Denzel. Oprah. Ving. Whoopi. JHud. Most actors would never be known by their first name, let alone given a jaunty nickname, had they not first knocked it out the park in a supporting role. But these actors lit up the screen, becoming incandescent, burning as bright, if not brighter than the star(s), with whom they’re supposed to be sharing screen time. WIth a presence and energy that can’t be denied, transitioning from scene stealer to movie star in one fell swoop. Here are the best and the brightest:
Richard Pryor, Grover T. Muldoon, SIlver Streak (1976)
Silver Streak, a Gene Wilder/Jill Clayburgh comedy thriller paid homage to classic noir films, namely Alfred Hitchcock’s North By Northwest. When Wilder’s character George Caldwell gets thrown off the train (twice!), he steals a cop car and encounters Grover T. Muldoon (Richard Pryor) handcuffed in the cruiser’s back seat. Pryor turns a cameo into a rare comic gem that was so good, so gut-bustingly funny that they had to write a bigger role for him. After the film’s villain (Patrick McGoohan) calls Muldoon the N-word, Pryor famously pulls a gun, asking, “Who you callin’ nigger?” The chemistry between Pryor and Wilder was so strong it spawned three more buddy romps, Stir Crazy (1980) & See No Evil, Hear No Evil (1989) and Another You (1991).
Oprah Winfrey, Sofia, The Color Purple (1985)
When producer Quincy Jones and director Steven Spielberg cast Oprah Winfrey, then (just) a successful talk-show host with no acting experience as Sofia in The Color Purple, the film adaptation of Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, the critics snickered. But instead of falling flat on her face, Winfrey turned in a bravura performance, amidst a star-studded veteran ensemble. Fiery, fiesty at home with diminutive hubby Harpo, but beat down into (literally) blind submission by white men, Oprah would be nominated for an Oscar, along with castmate Margaret Avery, the first time two African American women would compete in the same category. That Winfrey might grow up to be somebody someday.
Denzel Washington, Pvt. Trip, Glory (1989)
Glory, the Civil War period piece, was supposed to be a serious showcase for Ferris Bueller, uh, Matthew Broderick. But as the former slave turned soldier Private Trip, a little-known Denzel Washington snatched this movie from Broderick, AND a Best Supporting Actor Oscar (only the third Black man to do so). The scene that cemented it: After going AWOL, Pvt. Trip is recaptured then reprimanded with a slave’s whupping. With every crack of the whip, Denzel evoked the rebellious spirit of the colored soldier who knows he’ll never be treated as an equal–despite patriotic sacrifice to country and duty. Even as the single tear reluctantly trickles down his face, he never unlocks his stoic adamant gaze with Broderick’s Capt. Shaw. Damn, Yankee.
Whoopi Goldberg, Oda Mae Brown, Ghost (1990)
If this category was kick-ass nappy-haired film debuts, we’d be talking Celie instead of Oda Mae. (Besides, we got OPRAH repping for The Color Purple.) But to steal the spotlight off one the highest-grossing romantic movies from two of the sexiest 90s leads like Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze, while wearing bad wigs? Yeahhhh. The part was almost given to Patti LaBelle and Jackee Harry, but Whoopi’s portrayal of a two-bit psychic turned reluctant medium was more than just comic relief–she sopped up the movie’s sappiness with her salty tongue and real-world-meets-other-worldly depth. Oda Mae is admittedly Oscar-winning screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin’s favorite character, for which Whoopi earned the 1991 Best Supporting Actress Oscar–only the second African American actress behind Hattie McDaniel in 1939. Big Whoop.
