Saturday, August 15, 2015

Top 10 Actresses of Color Who Deserve Bigger Careers

Starting with the lack of diversity in the most recent batch of Oscar nominees, there has been a lot of conversation about the dearth of quality roles afforded to actresses of color. I haven't spoke much on the matter in this space, except for my entry in A Fisti Re-Cast-a-Thon. That was a blogathon in which participants were asked to take an Oscar winning performance of their choosing and suggest an actress of color who could have played the same role. You can read it here. It also came up in the comments section yesterday on my list of Halle Berry's Top 10 Performances. Both were fun exercises, but serves to highlight the fact that Hollywood continues to ignore women of color. Sure, there are some who break through and achieve mainstream success, however they become the exceptions that prove the rule rather than a signal of changing times. For every Zoe Saldana or Viola Davis there are plenty of ladies who ply their craft in films largely unseen by white America.

Today, I want to highlight women who have proven to be talented actresses, but haven't quite achieved the stardom their ability suggests. Some of these women have been around for a long time, and even have names you know. However, their careers have consisted of landing the occasional small role in Hollywood productions, the even more rare meaty roles, and starring in a number of "ethnic" films. Others are younger ladies who have delivered excellent performances early in their career and may still break out. Here, in my opinion, are...

Actresses of Color Who Deserve Bigger Careers

Gabrielle Union/Nia Long
I copped out and went for a tie in this spot. The fact is, they have similar talents and beauty to spare. Either of these ladies could have been the star in a long string of rom-coms with the occasional foray into drama. Union has flirted with mainstream success more often than Long, but both have been on the cusp. However, the only time either of them has gotten to play the lead it's been in movies expressly marketed to black audiences.

Kimberly Elise
While lacking the traditional good looks and megawatt smiles of the two ladies we just spoke of, there's a serious power to her that comes across whenever she's on the screen. It's been on display a number of times. It's gone largely unnoticed by mainstream audiences. That's because all of her best work has come in movies that, frankly, you may not have even heard of if you're not black. Maybe you recognize her from playing opposite Denzel Washington a couple times, in John Q and The Manchurian Candidate, but neither is a particularly memorable role.

Carmen Ejogo
Ejogo is another performer who oozes power. She was by far the best part of the ill-fated Sparkle remake and gave a heart to the ruthless The Purge: Anarchy. She lit up the screen with the movie's singular most powerful moment outside of the scenes depicting marches in last year's Selma. Still, the parts seem to be few and far between for her. Her first acting credit was way back in 1986. That's nearly thirty years and she has only appeared in 15 films (with one on the way for either later this year or early next). Someone please get this woman in front of the camera more often.

America Ferrera
Whenever I have the pleasure of seeing Ms. Ferrera in a film, I always ask myself "why isn't she a much bigger star?" She's proven to be a versatile performer and even has proven to have mainstream appeal. She's most known for playing Ugly Betty on the sitcom of the same name. However, she was also outstanding in a supporting role in End of Watch. These two roles on the opposite end of the spectrum. The only "big" roles she's had, as of late, are providing the voice of Astrid for all of the How to Train Your Dragons projects.

Thandie Newton
This London lady has had a very nice career, so it's hard to put her on this list. However, it could be even better. She's shown up in enough mainstream movies, people are aware of her. However, she's rarely afforded the opportunity to be more than the pretty face. When she is, she's been excellent. Over the years, she's frequently been better than the material she's working with.

Eva Mendes
You're probably thinking 'Why is Eva Mendes here? She's very popular.' She is. She's forged a very nice career out of strong performances is indie flicks and the showing up in the occasional mainstream movie. The deal is that most people haven't seen any of her really good stuff. Whenever given the chance to shine, she does. Hopefully, she'll get more opportunities.

Sanaa Lathan
There was a time when Ms. Lathan was on the verge of superstardom. She blew audiences away in Love & Basketball. She followed the with strong turns in the little seen Brown Sugar and Out of Time, which starred Denzel Washington. Theme, here? Anyhoo, Alien vs. Predator happened and so did the decent, but unspectacular Something New. Next thing you know, she's back to starring in niche-flicks.

Salma Hayek
If you only know her from her American movies, particularly the fluffy and often unfunny, comedies she's been showing up in, lately, you might not understand why she's here. Dig into her more dramatic work, including her Spanish language, you'll get the idea. She has presence for days and the camera really does love her.

Rosario Dawson
Dawson blew me away the very first time I saw her onscreen in 1995's Kids. She was only 15 or 16, but already had a commanding presence. There was just something about her. She's continued to amaze all this time. She's turned in some stunning performances. However, like many of the women on this list, they're in movies very few bother to see. From time to time, she shows up in big budget stuff. The problem is these are easily the stupidest roles she gets. It doesn't help that a number of them flopped at the box-office. Given that she was the least of the problems in any of these films, she deserves much better.

