It seems every year, there is one actress that out of nowhere has a major breakthrough and gets people to take notice of her talent: Carey Mulligan in 2009, Jessica Chastain in 2011, and Alicia Vikander in 2015. But back in 2014, that actress was British thespian Gugu Mbatha-Raw.
Her breakthrough came in the form of two very distinctive lead performances. One of them was the period drama Belle where she plays a real-life woman named Dido Elizabeth Belle, a mixed race daughter of a Navy captain and an African slave who grew up in aristocracy yet was denied particular privileges due to her skin color. Belle’s struggle with both her identity and the courage to speak up live entirely in the eyes of the leading lady portraying her.
Gugu’s other leading performance that year was in Beyond The Lights where she plays a modern day, Rihanna-esque pop star named Noni. Similar to Belle, Noni is a woman who slowly finds the courage to find her voice. But one thing that makes her different is how Noni puts on a facade to conceal her pain. Noni is a woman who may have it all; fame, fortune, and admiration from the public. Yet, what occurs behind her charismatic stage persona and off camera is a struggle for her to come to grips with her fame.
Unlike the other aforementioned actresses, Gugu was unable to translate her breakthrough buzz into an Oscar nomination. Even in a very fluid Best Actress field, she sadly received little attention for either performance outside a series of “Breakthrough” or “Rising Star” citations. While she may have been a long shot in the Actress race, judging by the fact that Beyond The Lights received a Best Original Song nomination for “Grateful,” it’s evident that Oscar voters were familiar with the film and her performance.
Since then, Hollywood seems to have done her talent a slight disservice. Her first two projects after both Belle and Beyond The Lights were Jupiter Ascending and Concussion, having nothing to do in both of those. Also, while Beauty And The Beast is the biggest hit of her career, because she plays the motion capture character of Plumette, we barely see her on screen.
But regardless, Gugu Mbatha-Raw has managed to seek out interesting material, becoming a standout in everything she does in the process. While Miss Sloane may be a juicy star vehicle for Jessica Chastain, Gugu goes toe to toe with Chastain’s titanic portrayal with her subtle yet insightful performance as Esme, a sympathetic gun lobbyist caught up in the ferocious shark tank known as D.C. politics. Shortly after, Gugu starred in the Season 3 episode of Black Mirror known as “San Junipero.” As one half of a lesbian couple named Kelly, Gugu plays her with depth-filled zest which is a contrast to the more demure Yorkie played by Mackenzie Davis. Not only were Gugu and Mackenzie Davis a huge reason as to why “San Junipero” was the best episode of the season but the episode went on to win the Primetime Emmy for Best TV Movie.
Then this year, came the long delayed The Cloverfield Paradox. While the surprise release strategy turned out to be far more appealing than the actual film itself, the film’s brightest spot was easily Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s performance. As Ava, a scientist coping with the loss of her children while trying to navigate her way back home with her space crew once they are transported into an alternate dimension, Gugu infuses depth and pathos in a film that isn’t worthy of it. But thankfully, this isn’t the latest sci-fi starring vehicle that she will be in this year. In Fast Color, Gugu plays a super powered woman on the run from law enforcement. The film currently doesn’t have distribution but it won rave reviews out of the South By Southwest Film Festival. Even if it doesn’t attract any Oscar attention, we should keep our fingers crossed that this film could be the one that makes her a bigger star.
She may have proven herself as a valuable supporting player but Gugu Mbatha-Raw is someone whose talents warrant more starring vehicles. She’s got the versatility and easily has the charisma. Plus, even if the films surrounding her don’t deliver, she always does.
Even if the films she’s done haven’t been the most financially successful, the poor box office of those films was through no fault of her own. Despite having some flops on her résumé, she still should receive more opportunities to become the superstar that she deserves to be.