It continues to be criminal for these “prestigious” award institutions to ignore the vast range and talent that Alfre Woodard possesses.
It never fails. Every award season, the powers that be behind the Academy and the Golden Globes all gather up for their team meetings and decide to nominate the same six [white] people for awards. In the process, this almost always yields various snubs when it comes to Black thespians across the board—especially if they happen to be in a genre film, like, say horror. And sometimes even snubs of other white thespians that these agencies claim “didn’t do enough promotion” (aka ass-licking).
Of course, one such snub includes career actor and acting legend Alfre Woodard. I considered writing a whole 20-page thesis on why it was sacrilegious that Woodard was not as decorated as her white contemporaries and how annoying it is that particularly Black actresses have to wait to be “awarded” until much later in their careers.
But rather than do all that, I decided to simply revisit six roles that prove that Alfre Woodard deserves her flowers now.
1. Bernadine Williams in Clemency (2019)
This is the role that has inspired this piece. In director Chinoye Chukwu’s Clemency, Woodard plays a prison warden, Bernadine Williams, who is two seconds from ruling with an iron fist. She prides herself on not letting her emotions get in the way of being an effective boss and is proud to be as stoic as possible. Of course, this changes when she meets an inmate on death row and is forced to confront the evils of her job, as well as all the people she’s had a hand in putting to death.
It is being (rightfully) praised as one of Woodard’s best and most nuanced performances not just this decade but for her entire career. It debuted at Sundance this year and is set to debut to the general public on December 27, 2019.
2. Mistress Shaw in 12 Years A Slave
If you know me, then you know that I have extremely… mixed feelings about Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave. It’s a brutal film that is carefully written, masterfully directed, and also expertly acted. And it is also the last “slave film” I allowed myself to watch. Still, with a film full of unforgettable performances, the top among them was Woodard’s Mistress Harriet Shaw. In the film, Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) encounter Shaw on a nearby plantation. And she clues Patsey especially into how she plays along with her master’s grand delusions about his “affection” and “fidelity” toward her in order to maintain some semblance of power in their hellscape.
The politics of this role and character aside (i.e narratives such as this are used to spin, say, horror stories like Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings into fucked up “love stories”), Woodard plays Shaw with an air of coolness and matter-of-factness that nearly makes you forget that you are watching the horrors of slavery play out. And it is clear that she cares for Patsey and wants her to be able to survive. It’s a very brief, but brilliantly acted role in a film I plan on never seeing again.
3. Carolyn in Crooklyn (1994)
As of 2019, Crooklyn is the only Spike Lee production Woodard has starred in and she manages to leave quite the mark. In the semi-autobiographical film, Woodard plays Carolyn, a schoolteacher and the mother of 9-year-old protagonist Troy Carmichael (Zelda Harris)… along with her four brothers. As Carolyn, Woodard has to hold down her family, particularly financially, while her husband Woody (Delroy Lindo) lives with his head in the clouds as he attempts to get his fledgling musical career off the ground. This stress of this eventually results in Carolyn throwing out Woody temporarily and sending Troy to live with her rich aunt.
Woodard shines in this role as a mother with multiple dimensions and as someone who has to balance being incredibly strict, yet loving to her entire family. It’s clear that Woodard has incredible range and this was one of the roles that made it painfully obvious.
4. Camille in Love and Basketball (2000)
I’ve always had mixed feelings about Gina Prince-Bythewood’s classic film Love and Basketball because romantic lead Quincy (Omar Epps) really doesn’t get enough flak for how much of a dickhead he is and I don’t see it as much of a love story as most people do. However, the film recognizes this potential conflict within itself and particularly tackles the concept of settling with Woodard’s character Camille Wright. Camille plays the mother of Monica (Sanaa Lathan), the other romantic lead and an aspiring basketball star. Camille is not always as supportive as one would expect her to be, but you find out why near the climax of the film when she gets into with Monica during that pivotal kitchen scene. What results is an honest conversation about their dreams, how Camille wanted to be a caterer, and how she had to put that dream aside when married Monica’s father and when she gave birth to Monica and her sister.
Woodard is known for her nuance, which comes through in this role. But perhaps the best part is that Woodard is able to convey the complex emotions that come with being a parent and the sacrifices that especially women/mothers are expected to make in order to be good ones. It’s probably one of my favorite performances from her.
5. Chantelle in Passion Fish (1992)
John Sayles’ Passion Fish is one of a small group of films that have managed to secure a 100% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes and hang onto that rating even decades later. And it’s well-deserved too, seeing as Mary McDonnell and Alfre Woodard turn in amazing performances as May-Alice Culhane and Chantelle respectively. The film follows May-Alice as a spoiled actress who is suddenly rendered paralyzed from the waist down in a freak accident and returns home to Louisiana to recover. She becomes a borderline, belligerent drunk and punks out each and every live-in nurse that comes to take care of her. Of course, this ceases to work when Chantelle shows up and she meets her match. While Chantelle works for the fallen actress, she’s not afraid to call her to the mat for her bitterness and selfishness.
Woodard and McDonnell’s rapport is sharp, often biting, and never misses a beat the entire film. So much so that when they slowly become friends as the movie progresses, you can’t help but to be like “damn” at Woodard’s excellent performance. Woodard brings the same amount of skill here that she would bring to any role, but the tenacity that she pours into Chantelle—a former addict turned nurse who will not be disrespected—is one for the books. She scored her first Golden Globes nomination with this role.
6. Mariah “Black Mariah” Dillard in Luke Cage (2016)
I’m probably going to get baby-dragged for this addition, seeing as Woodard has dozens of other roles that she kills it in and that could have gone here. And also seeing as Luke Cage was plagued by a variety of issues, including a stiff and problematic lead actor and a second season that collapsed in on itself with its nigh-xenophobic portrayal of Jamaicans. That said, hear me out. In Luke Cage, Woodard plays Mariah Dillard (formerly Mariah Stokes), a career politician, as she sets out to improve Harlem, the neighborhood she grew up in. She initially comes off as a stereotypical “Bougie Black” (like she even has reservations about how crass it is to throw “nigga” around as a Black person), but all that begins to unravel and get increasingly complex when you found out that she has always funded her crime boss cousin Cornell “Cotton Mouth” Stokes (Mahershala Ali) and kept him out of trouble in exchange for him funding her political campaign when it was time.
It’s one of Woodard’s more out-there, yet exciting roles because it takes what could be a character full of caricatures (re: Black Mariah), and creates a character that is okay with doing downright murderous and nefarious shit as long as the Black people of Harlem get to benefit from all the progress she’s making in the process. It’s a role that calls things like colorism, respectability politics, and even child sexual abuse in the Black community into warranted question. And it’s a role that Woodard clearly has fun with as she goes from a composed politician all the way to a ruthless crime lord.
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In any case, as alluded to above, it continues to be criminal for these “prestigious” award institutions to ignore the vast range and talent that Woodard possesses. For if she can manage to steal the spotlight in chaotic roles such as Wanda from Holiday Heart, short-but-sweet roles like Miriam Sharpe in Civil War where she drags Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) by his goatee, and in gut-wrenching roles like Eunice Evers in Miss Evers’ Boys, she clearly ain’t someone to play with.