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Queen Latifah Aims to Reign Over Films Too

TIMES STAFF WRITER

“Hey, Dana! How’ve you been?”

Queen Latifah walks through the doors of Intermezzo, her favorite Melrose dinery, and warmly hugs Scotty Weber, the Italian restaurant’s chef. Waiters and busboys also call her by her given name.

“They spoil me here,” she says with a wide smile.

When the pressure’s on and her stomach growls, Latifah often stops here, a place that offers her more than her favorite Caesar salad in Los Angeles. Intermezzo is her sanctuary, a place where she neither has to shoulder the responsibility of being in the public eye as the head of a rap management company, as a Grammy-winning rap artist, or as Khadijah, the lead character of Fox’s popular sitcom “Living Single.”

Here, Dana Owens, 26, reigns, not Queen Latifah.

“The way people see you and the way you really are are two different things,” she says. Her look, with her hair pulled back, showing smallish gold earrings, and a colorful rugby shirt, is both hip-hoppish and elegant.

“Dana is just me,” she says between sips of Perrier. “I can’t give my whole life to the public, so they can have most things, not just everything.” Soon, the public will have another aspect of Latifah’s public persona to deal with: serious actress.

While many have seen her on TV and in movies from “Jungle Fever” to “My Life,” they’ve surely never seen the Latifah of “Set It Off,” her new movie that also stars Jada Pinkett (“The Nutty Professor”), Vivica A. Fox (“Independence Day,”) and newcomer Kimberly Elise.

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In the movie, which opens Wednesday, Latifah plays tough as nails Cleopatra Sims, a mad-faced, trigger-happy lesbian bank robber who will mow down any obstacle to keep herself and her friends safe. The movie--part love story, part socioeconomic statement, part buddy flick--shows what happens when the four women decide to rob a bank to make quick cash, but soon become enthralled with the dangerous lifestyle.

The role is a departure from the carefully crafted image the rap star has built since her first album, 1989’s “All Hail the Queen.” In a genre that sometimes becomes obsessed with violence and misogyny, Latifah’s has been a voice of reason promoting black pride. Her songs call for an end to senseless violence and for empowerment for women.

Latifah, a daughter and sister of police officers, was both afraid and eager to portray a hardened felon who is also an overt lesbian.

“There’s a lot of stuff people will question about my character,” Latifah says.

“I needed to be somebody else to show the world that I had this gift--something I can’t do if I play Queen Latifah roles all of the time. I wanted to make a statement with a character who’s really quite opposite of who I really am, and establish a different voice.”

Latifah has never been a slave to trends: as a rapper, actress, or artist manager of such popular rappers as Naughty by Nature and Outkast, she’s done things her way.

When she released “All Hail the Queen,” Latifah not only was one of the first female rappers to inspire a commercial following among urban males in a phallicentric genre, she did it on her own terms.

While other female rappers portrayed a “rougher than any man” image to counteract the misogyny prevalent throughout hip-hop culture, Latifah used her intelligence and noble image that many quickly respected.

The result has been a solid fan base who watch her show, buy her records and regard her with almost a maternal reverence as one of the most influential and respected representatives of young urban culture.

When she first hit New York’s rap scene in 1989, hip-hop was going through an Afrocentric phase. Radical, pro-black groups like the Jungle Brothers, X-Clan and Public Enemy were all the rage, and even the toughest hustlers were trading in their gold chains and leather for medallions shaped like the African continent and kente cloth suits.

To call herself a Queen was an acknowledgment of her roots, and of the power and strength of black women, and her superior rhyme skills--but not an entitlement for others to exalt in her glory.

But much as her audience seemed to identify with the genuine sense of who it is she portrays, it bothered Latifah that people started treating her like a queen, not someone who came up in rough and tumble Irvington, N.J., where she faced many of the dangerous situations others only rap about.

“I stopped wearing the crowns that I used to as ‘Queen,’ because people seemed to get too caught up in that. I’m more than just a hat,” she says with subtle defiance.

The hardest aspects of playing Cleo for “Set It Off” centered around two issues: sexual orientation and death.

“Hell yeah, I’d be a liar if I didn’t admit to my anxiety,” Latifah says about the lesbian scenes.

“Black people don’t have as many versions of themselves, and so almost every character has to represent every black person in the world. But this film is not about Cleo’s sexuality, it’s about [the girl’s] friendship. In order for you to feel Cleo, you have to feel all 360 degrees of who she is.”

Sheena Lester, the music editor of Vibe magazine, a national rap and R&B; publication owned by Quincy Jones, doesn’t think that Latifah’s sizable rap or television audience will be perturbed by the lesbianism or the violence involved with her “Set It Off” role.

“Latifah’s an actress playing a role,” Lester says. “I don’t think the hip-hop audience should have any more of a problem seeing Latifah portraying a lesbian than the mainstream community has with Jennifer Tilly or Gina Gershon playing lesbians in ‘Bound.’ ”

The hardest part of the role, Latifah says, was a violent scene filled with gunfire.

Latifah has faced plenty of violence in her own life, much in the past three years. She still is dealing with the abrupt 1993 death of her older brother Lance, who died in a motorcycle accident.

In July 1995, her $75,000 BMW was stolen at gunpoint, and her friend, Sean Moon, was shot in the abdomen and almost died.

Then there were incidents this year, including one in February on the night Latifah filmed the movie’s violent scene. “The night we filmed that scene was the night I got locked up,” she says. Latifah was arrested for carrying a loaded pistol and for marijuana possession. And just few days later, an amateur photographer filed an assault and battery charge against Latifah, claiming she twisted his arm and took his camera when she asked him not to take pictures.

“I feel like I brought that arrest on myself ‘cause my spirit was down . . . and to prepare my character, I let some of that dark energy seep into my life” she says, lowering her voice.

“The hardest part about that scene was thinking about all the things I would never get the chance to do [if I died]--to have children, get married and never seeing my mother again. Even breathing became an issue, because I remember when Sean got shot, I remember him just trying to stay alive. I literally had to talk him out of dying,” she says, her voice filled with melancholy.

Latifah’s upward Hollywood trajectory seems assured. Her performance in “Set It Off” should get attention, and she has higher aspirations for herself. She’ll continue to make records, “Living Single” has joined the lucrative syndication market and her management company Flavor Unit continues to sign hot acts. But acting in features is now her primary passion.

“This film business is a challenge to me,” she says. “I want to be De Niro. I want to be Pacino and Foster and Hanks--but black. And I’ve got to put in work to do that. . . . There’s always gonna be another wall to climb over, kick down, bust through or blow away. As long as life keeps going there and changing. I’ll never give it less than 100%.”


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