Angela Bassett
Let's be transparent, here. This woman is the reason for this list. She's one of the most gifted actresses I've ever seen. She been a bright spot of every production she's been a part of. Her performances in Waiting to Exhale and as Tina Turner in What's Love Got to Do with It are both towering achievements. She's worked steadily over the years, but in non-black productions she's been relegated to mostly generic parts. Her juiciest roles throughout this century have come in movies I saw, but you probably didn't. Nearing 60, she's at an age where Hollywood traditionally ignores actresses. However, all the buzz of late is saying how ageism is coming to an end in the movie biz. The problem with this is most of the good roles for women of in their 50s or higher seem to be going to one of three people: Meryl Streep, Helen Mirren, and Judi Dench. They're all great, but must they get all the roles?

Others I considered for this list (alphabetical):

Sandra Oh
Keke Palmer
Maya Rudolph

Brenda Song
Michelle Yeoh

Still on the Verge...

I did not include the following young ladies because they are still fairly young in their careers and appear to have some big things on the horizon. I've got my fingers crossed for them.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw
Lupita Nyong'o
Tessa Thompson
Zoe Kravitz

Who did I leave out?


  1. No Alfre Woodard! ARRGH!! What is that about? To me she should be tied for number 1 along with Angela Bassett who I agree has been shamefully underused. I've been happy to see Angela on American Horror Story even though her stories have often been dumb at least they afford her a chance to really act and give her visibility.

    I've loved Alfre ever since I saw her in a brief stint on St. Elsewhere. She's had some decent roles throughout the years and probably a higher face recognition then most but she should be an enormous star by now and have at least one Oscar to her name, how she wasn't nominated for Passion Fish I'll never understand.

    Good list though I can't stand Thandie Newton and think she's a dreadful actress so the less I see of her the better.

    1. Oh man, Alfre Woodard. Terrible oversight on my part. Thanks a bunch!

  2. Hey, I totally agree on all of these actresses. They do deserve better.

  3. Great post! Angela Bassett is one of those actresses who steals the show even when she's in a minor role. I had no idea she's in her late 50s. I'm a decade younger and don't look half as good. :-)

    1. Bassett is one of my all time faves as well. Thanks!

  4. Awesome list! I LOVE Angela Bassett who absolutely should have a bigger career as she's so beautiful, talented AND bad ass! I have a big crush on miss Gugu, soooo lovely. And Carmen Ejogo & Rosario Dawson certainly are underrated. Nice to see Michelle Yeoh get a mention too. Well this list just prove how much Hollywood need to have more diversity.

    1. Thanks. I love Michelle Yeoh. And sadly, that need persists.

  5. There are some great actresses on this list! I completely agree too that better part need to come these ladies way. Particularly to Rosario Dawson, but she has been in Daredevil recently - to repeat for next season too. America Ferrera though, havEn't seen her face since Ugly Betty!

    -Katie (EverSoEthnicallyConfusedblog)

    1. America Ferrera shows up here and there and has been good in everything. She's had a couple of movies since this one, but she was excellent in a small role in End of Watch. Thanks, Katie!

  6. The first person I thought of when I saw this list was Sanaa Lathan, so I was very glad to see her there. But Angela Bassett. GOD, yes. I mean, I cried for her after seeing her in Green Lantern a few years back. CRIED. It's nice to see her on TV in American Horror Story (aka the Ryan Murphy Loves Older Actresses Hour), but good lord does she deserve better. Sandra Oh, too. She was just on TV for so long - hopefully she'll be in many more films soon. I will watch Rosario Dawson in anything, frankly. She's one of the most interesting actresses around.

    1. Yeah, I was saddened to see Bassett in Green Lantern, too. Oh has popped up from time to time, but definitely should be seen more. And Dawson is absolutely one of the most interesting actresses out there.

  7. I really dislike Gabrielle Union. Gugu, I think, can't help but have a fabulous career based on her performances so far, which keep knocking me off my feet. Rosario Dawson is always compelling. Angela Bassett steals everything she's in, so it should be a no-brainer to GIVE her something that's worthy of her. Love this post!

    1. I like, but don't love Union as an actress, but she seems so perfectly suited for the leading lady role in at least a few of the slew of the better marketed rom-coms that keep coming out. I really hope you're right about GMR. She's fantastic. Yes to Dawson and Bassett.

  8. Great list. I also agree with your number one. The woman went to freaking Yale for Heaven's sake! Yet Meryl Streep, who also went there, has a juicy role booked almost every year. I also dig Mendes being on your list. She's much better than people give her credit for.

    I also have my fears about Gugu Mbatha-Raw. She did give a powerhouse performance in Belle. But after her breakthrough year in 2014, she was given nothing roles in Jupiter Ascending and Concussion. I fear that HW won't know what to do with her.

    1. I so hope you're wrong about GMR, but it's not looking good.

  9. Great list! Definitely need Rosario Dawson and Eva Mendes in more things! Poor Thandie Newton seems to have dropped off the map.