In keeping with my Black History 24/7 series, I’m pleased to break form with this installment and not have to report on someone’s memory/death.
There’s nothing I enjoy more than a good movie that has great, relatable characters and a compelling story. I don’t need explosions or special effects or anything like that; I just need something that will stick with me after I’ve left the theater or returned the DVD to redbox. Now, when conversations are had about who can be considered amongst the best Black actors, usually Denzel Washington, Laurence Fishburne, Samuel L. Jackson (more for comic relief these days than quality acting skill, though), and Will Smith are the frontrunners. (Cuba Gooding, Jr., used to be in the conversation, too… until he did this… and then followed up with this…)
This entry is my dedication to the lesser-recognized and sometimes overlooked men in Black Hollywood. Not only are they often snubbed when it comes to the almighty golden statue known as “the Oscar,” but a lot of times, their attention to craft and ability to make their characters truly memorable is equally ignored. (Of course, it’s only fair that I show the ladies love, too; so I’ll be following up later this week with a second installment giving props to the Top 4 Most Underrated Black Actresses.)
Without further ado, my Top 4 Most Underrated Black Actors:
4) Chris “Ludacris” Bridges
There’s always those one or three entertainers every year that want to switch gears and “branch out” into a new field. While “athlete-to-rapper” has become a popular one, the most common way for entertainers to branch out involves taking your talents to Hollywood. Chris Bridges is best known by his rap moniker “Ludacris.” But if you’ve been paying attention, you’ve noticed that “Luda” hasn’t dropped albums as frequently in the last few years as he did in the early 2000s. Quite possibly, that’s because he’s been quietly building a strong acting resume. Bridges’ earliest film appearances were as a stock character in 2 Fast 2 Furious, and then as a parody of himself as a Southern-fried rapper in Hustle & Flow; but after that, he pursued much more credible roles. He even put on a fantastic performance as Ice-T’s nephew in two episodes of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. Most recently, he can be seen scene-stealing as one of Ashton Kutcher’s friends in the romantic comedy No Strings Attached.
Breakout appearance: CRASH.
CRASH, an ensemble drama about race relations and human interaction in Los Angeles, had many memorable moments. Chris Bridges not only managed to hold his own amidst this all-star cast, but also gave depth to what should have been a very basic, stereotypical “Black hoodlum.” As Anthony, Bridges enters the film as a man guided by the need to take what he feels he deserves, regardless of the consequences. His actions at the end of the movie, therefore, are completely unexpected; and Bridges’ portrayal of every emotion is spot-on.
3) Anthony Mackie
Anthony Mackie is one of those lucky cases of a former “extra” whose potential shone out enough to directors, to where they gave him better roles. Mackie was established as a stage actor, and he initially was an understudy in productions of Susan Lori-Parks’ masterful play Topdog/Underdog. Soon after that, however, he emerged as the character of Papa Doc in rapper Eminem’s semi-autobiographical film 8 Mile. Mackie’s appearance in 8 Mile would set off a chain of events and appearances in other, bigger films, such as Notorious, Eagle Eye, and The Hurt Locker. Mackie currently appears in the Black Panther-era drama Night Catches Us, and was recently seen in theaters in The Adjustment Bureau.
Breakout appearance: She Hate Me.
What is often considered to be one of Spike Lee’s “worst” movies, is actually an interesting social commentary on the idea of “being a whore.” Anthony Mackie was the star of She Hate Me. John Henry Armstrong – his character – should have been a pathetic man who, in an effort to please the girlfriend he never got over (but who is now a lesbian), takes on the practice of impregnating lesbians who want to have children. Mackie, however, makes Armstrong likable, conflicted instead of pathetic, and sympathetic. By movie’s end, we’re rooting for him and his pursuit of happiness, however unconventional it turns out to be.
2) Chiwetel Ejiofor
Another actor whose beginnings were on a theater stage, Chiwetel Ejiofor has for many years been “that guy” who played those characters whose names you could never remember in big-name movies. He was the crossdresser in Kinky Boots. He was the absolute asshole who Mark Wahlberg “knocked the fuck out!” in Four Brothers. And often, he was a government lackey or some sort, as Denzel Washington’s partner in Inside Man and the agent leading the pursuit The Fugitive-style against Angelina Jolie in Salt. However, Ejiofor’s acting portfolio is impressive, especially when you look past his sidekick roles (including that alongside another actor on this list in Talk to Me). Ejiofor gives his all to every role he plays, and it shows.
Breakout appearance: Redbelt.
In 2009, David Mamet crafted a film about martial arts that was supposed to be more about psychology and aesthetics than it was about the actual fighting and choreography. As Redbelt‘s protoganist Mike Terry, Chiwetel Ejiofor played a very stoic man who does not bend or flinch when it comes to his rules of honor and integrity. And it is this strict adherence to rules, that results in him being at odds with many of the people in his life. When he seems to lose everything he held dear, we expect Mike to do what any human being would do and give in. He never does; and the audience has to appreciate him for that.
1) Don Cheadle
Don Cheadle is arguably the hardest-working (next to this guy, who seemed to appear in damn near everybody’s movie in 2009 & 2010… Losers, Obsessed, Takers, The Unborn…) and most underappreciated man in Hollywood. Author Walter Mosley wrote Easy Rawlins‘ ill-guided friend Mouse as someone big and brawny; however, alongside Denzel Washington in the film adaptation of Devil in a Blue Dress, Cheadle became Mouse. Since then, Cheadle has been memorable and is a master of the “tragic grimace.” He always picks diverse roles, ranging from his Oscar-nominated performance as Paul Rusesabagina in Hotel Rwanda; to thief Basher Tarr in the Ocean’s Eleven trilogy; to the focused and precise Samir Horn in Traitor; to his unforgettable portrayal of pioneering Black radio personality Petey Greene in Talk to Me.
Breakout appearance: Rebound – The Legend of Earl ‘The Goat’ Manigault.
One of Cheadle’s most overlooked performances is one of his earliest and yet, one of his very best. In the HBO television movie Rebound, Cheadle portrayed real-life streetball legend Earl Manigault, a talented young man whose poor choices derailed him from a bright future. Cheadle’s performance is heartbreaking and inspiring throughout; and his drug-addled scenes place “Goat” in the all-time top 3 of Black crackheads in movies (behind Halle Berry’s “Khaila Richards” in Losing Isaiah and Chris Rock’s “Pookie” in New Jack City).