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Saturday, April 13, 2024

April 13-14, 2024: I Am AmericanStudying Sidney Poitier: 21C Heirs

[This coming weekend marks the 60th anniversary of Sidney Poitier becoming the first Black actor to win a Best Actor Oscar. So this week I’ve AmericanStudied a handful of Poitier performances, leading up to this special weekend post on a handful of 21C actors carrying his legacy forward!]

On five noteworthy performances from five of our best contemporary Black actors (not including Denzel or Morgan, who to my mind are Poitier’s genuine equals as screen legends and could each get their own full post very easily).

1)      Don Cheadle, Hotel Rwanda (2004): Cheadle has been a favorite of mine since he grabbed every filmgoer’s attention with his supporting role in Denzel’s Walter Mosely adaptation Devil in a Blue Dress (1995), but I worry a little that he’s one of those Marvel actors who has become for some audiences synonymous with his superhero character. And that would be a shame, because as his truly multilayered, heartbreaking, and vital performance as Paul Rusesabagina reflects, Cheadle is quite simply one of the most talented actors we’ve got.

2)      Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave (2012): First of all, I know Ejiofor is British—but a) Sidney Poitier grew up in the Bahamas; and b) more importantly, some of the best performances in 21st century American films (and TV shows) have come from Black British actors. None better than Ejiofor’s as Solomon Northup in Steve McQueen’s film, to my mind the single best cultural work ever produced about slavery in America. If you haven’t seen it, you really really should—but in the meantime, here are two of the best minutes of acting you’ll ever see.

3)      Mahershala Ali, Moonlight (2015): My favorite Mahershala Ali performance is also my single favorite TV performance I’ve ever seen—as Detective Wayne Hays (across three very distinct time periods and stages of life, as he discusses in that hyperlinked video) in True Detective Season 3. But since Poitier was a film actor, I’m highlighting here one of Ali’s many standout film performances, and one where in just a few minutes of total screentime he creates one of the most unique and compelling characters in 21st century cinema.

4)      Chadwick Boseman, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2019): Before his tragically early passing in 2020 at the age of 43, Chadwick Boseman gave a trio of truly great performances as iconic 20th century historical figures: as Jackie Robinson in 42 (2013), James Brown in Get On Up (2014), and Thurgood Marshall in Marshall (2017). All three helped cement Boseman as a worthy heir to Sidney Poitier’s Civil Rights-era films, but to my mind his performance as Levee Green in the 2019 adaptation of August Wilson’s 1982 play is even better, and perhaps even more significant as a representation of America’s hardest histories.

5)      Jeffrey Wright, American Fiction (2023): Like Don Cheadle, Jeffrey Wright has been giving stunning film performances since the 1990s; I have a soft spot for his recurring role as Felix Leiter opposite Daniel Craig’s James Bond. But like Cheadle and Poitier and all the greats, Wright has continued to hone his craft, and I’m not sure he’s given a more deeply human and nuanced performance than he does as Thelonious “Monk” Ellison in American Fiction. Every one of these actors is part of the legacy of Sidney Poitier (and so many other greats), but I’m not sure there’s a more talented heir than Jeffrey Wright.

Next series starts Monday,


PS. What do you think? Other actors you’d add?

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