Queen Latifah is standing by a window in her corner office at Sony Pictures Studios, a bustling 45-acre campus carved into the Culver City section of Los Angeles. A 94-foot metal rainbow dominates what she sees from her desk. The sculpture was commissioned by Sony, partly in homage to The Wizard of Oz, which was filmed here in 1938, when the studio belonged to MGM. The new corporation also hoped that the rainbow would generate feelings of optimism in the latter-day munchkins toiling beneath it.
“Can’t hurt,” says Latifah. She points to the steeple of a venerable church across the street. “Who knows? I just might end up in there on rough days. On my knees.”
Despite her joking, there is no shortage of blue-sky optimism in this suite and on the two huge soundstages currently dedicated to launching The Queen Latifah Show, a new afternoon gabfest–road trip–variety hour that debuted September 16 on CBS. Carpenters are putting finishing touches on a lavish set while a full-time field-production unit is gearing up for a grueling schedule of nationwide location shoots with people doing inspiring things, from keeping inner-city kids in school to supporting veterans and their families.
All of it will be flavored with “the essence of La,” says Latifah’s friend Jada Pinkett Smith, now also her production partner. (The show is the joint venture of three companies: Sony; Latifah and Shakim Compere’s company, Flavor Unit; and Overbrook Entertainment, principally owned by James Lassiter and Will and Jada Pinkett Smith.) The two women were teenagers in 1988 when skinny little Jada—a hip-hop kid and dancer—was at a Baltimore club and first beheld the eye-popping phenom who called herself Latifah (the “Queen” came a bit later). “She was barefoot, wrapped in this African garb with the headpiece,” Pinkett Smith recalls. “I was so impressed with this black woman my age who was representing herself as an African queen. It was a bold statement in a very male-dominated industry.”
More than two decades later, Latifah and Pinkett Smith agree there’s nothing sweeter than merging the career successes that still astonish them both. On this TV project, Latifah is surrounded by a mature circle of those who know her best: Overbrook producer Miguel Melendez, who first proposed the weekday show; Compere, Latifah’s closest confidant and her 25-year business partner; and the Smiths. “These are my friends, who are self-made and have become big stars not just in front of the camera but behind it,” she says. “I love the idea of putting all of our brainpower together.”
This inner circle calls her La and assesses all aspects of the new show to make sure they have the Latifah DNA.
It’s so La.
That’s just not La.
“Do I think that she has the skill set and the spine?” says Pinkett Smith. “Absolutely. We felt she’s the only personality that could replace an Oprah. She gets to the heart of things, but she’s not heavy—like a good combination of an Oprah and an Ellen.”
New York Times television critic Alessandra Stanley isn’t as optimistic. She thinks it will be a challenge to -enter—and pull ahead in—a very crowded arena. “Queen Latifah is both regal and immensely likable, and that may prove to be her greatest weakness as a daytime talk show: She has universal appeal in a field that is increasingly niche focused,” says Stanley. “She isn’t nasty enough to compete with a saucy diva of dish like Wendy Williams. And there are already too many celebrities with a common touch: Katie Couric, Steve Harvey and, soon enough, Meredith Vieira. If she’s lucky, Queen Latifah could become a one-stop-shopping choice. But it’s just as easy to fall through the cracks.”