Navigating the tricky “in between” identity of a first-generation American-Muslim roughly translates to exhibiting the daily cultural friction of managing tradition, Western upbringing, and religion in a post 9-11 landscape. For a while, it seemed as though I shared little-to-no commonalities with my parents, and my growing admiration for film converted into a visible dent on the quintessential immigrant career trifecta of being either a doctor, lawyer, or engineer.
Yet, what seemed like an eternal hostility between parent and child remarkably subsided the day we first saw Angela Bassett.
A random swap-meet bargain bin discovery casually uncovered what would become a touchstone moment in my life, in the shape of a four-part box set of Spike Lee joints, with his crown jewel Malcolm X proudly displayed on the cover. Press play and there he was in all his glory: a Black-American-Muslim man, immensely proud and played with brilliant conviction. To this day, it’s the only film I’ve seen in full with my parents, and at the heart of the three-hour long epic was its pulsing heart, Betty Shabazz, played by the incomparable Angela Bassett.
Betty was kind. Betty was gentle. Betty was sweet. Betty was the foil to her political powerhouse husband. Cinematic Betty wasn’t as fully realised as one would hope, but with a masterfully skilled thespian, all things are possible. Betty’s heartbreak over her husband’s brutal death in that fateful Audubon Ballroom scene unleashed a tidal wave of emotions for my typically guarded mother. She wept alongside Bassett and noted that her cries bore resemblance to how she cried after the premature death of her own mother. An extended, bellowing wail of pure despair, a moment of pummeling grief black women are accustomed to shield internally, from friends, family, and especially to their children. That rare glimpse into my mother’s past melted the icy tension in our relationship. An audible and visual retelling of an intimate moment of my mother’s deepest sadness provided a mirror into life’s unspoken reality, and that’s what Angela Bassett provides in spades. Whether playing the vindicated Bernadette in Waiting to Exhale or a bourgeois stockbroker waiting to cut loose in How Stella Got her Groove Back, Bassett can channel her characters with non-judgmental emotional awareness few thespians possess or as Roger Ebert noted, an actress of “aggressive intelligence”.
With an undergraduate degree in African-American studies at Yale University, Bassett decided to continue pursuing higher education by transforming her academia track from business to drama, all the while fighting off the all-to-common familial concern of “wasting her Yale degree”. Despite it all, she arose from the prestigious drama school to stand alongside notable alumni: three-time Oscar winner Meryl Streep, thespian descendent Lupita Nyong’o, and husband, Courtney B. Vance.
She was the first black woman to win a Golden Globe in the Best Actress- Musical or Comedy section for her performance as Tina Turner in What’s Love Got to Do With It, acknowledged as the most lucrative role for black actresses at the time. The performance also garnered her an Oscar nomination, the only one attached to her name to date. Bassett’s award rap sheet is as long as her illustrious career, chockfull of nominations and few wins, which has unfortunately not transformed her into a household name like her white colleagues. Or maybe, her genius was just ahead of its time because as we all know, an actress’s prime years are in her twenties and early thirties, an ageist approach to womanhood that film has capitalised on since its inception. Despite all this, no black actress has enjoyed the fruits of their labour quite as much as the Streep’s, Blanchet’s or Moore’s.
Black Star is “dedicated to celebrate the range, versatility and power of black actors” and in a culture where black artistry is routinely overlooked and unappreciated it’s vital to recall cinematic legends and speak their name, even if they are still alive. Bassett encompasses the beauty, grace, and communal compassion that are worthy of acknowledgement. Her filmography mixes biopics, comedies, and contemporary action-packed blockbusters with a newfound passion for being behind the camera; Bassett might be at the cusp of a creative awakening as a director.
At the moment she’s reclaiming her spot in the anthology series, American Horror Story, which resulted in an Emmy nomination last year. In this season, Bassett is playing Cuba Gooding Jr’s sister, some 25 years after playing his mother in the iconic film, Boyz n the Hood. Perhaps the issue is Hollywood doesn’t know what to do with Bassett because she defies time – now that’s black girl magic!
As the conversation on diversity in film and television continues to dominate the public and private discourse, one key element that minority actors and filmmakers bring up is the incentive to allow diverse narratives to flourish primarily in storytelling. Diversity isn’t a monolith term, but a constantly evolving template that includes not only personal identities but also personal experiences within those identities. That’s exactly how I connected with Angela Bassett as a young girl trying to figure myself out in between two parallel universes. She accomplished the duty of an actor: committing to convening humanity on screen. Now that’s a role worth rewarding.
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Rooney Elmi is the founding editor of SVLLY(wood) magazine, a new publication geared toward curating a new cinephilia, with the first issue slated for an October release on the theme of horror for the fourth wave feminist. You can follow her on Twitter @commiecoppola.
The Black Star series of articles coincides with BFI’s Black Star film series. Over ten weeks, we will bring you articles which explore the films in the series, the issues they highlight and the stars who have played such an important role in the history of film. Curated by Grace Barber-Plentie.