Total Recall

Definitive Angela Bassett Roles

In this week's Total Recall, we look back at the roles that helped define the London Has Fallen star's career.

by | March 2, 2016 | Comments

London Has Fallen arrives in theaters this weekend, returning Gerard Butler to action as intrepid Secret Service agent Mike Banning — and bringing back Angela Bassett as his boss, Director Lynne Jacobs. It’s always a treat seeing Ms. Bassett on the big screen, so in honor of her return, we decided to dedicate this week’s list to a fond look back at some of the brighter critical highlights in her formidable filmography. It’s time for Total Recall!

Boyz N the Hood (1991) 96%


One of the most sadly prescient films to come out of Hollywood in the last 25 years, writer-director John Singleton’s Boyz N the Hood illustrated the conditions in South Central Los Angeles during a time when most filmgoers didn’t know anything about the area. Singleton, who was 24 when Boyz was released and would ultimately go on to become the youngest person (and first African-American) to earn a Best Director Academy Award nomination, outlined the area’s struggles through the stories of a group of young men: Tre (Cuba Gooding Jr.), Ricky (Morris Chestnut), and Doughboy (Ice Cube). As Tre’s mother, Bassett made the most of an opportunity to play an overmatched single mom — and delivered her share of memorable moments in an early 1990s classic about the growing list of problems facing urban American communities. A hit at Cannes, the box office, and multiple awards associations, Boyz presaged the “hood film” genre — as well as endless cycles of the violence it depicted. “Singleton had his fingers on the pulse of South Central at a time when it desperately needed help,” wrote Filmcritic’s Matt McKillop. “It’s too bad we didn’t listen to him soon enough.”

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Malcolm X (1992) 89%


Producer Marvin Worth struggled for years to mount a film adaptation of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, with a long list of on- and offscreen talent filtering through the project over a period of several decades before director Spike Lee finally came aboard in 1991. Fortunately, he found himself with the bones of a solid script — and ended up commanding a strong cast that included Denzel Washington as the slain activist and Bassett, who earned an Image Award for her appearance as his wife Betty Shabazz. For all the difficulties leading up to its release, Malcolm X ultimately ended up reaping almost universal critical acclaim; as David Ansen wrote for Newsweek, “Lee and company have performed a powerful service: they have brought Malcolm X very much to life again, both as man and myth.”

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What's Love Got to Do With It (1993) 96%

Bassett earned an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of Tina Turner in this hit 1993 drama, which paired her with Laurence Fishburne (as Turner’s ex-husband and former musical partner, Ike) and offered an unsparing look at one of the most dramatic — and enduring — success stories in the history of modern American music. Even before the curtain went up audiences knew they were in for a killer soundtrack, but What’s Love Got to Do with It? offered a layered narrative and full-bodied performances to match the Turner tale’s impressive musical heft; as David Sterritt argued for the Christian Science Monitor, “Angela Bassett gives a superbly versatile performance as the heroine, and Laurence Fishburne’s portrayal of Ike Turner consolidates his status as one of the most expressive and intelligent actors in movies today.”

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Waiting to Exhale (1995) 61%


After proving she could carry a picture with What’s Love Got to Do with It, Bassett continued her successful mid-1990s run with Waiting to Exhale, an adaptation of the Terry McMillan novel about the unsettled love lives of a group of female friends. Part of a talented ensemble that included Whitney Houston, Loretta Devine, and Lela Rochon (not to mention Gregory Hines and Dennis Haysbert on the other side of this battle between the sexes), Bassett helped propel Exhale to over $81 million at the box office, marking first-time director Forest Whitaker as a talent to be reckoned with behind the cameras and setting the stage for her subsequent starring role in the McMillan-inspired How Stella Got Her Groove Back three years later. Although it wasn’t as popular with critics as it was with audiences, it did earn a number of positive reviews, including one from Roger Ebert, who called it “An escapist fantasy that women in the audience can enjoy by musing, ‘I wish I had her problems’ — and her car, house, wardrobe, figure and men, even wrong men.”

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How Stella Got Her Groove Back (1998) 50%


Any discussion of Angela Bassett’s filmography would be incomplete without a look at How Stella Got Her Groove Back, the 1998 romantic dramedy — inspired by author Terry McMillan’s best-selling autobiographical novel — about a woman who falls for a much younger man (played by Taye Diggs) while on a Jamaican vacation. While critics were largely reluctant to groove along with the picture, it proved a somewhat modest success at the box office, turning in just under $40 million against a reported $20 million budget, and it did earn a share of acclaim, including Bassett’s NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Motion Picture. If reviews were ultimately largely negative, Bassett’s work received plenty of critical acclaim; as Margaret A. McGurk wrote for the Cincinnati Enquirer, the movie “Gives Angela Bassett the full star treatment, and she gives it right back.”

