Angela Bassett: 10 essential films

From her work with Spike Lee and John Sayles to her career-defining turn in Kathryn Bigelow’s dystopian sci-fi Strange Days, we celebrate the career of Angela Bassett.

27 September 2019

By Matthew Thrift

Angela Bassett in What’s Love Got to Do with It (1993)

With a screen career spanning nearly 30 years, Angela Bassett is an actor synonymous with strength and dignity. No wonder, when looking to build the cinematic incarnation of Black Panther’s afrofuturistic city of Wakanda, that director Ryan Coogler cast Bassett as its queen.

A New Yorker by birth, Bassett started acting with tiny roles in the likes of F/X (1986) and Kindergarten Cop (1990). The steady grind of one-off TV gigs followed, before she joined the John Sayles company with City of Hope in 1991. While her ensuing filmography is not without its leading roles, Bassett regularly proves herself a standout ensemble player. Sometimes, as in Mario van Peebles’ Panther (1995), she makes an impression with just a few minutes of screen time; while other turns, as with her lead role in Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days (1995), proved career defining.

Boyz n the Hood (1991)

Director: John Singleton

Boyz n the Hood (1991)

“Boyz with a z?” asked Angela Bassett before reading for the breakout role of Reva Styles. The debut feature from writer-director John Singleton, Boyz n the Hood was a phenomenon in the summer of 1991, taking more than $50m on a budget of less than $7m and earning Singleton an Oscar nomination for best director at just 24 years old. Playing opposite Laurence Fishburne (in the first of three collaborations) as mother of Cuba Gooding Jr’s Tre, Bassett dishes out life lessons to the impressionable teenager in 80s South Central Los Angeles. Her screen time may amount to just a few scenes, but it’s testament to both actor and director how keenly she stands out from the ensemble cast.

Malcolm X (1992)

Director: Spike Lee

Malcolm X (1992)

For all the myriad artistic merits of Spike Lee’s magnum opus – from Ernest Dickerson’s lensing to Terence Blanchard’s score – one of its most overlooked is the small but vital performance by Angela Bassett as Dr Betty Shabazz. There’s perhaps even an argument to be made that Lee’s film does disservice to ‘Sister Betty’, undermining her role in husband Malcolm’s story. Either way, it’s a tough part to nail the way Bassett does, transcending her introduction (“the right height, the right complexion”) to humanise both her own character and, by extension, that of Denzel Washington’s lead. The argument scene with her husband, where she takes Elijah Muhammed’s corruption to task, might just be her greatest.

What’s Love Got to Do with It (1993)

Director: Brian Gibson

What’s Love Got to Do With It (1993)

Earning her an Academy Award nomination and a Golden Globe win, this big screen adaptation of Tina Turner’s autobiography sees a powerhouse lead performance from Bassett. The film itself, which charts young Anna Mae Bullock’s rise to global superstar, may be boilerplate biopic, but it’s one elevated by the performances of Bassett and co-star Laurence Fishburne as abusive husband and stage-partner, Ike. The actor beat some fierce competition for her role – Whitney Houston was originally slated – working with Turner to master her iconic moves, and lip-syncing to the singer’s inimitable voice. It’s in the film’s quieter moments that Bassett best sells the performance though, as when an on-stage kiss from Ike prompts a single tear. It’s the prelude to a fierce run-through of ‘A Fool in Love’.

Strange Days (1995)

Director: Kathryn Bigelow

Strange Days (1995)

While Bassett is no stranger to strong characters, few come as tough as Strange Days’ Mace. Her exasperated chauffeur is everything the film’s ostensible lead, Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes) isn’t: grounded in no-nonsense reality while he peddles fantasy – to himself and his customers – via virtual reality devices that feed recorded images and sensations directly into the user’s cerebral cortex. Directed by Kathryn Bigelow from a script by James Cameron, Strange Days bombed on release, its incendiary thematic blend of voyeurism, systemic racial violence and revolutionary politics making back a mere fraction of its sizeable budget domestically. It’s Bigelow’s best film, ageing well and growing in reputation, with an iconic, defining role for Bassett.

