Karimah Westbrook on her latest films ‘Bolden’ and ‘All American’

ATM: What motherly characteristics do you feel you portrayed in your role for Bolden?

KW: Alice Bolden’s characteristics are very loving, supportive, and protective. I am his voice of reason or at least I try to be. He is a young man who has a very big dream that he is pursuing. We are living in some very difficult times with racism; however, Buddy is still very driven. I am trying to support his dreams and I want him to be careful out there.

ATM: How does his 1895 jazz tunes reflect the emotions people were feeling through this time?

KW: There was a lot of pain yet hope. During the times that Buddy was playing music, people were looking for relief from the day-to-day struggles. Buddy provided that relief. There was also joy for him when playing. There was a mixture of things. If you see the movie, then you will see he had a lot of flashes of his past. He had a lot of the different visions going through his mind while playing which he then expressed his feelings through his music. These things amongst other circumstances left imprints on him in his life which ultimately lead to his downfall.

ATM: Describe the relationship the film portrays about Buddy and his mother.

KW: We are close. I took him everywhere with me when he was a kid. I even took him to work. In the film, he is at the point where he has met the love of his life, played by Yaya Dacosta and he is kind of branching out on his own. He is not a momma’s boy, but you will still see flashbacks of our close bond and my concern for him in the film.

ATM: Reflect who your motherly character is and how it transfers over in the series All American?

KW: As a mother in both roles, my heart, love and wanting the best for my sons are the same. As a mother and parent, you want the best for your kids and do what you can to provide the best life for them. Spencer and Buddy are two kids from two different times but still face similar challenges incl. racism, violence and growing up without a father.  Overall, I believe my character wants them to grow up to be good men, to have a good life and to be safe out in the world. She is a momma bear in both storylines. For me as an actor, I have to weigh in the time and circumstances. They play a different type of concern for the stories. And although a century apart It’s still an unfortunate reality many face today.

ATM: There are two worlds within this series. You have the inner city, and then you have the upper echelon seen as Beverly Hills. When these two worlds collide, problems happen. It is kind of like an invisible partition between them. It is sort of like the friction that occurs when the north and the south magnets try to touch.

KW: Spencer’s character sheds light on these worlds as he tries to navigate them. Even though there is the class difference, the individuals that live in these worlds are not that different when it comes to their hearts’ desire. We are more alike than we are different. As parents, we want the best for our kids. We want to be there for our kids, and we want to provide for our kids. Spencer, Layla, Asher, Jordan, Olivia, and Coop are all trying to find their way. It is a coming of age story for them.

Every character has their journey and obstacles. We are all trying to figure things out and position ourselves to enjoy and do well in life. They are trying to go beyond the pain from past experiences. They are trying to make sense of it. There are a lot of teachable moments and fresh perspective present through their stories.

ATM: So, this is the German term Bildungsroman, which is the coming of age element.

KW: It has this for sure. These kids are in high school. This is the time you are finding your identity and trying to make sense of your experiences. You are trying to find your fit in life. I love the fact that we can watch it. Young viewers can relate to the characters and follow their journeys and find a perspective of what they are trying to do.

ATM: This term is popular in literature, but lately it has become more prevalent in American cultural entertainment. This is both for film and television. The elements have been used in documenting and reflecting this is coming up age period. These are the adolescence years leading into high school and then in the early parts of college. This is the young adult age.

KW: I agree.

ATM: Are you familiar with Niccolò Machiavelli? 

KW: He sounds familiar, but I cannot say that I am.

ATM: He was a 16th-century Florentine philosopher. He wrote a book on the government called The Prince. In chapter 17, he mentions that it is better to be feared and loved. But if a person cannot have both, then it is better to be feared than loved.  This relates to your character.

KW: This is interesting. I am not sure I agree with this. I am all about love. Love is the most powerful force there is, and it causes individuals to walk with a very strong (energetic) life force. This positions you to be able to do miraculous things as a human being. Everything is energy and you can do things more from an energetic perspective. You can get a lot more done coming from a place of love.

When someone fears you, they are operating from a different place energetically. Whereas, if someone is operating from the place of loving you, this is the powerful force for movement. To me, fear often stifles people and closes off creativity. When people fear anything, they often make bad decisions surrounding the thing they are fearing. Judgments get clouded and it can cause them not to think very clearly or not all at.

ATM: If your character had to choose between being feared or loved, then which one would she decide? Would this in any way change her position in the series?

KW: I want my character Grace to be loved. I do not think people’s perception of Grace would influence how she operates. It would not change her goals in life or her desire to position her kids for the best. She wants her kids to be safe and do well and to be exposed to more in life. This would not change in the Grace household whether she was feared or loved.

