This past weekend, Lifetime introduced viewers to ambitious photography major Kendra (Ajiona Alexus, pictured at top) as she embarked on college life at an HBCU in North Carolina in the film Mary J. Blige's Real Love. Born from Lifetime's recent partnership with Blige, and which uses music by the Grammy® Award-winning and Academy® Award-nominated artist, actress and producer as its backdrop, Real Love was Blige's first top ten single. According to the star, "I wrote Real Love based on my real-life experiences and my fans connected to it in a deeply personal way." It also marked the first in the series of Lifetime movies under the Blige banner. This weekend the network is furthering Kendra's story with Mary J. Blige's Strength of a Woman, which picks up 15 years after the events of the first film.
Following her brutal sexual assault while in college, Kendra has recovered from the traumatic experience and is now a successful Chicago-based photographer. She's married and eager to start a family, with Ben (Da'Vinchi) -- the first love we met in Real Love -- now a fond memory. However, when her life takes another unexpected turn, she finds herself questioning wedded bliss to Kevin (Hamza Fouad). That only escalates after Ben unexpectedly reappears. For Alexus (who was handpicked by Blige), knowing she had two movies and a decent time span in which to really explore the character was a gift.
"[These] movies were both equally fun because they're just so different," she recently shared while promoting the project. "I think what drew me to the projects is they were two different films. In one, I was younger in college, so it had more of an uppity, vibrant feel, and [Kendra] was a little naive. Whereas in Strength of a Woman, she's 15 years older and going through the process of having to be more responsible [and] make responsible choices.
"On the first set, I loved that you could tell the vibe," she continued. "Me and Princess (Davis, who portrays best friend Terry) on the first movie were so giggly all the time. But then when we got to Strength of a Woman, it was the same, but we had just more of a stern feeling with each other. Also, we had our director Sherry, who definitely brought her seriousness to the project as well."
For both Alexus and Davis, turning back time to the 1990s in that first film was a joy, as was their research. "When I got the part, I definitely studied the '90s a lot and [especially] the dance moves," laughed Davis. "I listened to a lot of Mary J. Blige and watched her music videos along with Missy Elliott. It reminded me of my mom because we used to like dancing to Mary J. So, this definitely connected me to my mother, and being a kid growing up listening to R&B and what grounded me."
"It was fun for me, too, because I'm always saying I'm such an old soul," concurred Alexus. "I grew up on all the '90s things that you can think of. Before starting filming, I watched a lot of Janet Jackson, like in Poetic Justice, Nia Long and Jada Pinkett. When I watch Real Love(pictured below), it's just so dear to my heart because I feel like you can see parts and pieces of all that in it, and we definitely need that in our generation right now. So, it was so fun to be a part of."
That's not to say both projects didn't come without some pressure, especially for Alexus, who as Kendra endures some serious life hurdles. "I think for me it was the importance and it wasn't a challenge," she shared. "Something I was just cautious about is the sensitive topics and issues surrounding both movies. We touch on sexual assault, substance abuse and aging parents. Knowing I would be the voice for a lot of women that haven't had a voice in the past, I think I wanted to just make sure I was representing them as real as possible, and in a light [of] letting them feel they have help. Like they're being seen and heard and just being sensitive towards people that actually have been through [similar] traumatic events in their life and how they're overcoming [them]."
With both films exploring the complicated facets of maintaining long friendships and dealing with life's complications, Alexus is hopeful both films might provide inspiration from her character. "I think there are so many things you can take from Strength of a Woman," she pondered. "In life, you never stop figuring out what it is, or troubles never stop coming your way. We do see another phase of Kendra being older, more established, and more successful, but just because she's more successful in life doesn't mean the problems stop. You see her just take on more of her strength.
"And it never stops," she added in closing. "I think [Kendra] is the definition of resilience and bouncing back. Even when she's going through stuff from college to now, she's always pursuing her dreams and goals. You see her balance all of that, and that's where you see the strength in a Black woman for sure."
Mary J. Blige's Strength of a Woman will be telecast Saturday, June 17 at 8:00 p.m. following an encore presentation of Mary J. Blige's Real Love at 6 p.m. on Lifetime.
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