S2 E5 | Aunjanue Ellis
Black women have always played a pivotal role in the fight for freedom and equality. Names like Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth are commonplace in the studies of most American children. So, what happened to the legacy of Fannie Lou Hamer? In the latest episode of “Love & Respect with Killer Mike,” host Killer Mike spoke with Emmy and Oscar-nominated actress Aunjanue Ellis about her short film Fannie, paying homage to the mother who birthed tennis’ greatest legends Serena and Venus Williams, and the legacy of Black women finally demanding their dues.
In the short film, directed by Christine Swanson and released in January of this year, the celebrated actress plays the titular character. Considered the “Midwife of America’s Modern Democratic Party,” Hamer delivered a powerful testimony to the Democratic National Convention’s credentials committee on August 22, 1964. For many, this may be the first time they’re hearing the name “Fannie Lou Hamer,” a fact not lost on the film’s star. Ellis shares, “I’m well educated, and I never heard about Mrs. Hamer in a formal education environment, and I know I am not alone.” Diving into the history behind the woman who would force the Democratic Party to change was the role of a lifetime, and the actress was more than prepared for it.
Before she was a Brown University alumni or took on the film and stage world, Aunjanue Ellis and her family lived in Magnolia, Mississippi, a small, rural community where they owned a farm. Her hometown’s history of racism and division uniquely prepared Ellis to play the civil rights leader. She says, “There was a time in the early 60s when my town was called the ‘bombing capital of the world’ because there were so many bombings.” Similarly, Fannie Lou Hamer learned about homegrown violence at a young age when her family’s horses were poisoned, plunging them back into poverty. It was at this point, Ellis recounts, that Hamer began picking cotton. She says, “She was enticed into picking cotton … she started her cotton-picking career when she was 6 years old.” This experience made Hamer such a great leader; she was on the front lines and working in the fields, a unique position that other civil rights leaders didn’t occupy. Ellis shares, “She was a worker, that sets her apart. She had a particular kind of understanding of what that’s like. It’s a different job to speak for people and know their experience.”
This depth of experience, passion and insistence on being heard, even in the face of a deeply segregated and racist system, is why Fannie Lou Hamer’s story deserves to be told — but this isn’t the first historical Black figure Ellis has brought to life. In her Oscar-nominated role as Oracene “Brandy” Price in the 2021 film King Richard, she played the mother and coach of the Williams’ sisters. The stage actress challenged herself to tell a largely ignored story about how vital Price was to their success. Ellis says, “Once I found out she was also their coach, I wanted to tell her story … we don’t know this about this woman. That’s not right.” Ellis contends that Brandy Price is more than a mother — she’s a tennis genius and should be lauded for preparing the Williams sisters both physically and mentally for their historic careers.
The reoccurring theme in these characters is Black women who haven’t received their dues. Women who have to fight not only for their rights and humanity but also for their place in history. These stories, and many more, deserve space and recognition. Thankfully, actresses like Aunjanue Ellis and shows like “Love & Respect with Killer Mike” are more than willing to tell those stories.