ATM: Do you believe when someone is fear, it takes the role of being the oppositional take to love?

KW: Yes. I do think fear is the opposite of love. It is two different dances. It is two different places heart wise and energetically. You also have to look at, “If people fear Grace, then what about her causes people to fear her?” There must be some sort of change within Grace whether it is her attitude or how she carries herself or how she communicates causing people to suddenly fear her. When I think about fearing someone it rarely seems like a person has good or positive personality traits.

ATM: This same philosopher also felt that it is better to be counted merciful and not cruel. But Machiavelli’s statement of it is that it is better ‘to be feared than loved it cannot have both’ – this does not make sense when you bring in it is better ‘to be counted merciful and not cruel.’ You cannot be feared and merciful at the same time. It becomes almost a parallel or dichotomy. I am refuting what it is saying, it is wrong and does not make any sense.

KW: Well, I guess you can be feared and merciful at the same time. My first thought is, there must be something about your personality or actions that is causing people to fear you, so if you are not merciful, this makes sense. On the other hand, if you are a known killer and you spare someone their life when you could have killed them, that would make the killer merciful at that moment. If they killed the person when they didn’t have to, I guess, according to Machiavelli, this would be considered being cruel.

ATM: There are some things you just cannot have both of.

KW: It depends on what two things we are speaking of. There is no absolute that we can have all of only one thing. There may be people who fear you and people who love you. At the end of the day, you might be a really loving person at heart. Sometimes it can be more about the individual perhaps projecting rather than something that you’re doing to evoke a negative response. You could remind them of something, and they are just fearful of you. There could be neighbors who love you and other neighbors that fear you.

You are the same person, and there is nothing you have done to the people who fear you. You could be a black person. They could be white and have seen all these images that portray you in a certain way. They may have seen something on the news of a black man committing and shooting crimes. Now, you have this idea of what this person is about. You do not know them, but you fear them. It has nothing to do with what this person did to you or them not having mercy.  

ATM: What can you assess about Grace’s inner self, which is the part that does not speak?

KW: Grace has a lot of fear. It is not fear of any person. It is just during these times; it is fear of her kid’s safety and well-being. It is the hope that she is making the right decisions. It is the fear that Spencer likes it better in Beverly Hills than at home with us. Every parent regardless of the environment and with so much happening in the world has fears and concerns for them to do well and survive.

There is also the fear of her not doing the job as a parent. You hope you are doing a good job and doing the right thing. There is an unspoken fear of what if things do not turn out right based on the decisions you made for your kids and family. There is fear there, but the kids will never know this.  

ATM: This is part of being a parent. You have to put on aviator skin in the way your kids do not see you. There is still a part of you that wonders if you do not work and what if I drop the ball. What if I do not raise them right.

KW: Right. He is in another city. I am not with him every day. He is under the wings of somebody else with the other parents. What if they do not do a better job or look out for him? You have to step out on faith and hope for the best. There is fear that if something happens then, it is my fault because I put him in this position. I convinced him to make this change. If things do not go well, then that falls on me.

ATM: Your external self is happy to go lucky. Whereas, your internal self is always thought-provoking. You just have to attach a smile on it.

KW: Overall, I am happy with how things have turned out thus far and to me, in our household, I’m the indicator if they should be worried or not. I am the indicator if something is wrong. If I am walking around showing fear, then this is going to cause them to do something they should not do. Spencer is going to try to take on a role he should not have to take on as a young man. It is going to cause him to be concerned about things he does not need to be concerned about. He will try to take over. He is this type of kid who is protective. He wants the best for me like I want the best for him.

ATM: How does the lack of a patriarchal present in the house affect your character?

KW: It is very stressful without a father figure in the home. For me as an actor, I have a responsibility to create this reality for myself. As I got more episodes, I started to feel stressed not from work but from the reality of raising two black young men in American on my own. I started to feel I needed help in this home. I even told this to one of the writers. It is interesting. As you see in the beginning, Spencer starts getting into fights at Crenshaw High. He gets angry all the time. There is only so much one parent can do. It becomes stressful because you wish you had another voice there and another perspective to help to raise the kids.

These are things the kids will never know that Grace is experiencing. It is hard. You must put all these things aside and focus on what you are trying to achieve. Maybe just cry in the bed at night. I have always had respect for single moms. I grew up with a single mom. I did not have a dad around. This brought me a deep understanding of how challenging it is. This is just a T.V. show and not my real life but I started to feel the weight of it all. I have so much respect for single moms. They are super beings. It is not easy at all. It affects all mothers greatly.

