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FALL SNEAKS | ROLE PLAYING

Latifah finds 'axi' just her kind of fare

The Role-reversal Buddy Film Suits An Actress Who Takes The Direct Route.

September 12, 2004|Nancy Ramsey | Special to The Times

New York — "I can't wait for this movie to come out, it's funny as hell," says Dana Owens, settling into a corner banquette in a midtown Manhattan restaurant to talk about "Taxi," in which she stars opposite Jimmy Fallon of "Saturday Night Live." "I love my performance in it, and I'm not saying that to be vain."

No, she's not, she's simply stating the way things are. After all, this is Queen Latifah, a.k.a. Dana Elaine Owens from Newark, N.J., who signed with Tommy Boy Records at age 17; released "All Hail the Queen," the first feminist rap album, two years later; received a Grammy Award in 1994; and, winning the role of prison matron Mama Morton in "Chicago" over Kathy Bates, Bette Midler and Rosie O'Donnell, became the first rapper nominated for an Academy Award.

In "Taxi," Queen Latifah's 22nd movie role since her cameo in Spike Lee's "Jungle Fever" (1991), she plays Belle Williams, the fastest cabdriver in New York City. Soon after she gets her license, Belle is hailed by Andy Washburn (Fallon), an undercover cop who is as nerdy and inept as Belle is hip and capable. A bank holdup is in progress, the robbers are leaving the scene, and Belle has carte blanche to drive as fast as she wants in pursuit of the thieves -- a sexy quartet of Brazilian women. Based on a French hit movie, this "Taxi" is a chick flick, a role-reversal buddy film.

Working with Fallon "was a blast, that dude is crazy," says Latifah, dressed casually in jeans, black patent-leather flip-flops, a magenta and green silk top, and silver filigree drop earrings. Her long hair is pulled straight back, highlighting her warm smile, striking cheekbones and large, pretty features.

It's early on the Friday afternoon before Labor Day, and the city is emptying out: The natives are leaving for the last long weekend of summer; the Republicans, their convention over, are returning home. Before settling into the restaurant, Latifah stepped out onto a side street for a quick photo shoot. Since dropping a reported 30 pounds and having a breast reduction, Latifah (she says she picked her name because it means delicate, kind and sensitive in Arabic) is now a less imposing figure than she was during her rapper days, but she still can sport a strong swagger, which softens as policemen and tourists stop her for her autograph or ask her to pose with them for a picture.

"I really am a car girl," she confesses. She and her older brother used to take their motorcycles out for a spin, but he died in a crash on his cycle, a gift from his sister, in the early 1990s at age 23. She thinks of him often, her guardian angel: "My brother got me out of a lot of tickets," she says, laughing, "he was a cop." But when she gets a ticket, "I curse him out. Luckily we had such a crazy relationship that now I can crack jokes. And every time I get on a motorcycle, I think of him, 'Come on, we're gonna take this ride.' "

Latifah owns three cars: a 2004 Aston Martin, a '71 Oldsmobile Cutlass and a Mercedes. The last is a given -- she is a very wealthy woman -- but it's the Aston Martin, a birthday gift from business partner Sha-Kim Compere, whom she's known since high school, that fires her jets.

Speaking about her character, "Belle has the same needs and wants of most women, but she has a different way of doing things," she says. "She was raised by her grandparents. Her grandmother kept her in dresses, while her grandpa taught her all about race cars and took her to his bar where she was buddy-buddies with everybody." Latifah pauses, smiling in affection for Belle. "I designed all this extra stuff" -- the back story -- she confides.

"She's no-nonsense and common-sense, there's a natural down-to-earthness about her, and did I mention Belle has a hell of a sense of humor?" Sound familiar?

Ever since the release of "All Hail the Queen" in 1989, Latifah has been able to compete with the men at their own level, and then raise it one: When the boys from the hood were rapping and knocking women with disrespectful lyrics,, Queen Latifah emerged with "Ladies First": "Some think that we can't flow / Stereotypes they got to go." Mixing the rhythms of rap with blues, jazz, reggae, African chants and Latin disco rhythms, Latifah sang about the empowerment of women. In her video for "Ladies First," photographs of Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Winnie Mandela and Angela Davis provided a backdrop. And she can be funny as all get out: In "Fly Girl," she countered the dumb lines men use to pick up women with "You must be mad! / Easy lover, something that I ain't / Besides, I don't know you from a can of paint."

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