Split Decision: Unsung Performances from Black Actresses
Welcome back to Split Decision! Each week, we pose a question to our staff of knowledgable and passionate film geeks and share the responses! We may never know if it is legal to park in the center of Broad Street, but we’ll answer movie questions all day long. Chime in on Twitter, Facebook, or in the comments below!
This week’s question:
In honor of Black History Month, what is your favorite undersung performance by a black actress?
All hail Queen Latifah who can take a conventional romantic comedy, Last Holiday and infuse it with heart and sass. Don't dismiss this simple film; Latifah gets to express a range of real emotions and the film is a terrific showcase for her talents. I also greatly admire Adepero Oduye who ompressed the hell out of me in Pariah. While she only had one scene in the recent Galveston, Oduye was searing in it.
Bridesmaids is Kristen Wiig's movie, and Melissa McCarthy used it to launch her career as a film star, but Maya Rudolph is the glue. I could have spent a week trying to think of my favorite underrated performance by a black actress, but she's the person I pictured first and she's just so damn good in Bridesmaids that I didn't bother fighting the impulse to write about her here. Rudolph plays Wiig's best friend as a person who's maturing in mostly great ways while being led a little astray by Rose Byrne's attention-hungry new friend character. She's hilarious and she's the most put-together character in the movie, but she also does a great job playing more complicated scenes where she occasionally recognizes the way she's failing her friend, the way her friend is failing her, and the ways her world is changing for better and worse.
And when I said I pictured Maya Rudolph's Bridesmaids performance first, I should note that I specifically pictured her walking through the street in a giant dress, shitting herself. I can talk about her emotional range, but I also need to talk about how she shits herself in the middle of a street. She's the best.
Angela Bassett in Strange Days. Not only is she always a fantastic actress, but here she gets to go full cyberpunk and kick lots of ass. She also gets a true storyline of her own, and a more thoroughly drawn out interior, emotional arc than a lot of black roles typically get in Hollywood.
We recently did a "Women in Horror" list on I Like to Movie Movie, and as I built mine I realized that Naomi's Harris gives an absolutely fantastic performance in 28 Days Later... that no one really ever talks about. Let's change that!
When Jim first wakes up in a rage virus-torn land, it's Harris' Selena that gives the exposition and sets the tone for how someone interested in survival must behave. When her friend Mark is infected at the outset, she wastes no time taking him down, even before he turns. She doesn't waste a second hemmin or hawing over the ethics of the situation, instead coldly taking care of business.
But she's not soulless either. Her bond with young Hannah is one of the highlights of the film. During the final act when it becomes clear that, at least for the women of the group, rage zombies are a secondary concern, it's Selena who finds humanity in a terrible place. Of course she doesn't want to be raped by the platoon of army men, but she's also not about to start killing healthy humans. She even gives Hannah pain killers under the auspices that it'll make the young woman "not care." It's heartbreaking stuff, and she sells it with a level of badass agency not typically afforded to women with similar functions in a horror script. Even less so for black women.
Fortunately for the entire party of protagonists, it's the greed of the military which ultimately brings them down, but even if it hadn't, you get the sense that Selena was going to come out on top anyway. At the center of a truly cruel narrative, her soul - her presence- is inextinguishable.
One of my favorite shows of all time is Felicity (J.J. Abrams, Matt Reeves). Yes, FELICITY. No shame. No regrets. No irony. Less a cultural touchstone than its contemporary Dawson's Creek, but far superior a production (opinion). It is a show that still impresses with the embodied emotional authenticity of its characters, its often cinematic visual approach, as well as the substance of its narratives. Felicity (Keri Russel) breaks her well laid plans to attend Stanford University in order to move to NYC in seeming pursuit of highschool crush Ben (Scott Speedman). Though their entanglements are threaded throughout the series, this initial impulsive decision turns out merely to be the catalyst for her path of self discovery, her way of breaking from teh machinery of expectations grafted upon her and instilled in her. The scope of the series widens quickly to accommodate and deepen my favorite found family of all time, which constitutes Felicity’s central cast. Early in season one she meets mutual Pre-Med Freshman (and eventual lab partner) Elena Tyler (Tangi Miller) a strong-willed, intelligent, brutally honest and often hilarious black woman. Her determination and qualities of no-compromise are foregrounded. She has formed clear goals for herself and she holds expectations high (of herself and of other people). I always admired that about her character. Her moments of self reflection about the nature of her determination, her softening to friendships, her evolving capacity to trust, the brilliant interpersonal and academic antagonism between her and Tracy (Donald Faison of Scrubs), and the very modulated permission she sometimes gives herself to relax or make mistakes are what give Elena such depth and humor and it is all due to Tangi Miller's performance. .....cut to me watching the entire series again because you KNOW I own it on DVD.
Zendaya doesn’t resemble the comic book version of Mary Jane Watson in looks or attitude. But she isn’t playing that character. The screenwriters (there were a lot, so not sure who should get credit for this) made her MJ a brand new character, with a sarcastic demeanor and too-cool attitude. It’s a great choice, and Zendaya steals every scene that she is in.