This year, we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2021 on Monday, January 18th – that’s this Monday, for those of you who, like most of us, have lost all sense of day and date. With it being such an incredible year for movies – yes, even without them hitting theaters – we thought we’d take a look at five performances from Black actors (and two filmmakers) that most definitely deserve an Oscar nomination (if not an outright win) in order to celebrate the trailblazing spirits of both Dr. King and the Black talent in Hollywood who mesmerized us this year.
Chadwick Boseman – Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
It’s impossible to watch Chadwick Boseman’s performance as the fiery, difficult trombone player Levee without feeling the specter of Boseman’s untimely death hanging around the edges. As Levee, he’s arrogant and charming, full of external swagger and internal pain, a complex character who is mesmerizing on screen. In one key scene, Boseman delivers a monologue for the ages, pouring out all of Levee’s aggrieved pain, trauma, and anger that gives us a glimpse at the wounded boy hiding in Levee. Knowing what we now know about what he was enduring at the time, one can’t help but think it might have been Boseman injecting a bit of himself into Levee’s rage at the unfairness of life.
Viola Davis – Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Chadwick Boseman may have mesmerized, but as the titular Ma Rainey, Viola Davis turns in possibly a career-best performance. Just like Levee, the Mother of the Blues is a complex character, one who understands that, as a black woman in a white man’s music label world, her title is as much an anchor as it is a crown. And so she puts on the imperious, demanding armor of a queen, simultaneously beguiling and seductive while commanding whatever space she’s in. If it isn’t Davis’s absolute best work, it’s certainly close.
Delroy Lindo – Da 5 Bloods
There are some performances you forget almost instantly. Others, they linger with you long after you see it for the first time. Such is Delroy Lindo’s haunted performance as the burdened, tortured Paul. Astonishing performances abound in Spike Lee’s film – quite honestly, Boseman could just as easily win an Oscar nomination for his work in this one as for Ma Rainey – but it’s Lindo’s performance that anchors the movie. Paul is violent, racist, cold toward his son, aggressive – but he’s also deeply sympathetic, a man broken and traumatized by the experiences of the Vietnam War that continue to haunt him decades after. Paul is not a likable character, but Lindo infuses him with a furious pathos that demands you at least see him if not like him. His fourth wall-breaking monologue at the end of the movie is one for the ages.
Kingsley Ben-Adir – One Night In Miami
The entire ensemble cast in Regina King’s directorial debut deserves praise for their work – Eli Goree, Leslie Odom, Jr. and Aldis Hodge all did excellent work. But the real standout of the film is Kingsley Ben-Adir’s Malcolm X, who now arguably defines the role for a new generation the way Denzel Washington did for the previous one. When an actor is playing a real-life figure, it often comes across as a poor imitation because the actor is trying too hard to become the character exactly. Ben-Adir adroitly digs down into the larger-than-life figure we know to find he one we don’t, neither Malcolm X exactly as he existed, nor Denzel’s version of the civil rights activist. Instead, he finds something wholly his own that still feels as though he perfectly captured the spirit of the great man. It’s a fine line to walk but Ben-Adir does it beautifully.
Nicole Beharie – Miss Juneteenth
To watch Nicole Beharie play former beauty pageant winner and struggling single mom Turquoise Jones is to fall in love with the poetry and power of Beharie’s body language and nonverbal acting. Through it, you read everything about Turquoise’s determination and the way she still so clearly views herself through the lens of her faded glory. Beharie excels as a mother who loves her daughter and wants the best for her child when that want is tainted by also vicariously living through her daughter in order to reclaim the dreams she once had. It’s a delicate, difficult performance, and Beharie makes you root for her every second she’s on the screen.
And now, about those filmmakers…
Spike Lee (Directing) – Da 5 Bloods
Spike Lee’s reflection on the Vietnam War and the way it broke Black men who were sent off to fight and die for a country that didn’t ever fight for them is harrowing, Heart of Darkness told from the Black perspective. It’s sometimes messy and never subtle with imagery or messaging. It’s also searing, brutally evocative, and utterly necessary. Lee has never been one to hold back as a director and Da 5 Bloods feels like the culmination of every piece he’s assembled in his long career, as vitally urgent as Do the Right Thing but from a filmmaker with 30 more years experience under his belt. It may be the best work of Lee’s life, and for a director who has impacted filmmaking as he has, that’s saying something.
Regina King (Directing) – One Night In Miami
At the other end of the spectrum of Spike Lee’s long and storied career is longtime actress Regina King making her directorial debut. It’s always interesting to see what happens when a veteran actor steps behind the camera; the best of them take their experience in front of it and use it. Such is the case with King, who drew out truly excellent performances across the board from all four of her main characters, doubly impressive with each of them playing a real-life figure from history. Credit certainly goes to the talented actors, but King clearly has a knack for bringing out the best in actors. She has a keen eye for how to inject the right kind of energy into a scene, her instincts sharp and clear. If this is King’s feature debut, it’s exciting to ponder what may come; One Night In Miami feels like watching the birth of a future filmmaking great.