As we all well know by now, Hollywood often gets so caught up in the beautiful faces that have been proven to make money, it sometimes forgets—or actively chooses to ignore—those countless other talented and creative beings waiting in the wings for their shot. It’s the reason we see the same leading white men over and over again, and it becomes an even bigger issue when you’re dealing with leading black men and women. Do I love John Boyega, Michael B. Jordan, Chadwick Boseman, Sterling K. Brown and Mahershala Ali as much as everyone else? No. I love them more. Do I want them (along with rising favorites like Lakeith Stanfield, Donald Glover and Daniel Kaluuya) to have all the roles? Well, yes, I want them to have all the roles previously written for leading white men. But I also want them to be joined by the many other incredible black actors who are equally capable of playing leading men in all manner of thriller, romance, sci-fi, drama or horror films. Here are five brilliant black actors who need to start hitting the big screen now.
Fleabag was already my favorite TV show of 2016, and then Anthony Welsh had the unmitigated gall to appear in a small but significant role, reminding me that he is one of my favorite unsung performers of the moment. The UK actor gave an incredible turn in the 2013 film Starred Up, playing an inmate who undergoes intense therapy at a British prison. Others will recognize him from Black Mirror’s “Crocodile” episode, or The Girl with all the Gifts. Welsh has a quietness in his work that can easily transform into intense passion, or the kind of light humor that would make him perfect for a romantic drama, though I confess I have my own personal reasons for hoping he lands such a role. Whatever his next move, let’s hope casting directors start taking note soon.
Mudbound may not have been the film I was hoping for in 2017, but that doesn’t mean I walked away in complete disappointment. Like many others, I was re-introduced to the charming and talented Jason Mitchell, who played Ronsel Jackson in the Netflix film from Dee Rees, and who most of us remember from his turn as Eazy-E in Straight Outta Compton. Mitchell was captivating in both roles, and he has some exciting projects coming soon, including The Chi series (from Master of None actor and writer Lena Waithe) and Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams. In Mudbound, I was especially impressed with his ability to maintain the playfulness that gave his character warmth, while portraying someone with symptoms of PTSD and maintaining that seemingly unquenchable fire behind his eyes. After displaying such powerful range, it’d be exciting to see him do just about anything.
It’s easy now to find TV critics who believe that The Leftovers is one of the greatest TV dramas) of all time. But if I had my way, we’d all spend a lot more time talking about how amazing the show’s second season was, and Kevin Carroll’s role in making it such. Carroll, who recently appeared in FX’s Snowfall and stars in the upcoming film Blindspotting, has spent much of his acting career on the stage, and the result is a performer who knows how to command the emotions in a room, even when he’s not in the same room with you. (Damon Lindelof has said Carroll is responsible for one of his personal favorite moments of the entire series.) His ability to translate the complexity, anger and grief that often plagued John Murphy on the HBO drama left me utterly hungry for more strange roles like this, and I suspect Carroll is, too. The actor’s been in the game for quite some time (many of us still look at him and see Calvin’s Paid in Full glasses), but I’d like to think there’s still a big, “breakthrough” role waiting for him in the near future.
All of the actors and characters on Underground made the series powerful, but two characters in particular did the work of completely redefining the “slave” narrative for American audiences. Amirah Vann as Ernestine (whose name I’ll be singing out on a forthcoming list, similar to this one), and Alano Miller as Cato. The rules of movies and TV series (or miniseries) about slaves have always been pretty simple: white people, bad (except for that one kindly white savior), black people, good, and in a horrifyingly unfortunate position. But Alano Miller’s Cato did the work of shattering that concept to pieces, simultaneously playing an enslaved man and the kind of delicious villain whose moves are wholly unpredictable. You love to hate him and so it takes a particular talent to make you (occasionally) root for a bad guy like him—Miller succeeded in inspiring such complex emotions time and time again. The actor also played Roman and Aaron Zazo on Jane the Virgin and more recently, Gavin Green on Halt & Catch Fire. His Underground co-star Aldis Hodge is well on his way to becoming a Hollywood favorite, and Miller’s wife DeWanda Wise is Spike Lee’s new Nola Darling; all of which means he’s in great company and it’s high time we see him take the reins in his own projects.
There are plenty of reasons to tune into the NAACP Image Awards over the Emmys next year, and RonReaco Lee’s well-deserved nomination is just one of them. Even at this time of peak TV there are still very few roles like the one Lee played on Starz’s Survivor’s Remorse. His performance as Reggie Vaughn was equal parts compelling and hilarious, as Reggie could crack a joke, curse someone out and deliver an eloquent monologue at any given moment, elevating any scene he was in to the next level. We never deserved his performance in that show, and Starz chose not to renew it, but maybe we’ll be better prepared to closely watch his next formidable performance. Lee is a veteran actor, having played lead roles in Let’s Stay Together and The Shield (and a personal favorite, Sister, Sister), but I’m not satisfied and believe he still has so much more to give in his line of work, if only he’d be presented with the good, meaty material he deserves. Lee is set to appear in the upcoming season of The Quad, and here’s hoping we’ll see him soon in another leading dramatic or comedic role worthy of his talents.
Shannon M. Houston is a Staff Writer on Hulu’s upcoming series The Looming Tower and Amazon’s Homecoming. She is the former TV Editor of Paste Magazine, and her work has appeared in Salon, Indiewire’s Shadow and Act, and Heart&Soul. She currently has more babies than you. You can follow her on Twitter.