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Six Great Performances By Black Actors In 2013

Features
by Zeba Blay
December 19, 2013 6:40 PM
20 Comments
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Uzo Aduba as Suzanne ‘Crazy Eyes’ Warren in ‘Orange is the New Black’

In the past few months there has been some discussion about whether 2013 marked a “renaissance” in that hard-to-pin-down genre known as “black film”. It’s been established, of course, that while we did get movies like The Butler, Baggage Claim, Best Man Holiday and 12 Years a Slave, to lump all those films under ghettoizing terms, like, for instance, “race-themed,” was to ignore the diversity in the kinds of stories being told, and ultimately downplay the fact that we actually still have a very long way to go. 

There are movies telling black stories, our stories, that I’ve loved this year, films that have easily found a spot on my "best of" lists, including Let the Fire Burn, La Pirogue, and Fruitvale Station. But for me, 2013 was an important year not in the volume of projects starring black people (as earlier revealed only 7% of the films released this year were “black films”), but in the number of great performances across both film and TV. Again, we’re not “there” yet, but still, something must be said for the dynamic characters and featured players that emerged in 2013. 

Below is a list, in no particular order, of some of the performers who stood out.

Idris Elba as Nelson Mandela in ‘Mandela: A Long Walk to Freedom’

Apparently, before he died, Nelson Mandela got to see a cut of Mandela: A Long Walk To Freedom and asked, “Is that me?” as he watched Idris Elba playing him. It’s a high compliment to an actor who himself has admitted that physically, his casting as the iconic South African figure was a bit of a stretch. While the film itself is flawed, Elba’s take on Madiba is perhaps the most effective, as compared to actors Terrence Howard and Morgan Freeman. He may look drastically unlike Mandela, but the care that Elba took to imitate the former president’s accent, even the tenor of his voice, is more than impressive. And where Freeman and Howard represent the more benign qualities of Mandela’s international persona, Elba, as only he can, has been able to convey the swagger and the gravitas that drew so many to the anti-apartheid cause. He’s Mandela not as the kindly grandfather figure but as the young, brash, and impassioned activist willing to fight for his freedom by any means necessary.

Angela Bassett as Marie Laveau in ‘American Horror Story: Coven’

In October, I expressed some concerns over the handling of race and the legacy of slavery on Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story: Coven. The biggest fear was that the real-life history of Madame LaLaurie (Kathy Bates) would be downplayed or ignored in the process of somehow redeeming her. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened. And in that process of turning the racist, slave-torturing LaLaurie into a kindly old lady who just made some mistakes, the two black characters on the show, Queenie and Marie Laveau, have become outcasts and villains. I’m not even going to begin to unpack my biggest issues with their treatment here, but I will say this: Angela Bassett continues to prove that she is a badass and a phenomenal actress. If one peruses the “Coven” tag on Tumblr, you may see a lot of gifs of the now infamous “Surprise, bitch, I bet you thought you’d seen the last of me!” line, but equally as popular are gifs of Bassett’s epic delivery of just two words: “Disrespectin’ me.” The delivery is kind of emblematic of her entire run on this season: taking a mediocrely written character and squeezing out what dregs of substance and complexity that she can. While Jessica Lange has often been the standout in previous seasons, it’s Bassett as the cool, calculating Laveau who truly shines in an array of stellar female performances.

Michael B. Jordan as Oscar Grant in ‘Fruitvale Station’

“We [black men] are America’s pitbull,” Michael B. Jordan said in a recent interview with Oprah, referencing a brief but poignant scene in Fruitvale Station where his character Oscar Grant comes across an injured dog. The scene is one of many moments of tenderness we see, combating the idea of the hardened, “angry” black man.Jordan explained: “We're labeled vicious, inhumane and left to die on the street. Oscar was kind of left for dead. So many of us young African-American males are left for dead." It’s that kind of insight that makes Jordan’s portrayal of real-life figure Oscar Grant so important.

