Erika Alexander, iconically known as Maxine from the 90s’ classic Living Single, has a sweet spot for independent films. “I was discovered when I was 14 in the independent film My Little Girl. That [film] gave me my career,” she discloses. Although she can’t recall whether that film went to the Sundance Film Festival or not, she knows how independent films can launch a Black actress’ career.
“I did a lot of independent films because, believe it or not, if they're going to hire a Black woman, often that's where you're going to get your chance. Big budget movies will usually hire people who have longer resumes, more notoriety," says the veteran actress. "So, by the time you can make it there, you’ve probably done several independent films.”
These days, Alexander, who is as recognizable as ever thanks to ample daily airings of Living Single and her roles on Wu-Tang: An American Saga and Run The World on Starz, enjoys being able to lend her talents to the next generation. That was certainly the case with her role in Earth Mama, which premiered at Sundance and is backed by A24, the company behind Zola, Causeway and The Inspection.
The film directed by Black woman filmmaker Savanah Leaf, who also has the distinction of representing the U.K. in volleyball at the 2012 Olympics in London, stars Bay Area rapper/poet Tia Nomore as struggling young mother Gia. Very pregnant with her third child, Gia is under a lot of pressure. Despite being poor and underemployed, she is still fighting for her two other children who have been taken by the state. Because of that, she only sees them through supervised visits.
Alexander plays Miss Carmen, one of the few compassionate women within the system. She, shares Alexander, is based on a real person in Oakland “who goes around helping to shepherd young ladies through a tough process.” It is with her that Gia admits she may not be able to take care of her latest child and wants to explore open adoption.
Alexander also has high praises for Nomore, with whom she sees parallels to her early start. “She was wonderful. She was new. And I remember being her at some point. I was younger at 14, but she was a natural that they found and discovered from a big audition, which is what happened to me,” she says. But Nomore also came with some very specific skills that made her especially ideal for the role of Gia.
“She just had a child. She has a career as a rapper,” Alexander says. “She was just that person. She was Earth Mama.”
Working with younger talent, whether it’s Wu-Tang: An American Saga, Run The World or independent films like Earth Mama, she shares, gives her a chance to help guide a new generation. “I’m coming on set really empowered in a lot of ways that I know they need the experience to gain.”
It’s not a one-way street, she says. “They have the enthusiasm and youth and the energy that they're giving back to me so it's a really nice flow and balance.”
Another pleasant surprise was being able to film with Bokeem Woodbine, who plays her husband Jerome in Wu-Tang. “We did not know that we were both in it until we got there,” she says. “A lot of people like our chemistry together and I do too,” she adds. “I hope we get to do something that's more involved.”
Through Earth Mama, Leaf puts an important spotlight both on young women and a system in need of help, as well as some of the dedicated people trying to help. “The problems are so overwhelming,” says Alexander. “Somebody’s got to help, and I’m glad Savanah is doing that. And I tried to do my best in my own way.”
Ronda Racha Penrice is the author of Black American History For Dummies and editor of Cracking The Wire During Black Lives Matter.