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Music of the Heart (1999) 63%


After rejuvenating his career with the first two chapters in the Scream trilogy, director Wes Craven took a surprising turn into uplifting, reality-based drama with 1999’s Music of the Heart, the story of a Harlem violin teacher (played by Meryl Streep) whose dogged determination (and incredible luck) helped save a school arts program — and put her fundraising concert on stage at Carnegie Hall. It’s just the kind of true story that Hollywood loves to coat with corny melodrama, and while most critics agreed that Craven wasn’t immune to that impulse, they ultimately felt that Streep’s Oscar-nominated performance — along with solid work from a talented ensemble that included Bassett as her character’s principal — helped distinguish Music from similar films. “Some movies you want to see. Some movies you need to see,” wrote Liz Braun for Jam! Movies. “Music of the Heart is one of the latter.”

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Sunshine State (2002) 80%


Writer-director John Sayles offered Bassett a pair of early film roles in City of Hope (1991) and Passion Fish (1992), and while her appearances in both movies were brief, they helped give her a springboard into projects like Boyz N the Hood — so even if Sayles’ script for 2002’s Sunshine State had been subpar, it’s easy to imagine that Bassett would have jumped at the opportunity to work with him again. Happily, quality wasn’t an issue with this ensemble dramedy, which surveys events at pivotal moments in an array of intertwining lives in a small Florida town. Bassett won an Image Award for her work in the film, which the Washington Post’s Ann Hornaday described as “A densely layered, always absorbing whole.”

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Akeelah and the Bee (2006) 85%


From the instant you look at the poster, you know Akeelah and the Bee is going to be another one of those feel-good pictures about someone (in this case, a cute little girl) overcoming the odds to achieve an unlikely triumph in the final act. But as Roger Ebert is fond of pointing out, it isn’t a formula unless it works, and this is a perfect example of familiar ingredients being used in all the right ways. The story of Akeelah Anderson (Keke Palmer), an 11-year-old girl whose gift for spelling earns her a shot at national acclaim — but places stress on her relationship with her widowed mom (Angela Bassett) — Bee gave Bassett a chance to reunite with frequent co-star Fishburne, who played Akeelah’s coach. We probably don’t need to tell you how it all turns out, but what it lacks in surprises, it more than makes up in a smart script, some sensitive direction from Doug Atchison, and typically strong work from its cast. As the Denver Post’s Michael Booth put it, “Akeelah and the Bee carefully diagrams every cliche we’ve absorbed from sports movies, urban dramas, mentor flicks and precocious-children portraits. Yet it works.”

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American Horror Story 77%


Bassett‘s made a number of TV appearances throughout her career, both as an episodic series guest and as a cast member in network movies, but she’s become more of a fixture in recent years. After booking a 16-episode arc on ER, she joined the cast of American Horror Story: Coven in 2013 — and evidently had quite a bit of fun, as she returned for AHS: Freak Show the following year and again for AHS: Hotel in 2015-’16. Of course, she’s far from alone on that front — Horror Story‘s long list of talented performers includes Jessica Lange, James Cromwell, Kathy Bates, and Connie Britton — and critics have largely enjoyed the ride; as an appreciative Brian Lowry wrote for Variety, “Where too many TV series become stale after a season or two, Horror Story has a proven ability to transform itself — not just season to season, but also episode to episode and sometimes even scene to scene — built into its creative DNA.”

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Chi-Raq (2015) 82%


More than 20 years after they united to award-winning effect with Malcolm X, Bassett and director Spike Lee teamed up again for Chi-Raq, a politically motivated satirical musical drama that uses Aristophanes’ Lysistrata as the basis for a story that imagines the gangbanger molls of Chicago banding together to deny their significant others sex until they agree to halt the city’s endless cycle of violence. It’s a story that seeks to balance an unwieldy assortment of tones, and its occasionally light treatment of real-life tragedies left some pundits disgruntled even before the movie made its premiere, but the end result enjoyed widespread critical acclaim. “It’s messy in places, as Lee’s movies tend to be. But there isn’t a moment that Chi-Raq isn’t alive,” wrote Stephanie Zacharek for TIME. “This is a deeply serious, biting picture that also has joy in its heart.”

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