Angela Bassett is, to paraphrase from one of her iconic roles, simply the best. A versatile performer, she's worked with filmmakers like Spike Lee, John Singleton, and Kathryn Bigelow, playing everything from the leading lady looking for love, to multiple real-life heroes and icons, and a literal African queen.
A native New Yorker with a degree from the Yale School of Drama, she began her career in television, before making her film debut with a bit part in 1986's F/X. In the early '90s, Bassett began making a name for herself with standout performances in Boyz n the Hood in 1991 and Malcolm X in 1992. The very next year, she shined in her breakthrough role as Tina Turner in the biopic What’s Love Got to Do With It? For her powerful performance, she received an Oscar nomination for Best Actress.
"Of all the roles that I’ve had in my career, the one that I fought the hardest to get, bar none, 100 percent, was Tina Turner," she told Entertainment Weekly. "It was rough and tough, but that one role in particular let me know what I was made of."
Since then, she has been the epitome of a movie star. In 2018, Bassett took on the role of Queen Ramonda, the Wakandan royal and mother of the titular superhero, in Marvel's Black Panther. Ahead of the sequel, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, A.frame invites you to look back at Bassett's powerful filmography and some of her essential roles.
Bassett establishes herself as an acting powerhouse in her small, but still significant role in John Singleton’s Boyz in the Hood. She plays Reva, the mother of Tre (Cuba Gooding, Jr.), who makes the difficult decision to send her son to live with his father (Laurence FIshburne) after he gets into trouble at school. Though the focus of the film is primarily Tre and the masculine relationships in his life, Bassett makes a lasting impression as the mother who did what she felt was best to give her son the best life possible.
In Spike Lee’s dramatization of Malcolm X’s life, Bassett captivates as Betty Shabazz alongside Denzel Washington’s titular civil rights leader. A nurse and activist in her own right, Shabazz was the wife of Malcolm X in the final seven years of his life. Here, Bassett once again takes on a supporting role, but is no less powerful than her co-stars, imbuing her performance with the strength that the woman she plays was known to have.
Bassett would actually go on to play Shabazz once again in the 1995 Mario Van Peebles film Panther, a dramatized account of the story of the Black Panther Party. And, years later in a 2013 Lifetime TV movie, Betty & Coretta, Bassett would play Coretta Scott King opposite Mary J. Blige, who played Shabazz.
This Tina Turner biopic gave Bassett the opportunity to deliver a towering performance in a leading role, and she delivered one star-making performance as the music icon, receiving an Oscar nomination for Best Actress as a result. Bassett totally transforms for the role, recreating Turner’s energy onstage and her vulnerability off. The drama depicts Turner's tumultuous early life and abusive relationship with her partner Ike Turner (Laurence Fishburne, reuniting with Bassett after appearing together in Boyz in the Hood). The audience witnesses the road Turner survived on her way to becoming a legendary artist and performer.
For Kathryn Bigelow’s cyberpunk neo-noir thriller, Bassett plays chauffeur and essentially bodyguard to Ralph Fiennes former cop/black market dealer of recordings of people’s memories. The pair work together to unravel a mystery involving murder, future tech, and Fiennes' dream girl, played by Juliette Lewis, in a dystopian 1999 Los Angeles (which was four years into the future at the time of the film's release). The film didn’t do particularly great at the box office when it was initially released, but has since grown into a cult classic, with fans celebrating Bassett’s incredible performance.
This ensemble romantic drama combines the powers of Bassett, Loretta Devine, Lela Rochon, and the late Whitney Houston for a classic story of self-discovery and love. All four women are excellent, but Bassett is a standout as Bernadine, a woman who sacrificed her career and dreams to marry and raise a family, only to be cheated on by her husband. The performance is outstanding all around, but the epic scene that everybody remembers to this day is the one where Bassett loads her cheating ex’s clothes into his car, lights the whole thing on fire, and walks away to begin a new life.
Bassett again plays a powerful woman looking for a new lease on life in this romantic comedy-drama. She stars as Stella, a high-powered executive and mother who books herself a well-earned vacation to Jamaica with her best friend (Oscar winner Whoopi Goldberg). There, she meets and falls for a local (Taye Diggs) who is 20 years her junior. Bassett sells both the wish fulfillment highs of the first half, and the crash back down to reality of the second half, balancing everything for Stella’s happy ending.
This quiet, ensemble drama from director John Sayles features Bassett in another career best moment. The story centers on two fictional beach towns in Florida, one predominantly white, the other predominantly Black, and how they impact each other at crucial points. Bassett is a high school beauty queen who left town after becoming pregnant as a teen and is now returning to make reconciliations with her family. Sunshine State co-stars Edie Falco, Mary Steenburgen, and the late Mary Alice.
Akeelah and The Bee stars a young Keke Palmer as an 11-year-old with a gift for spelling and Bassett as her reluctantly supportive mother. Both actresses shine as they portray their characters struggling with the pressures facing them, whether they be racial, socio-economic, or internal to their family. It’s a triumphant story as Akeelah works her way to become a top speller, ultimately helped by her mother. The drama also pairs Fishburne and Bassett yet again, with the former starring as Akeelah’s spelling coach.
Spike Lee updated the ancient Greek play Lysistrata by Aristophanes, which featured women withholding sex from their husbands to put an end to the Peloponnesian War. Lee takes that concept and transfers it to modern-day Chicago and the issue of gang violence in the city, with Teyonah Parris leading the cause. Bassett takes on the role of community leader Miss Helen Worthy, who supports the young women's protest after experiencing a tragic loss.
Bassett ascends to a throne rightfully hers as Ramonda, the Queen Mother of Wakanda in one of the best Marvel films made so far. All of Bassett's talent and grace as an actress are on full display, as she supports her son T'Challa, aka Black Panther (played by the late Chadwick Boseman) as he tries to do right by his country and his people as a leader and superhero. The film earned seven Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, and won three: for Best Costume Design, Best Score, and Best Production Design.
Bassett made a brief appearance as Ramonda in 2019's Avengers: Endgame — one of the biggest movies of all time — and reprises her role again in this year's Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, which sees the matriarch assume the throne following the death of King T'Challa.
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is now in theaters.