Even as a fifth grader in suburban Minneapolis, Kimberly Elise knew she wanted to be an actress. But she didn't know how. "So I wrote a letter to the Fix-It column of the newspaper and asked them," says Elise, now 31. "They told me all the steps to take," including getting a head shot and finding an agent. What they couldn't tell her was how to overcome the subtle racism she would later encounter at the nearly all-white Wayzata High School. "I always won best actress in my acting class," says Elise, "but they wouldn't cast me in school plays. It would be, 'How can we cast you as the sister? You're black.' "

And proud of it. Oprah Winfrey, who portrays an ex-slave in Jonathan Demme's screen adaptation of Toni Morrison's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Beloved, needed just one look. Explains Winfrey, who plays Elise's mother in the film: "I saw a photo of her and believed she could be my daughter." For her part, Elise—who made her film debut in 1996's Set It Off—felt "it was my destiny" to play her character, Denver. Like Denver, Elise—-one of four children of Marvin Trammel, owner of an executive search firm, and Erma, a third-grade teacher—felt isolated outside her home. "It wasn't like kids said, 'Let's leave her out,' " she says. "They didn't see me to begin with."

But the graduate of L.A.'s renowned American Film Institute is not one to feel self-pity. Expecting her second child with her husband, photographer Maurice Oldham, this month, the mother of Aja, 8, feels even more emboldened by Beloved. "If I come from a people who can escape slavery pregnant and barefoot," she says, "then what can I not do?"