One of the most prominent female hip-hoppers of the 1990s thanks to her soulful and uplifting rhymes, Queen Latifah has also crafted an increasingly successful screen presence.
Born Dana Owens in Newark, NJ, on March 18, 1970, this police officer's daughter worked at Burger King before joining the group Ladies Fresh as a human beatbox. Disgusted at the misogynistic, male-dominated rap scene, Owens adapted the moniker of Queen Latifah (meaning delicate and sensitive in Arabic) and was soon on her way to changing the way many people looked at hip hop. Soon gaining a loyal following due to her unique perspective and role model-inspiring attitude, Latifah recorded the single "Wrath of My Madness" in 1988 and the following year she released her debut album, All Hail the Queen. Making her feature debut three short years later in Spike Lee's Jungle Fever, Latifah began refining a screen persona that would be equally adept in both drama and comedy. After starring as magazine editor Khadijah James on the FOX sitcom Living Single (1993-1998) and landing increasingly prominent film roles in Set It Off (1996), Living Out Loud (1998), and The Bone Collector (1999), she was given her own personal televised outlet in the form of The Queen Latifah Show in 1999. Losing her brother in a motorcycle accident in 1995 (she still wears the motorbike's key around her neck) in addition to grieving a friend who was shot when the two were carjacked the same year, Latifah has persisted in overcoming tragedy to remain positive and creative. The talented songstress has also appeared as both the Wicked Witch of the West (1998's The Wizard of Oz) and Glenda the Good (The O.Z. in 2002), in addition to remaining an innovative and inspiring recording artist. In 2003, Latifah hit a watershed moment in her career and in the public perception of her image: she signed to portray Matron Mama Morton in Rob Marshall's bold cinematization of the Bob Fosse musical Chicago. For Latifah, the turn embodied a breakthrough to end all breakthroughs - it dramatically reshaped the artist's image from that of a hip-hop singer turned actress to that of a multitalented, one-woman powerhouse with astonishing gifts in every arena of performance - voice, drama and dance. Latifah deservedly netted an Oscar nomination for this role, but lost to Catherine Zeta-Jones, who played Velma Kelly in the same film.
Later that same year, the multifaceted singer/actress took a dramatic step down in ambition and sophistication, joining Steve Martin for the odd couple comedy Bringing Down the House. That farce tells the occasionally rollicking story of a hyper-anal white lawyer (Martin) who attempts to "hook up" with a barrister he meets online, but discovers that she is (surprise!) actually a slang-tossing black prison escapee with a mad taste for hip hop dancing (Latifah). Ironically - given the seemingly foolproof and ingenious premise - the film collapsed, thanks in no small part to an awkward and craven screenplay that fails to see the logic of its situations through to fruition, and wraps with a ludicrous denouement. The film did score with viewers, despite devastating reviews from critics across the country. (If nothing else, the picture offers the uproarious sight of Martin in hip-hop attire, and does celebrate Latifah's everpresent message of much-deserved respect for black women).
Latifah's onscreen activity skyrocketed over the following half-decade, with an average of around 5-7 roles per year. One of her most popular efforts, Barbershop 2: Back in Business (2004), constitutes a sequel to the urban comedy-drama Barbershop (2002). The original picture (without Latifah in the cast) concerned the proprietors and patrons of a (mostly) all-black barbershop on the south side of Chicago, with seriocomic lead characters portrayed by Ice-T, Cedric the Entertainer and others. In the second Barbershop go-round, Latifah plays Gina, the owner of an inner-city beauty parlor who operates her business next door. Those films reached a combined total of around $143 million worldwide, thanks in no small part to a pitch-perfect demographic that flocked to both efforts without abandon. The pictures also generated a Latifah-dominated sequel, Beauty Shop (2005), devoted to the exploits of Gina, her customers, and her employees, particularly the flamboyantly gay stylist Jorge Christoph (Kevin Bacon). The movie expanded the target audience of its predecessors and upped the ante by working in WASPy female characters played by A-listers Andie MacDowell and Mena Suvari and having Gina move her shop to the more audience-friendly Atlanta. Though the picture failed to match the grosses of its predecessors, it did reel in just under $38 million worldwide. Each of the installments generated mixed reviews from critics,
Concurrent with Beauty Shop's release, Latifah signed on to collaborate with director Mark Forster and stars Will Ferrell and Emma Thompson in the comedy-fantasy Stranger than Fiction (2006). In that picture - about a man (Ferrell) who discovers he is the character in a book by a washed-up author (Thompson), and due to be killed shortly, Latifah plays Penny Escher, the "assistant" hired to end Thompson's creative block and put her back on track. Though Latifah's constituted a minor role (and, arguably, a throwaway at that), the film itself scored on all fronts, including craftsmanship, audience reactions, box office and critical response. After voicing Ellie in the CG-animated feature Ice Age: The Meltdown (2006), Latifah revisited cinematic song-and-dance (and reteamed with House director Adam Shankman) for the hotly-anticipated musical comedy Hairspray, based on the hit Broadway production (which was, in turn, based on the 1988 John Waters film). Latifah plays Motormouth Maybelle, in a cast that also includes Christopher Walken, Michelle Pfeiffer and an in-drag John Travolta, reprising the role originated by Divine.
Latifah signed to star alongside Diane Keaton and Katie Holmes in the crime comedy Mad Money -- a remake of the British farce Hot Money (with echoes of 1976's How to Beat the High Cost of Living) about a trio of female janitors in the Federal Reserve bank who team up to rob the place blind.
In addition to music, movies, and television, Latifah also found time to author a book on self-esteem entitled Ladies First: Revelations of a Strong Woman, and to serve as co-chairman of the Owens Scholarship Foundation, Inc., which provides assistance to academically gifted but financially underpriveleged students.
~ Jason Buchanan, Rovi