While in many ways Fruitvale Station and Jordan’s performance have been slightly overshadowed by rival “black films” The Butler and 12 Years a Slave, the immediacy and relevance of Jordan as Grant must be emphasized. Oscar Grant’s story is in many ways a continuation of the story that begins with Solomon Northup, and as in 12 Years A Slave, Jordan’s determination to honestly capture the humanity of Grant, both the lights and the darks, marks one of the best performances by a young black actor in years. Through Oscar he forces us to meditate not on the racist past of this country, but, in the age of Trayvon Martins and Kenisha McBrides, the realities of racism in this country’s present.

Nicole Beharie as Lieutenant Abbie Mills in ‘Sleepy Hollow’

Early on two things about Fox’s Sleepy Hollow were clear. One, that its premise is pretty ridiculous. Two, that it actually works in spite of the ridiculous premise, making for a fun little supernatural series. But the show also gets props for having five major recurring characters played by people of color, one of them of course being Nicole Beharie as Lieutenant Abbie Mills. Beharie is special in this role not just because she was the only other lead black actress on a network show this year other than Kerry Washington. She’s special because she’s a lead black actress on a genre TV show, despite the long tradition of tokenizing, excluding, and abusing black women in many genre properties (see Coven, the Stark Trek reboot, True Blood, The Vampire Diaries). In Sleepy Hollow, with her excellent chemistry opposite co-star Tom Mison, Beharie is strong, funny, vulnerable and, yes, even sassy. It’s refreshing to see a black actress get to be all these things over the course of a series. It’s refreshing that her race and gender are neither ignored nor overemphasized. And most of all it’s refreshing that her bond with the male lead is not based on a foundation of hyped up romantic drama, but mutual respect and genuine affection.

Lupita Nyong’o as Patsey in ‘12 Years a Slave’

12 Years a Slave is Solomon Northup’s story, it’s Chiwetel Ejiofor’s film, and while he has deservedly gotten much attention and accolades for his portrayal of the free man sold into slavery, it can be argued that Kenyan newcomer Lupita Nyong’o’s performance truly defines this film. Perhaps more than any other character in the piece, Patsey presents an almost palpable representation of the misery of slavery. With Solomon, we’re watching the equally engrossing process of a man battling for his sanity and his soul. In Patsey we see someone who has ultimately lost that battle.

It’s a character that on paper is all agony, all pain, but what makes Nyong’o’s performance so significant and so very deserving of all the praise it’s getting is that somehow, amidst the misery, she made the choice to imbue Patsey with an ever present sense of lightness. We see it in several places, in that look on her face as she sits in a field quietly making dolls and humming to herself. It’s not just that now infamous shot of her back that makes the role so important - it’s everything that happens around it. Nyong’o plays Patsey not as a stock “slave” character. She plays her as a human being.

Uzo Aduba as Suzanne ‘Crazy Eyes’ Warren in ‘Orange is the New Black’

Perhaps the most frustrating thing about Julianne Hough’s racist and seriously misguided use of blackface in her Halloween costume this year, other than the whole racist part, was what an affront it was to the spirit of the much loved character Suzanne ‘Crazy Eyes’ Warren on Netflix’s breakout hit, Orange is the New Black. When we first meet Suzanne, as with many of the characters in this imperfect but promising comedy drama, she’s painted simply as Piper Chapman’s insane stalker who throws pies and pees on floors, but there are layers to Suzanne that Aduba reflects beautifully. It’s not just her aesthetic, the tiny bantu knots and bugged out eyes and hunched posture that for people like Hough are the beginning and end of of character. It’s the way she talks, the way at moments she’ll give us glimpses of a kind of sanity and certainly depth. It’s in the delivery of lines like, “Sometimes the feelings inside me get messy like dirt. And I like to clean things. And the dirt is the feelings. The floor is my mind.” The character has been treated as a sort of novel curiosity because of her physical and emotional idiosyncratic, but there’s nothing novel about the bravery and honesty with which Aduba approaches her.