ATM: How does the absentee of a father influence a male vs a female?

KW: It affects both and all children differently. I will speak for myself. I always felt like there was a void and something was missing. For me, I found that growing up, and even as a kid, I started to look for my father in other male figures. Hindsight in looking back, even in dating situations – there was a part of me looking for this love from a male figure. It was more on a subconscious level. After therapy and other things, I found I was looking for my father. Yes, I was dating, but it was also looking for my dad and looking for someone to fulfill this void of him not being there. This is how it affected me in some of the choices I made. It was a real void in this arena.

I do not know how a male would feel internally in real life. But looking at the show, Spencer’s story is different because his father was there at one point and then absent. Spencer’s hurt expresses itself as anger. As a teen, he tried and felt the need to take on the role of being the man of the house. He tried to take on the responsibility that he thought a father would do. He was trying to prove to his father that he was a man without him. He wanted to try to do everything and be everything for everyone. It made him overextend himself. Therefore, it affects him in several different ways. He lost his focus on being a teen and was too busy to acknowledge and deal with the pain.

ATM: For you, subconsciously it was a big open hole. Like when you do a puzzle, and there is a big section you cannot find the pieces for. Some of the men were becoming these pieces. I would assume after a while none of these pieces fit.

KW: Absolutely.

ATM: To you, it was subconsciously like, “I filled the void. He possesses the qualities of someone I would want as my father. You felt complete.” However, on their side, they were like, “This is my girlfriend.” But after a while, you realized the piece did not fit. The piece is supposed to be a rectangle, but it is a circle.

KW: It’s happens more on a subconscious level of you trying to fill the void of not being loved by a male figure growing up. You’re not thinking “he could be my father”.  It is seeking my father’s love in other people. Looking back, I realized a lot of decisions made in the past was based on me looking for the love of my father in others. It was not so much about them. I did like them as people and some I truly loved, but when things did not work out, it hurt much more than it probably should have. It was not based on them being a great guy or some fantastic relationship, it was based off what the relationship represented; a male figure loving me, something I felt I never had growing up. This understanding came to me from a lot of therapy, healing, going deeper, and looking at things differently so I could make better decisions

ATM: So, it became a double heartbreak. It was like, “This guy hurt me, but also my father hurt me.” The feeling of the void was like a placebo effect for trying to find love for your father. Meaning your father’s love was not represented by the other guy’s love, but it mentally, and imaginably appeared to be. Sigmund Freud had the Electra theory that observes how a daughter adapted and connected with her father. This theory is also associated with the female subconsciously picking someone similar to her father as her significant other.

KW: But what about the girls who did not have a father. What are they choosing? They do not have a reference to really to say, “Oh, he is like my dad.” Especially if they had no loving male figures around growing up to set an example. It leaves an individual looking for this idea of love, perhaps something they’ve seen on tv or just a person to fulfill this void. This is subconscious, and you do not innately know there is a part that is missing at first. You have to come to terms with what all this means and what decisions it has caused you to make in life. Unfortunately, this is a reality. There are a lot of single moms and there are a lot of absentee fathers who are not in their children’s life. It does not mean your life is over or you are doomed. You can always be like, “Despite of.” “Even though my father was not there when growing up…”

There’s a great episode where Spencer writes an essay about his greatest influence in life. I love this episode so much because Billy’s character reads Spencer’s essay and it says, “The greatest influence in his life was the absence of his father.” This was very powerful for me watching and reading it. It provided a different perspective. It was truly looking at the situation like despite my father not being around, I still turned out fine and I’ve gone on to do great things and I’m a great person.

It wasn’t all bad it actually shaped who I am today and put me in the position that I’m in now.  Through the ups and down this ultimately was a big influence on Spencer’s life in a positive way. If you find the positives, then it’s not all doom and gloom. Let’s not forget to forgive too. As much as we expect more from parents, they are just people trying to figure out life and who they are, just as we do as kids. Sometimes forgiveness is not easy but it’s a start to healing.

ATM: When a person does not have someone to look at it as their first, and nearest exposure with a man becomes their ideal man figure. This could be positive or negative. It could be the male their mother decides to bring around them. This could be a male coach, male teacher, etc. They look to this as an example of what a father is supposed to provide for a child. They hold a man up to this exposure.

KW: Yes, and this male figure can really plant some positive or negative seeds. This is definitely true. I believe in God. I believe we are spiritual beings and God works through people. Even though your father was a part of your creation but is not around, there are people who can show up to be an example of just what you need. All is not lost.  

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