I'm a firm believer that knowledge is the key to successfully conquering life endeavor. I don't mean knowledge as far as just being familiar with the materials, laws and rules that govern our lives but mastering them to use the knowledge to work in your favor.
As persons of color, of African descent, we were banned from getting a proper education. Of learning to read or even attending school. Our legal disenfranchisement has had an impact on individuals, communities -- and ultimately -- society at large.
African Americans have fought and died to gain the right to education. Our ancestors struggled to have access to the same resources their constituents had the right, the luxury, to enjoy.
Today, the struggle continues. Laws barring our enrollment in school no longer exist, but the lack of access to proper financial resources continues to be a challenge.
This is the story I keep in the forefront of my life, my children's lives and every young person I mentor. It is the reason I collect books and feel guilt if I do not read a minimum of one book every month. It is the very reason I keep an open mind about experiencing a variety of cultures each and every year and the reason my passport is put to great use.
The bottom line is that I appreciate the sacrifices of those who came before me, and for me. I never take my grandparents' and forefathers' struggles for granted, the struggles they endured for my freedom.
It is for this reason that when I hear the name Elise Neal I think, "Wow! Where to begin in telling how she has impacted our lives through her career?"
I was floored by her brilliant performance in John Singleton's film Rosewood where she starred opposite Ving Rhames, Don Cheadle and Jon Voight.
Hustle and Flow, The Hughleys, Paid in Full and Money Talks are just a few of her other acting credits.
Listing all the projects she has worked on is amazing in itself, and laced with irony considering Neal didn't want to become an actress at all. "I did not want to be an actress, my goal was to be the next Debbie Allen," she said. "I started taking dance lessons at six years old."
I doubt any of her success can be attributed to just luck or chance because she quite fittingly happens to also be brilliant, dedicated and is a precise visionary and philanthropist.
The two hours I spent with Neal were nothing short of amazing. I did not expect this young woman to give me such extraordinary insight into her life, her sense of drive and into Hollywood secrets. Secrets that every person of color, every minority should consider upon entering this field.
Neal has a profound understanding of how "the system" works within the entertainment industry. If you ever needed big sister advice on a career move, Neal is the mother ship of all advice!
"I get asked this a lot -- why are there people in Hollywood who aren't African American but still want to tell an African American story?" said Neal. "When you are trying to write a story, you need to tell about the life you know first and experience different lives, different cultures to maybe, possible tell their story."
Neal continues, "Movie making is about a system. If a Tyler Perry owns a studio, this is why you get what you get from Tyler, that's his experiences, that's his journey."
Beyond her Hollywood career and world travels as an entertainer, her name could very well become more known for the work of her foundations and schools as well as the contributions she has made to her hometown of Memphis, Tennessee.
Neal hopes to return next year to run a performing arts school where she can set the curriculum "so kids have a place that they can feel empowers them," she said. "I believe that being an entertainer from a young girl always kept not just my back straight, but my head in the right spot."
Making an impact in one's community is quite a big task to take on, especially when it involves children, families and complete strangers. But this Southern belle welcomes all the challenges it brings and she will continue to fight for the underdogs in her town because she is passionate about doing her part to give back to the community that raise her.
For now, her journey continues on the big screen with her latest role in Thomas Oliver's upcoming film, 1982, starring Sharon Leal, Wayne Brady, Ruby Dee, Bokeem Woodbine, Lala Valesquez, Hill Harper and introducing Troi Zee. Neal's role in 1982 will blow your mind because her character is unlike any of her previous roles.
"I love the script of the movie 1982," Neal said. "Because I don't like to play myself. I went in and I wanted to be the crackhead! It's kin of hard for people to buy that because they've seen me for so many years as something else.
I am sure the little girl in all of us dreamt of being a dancer or a performer one day. As we grew older, many of us changed our minds because we realized our strengths and talents lie in different areas or industries. But for all of you Elise Neals out there, may her story motivate you to pursue your dreams, follow your passion and use the road ahead to open doors for you.
"I understand why we as a culture, we being African American, would like to see more of ourselves but it's hard to be at the forefront of a movie making when we weren't in the forefront of the movie making industry," said Neal. "It's a lot of catching up we'll have to do."
I would like to take a moment to say "Bravo, Ms. Neal!" We look forward to your foundations, your schools and the grand legacy you are building for yourself.
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