10 performances by women of colour that can give any ‘goriye’ a run for her money

From Halle Berry in Monster’s Ball to Octavia Spencer in Hidden Figures to Viola Davis in Fences, here are our favourite performances by women of colour…

This article comes from a very special place in my heart. If there’s a cause that I have been very passionate about, it’s the Black Lives Matter movement. Of course, each one of us picks our battles and not everyone can fight every cause, but when it comes to human rights, there’s either right or wrong. It’s not so much of a battle as it is a decision. Equality, of races, gender and more is just one such thing. It’s a human right and no matter what your skin colour, you deserve it.

It’s 2020. We just saw a wonderful wave of the BLM movement, where in the middle of a pandemic, people of colour and white people, across the world, came out on the streets to show solidarity to George Flyod and spoke against police brutality. In times like these, our very learned lyricists Kumaar and Raj Shekhar, composers Vishal-Shekhar, playback singers Nakash Aziz and Neeti Mohan, producers Ali Abbas Zafar, Himanshu Mehra and Zee Studios, director Maqbool Khan and actors Ishaan Khatter and Ananya Panday thought that the following lyrics are acceptable:

O tujhe dekh ke goriye, Beyoncé sharma jayegi

There was been criticism in the online space, and even though the actors don’t deserve all the hate they have been getting for this, because they didn’t know that this song will be a part of the film while signing on, they do deserve a lot of the criticism. While it’s true that in the beginning Khatter and Panday wouldn’t have known the lyrics of the song Beyoncé Sharma Jayegi, they knew of them before shooting for the song. Voices should’ve been raised, but they weren’t.

In the wake of the same, we’ve decided that we will not be producing any Khaali Peeli content on Bombay Balloon unless the song is withdrawn. There will also be no review of the film. In the meanwhile, we thought, why not list our 10 favourite performances by women of colour? So here they are…

Lupita Nyong’o in Queen of Katwe

Even though Lupita Nyong’o’s performance in 12 Years A Slave is seen as her finest, for me, what she did in Mira Nair’s (another woman of colour) Queen Of Katwe was exceptional. In a supporting role, Nyong’o shines and how as the mother of a young girl obsessed with and a genius at chess. Nyong’o’s performance and the film, both stand irresistible to me.

Mo’Nique in Precious

In Precious, Mo’Nique plays Mary, Precious’ chain-smoking mother, who treats her daughter like a domestic servant and turns a blind eye on years of abuse. If you haven’t watched this 2009 drama, you must. It’s about a young girl who is pregnant by her own father for the second time. Director Lee Daniels has an eye, and a specific eye for actors of colour. He began with producing the wonderful Monster’s Ball (starring Halle Berry) and in Precious forces his actors to act. Daniels doesn’t like the glamour. What he wants is his actors to display raw emotion, and that’s exactly what Mo’Nique does in the film.

Halle Berry in Monster’s Ball

Halle Berry is a woman who created history. She became the first black woman to win an Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance in Monster’s Ball. It was the 74th Academy Awards. It took the Academy 74 years to recognise a woman of colour. It took 74 years for women of colour to first show their worth in the field of acting. In her acceptance speech, Berry stated, “This moment is so much bigger than me . . . it’s for every nameless, faceless woman of color that now has a chance because this door tonight has been opened.”

Mame Sane in Atlantics

If you haven’t watched Mati Diop’s Atlantics, you’re missing out on a lot. The film plays as a story written by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and jumps into the realm of magic realism. You first see Diop’s directorial debut as a commentary on social class but as the film progresses, you realise it’s much more that that. At heart, Atlantics is a poem, of which Mame Sane is the protagonist. But was she easy to find? Diop tells the LA Times that almost the entire cast was found in Senegal but they couldn’t find the right girl to play Ada, the protagonist. “We were about to delay [production], because I needed at least two to three months before the shooting to work with her. One day I was scouting with my set designer and I saw a girl coming out of her house. I had an intuition that she had something. So we went back to talk to her.” And that’s how Mame Sane, a young girl of 19 became Diop’s leading lady.

Viola Davis in Fences

Viola Davis plays Rose Maxson in Fences from Paramount Pictures. Directed by Denzel Washington from a screenplay by August Wilson.

In her very moving Oscar acceptance speech for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for Fences, Viola Davis said, “There’s one place that all the people with the greatest potential are gathered, and that’s the graveyard.” There’s absolute truth in her statement as was in her performance in the film. Should Davis have been nominated in the Leading Actress category, you ask us? We’d say “yes”. But was she? No. Whatever the reasons, we’re glad she was recognised for her performance, for her art. “I became an artist, and thank God I did, because we are the only profession that celebrates what it means to live a life,” she added in her speech.

Whoopi Goldberg in The Color Purple

Truth be told, Whoopi Goldberg gave one of the finest debut performances in The Colour Purple. Playing a woman who endured decades of racism and misogyny, Goldberg showed us all what it means to be a woman of colour in a white world, and how does one rise from it. In her review of the film, Janet Maslin of The New York Times write, “Miss Goldberg is limited at first, forced to shrug and cower in a manner that seems highly improbable in someone so evidently savvy. But she eventually grows into a tremendously compelling figure, with a huge, radiant smile that’s even more powerful as her formidable scowl.”

Angela Bassett in Strange Days

Talking about Strange Days and Angela Bassett’s performance in the film, Adam Hussam Murray wrote, “A sophisticated, dystopian neo-noir. Strange Days in hindsight challenges a lot of themes which feel unnervingly relevant today, for one the lack of strong sophisticated black female roles. Also some of the imagery surrounding the gaze, gender/race politics… Black Lives Matter springs to mind whilst revisiting this film. Angela Bassett is the real star here, her character Mace is the real moral and ethical anchor of the film’s narrative.”

Quvenzhané Wallis in Beasts of the Southern Wild 

4000 girls auditioned to pay Hushpuppy. 9-year-old Quvenzhane Wallis was selected to play the character and her biggest problem before coming to set was, “I barely knew how to read!” The film, which shows how Hushpuppy, a young girl who was born and raised primitively in a remote part of the southern Louisiana bayou, deals with the illness of her father (Dwight Henry), absence of her mother and mysteries of the world, shows a remarkable performance by this little girl.

Hattie McDaniel in Gone with the Wind

McDaniel became the first African American to win an Academy Award. It was for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for Gone with the Wind. 70 years later, Mo’Nique paid homage to McDaniel at the 2010 Academy Awards, when she won best supporting actress for Precious. And that’s how women of colour completed an entire circle and continue to shatter glass ceilings.

Octavia Spencer in Hidden Figures

The fact that Octavia Spencer is a remarkable actor is no question. The acceptance of this comes even if you have watched a single film/TV show of the actor. One of only 11 actresses to win the Critic’s Choice Award, Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild, a Bafta, and Oscar all in the same year, Spencer’s performance as Dorothy Vaughan in Hidden Figures is entirely exceptional. In an interview, Spencer had said, “Whenever I choose a role, it has to be something that I’m intrigued by or enlightens me in some way. This movie had both of those combined.” She also added, ““I wanted Dorothy Vaughan to be remembered for her own actions, so I approached it thinking, I’m just the vessel through which the world will be able to see all that Dorothy contributed. Dorothy was also very selfless and I think, because of that extreme selflessness, it was hard for her to gain her place as quickly as Katherine and Mary did. At the same time, she really believed in women and she made sure that every step forward for her was a step forward for all of them. It’s so wonderful to get to play a strong woman, but… these women are also allowed to have their vulnerabilities.” Spencer proved that exactly as in played out in the film, genius has no race.

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