Make the Case lists choices chronologically, rather than in any order of quality. Picks reflect film acting roles only. If the actor in question also directed the movie, that’s purely a coincidence, and it plays no part in the film’s inclusion.
Believe it or not, we’re not going to include The Help on this list of the 5 best Octavia Spencer movies. For one thing, I already included it on a previous column of the 5 best Viola Davis movies. That doesn’t necessarily disqualify Spencer’s performance from being considered for this list. At the same time, I’m ultimately going to make the same arguments I did the first time around. That honestly doesn’t sound very appealing to me. If I didn’t have a choice, I’d suck it up. However, in terms of compiling a list of Octavia Spencer’s best performances, I think we do have a choice.
This is keeping in mind that Spencer and Davis gave two very different performances as their respective characters. This is also keeping in mind that Spencer won an Oscar for her work here. Besides the slight “ick” factor (or more than slight, depending on how you feel about it) of a black actress winning a coveted acting award for playing a maid, I can’t deny that it’s a great turn on her part. Spencer’s charisma and intensely empathetic approach to her characters, coupled with all of the gifts she has acquired as a master of her craft, are all put to good use as a woman named Minny Jackson. Spencer won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar right at the point in which she was finally starting to get larger roles. You will notice that many of the films highlighted here came out well after she had started working as an actress. For whatever reason, Spencer spent longer than you might guess in relative obscurity. From 1996, to around the end of the 2000s, she was more of a “Hey, I recognize her” type, than one of the most well-regarded actors or actresses working in the present.
A quick glance through her TV/film appearances reveals a long, long list of small-to-slightly-larger supporting roles. In a lot of those small parts, like Spider-Man, or even Bad Santa, she stands out. The problem with many of those small roles, which Spencer excelled in for over a decade, is that we rarely get anything substantial from them. Like a lot of artists waiting for an opportunity worthy of their talents, Spencer had to settle for being a scene-stealer. Sometimes, it was literally just the one scene.
For good or ill, The Help, or at least, the awards its success generated, changed all of that. Bigger, mostly better roles have been coming in ever since. It lets us appreciate the fact that Spencer can play just about anyone. She can be a vital part of any type of film, or any genre of film, you can imagine.
So why aren’t we including The Help for this latest edition of Make The Case?
Honestly, there are better movies of Spencer’s to highlight. With 124 credits (and counting) on IMDB, Octavia Spencer has been versatile for a lot longer than she has been famous. The Help is a good example of what she can do. I just happen to feel that among the dozens of film credits specifically (she has also appeared on dozens of TV shows from 1996 to the present), you will find performances that are superior to The Help in one way or another.
As always, this isn’t a question of one movie being better than the other. The nice thing about Make The Case is that we’re strictly focusing on the acting here. Spencer has appeared in great films and dreadful ones. Regardless of the film’s quality, she is almost always impressive.
Pretty Ugly People (2007)
To watch her star in films in the present, it is slightly unreal that Octavia Spencer languished in relative obscurity for so long. Pretty Ugly People, one of her early collaboration with Tate Taylor (who went on to direct Spencer in The Help, among other things) comes to us from that lengthy period, in which Spencer was slowly gaining more recognition as an actress. I won’t pretend Taylor’s first film is great, but it is certainly an interesting premise, involving a woman (Missi Pyle) and the various connections she shares to her college friends. Spencer doesn’t play one of the friends. Her small, scene-stealing role as the wife of another character makes up one of the most intriguing personalities. This is a film filled with such personalities, and it is definitely a case of good performances enhancing an uneven, but interesting plot. Spencer only gets a little time here, but there is no question that this film is a good showcase for her comedic timing, intensity, and unique energy.
Fruitvale Station (2013)
Before he changed the stratosphere for superhero films, Ryan Coogler began his filmmaking career with the powerful, unforgettable Fruitvale Station. Michael B. Jordan’s amazing turn as Oscar Grant III, a man who was murdered by BART Police at the Fruitvale stop, is obviously the emotional core of this vital movie. Yet Coogler also fills his movie with a pacing that keeps you terrified, yet wholly locked in for the inevitable tragedy, and then adds cast members who are ready to dive headfirst into this wretched material. Spencer’s performance as Wanda Johnson only takes up a few minutes of this harrowing story, but it is one she probably should have won an Oscar for. As Wanda, Spencer proves yet again that much of her career has been a matter of quality over quantity. Thankfully, that has started to change.
Snowpiercer is weird, violent, and quite brilliant. One of the best post-apocalyptic movies of all time, and one of the best movies of the 2010s, Snowpiercer quite frankly has it all. Octavia Spencer as a mother who will stop at nothing to regain her child is just one of the good performances to be found here. However, while this is a movie that features great work from the likes of Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, and Song Kang-ho, Spencer is once again the one who makes the strongest impression on you. She is one of the most relatable characters in this film, set aboard a weary, half-mad society that spends their entire existence on a massive train. We root for a lot of the unfortunates in this film, but her role as Tanya might be the one we pull for most of all.
Hidden Figures (2016)
While slightly problematic (Kevin Costner was fine, but did he really need to be there?), Hidden Figures is nonetheless a groundbreaking biopic, and one of the strongest main performances of Octavia Spencer’s career. As Dorothy Vaughn, one of the key geniuses behind the Project Mercury, in addition to other missions, Spencer gets a chance to play one of the best roles of her career. She offers beautiful chemistry with everyone on screen, including Taraji P. Henson and Janelle Monáe, in addition to a powerhouse performance that helps define the immense appeal of this true story. Spencer is still often in the supporting cast. That is fine in the sense that she’s generally great, no matter what. With Hidden Figures, she proves that she deserves more opportunities to be the lead.
The Shape of Water (2017)
Honestly, I’m okay with Spencer winning a Best Supporting Actress (which would make for her 2nd win overall) for her role as Sally Hawkins. Sally is a friend, translator, coworker, and confidant to Sally Hawkins’ mute Elisa Esposito, over the course of her unexpected, somewhat bizarre romance with a humanoid amphibian. Spencer’s character, as it is written, is essentially what you would expect from a friend to the protagonist. However, that doesn’t mean the character isn’t wonderfully written by Guillermo del Toro (who also directs) and Vanessa Taylor. Furthermore, Spencer’s natural gifts for finding qualities in her characters that are certain to engage the empathy of the audience, makes Sally more than just a basic description of her personality and role in the film’s story. Hawkins is more than just strength for the main character. We get to see a glimpse into that strength, as it relates to her private life, although that glimpse isn’t nearly enough.
The Shape of Water is more than enough, as far as Spencer as is concerned. It also reminds us that there doesn’t seem to be anything she can’t do as an actress.