Don Cheadle, Mouse Alexander, Devil In A Blue Dress (1995)
Denzel Washington, now a leading ladies’ man, seemed a shoe-in showstopper as author Walter Mosely’s accidental investigative hero, Easy Rawlins. But the minute Don Cheadle as Mouse Alexander steps on the scene, behind a long-barreled pistol, asking: ”Easy, you want me to shoot this motherfucker?” the movie morphs into a Black buddy film. Cheadle, then a virtual unknown, brings a deadly energy to every scene he’s in: And behind every easygoing line Mouse delivers, there’s a palpable threat of critical violence. So, what do we have to do for a sequel, Mouse and Easy–beg?
Ving Rhames, Marcellus Wallace, Pulp Fiction (1994)
In Quentin Tarantino’s film Pulp Fiction, arguably, heralded as John Travolta’s comeback and Sam Jackson’s Samness, Ving Rhames doesn’t get a lot of screen time. However, Ving takes Marcellus Wallace, the big-time LA gangster, from what could’ve been a typecast thug-type role into understated menace gold. Beyond fixing fights and lording over his motley crew of underlings, Wallace in the end, gets caught and savagely raped by white supremacist Zed (Peter Greene), boxer Butch Coolidge (Bruce Willis), his would-be victim, subdues Zed and frees Marcellus. After a near-silent nod of acknowledgment and take-it-to-the-grave forgiveness, he utters his oft-quoted line: ‘I’m about to go medieval on his ass.” In a cult film full of classic lines, Rhames took what little shine he got and turned in a riveting performance.
Samuel Jackson, Gator Purify, Jungle Fever (1995)
Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever was supposed to be a Wesley Snipes joint. But Sam Jackson’s performance as the cracked-out Gator Purify stole the movie, taking what was supposed to be the main story (sex and interracial relationships) to the side story: the scourge of crack in 90s Brooklyn. Toggling from Purify’s Pentacostal pontifications and minstrelsy shuffles to his begging for his mama’s money, Gator was painful to watch. Yet you couldn’t take your eyes off him. Gator was Jackson’s jump-off to becoming the highest grossing actor of all time.
Kerry Washington, Chenille, Save the Last Dance (2001)
Sure, she’s all bawse now as Olivia Pope in Scandal, but back in 2001, Kerry first let her Bronx roots out. Save the Last Dance was one of those trite teen Black Romeo/White Juliet meets Dirty Dancing rom-coms. “White ballerina has no rhythm! Black man teaches her! They fall in love! She braids her hair!” But Kerry, in a breakout role, slays as Sean Patrick Thomas’ little sister Chenille, snapping back one-liners like “They call him Snookie. Because Fool was taken” and toggles seamlessly between keeping both Julia Stiles’ Pollyanna ways and her homegirls’ hoodratness in check. On pointe.
Jennifer Hudson, Effie White, Dreamgirls (2006)
As Effie White in Dreamgirls, Jennifer Hudson simply eclipsed the supposed star apparent, Beyonce Knowles. Seemingly channeling her early exit from American Idol, Hudson took her voluminous voice and voluptuous (pre-Weight Watchers) to embody Effie’s prideful yet jilted figure, who refused to fade into the background, to be a victim, and absorb continuous low-blows. Yeah, Eddie Murphy killed it as aging star James “Thunder” Early, too. But not even his valiant performance earned standing ovations…in a movie theatre. Handing the Best Supporting Actress Oscar was a foregone conclusion.
Octavia Spencer, Minny Jackson, The Help (2011)
While the Oscar syrup poured on thicker than Mrs. Butterworth, folks complained how these strong black actresses were relegated to play Mammies. But hello? How else to depict American history’s f’ed-upness? Dignified Viola Davis acted with heart, but the soul of The Help was Octavia Spencer, whose previous credits were mostly nameless: Bank Girl, Landlady, Passenger #2, Troubled Woman, Big Customer. But Spencer turned her bug-eyed comedic glances into fiery determination of survival. As Minny Jackson, the abused maid at home turned domestic pariah for the “terrible awful,” she was a shoe-in for the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, following in the hallowed footsteps of Hattie McDaniel, Whoopi Goldberg, Jennifer Hudson and Mo’Nique before her.