Stars shine on convention-goers


What's a national convention without a dash of Hollywood spice tossed into the mix?

Yesterday, those gathered for the NAACP's annual meeting at the Baltimore Convention Center got just that, when Hollywood hunk Billy Dee Williams and Marla Gibbs, formerly of TV's "The Jeffersons," dropped in to say hello. They were there to do what Hollywood stars do best - promote their latest project.

The two star in "The Visit," a new movie adapted from a play by Kosmond Russell that is scheduled to be released this fall. Convention-goers had a chance to attend a screening of the movie Monday at the Charles Theatre.

"I met the young man who put it all together," Williams said of writer/director/producer Jordan Walker-Pearlman. "The script just blew me away. It is a movie of substance. It wasn't a question about money. It's just a beautiful story, something to be proud of."

The film tells the story of a "troubled and angry" imprisoned man named Alex Waters (Hill Harper, from "City of Angels" and "He Got Game"). Waters, who is in jail for a crime he staunchly denies committing, reconnects with his older brother, family man and successful businessman Tony Waters (Obba Babatunde, from "Introducing Dorothy Dandridge" and "Miss Evers' Boys.")

The movie also stars Phylicia Rashad as a prison psychiatrist and Rae Dawn Chong as Waters' childhood friend, while Williams and Gibbs play Alex Waters' father and mother. Harper and Babatunde were also on hand at the convention yesterday.

"It is really a film about family, responsibility, healing, spirituality and changing," said Gibbs, who brought the character of Florence Johnston, the Jefferson family maid, to life on the old, highly rated television series. "It is something everybody in this country can understand, that there needs to be healing from within."

Before it goes into general release, the movie is being screened and promoted at different venues around the country, Walker-Pearlman said, to build word-of-mouth about it.

Officials with the NAACP Image Awards sponsored Walker-Pearlman's presentation at the national convention. The Image Awards are handed out annually to support positive images of African-Americans in the arts.

Despite the fact that one of the main characters is incarcerated, it is not a prison movie, Walker-Pearlman said. "It is a spiritual adventure, an emotional thriller, although it does have humor," he said.

While promoting the film was serious business for the actors and director, there was also plenty of good humor, as when Williams playfully, or rather cheekily, threw kisses to the crowd.

"This way, Billy Dee," one woman called out to him.

And there was plenty of star-gazing going on in the convention hall, especially by women of a certain age trying to get a close-up glimpse of Williams, the suave, 63-year-old leading man who has starred in such Hollywood hits as "Lady Sings the Blues," "Mahogany," "The Empire Strikes Back" and "Return of the Jedi." He and the other actors smiled patiently as convention-goers snapped photo after photo.

"I have a whole wall of his photos," Wilhelmenia Blue, 40, from Perry, Fla., said of Williams. "I've been collecting them since I was a teen-ager," she said as she snapped even more pictures for her collection.

Blue also had kind words to say about Gibbs. "I've seen everything she's been in, starting with "The Jeffersons," she said.

Sandra Littlejohn from Tulsa, Okla., could barely spare a minute to chat as she raced from one side of a convention booth to the other where Williams was standing. "There she goes," said her friend, April Henderson. "She's on a mission."

Littlejohn, who gave her age as "fortyish," snapped a few frames before she was satisfied. Mission accomplished, she smiled.

"I have been a fan forever," she said gazing at Williams. "Forever."

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