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.