Make the Case: 5 Best Alfre Woodard Movies

One of the most underrated actors ever.

Alfre Woodard
Alfre Woodard

Alfre Woodard has proven time and time again that her performances can carry scenes, and sometimes, even the entire film. However, she has primarily done this in character actor mode. Perhaps, somewhere in the middle of a character actor and movie star. I can’t imagine she’s stressed about it either way, but I’m annoyed nonetheless that she’s not universally seen on the same level as any of the other greats in her age bracket.

She has not subscribed to a specific type of character, although many of them are people forced by one or several elements to be stronger than any human should have to be. They may also have to deal with their surroundings using a combination of humor and fearlessness. However, she has also played characters who are self-destructive, mean-spirited, vindictive, and even occasionally evil.

She has shown up in a commendable range of movies and TV since I saw Scrooged when I was 5 years old. Heart and Souls, Love and Basketball, and Crooklyn are just a few examples of how often and in how many different ways she captivated me.

Even Bill Murray can be overshadowed by her energy and delivery. There isn’t a performance of hers in anything that I’ve seen that I haven’t liked.

That isn’t a requirement for Make the Case, returning to the original actor spotlight format for another one-off. I don’t need to like every single thing they’ve ever done.

With Woodard, I feel like it’s worth mentioning that her track record, at least with me, is just about peerless.

 

The Best Alfre Woodard Movies

5. Cross Creek (1983)

Director: Martin Ritt

Alfre Woodard’s career in film started strong. By her third movie, Cross Creek, a biopic about The Yearling author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings (with a very well-cast Mary Steenburgen as Rawlings), Woodard was already logging Oscar nominations. Her performance here is an early indicator of how good she was right out of the gate.

While not the focus of the story, Woodard offers a nuanced, compelling character as Beatrice “Geechee”, a neighbor of Rawlings, who eventually proves to be a loyal friend. The character is written better than most minority roles in period films from this era. Alfre Woodard herself creates a performance here whose only noticeable flaw is that we don’t get to see more of her.

Indeed, as much as Mary Steenburgen excels in the role, Woodard’s energy and uniqueness sometimes overshadows the entire film. It’s a strong, early indicator of her abilities. She doesn’t get a ton of screen time, but the impression she makes with what she gets is a formidable one.

 

4. The Killing Floor (1984)

Director: Bill Duke

Just a year later from her star-defining appearance in Cross Creek, Alfre Woodard turned in another striking supporting performance. Once again, compared to the main thread of this film, dramatizing the true-life efforts of workers in the meatpacking industry in the late 1910s, Woodard’s time on screen is frustratingly piecemeal at times.

However, as the wife of Frank Custer, Woodard’s time on screen is also extremely valuable. While it would have been fascinating to spend even a little more time with her, Woodard once again plays her character with an eye towards quality in the time she is given.

She creates a dynamic, intelligent, and remarkably willful human being. As is the case with many great character actors, their performance in front of the camera is strong enough that the audience can easily imagine the details we are not necessarily given.

As has been the case throughout her career, Alfre Woodard almost effortlessly creates a character we are eager to care about. Her scenes with Damien Leake as Custer are riveting, as director Bill Duke gave virtually everyone in this cast at least one opportunity. Woodard gets a few and nails every single one.

 

3. Miss Firecracker (1989)

Director: Thomas Schlamme

Holly Hunter tries to shake off the anchor of her oppressive small town, starting by winning the local beauty contest. A charming film about small town life with a strong cast of actors playing various eccentrics and other locals, Miss Firecracker is very much focused on Hunter as Carnelle, taking control of her life, and defying those who think of her as the star punchline for the Miss Firecracker beauty pageant.

Miss Firecracker is likeable for a lot of reasons. One of the most significant, as far as I and this list are concerned, is Alfre Woodard as Popeye Jackson. A half-blind seamstress, Jackson is Carnelle’s best friend and biggest supporter. Her strength at refusing to stop existing in a town that seems at best annoyed with her is one of the many anchors that keeps this film from drowning in whimsy.

While it’s certainly fun to see her interact with Hunter in this fashion, I appreciate Woodard and the film overall creating a character who has a lot more going on than just what she can do for the protagonist. Miss Firecracker isn’t perfect, but I’ve always felt it deserved a bigger following.

 

2. Star Trek: First Contact (1996)

Director: Jonathan Frakes

If you know me even a little, you won’t be surprised that this is my favorite Alfre Woodard performance. Not only that, but if I were to make up a list of the best Star Trek performances in the movies, Woodard as Lily Sloane would likely be somewhere in the top 5.

The focus of this film, the 2nd to feature the cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation, is primarily on Captain Jean-Luc Picard, the Borg, Data, and a late-21st century hero named Zefram Cochrane. Lilly Sloane is another person from the earlier period, and winds up being forced to team up with Picard, as the two attempt to stop the influence of Borg on the Enterprise.

Woodard excels in one of her best examples of the everyday hero roles she has picked up over the years. Sloane gets to be scared of the fact that she’s suddenly woken up on a starship from the 24th century. However, her fear does not define her. Nor does it stop her from calling out Picard’s obsessive need to destroy the Borg, at the expense of literally everything.

That scene alone might be the best in the film. In of itself, Star Trek: First Contact is one of the best Star Trek films period.

 

1. Clemency (2019)

Director: Chinonye Chukwu

Alfre Woodard can easily lead the cast of anything she appears in. Clemency proves this in no uncertain terms.

Directed by Chinonye Chukwu, a name we are clearly going to need to keep tabs on for future projects, Clemency puts Woodard front and center in a brutal, highly emotional drama about the warden of a death row prison, and the consequences of the decisions inherent to that position. Her performance not only centers this story in an essential human way, but it also strengthens the larger points the film makes about a society that puts people to death in the first place.

Woodard meets this impressively multifaceted story with a nuanced, stunning, and unforgettable performance. Her scenes with Wendell Pierce alone, as her deeply concerned husband, should have been enough to earn another Oscar nomination.

At least the British Academy Film Awards know what’s up, giving both Woodard and the film a number of nominations.

As far as I’m concerned, this film alone puts Alfre Woodard on the same tier as any other contemporary actor you could imagine as the lead for a complex drama. Nearing 70, it is clear that she still has a lot of remarkable stuff for audiences.

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