Zeba Blay is a Ghanaian-born film and culture writer based in New York.. She has written for the Huffington Post, Africa Style Daily, Slant Magazine, and Film Quarterly. She co-hosts the weekly podcast Two Brown Girls, and runs a personal movie blog, Film Memory. Follow her on Twitter @zblay.

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20 Comments

  • Accidental Visitor | December 22, 2013 5:53 PMReply

    And in typical fashion for this site, we must always, with such lists, do our best to underrepresent the males.

    Ejiofor is in ever scene in 12 Years a Slave, he carries that movie on his back, has gotten nearly all the acclaim and accolades one can hope for. But he can't get no love while Lupita does? Get the ::bleep:: out of here with that nonsense. At the very LEAST both performers should have been mentioned. (By the way.....Elba and no Ejiofor? Come on).

    While Anglas Bassett is indeed a great actress how in the world does her work on Amercan Horror Story trump anything by Ejiofor? How does she even top what was done by I. Washington and T. Richmonsd in Blue Caprice? Did you see that movie?

    Beharie is a terrific performer too but was her work in "fluff" Sleepy Hollow any more worthy of praise than her co-star Chadwick Boseman's work in the "fluff" 42? And don't forget that Don Cheadle has been doing outstanding work in the uneven and underwatched House of Lies (surely as good as anything Bassett had done in AHS) . Where was his mention?

    Plenty of sites this past year went out of their way to praise Derek Luke's work on "The Americans", but there was zero recognition of his performance for that show on this site. Therefore I'm not surprised he didn't make the list since apparently S&A wasn't paying attention. Meanwhile the early critic consensus has been that Michael Ealy is the best thing about "Almost Human". Not a great show by any sretch but neither is Sleepy Hollow. Surely if one is aware of Sleepy Hollow then one must also be aware of Almost Human which airs just before it.

    Did you not happen to catch Jeffrey Wright on Boardwalk Empire these past few months? Frankly there is plenty of outstanding acting done by he multiple black men and women for season four of that show (same for Treme), but Wright in particular was a standout.

    Nothing for LaKeith (Keith) Stanfield for his showing in Short Term 12? S&A as a site seemed unaware of that guy's work in that film? Nothing for Forest Whitaker's role in "The Butler"? Nothing for David Oyelowo either? Granted Oyelowo's role didn't call for anything great but, I have to keep coming back to this, neither did Bassett's role in AHS! At least you didn't exclude Whitaker and Oyelowo while awarding Oprah, as you did in regards to Ejiofor and Nyong'o in 12 Years. What about that dude in Captain Phillips whose name escapes me at this moment? Terence Howard may be a creep but he was impressive in Prisoners.

    Of coursein my opinion there were a handful of women who deserved to be on the list at least as much as a couple of the folks you chose. Viola Davis was outstanding in Prisoners, O. Spencer was superlative in Fruitvale, both Danai Gurira and Ya Ya Alafia were terrific in Mother of George, Naomi Harris was great in Mandela (to name a few).

    The truth is that this year there were more outstanding opportunities in both TV and film for black performers than we have seen in a long time. This includes many works that I have yet to name such as Low Winter Sun, Newlyweeds, The Inevitable Defeat of Mister & Pete, etc. In such a year it would seem to be a crime to limit acknowledgment to six people (such a random number anyway). But this is compounded when you consider that for the first time in a few years there was especially a strong number of standout performances by black males, a quantity that has not been seen for awhile by that particular demographic. And yet you could only find room for two.

  • CareyCarey | December 22, 2013 7:33 PM

    HEAR-HEAR!

    This was a great well-written argument, that holds a wealth of merit. Good job AV. It's about time someone at this site (writers & readers) gives the men some.

