On a Monday afternoon, as the day falls slowly from its climax, Kellita Smith is ready for her day drink. Her presence, although over the phone, beams of confidence and a welcoming vibration ready to take on whatever comes her way.
She’s proven to do just that throughout her impressively versatile acting career. A familiar face and favorite of the 90s, starring in some of Tv’s greatest sitcoms alongside comedic veterans, including The Jamie Foxx Show, Martin, The Parkers, The Steve Harvey Show, and the blueprint of real-life family television, The Bernie Mac Show from 2001 to 2006.
Smith portrayed Wanda McCullough, or “Auntie Wanda” a moniker viewer’s created for TV’s favorite new mother-figure, alongside legendary comedian, the late Bernie Mac. She describes her experiences with the cast and series as a “storybook,” but she sites the process of actually getting the job as a pivotal moment within her career, and life itself. “It was the best thing I could’ve ever done. I’m so grateful that I know it has more to do with a bigger source, which I’m going to say is God that put this all together. It was groundbreaking and made a difference in television today. This is why you have certain shows like Black-ish and Modern Family, who now pull in certain things that the Bernie Mac show exhibited, and Bernie actually had to fight for what our format was. No one’s given enough credit to him at this point, but one day I’m going to make it really known who really changed the face of how you really shoot sitcom today.”
Influence is something Kellita takes great accountability in giving credit to for how she navigates through life. As an infant, her mother and siblings made the big move from Chicago to Oakland, California. Smith’s childhood was already marked as impactful, as her mother enrolled her brother and Smith in the Oakland Community Learning Center, founded by the Black Panther Party.
Not many children can say they had the opportunity to flourish and create connections with prominent social justice leaders like Angela Davis, Erica Huggins, Elaine Brown and Gwendolyn Newton, wife of Huey P. Newton, who Smith interviewed at just the age of 8-years-old.
“It [The Bernie Mac Show] was the best thing I could’ve ever done. I’m so grateful that I know it has more to do with a bigger source, which I’m going to say is God that put this all together. It was groundbreaking and made a difference in television today.”
These notable figures and their inspirational anecdotes, or beliefs in general, would guide Smith into the direction of becoming a lawyer, with the goal of shifting the justice system and its broken due process of law toward black men who are unjustly incarcerated. However, love and seeking a sense of purpose carved other plans. “I started acting when I was about 20. I was actually engaged to an NBA player, we grew up as children in the inner city, we were together since we were 12, and I was about being about his dream. I had worked several jobs, nine to five jobs, and I got fired from all of them [laughs]. I wasn’t cut out for that. I decided after we had a rip in our relationship, I realized I needed to let him live his dream. We’re too young to negotiate what it means to be married or committed, but he showed me how to have a dream. In order to be disciplined, you would make the dream manifest. So, what I decided to do was find out what it was that I wanted to do. I took an acting class, and I was terrible, I was awful. But I had a feeling that I recognized in him, he showed me so many things that now that I’m older, I get the value of our connection. So with that, I decided this was it, I connected to passion. Passion was a word that I read, passion was something I knew the definition of, and that I knew the feeling. Acting gave me a feeling of passion, and I never looked back. It’s been 27 years now.”
With that 27 years in the industry, Smith has accommodated a number of keynote moments within her career. As the first African-American lead to star in a Syfy Network series with Z Nation (2014-2018), the post-apocalyptic comedy-drama series, Smith uses the accomplishment to push for the expansion of much-needed representation in Hollywood. “The most challenging thing in life is to trust that I belong in this business. I would say what would fall underneath that is being the only African-American on an all-white cast. Especially during the time of where we are. I’m still having to fight ideas from our history, and things that are taught from most people’s parents or culture. Culturally, it hasn’t been accepted, an African-American female being the lead of anything, let alone a group of white people. The wonderful thing is the executive producer who didn’t look at any of that. What he saw was strength, ability, I did my own stunts, I could fight, I did the work, that’s what he saw. He recognized that I could do the work, to be in this position, where other people dismissed that because of their teachings. It was very challenging at times, on a daily to push forward, but I knew it was bigger than me. I could just not invest in their story, the story is bigger than me, and we have to do it. So the women today that are leads of networks today, African-American leads, know that they go home at times and they cry because it’s more work than you think and we’re not showing you that. We’re women, keep pushing forward.”
