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The Un-sudden Stardom of Leslie Jones

Leslie-Jones-Ghostbusters

A comedy veteran breaks through in the Ghostbusters reboot...

Jones had come recommended by Chris Rock, at the tail end of a six-year period in which there wasn’t a single black woman in SNL’s cast. 

“You’re everything we weren’t looking for.” That’s how Saturday Night Live czar Lorne Michaels broke the news to Leslie Jones that, after a year working behind the scenes on the weekly comedy institution, she was being promoted from writer to cast member.

Jones had come recommended by Chris Rock, at the tail end of a six-year period in which there wasn’t a single black woman in SNL’s cast. The producers, having been called out on the show’s lack of diversity, were actively looking to fix this. By 2014, they’d found two women: twentysomething Sasheer Zamata (typically charged with parodying Beyoncé, Tyra Banks, and Lupita Nyong’o), and Leslie Jones, a six-foot-tall, then 47-year-old former college basketball star who’d been trying to break out of the stand-up niche she’d been chipping away at for 25 years.

 ‘I think she’s one of our Ghostbusters...’

In less than six months, SNL did for Jones what her 2010 Showtime comedy special, Problem Child, and multiple HBO Def Comedy Jam appearances couldn’t. It gained her the attention of mainstream Hollywood. Seeing her in a “Weekend Update” sketch, director Paul Feig came away with the inverse of Michaels’ impression. Jones, he knew, was exactly who he was looking for. In early 2016, he told The New Yorker, “Before her segment was over, I said to my wife, ‘I think she’s one of our Ghostbusters.’ ”

Landing a major role in a big-budget comedy carries obvious pressure for a relative newcomer to fame, but Jones’ Ghostbusters gig came with additional baggage: an online crowd of mouth-breathing cave-dwellers who had never been as affronted as they were by the idea of an all-female ghostbusting team. There was also a constructive, nuanced kind of criticism objecting to the fact that among four main characters — the others played by Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, and Kate McKinnon — Jones played the only one who wasn’t a scientist.

‘You have to wear a dress onstage. You need to be more feminine...'

The controversy isn’t uncharted territory for the actor. Jones is acutely aware of the limitations that race and gender have had on her career in the entertainment industry. “There was a time where I knew I was as funny as many dudes, but I had people telling me: ‘You have to wear a dress onstage. You need to be more feminine,’ ” she told the Los Angeles Times last summer. “When my brother passed away … I made a decision that I might die soon, and if I die, I want people to know who I really am.”

And so, she’s not sorry that her big break doesn’t look like some people want it to. In her eyes, her Ghostbusters transit worker is on equal footing with Wiig’s physicist, McKinnon’s engineer, and McCarthy’s researcher — it’s a four-person team and every player is key. If you have a problem with her playing a blue collar everywoman instead of a particle physicist, don’t tweet about it to Leslie Jones. And if the new Ghostbusters movie “ruined your childhood” (as so many hyperbole-prone social media trolls whined), keep that to yourself, too. Jones isn’t interested in taking on that load.

 ‘Woah! She is in a big movie! A superhero in a BLOCKbuster.’

“It’s everyone else’s hang-up,” she said in a July interview with British newspaper The Guardian. “It can’t be my hang-up. … Back in the day, the last page of Jet magazine was a guide to all the times black people were going to be on TV, because we were hardly on TV and we needed to see and support our people when we were. My parents and grandparents would have been: ‘Woah! She is in a big movie! A superhero in a BLOCKbuster.’ Why wouldn’t you be dancing in the street?”

For someone like Jones, to whom success came slowly, the impulse to celebrate rather than scrutinize that triumph seems justifiable. She got to where she is, after decades of dedication, by being who she is. What does she owe audiences for that? Certainly not an apology.

Corrina Allen writes for TheLoop.ca.