    But in fairness to Zeba Blay (the author) her mission in this post was simple. As she said "Below is a list, in no particular order, of SOME of the performers who stood out." She did not say her list represented the "best" performances of the year. Also, I believe Zeba's list was merely a smoke screen - of sorts - for her to speak on (unpack some of her) deeper issues of concern. In that regard, she did an excellent job. I heard her messages on "racists"... and the affronts to black characters... and her concerns over the handling of race and the legacy of slavery, etc.

  • S Brooks | December 22, 2013 3:00 AMReply

    The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete

  • Bklyn Negress | December 21, 2013 7:23 AMReply

    Uzo Aduba is an interesting choice considering I think Laverene Cox as Sophia is the best performance on the show.

  • Ava | December 20, 2013 8:39 PMReply

    Would've loved to see Mahershala Ali's performance as an utterly ruthless lobbyist dripping with charm in House of Cards get a mention somewhere.

  • Mimiluv | December 20, 2013 8:22 PMReply

    This list is weak sauce. This years great performances by black actors was longer than 6.

  • Lilly | December 20, 2013 7:49 PMReply

    Danai Gurira in Mother of George should be on this list. I like Nicole Beharie, but if someone on the list had to be removed and replaced, Danai should replace Nicole on the list. Mother of George was a great film and had a wonderful black lead actress. It should be on this list over Sleepy Hollow.

  • Alias | December 20, 2013 4:03 PMReply

    Yes, Joe Morton is outrageously awesome in "Scandal." And I agree Michael Ealy plays the role of an android really, really well. They make each of their shows "must see viewing," and I cannot wait for Feb. 27 to see what Rowan will do next now that he's been booted from B13.

  • ao | December 20, 2013 3:53 PMReply

    Great choices but what about Isaiah Washington and Tequan Richmond in "Blue Caprice"? They were both incredible delivering unforgettable performances of blooded-chilling murderers without retreating to caricature. If Hollywood and the Oscars were fair, they would both be on every award nomination list.

  • Ashley | December 20, 2013 1:59 PMReply

    I look forward to watching Sleepy Hollow because of Ms. Beharie and the humanity she brings to a preposterous premise. It is the only TV show I actively follow for now.

  • fyere | December 20, 2013 12:19 PMReply

    Michael Ealy is also really great as the heart of 'Almost Human.' Tricky to play an android, but he hits all the perfect notes: not too robotic, not too innocent, mysterious but in a warm, lovable way rather than a creepy way, and plays beautifully off grumpy Karl Urban.

  • nichola | December 20, 2013 5:07 AMReply

    Joe Morton is the truth

  • TJR | December 19, 2013 10:06 PMReply

    But fahrealdoe, this list is missing the South African sign language interpreter. :)

  • Rick | December 19, 2013 7:44 PMReply

    Personally I think Sleepy Hollow is terrible. Uzo was very memorable but I thought Michelle Hurst and Vicky Jeudy gave better performances than Orange is the New Black

  • Ashley | December 19, 2013 7:01 PMReply

    YES for ALL choices!!!! Uzo was so refreshing, she gave a beautiful mix of comedy and drama. I can't wait to see what's next for her.

  • BANTA | December 19, 2013 6:53 PMReply

    i vote for Danai Guriora in Mother of george!

  • Lana | December 19, 2013 6:45 PMReply

    This is list is great, but it is missing Joe Morton in Scandal.

  • Darkan | December 20, 2013 2:40 AM

    I meant *Lupita*

  • Darkan | December 20, 2013 2:39 AM

    Yes Joe Morton in Scandal for sure. He called Fitz a boy! Daddy Pope for president. Nicole is horrible in Sleepy Hollow. She's trying her best to mimic Kerry Washington's Olivia Pope physical mannerisms. So bad. Lipitor didn't drop one tear in neary a scene, can't believe no one has mentioned that besides herself. Smdh.

  • Onyx | December 19, 2013 9:05 PM

    Agreed, Joe Morton is excellent as daddy Pope.

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