Waiting to Exhale (1995)

Director: Forest Whitaker

Waiting to Exhale (1995)

Bassett’s big commercial success of 1995 was this ensemble drama adapted from the bestselling novel by Terry McMillan. The feature directing debut of actor Forest WhitakerWaiting to Exhale follows four friends through the ups and downs of their respective relationships. Bassett stars as Bernie, who in the opening scenes is left by her husband. Her swift revenge involves burning his clothes and setting his car on fire, before selling the rest of his belongings in a yard sale for a dollar apiece. Individual scenes rise above a saccharine but effective whole – ace soundtrack aside – not least those between Bassett and Wesley Snipes, the civil rights lawyer with whom she spends a chaste night. Top billing (and lead soundtrack single) belonged to Whitney Houston, a TV biopic of whom would mark Bassett’s directorial feature debut in 2015.

How Stella Got Her Groove Back (1998)

Director: Kevin Rodney Sullivan

How Stella Got Her Groove Back (1998)

A couple of hours of unashamed wish-fulfilment fantasy, in which a tired-of-the-dating-game Stella (Bassett) books herself a trip to Jamaica on a whim with best mate Whoopi Goldberg, only to fall for the charms of Taye Diggs’ half-her-age local, Winston Shakespeare (“You didn’t know Shakespeare was black?”). The first half is all sunshine and beaches – and one bizarre party scene – before the romance cools when Winston follows her back to the US, where the age gap between the two becomes all too apparent (“You went out for a midnight rental and came back with The Lion King?”). Bassett’s well-heeled stockbroker with little by way of material concerns might prove a tough sell in lesser hands, but the two leads ensure this eventually transcends a superficial first act to approach something more relatably human.

Ride to Freedom: The Rosa Parks Story (2002)

Director: Julie Dash

Ride to Freedom: The Rosa Parks Story (2002)

Bassett earned herself an Emmy nomination for this television biopic of the civil rights activist and instigator of the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott, Rosa Parks. Directed by Julie Dash (Daughters of the Dust, 1991), there’s little escaping the film’s limitations of form, hewing close to the reverent, Lifetime movie-of-the-week template. Yet, as so often in Bassett’s filmography, the actor elevates her material, silently transmitting the strength of character so literally spelt out elsewhere. The refusal to give up her seat on that Christmas Eve may be the film’s seminal dramatic juncture, but there’s more nuance to be found in the way Bassett’s Parks deals with the preceding humiliations that lead to her moment in history.

Sunshine State (2002)

Director: John Sayles

Sunshine State (2002)

The third of Bassett’s pictures with the great John Sayles, for whom she’d starred in the early stages of her career in City of Hope and Passion Fish (1992). Set in the twin fictional communities of Delrona Beach and Lincoln Beach, Florida – one predominantly white, the other black – Sunshine State afforded the actor a much larger role in the director’s Altman-esque ensemble. With developers circling the towns, Sayles asks typically incisive questions of the preservation of black cultural and personal history, exemplified in Bassett’s defence of her mother’s right to remain in her home. Their cautious reconciliation for the sake of a young boy in their care proves awkwardly tender, while the film itself remains one of the best on the actor’s CV.

Notorious (2009)

Director: George Tillman Jr

Notorious (2009)

Bassett comes full circle from Boyz n the Hood, switching coasts from west to east to play the mother of rapper Christopher Wallace, aka Notorious B.I.G. It’s a similar role to the earlier film, one that sees her character caught in a bid to keep her son on the straight and narrow in a better-than-average biopic from director George Tillman Jr (The Hate U Give, 2018). Once again, Bassett is cast as the moral centre in the protagonist’s life, from early life-lessons via cancer diagnosis to grieving parent. It’s hard to take your eyes off Jamal Woolard as the cinematic incarnation of Biggie, as he transitions from Kurtis- to shifting- blow, but Bassett provides the anchor that mitigates against the late icon’s swiftly earned success.

Chi-Raq (2015)

Director: Spike Lee

Chi-Raq (2015)

Given the strength of character and quiet dignity that Bassett’s roles have naturally exuded throughout her career, it’s of little surprise that middle-age would often see her cast as a community elder. In Spike Lee’s incendiary, underrated Chi-Raq, Bassett is Miss Helen, mother of a murdered child and voice of moral authority to Lysistrata, the gangster’s girl fed up with the violence plaguing Chicago. Owner of Miss Helen’s House of Common Sense, Bassett turns the youngster on to Liberian activist Leymah Gbowee, whose nonviolent protest at the civil war took the form of a sex strike. Lee, ever the playful formalist, draws a line back to the Aristophanes play from which his lead character takes her name, the entire film spoken in verse. A small role for Bassett, perhaps, but one that readily attests to her ever-growing stature.

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