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Friday, June 3, 2011

Salli Richardson Whitfield- An inspiration and Muse to a Black Freelance Writer

Actress Salli Richardson-Whitfield has been a muse to my writing for many years. From her voice over work in Disney’s Gargoyles to her performances in films like How U Like Me Now, Posse, A Low Down Dirty Shame, and Black Dynamite, her work has inspired many of the characters in the stories I’ve written and showed me that it’s possible for Black performers to do work that’s unique, distinct and out of the box.


My first exposure to Salli Richardson-Whitfield's work was watching the Disney animated series Gargoyles after I graduated college in 1994. I was always a big fan of fantasy and science fiction, but it made me proud when I learned that the two leads for the Disney animated series voice-overs were African-American. Up until recently it was very rare that any animated studio hired African-American actors for voice-over work, and for any person of color to get a job in this field meant they were exceptionally talented. Salli's multidimensional portrayal of Detective Elisa Maza on Disney’s Gargoyles had heart soul and passion, and conveyed more emotions than on the surface of the animated cels. She had incredible chemistry with co-star Keith David on that series, and their acting with just voices was so strong I felt like I was watching a live action drama at times.

Salli’s voice work on Gargoyles showed me that it was possible for an African-American female character to carry the lead in a fantasy/science fiction television series. Watching that series and reading Milestone comics back then made me believe that it was possible for an African-American to write Science fiction and fantasy stories. More importantly, it made me believe it was possible for an African-American to write fantasy and science fiction stories with brothers and sisters in the lead roles.

The sophisticated presence, charismatic personality, and intelligence  Salli conveyed in her performances inspired me to create E’steem the evil she-demon who antagonized  Isis. I always felt that Salli’s articulate intelligent way of speaking lent itself to a charming, cunning villainess, not unlike Disney’s Ursula, Cruella DeVil, or Maleficent. Why not a hero? For most of her career. Salli has played the hero in most of her movie and TV appearances. And that wouldn’t be anything new for me to write. Besides, A well, crafted heel carries the storyline to the climax. They’re the characters we remember most. And E’steem was one of my best villains. As I was writing Isis in 1999, I often imagined Salli Richardson’s E’steem going head-to-head with Halle Berry’s Isis.

Inspiration struck me again a few years later when I caught a repeat of Salli’s guest appearance on The Jamie Foxx Show. Seeing a short-haired Richardson in that episode helped me flesh out the character of Cassandra Lee. I’d been struggling with developing her for a couple of years until I caught that rerun. When I saw her with that short haircut and portraying a cuter, playful and softer character it gave me the idea for the cute pixie-haired baker who lived in Brooklyn.

Watching her performances, I always saw the potential for great comedic talent in Richardson, but no one in Hollywood ever took a chance on it. I always felt a quirky style of comedy be a good fit for Richardson’s acting and a great way to show off the comic talents. I was proven right when she displayed her comic skills years later in the Eureka series on Syfy. As I was writing Cassandra, I often imagined Richardson handling business in her own sophisticated way in that whimsical story about a Downtown Brooklyn Bakery.

Watching more of Richardson’s complex and multidimensional portrayals of her characters in films like How U Like Me Now, Posse, Sioux City, and her later work on shows like NYPD Blue was one of the reasons I was motivated to resurrect the E’steem character after she was killed in Isis. Appreciating the nuances in her work in those films made me eager to write a more complex character that had more depth and layers and a storyline with more subtext. As I wrote The Temptation of John Haynes I made the E’steem character less a fantasy character and more human and multidimensional, someone the reader could identify with and relate to. While I was writing the book I would imagine the scenes in the story transpiring like live theater with Richardson playing off Will Smith’s John Haynes and Keith David’s Lucifer. 

I’ve never met Salli Richardson-Whitfield, but her work has had a profound impact on me and the stories I’ve written. Whenever she's onscreen I always enjoy her work; her acting is often consistently strong and she virtually disappears into any character she portrays onscreen. I’ve always felt she was one of the best actresses of her generation and deserved more acclaim than she’s received. I’m hoping larger audiences of brothers and sisters will come to appreiciate her body of work filled with a diversity of unique roles and complex multidimensional performances.


  1. Shawn, thank you for giving us this wonderful portrait of Salli Richardson-Whitfield, your inspiration and muse. This is one more instance of how we're going to have to think and get out of the box as African Ameicans. Without our doing this, the world will simply move on beyond and without us. Need I say, we will be the losers.

    Blogs like this can help our people see what can be done and is being done to further our cause in ways that may not be so obvious.

    This blog was one of your most delightful. I enjoy them all, but some stand out sharply in my memory and Salli Richardson-Whitfield's is most memorable.

    Keep it up, Shawn. Do keep it up!

  2. Shawn, I really enjoyed your article! And I have to say I also like the first comment, by Ms Francine Craft. This is a great blog spot.

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  4. Thanks for all the kind words. I felt I had to write something about her because her work inspired so much of my writing over the years.

  5. I know I'm late, but thank you for this blog post! I keep going back and forward regarding who I love more- Salli Richardson-Whitfield or Halle Berry. I wish Salli had more screen time. I try to see everything she is in. I'm glad to know someone besides me admires Salli.

  6. I have most of Salli's movies on DVD and I'm eagerly waiting for Pastor Brown to come to DVD.

  7. Me too, Shawn. I still have the movie saved on my DVR list from when it was first on tv.