The emotion and buffering tears from Smith as she discussed this, leads back to the greats she’s inspired by who have paved the way for her platform as an actress. Eartha Kitt, Diahann Carroll, Vanessa Redgrave, Anjelica Houston, and Jessica Lange to name a few, are Smith’s blueprints to resonation through one’s craft, confidence, and her will to keep developing her own gift.
“Passion was a word that I read, passion was something I knew the definition of, and that I knew the feeling. Acting gave me a feeling of passion, and I never looked back. It’s been twenty-seven years now.”
Also taking chances and the big dive into the unknown is Smith’s current mantra. Her recent venture of trying stand-up comedy was fueled by her counterparts and co-stars including Mac and insult comedy extraordinaire, Don Rickles, who passed along in 2017. “It terrified me, and I was just like let me just get this acting thing down [laughs]. Since they’ve passed on [Bernie Mac and Don Rickles], I really feel the inspiration to continue to breathe their acknowledgment and their style. Their style was to tell a story. Comedians nowadays, they just tell jokes. I get it, some of the jokes are very surface. Like, George Carlin, I’m a big fan of George Carlin and Joan Rivers, they tell stories. You just happen to laugh within their stories. So for me, it’s about giving homage to Don Rickles and Bernie Mac, they told stories, they were storytellers, they were really crafty about it. They were enjoyable and delightful. Part of what I’m doing, and I’m calling it a hobby, as well as not calling it my career choice, is I’m standing up having a conversation. It’s gonna be funny though because I can’t help it [laughs].”
Smith’s comfortability within herself is one of the many attributes that makes her an underrated gem overall. Her key advice is liberation over demise, and challenging the norm of refusing to see the diversity in blackness, especially for black women.”The theme that they depict, that’s not what we are, that’s just an idea that they want the rest of the world to believe about us. It’s not until we do certain things that they get to see it. We are the climate for fashion, for music, for sports, for aesthetics that allow pop culture to be what it is. It’s not often recognized. That’s why it’s important that any woman, any African-American woman that gets in front of a camera, DO NOT degrade yourself, period. If the role calls for you to play certain things, whether it’s a drug addict, a prostitute or whatever, you play the role but you play with integrity. There’s an eye that we hold as women, we just have different sensitivity, period. The point is, we have a tender side to tell a story, we have a specific sensitivity that overall breathes a different breath in a movie, a television show, a book, a play. We as women, we bring to the table sincerity. We’re diamonds in the rough.”
Today, you can see Smith excluding those exact characteristics through characters like hairdresser and wife, Cheryl Weaver, from Bounce TV’s In the Cut. Her most recent project, in which she beamed joyfully about, Influence, based off New York Times best-selling author, Carl Weber’s novel of the same name, is in the works and also features the talent of Gary Sourdan, Deborah Cox, Anthony Hamilton, and more in a Dynasty meets Law & Order thriller.
“There’s an eye that we hold as women, we just have different sensitivity, period. The point is, we have a tender side to tell a story, we have a specific sensitivity that overall breathes a different breath in a movie, a television show, a book, a play. We as women, we bring to the table sincerity. We’re diamonds in the rough.”
The dynamic actress has plans to create an ethic, Egyptian film, which she feels is her divine order in accurately representing a sometimes wrongly portrayed civilization. Other goals being spoken into existence, is one-day casing an Emmy of her own.
“The phrase is “I’m not done yet. I can’t say that I crafted or designed anything that I’ve ever experienced, it’s all God. I look forward to being able to look back and really marvel at the life that I’m having.”