She’s Gotta Have It’ season two. I was auditioning, doing this and that, but after you finish a press season like that, there is understandably a level of expectation and that’s not the case with actors. It’s damn sure not the case with Black actors.”
Wise began to meditate on the notion of starting over and she continued to reveal to me that her harnessed power stems from reevaluating and reframing her current thought process. She thought to herself about why she had a negative connotation about starting over and what it is about the thought that made her so uncomfortable. “I’m impulsive and I’m a Gemini. I’ve wanted to cut my hair and been talking about it for years. For the role of Nola, I had that hair color because I chose that color for an underground so that ended up being Nola Darling’s hair color,” she explained. Though she’s a natural brunette, she had the light brown tresses for a while and even experimented with blonde tips.
“I realized I had never been bald. I woke up one day – I actually had cornrows in my hair – I grabbed my husband’s clippers, and literally just shaved the cornrows off. It was, as you surmise, f*cking liberating. I was obsessed with the feeling of my hand on my scalp. At the time, it was so interesting because, and I’m sure you experienced this, how people perceive you and how you walked through the world,” Wise said as we empathize with one another. The roles she auditioned for were different and was even up against women whom she had never thought about competing against before. She even managed to sneak in a role, which she said she couldn’t yet disclose.
“It was one of those things that became letting go of that year, letting go of a series that I poured my heart and soul into for a number of years, and comfort with the notion of starting over. I deleted my Instagram account, so that was part of it but I’m back on now because you can only be but so much of a rebel from society. It was an organic confluence of things and nine times out of ten with me, something will start with simple impulse and that kind of spirit that’s like, ‘Do it,’ then it turns to something else. At the core of it, it was like, ‘I really want to shave my hair off’,” she laughed.
When it came to giving young Black and brown girls advice on confidence and embracing their natural inner beauty who are struggling with moving through a colorist world, Wise said an entire word: “I think it would serve us all to think less of ourselves. Not to think less of yourself, but to think of yourself less. So much of my confidence legit comes from the fact that I’m not harping on myself. When I find myself ruminating in a way that does not serve my soul, my spirit or my heart and is in a way that is not honoring or in service of that, I turn my focus outward.” While she notes that it is counterintuitive, Wise says that the true messaging reads less into buying makeup and enhancing beauty and focusing more on where you can be of service and build upon your God-given power.