What is your favourite performance by a black actor? This is the question posed by the BFI & Independent Cinema Office ahead of #BFIBlackStar, a celebration of the most memorable black characters from film and TV. Its a tough one – so many powerful roles to choose from, right? Or perhaps it’s easy for you – is there one actor who sticks in your mind? Either way, here is a Top 5 chosen from the voting list on the BFI website – & in no particular order! Check out the full list, & make your votes before the poll closes on Sunday 25th September. And who do you think is missing? Who should be #1? Let us know in the comments below, or at @dreamdepends.
Running from October to December 2016, the Black Star season uses brilliant work from across the history of cinema to look at the connection between audience and screen for black actors. As well as a selection of films featuring at the upcoming London Film Festival, there will be special events at over 90 UK locations, including classic favourites and some gems you may not know. The BFI player will host special Black Star content, and there will be exclusive DVD releases.
5. Eddie Murphy – Beverly Hills Cop (1984)
How many comedy fans today know that in the 80s Edward Regan Murphy was the funniest man alive? All who have seen this side-splitting piece of espionage surely do. For a black person to be that loud and showy was a revolutionary act in itself, but that Murphy turned his extravagance into something so funny is his great triumph. He’s so good, the successful ensuing series is largely thanks to him; to his charm and ability to make audiences and co-stars laugh til they hurt. All the films have their joys, but perhaps never again reach the majesty and impudent freshness of the original.
Best moment: In one brief disagreement with a hotel clerk, Axel Foley makes us laugh, cringe, and sustains a point about the mistreatment of black people in upper class locations. As vital a scene today as it was in ’84.
4. Pam Grier – Jackie Brown (1997)
Quentin Tarantino is a master of many cinematic skills; three dimensional characters is perhaps not one of them. The shining exception to this rule is Pam Grier, who struts through Jackie Brown with sass to spare. In a cast including De Niro, Bridget Fonda, Michael Keaton and an also excellent Samuel L. Jackson, it is the irrepressible Grier who commands the audience’s attention, at once a vulnerable victim and a powerful queen. If ever a performance shouted ‘star’, this is surely it. Tarantino has worked with a group of actors on multiple occasions, most famously Jackson himself; he could do a lot worse than to call up Grier for his next project.
Best moment: When Jackie turns the tables on the treacherous Ordell, it would take a hardy soul not to cheer.
3. Mo’nique – Precious (2009)
It’s one thing winning an Oscar and captivating audiences worldwide when playing a likeable character. It’s another altogether to achieve that as one of the most vicious, hate-filled figures seen on screen in years. That is the mastery of Mo’nique’s display as Mary, mother and abuser to Precious. Violent, cruel and dominating beyond even the darkest imagination, it is quite extraordinary that Mo’nique gives depth and another side to Mary. Despite her brutal actions, she too is human, and this performance shows us even the most awful actions have a psychological background.
Best moment: Few roles, horror or otherwise, have made me flinch in fear as I did when Mary launched a pan at her daughter’s head. It’s terrifying not just for the physical danger, but because we believe she means it – and what else might she do?
2. Uzo Aduba – Orange Is The New Black (2013-)
In any ensemble drama, there is a character you look forward to seeing the most. In OITNB, that character is Suzanne ‘Crazy Eyes’ Warren. A mental illness sufferer whose presence in a prison is damning of the American penal system, Aduba imbues Crazy Eyes with a personality so unpredictable yet so consistently funny and human that you want more of her in every episode. Her expressions and movements convey so many different emotions at once, it is as if she’s invented another level of acting. Aduba has been rightly recognised for her efforts, with two Emmys, two individual SAG awards and a Golden Globe nomination. It is a sign of her talent that success has come in both comedy and drama categories. And best of all, with at least two seasons set up, we’ve got a lot more Crazy to come…
Best moment: A commendably committed thespian, it has to be Crazy Eyes’ poem/speech to Piper in Season One. Chocolate and vanilla swirl indeed.
1. Mya Taylor – Tangerine (2015)
Several of the roles on this list are prominent, well-known historical black figures, but one of the best is a character whose life will be less familiar to many. As transgender sex worker Alexandra, Mya Taylor is the magnet at the centre of the film and our attention. Quieter than manic best friend Sin-dee (with good reason, we later discover), but more than able to stand up for herself when required, Alexandra is a flawed but witty, loveable and brave personality. Taylor drew on her personal experience on the street corners of downtown LA for the role, and her conviction in the humanity of Alexandra shines through. Reviewed last year on DOTD, Tangerine is an outstanding and too-rare representation of both black and transgender identities; for constructing a character as engaging as Alexandra, we must ensure many more opportunities are created for Taylor in the coming months and years.
Best moment: Alexandra’s heartfelt bar version of Toyland is a moment of heavenly peace inside the maelstrom, and brings a tear to the eye.