Angela Bassett is one of those actors who makes it look so easy, covering an expansive array of both TV and film roles, we often take her for granted. It doesn’t help that Bassett has been working as an actress for over thirty years. Beginning her career in 1985, Bassett was a significant on-screen presence by 1991, with numerous standout TV credits, as well as a significant appearance in Boyz n the Hood. By 1993, she was getting an Oscar nomination for playing Tina Turner.
Since then, despite steadily working on TV shows, and appearing in TV and theatrical films, Angela Bassett rarely seems to get the attention her long, varied career deserves. Much of her more most high-profile work seems to be through television, with the last few years in particular keeping the 60-year-old actress busy with several major TV roles. Despite being consistently affecting and distinctive time and time again, she just doesn’t seem to be included in as many best actor conversations as you might think. Is this indeed the case, or am I just annoyed that she hasn’t had more opportunities to emphasize the talents and instincts that make her one of the most consistently memorable performers in any project she happens to appear in?
Probably the second, but I’ll still argue that despite her high degree of visibility and name recognition, it is still a tier or two below where I actually think she belongs.
Nonetheless, it doesn’t seem to bother Bassett, who continues to work at a breakneck pace. Although she still focuses intently on television, her film resume has continued to evolve, particularly in the past decade or so. As someone who watches who watches more movies than TV shows, it has been pleasing indeed to see her regard in films once again running neck-and-neck with her regard on the various successful series and TV movies she has made over the years.
Thanks to that, as well as a film career going back to a brief role in 1986’s FX, there are more than enough best Angela Bassett movies to contend for this edition of Make the Case.
1. Boyz n the Hood (1991)
By 1991, the year Boyz n the Hood was released, Angela Bassett had built up a small TV and film resume. Even in bit roles in films like Kindergarten Cop (she was the flight attendant), she made an impression. It didn’t take long for the opportunity for breakthrough roles to come along.
Boyz n the Hood provided such an opportunity. There are a number of those performances to be found here. Bassett, despite only being in the movie for a short period of time, establishes herself as one of the film’s most distinctive characters. Of all the personalities that inhabit this still-electrifying drama from John Singleton, Reva Styles is the one I still think I’m the most interested in learning more about.
2. Malcolm X (1992)
Bassett’s trajectory in film was incredible in the 1990’s. Released just one year after Boyz n the Hood, Spike Lee’s brilliant, controversial Malcolm X biopic gave Bassett her most substantial role up to that point. The name on the marquee might be Malcolm X, but one of the best things about this biopic is its attention to building the people who made up the life of the activist and civil rights leader.
That thought is never more beautifully, or powerfully, expressed than in casting Angela Bassett as Dr. Betty Shabazz. Bassett uses her time on screen to not only build an exceptional, unique chemistry between herself and Denzel Washington as Malcolm X, but to also establish Shabazz as more than just the wife of a famous political figure. Bassett is as unforgettable as Shabazz as Washington is as Malcolm X. Bassett would reprise the role a few years later for the underrated 1995 film Panther.
Interestingly enough, some years later, Angela Bassett would play Coretta Scott King in a Lifetime film called Betty & Coretta, with Mary J. Blige in the role of Shabazz.
3. What’s Love Got to Do with It (1993)
Despite a long list of inaccuracies, What’s Love Got to Do with It offers two phenomenal performances from Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne as Tina and Ike Turner respectively. In both film and TV, Bassett has emphasized a talent for not only enhancing the scene by how her characters interact with others, but for also making highly personal choices to mark the individualism of her best performances.
What’s Love Got to Do with It has the universal appeal of having one of the best actresses living today playing one of the most popular entertainers of all time. Bassett rolls that energy into a performance that combines mythology with a sincere attention to the various elements that made up the actual Tina Turner. The performance garnered Bassett an Oscar nomination, and it is a worthy example of how anyone should approach playing a real-life figure.
4. Strange Days (1995)
One of the most appealing things about Strange Days, directed by Katharyn Bigelow (from a screenplay by James Cameron and Jay Cocks), is that there is absolutely no middle ground. Among those who have seen this somewhat-controversial 1995 film, the reception is either extremely positive, or negative borderlining on vicious. If you are watching the movie for the first time, I can promise you won’t be bored, if nothing else.
Regardless of how you wind up feeling about the movie, you won’t be able to deny Angela Bassett’s intensive, altogether stunning performance opposite Ralph Fiennes. This is yet another example of Bassett’s versatility as an actor, in terms of who she can work with. Her character is also quite possibly one of the coolest protagonists you’ve probably never heard of. Strange Days is a strange movie, to put it mildly. The performances, especially from Bassett, are one of the main reasons why this film is impossible to ignore, one way or another.
5. Black Panther (2018)
To be clear, I’m not trying to say Angela Bassett hasn’t done anything worthwhile between 1995 and 2018. She has worked consistently through the decades in TV, film, and theater, and she has been a powerhouse artist in virtually everything she’s done. Barring that, she has been a positive point in something that was otherwise forgettable.
Black Panther boasts one of the most spectacular casts in the relatively-short history of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. While Bassett isn’t the star here, there is no question that her presence as T’Challa and Shuri’s mother is one of the pivotal pieces of the film’s emotional foundation. At the same time, with only a limited amount of screen time, Bassett also makes room to give Ramonda reasons to exist as more than just a motivation for another character. It is interesting to note that while Angela Bassett can, and has, carried a movie on her own, she also has boundless potential as a supporting player. No matter what, and Black Panther proves this in no uncertain terms, Angela Bassett is one of the very best working today.