By Nadine Matthews, Special to the AFRO
The character of Gloria Cruz is certainly not the first concerned Black mother to grace television screens. However, those characters too often languish in their pain, constrained by psychic as well as external limitations, from being able to do anything to effect real change or relief for their characters’ children. Black women characters abound and they are seen as strong and giving but interestingly, not quite heroic. Gloria is different.
Award winning actress Marianne Jean-Baptiste explains of her new role, “I play Gloria Cruz the mother of a veteran who’s just come back from a tour of duty and is in a facility she doesn’t like the sound of. Basically she just gets the sense that something’s up and goes to find out what is going on.” Indeed Gloria is right to go and get to the bottom of what is really happening at an ostensibly well meaning PTSD/military trauma rehab facility. The show is a twisty suspense drama that calls into question the government’s agenda with regard to veterans.
Jean Baptiste laughs briefly at the description of her character as a heroic Black mother. “She’s a Black woman so it’s a given that she’s heroic!” She becomes a bit more serious though as she discusses how she stepped into that aspect of the character, who is also a college professor. “You will at times do things that are quite irrational for your children. Like driving out in the middle of the night to pick your child up from a party if they text you that they’re uncomfortable. Half-naked, no shoes you’re gonna do it.”
Currently on Amazon Prime, the limited series Homecoming boasts not just Jean-Baptiste but Julia Roberts and rising star Stephan James (If Beale Street Could Talk), who plays her son. Reflecting the demography of the Sunshine State where the story itself is set, Gloria Cruz is originally from Haiti. This presented a welcome challenge for Jean-Baptiste who herself moved to the United States from her native Britain many years ago. “Because the characters are Haitian there was that element to learn; working with a dialect coach and just watching a lot of stuff with Creole speakers.”
Jean-Baptiste decided in her “gap year” to become an actress instead of a barrister. She attended the prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, with her father cheering her all the way. Her mother was a bit more skeptical questioning her even after she won both a Golden Globe and Oscar for the film Secrets and Lies, “When are you going to get a proper job?”
Though it is common now to have Black British actresses grace American film and television screens, Jean-Baptiste was a groundbreaker in that respect, building a career in American television from the nineties. She moved to America fairly early on, residing in Los Angeles for over a decade. Asked what she thought of recent criticisms of British actors who star or are featured in American projects, she answered, “I believe if somebody is good at what they do that’s what the focus should be. We should not get distracted. I wonder whether it comes from a position of lack. If you feel there isn’t enough you want to hold on to what you believe is yours.” For her, the issue is also a hindrance to the creative process. “It’s almost in complete conflict with acting and art. Should we say African Americans shouldn’t play Africans? Or white Americans shouldn’t play British people?”
The actress who confesses to a love of art, gardening, and cooking when not acting, laments the difficulty in making smaller more intimate films in the current moviemaking landscape. “They have to compete with Marvel, with the big blockbusters and films that don’t stay in theaters for as long as they used to. The upside is you have Amazon and these other platforms that can take their time and make unique pieces like Homecoming. There are more opportunities and roles for Black actors now.”
Jean-Baptiste isn’t averse to being in a blockbuster herself confessing how much she loved Black Panther, which featured her good friend Angela Bassett. “For me it always comes down to the quality of the material. I loved Black Panther and think the Guardians of the Galaxy was so funny! I loved that character that was always being accused of something he’s not doing. They’re all really funny. Yeah, I wouldn’t mind being part of that.”