Age doesn’t define talent. However, it is a rarity that a child actor can deliver a performance with the same nuance, depth and finesse of their adult counterparts. It’s certainly no easy feat, but it has been done. Here are 10 Black child actors whose movie performances have left a permanent imprint in the minds of moviegoers.
1. Keke Palmer in Akeelah & The Bee
Whether she’s acting, hosting her own talk show or making music, all of the roads Keke Palmer has taken lead back to her performance as Akeelah Anderson in the 2006 film Akeelah and The Bee. Palmer gives an emotionally resonant performance of a young and gifted Black girl determined to win the National Spelling Bee. Palmer also manages to achieve the unachievable: overshadow the likes of Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne in their own movie. Not many actors can say they’ve done that, much less at the age of 12.
2. Jurnee Smollett-Bell in Eve’s Bayou
Critics and audiences alike became enraptured with the acting of Jurnee Smollett-Bell, in large part due to her performance as Eve Batiste in the 1997 Southern Gothic Eve’s Bayou. The tale of a Black Creole girl who discovers her father’s infidelity is only enriched by Smollett-Bell, who fills every frame of the movie with her portrayal as the girl who discovers the secrets hidden under her seemingly upstanding family’s facade.
3. Zelda Harris in Crooklyn
At the tender age of nine, Zelda Harris was plucked from obscurity to star in Spike Lee’s family drama Crooklyn in 1994. Harris gives an understated and heartbreaking performance as Troy Carmichael, a young girl who slowly assumes the role of the matriarch after her mother, Carolyn (Alfre Woodard), dies of cancer.
4. Quvenzhané Wallis in Beasts Of The Southern Wild
In 2012, Quvenzhané Wallis commanded everyone’s attention with her performance as Hushpuppy, a pint-sized survivalist who lives with her dying father in a Louisiana bayou, in Beasts Of The Southern Wild. Only five years old when she auditioned for the part, Wallis captures Hushpuppy’s ferocity and charm. The performance earned Wallis an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress in 2013, making her the youngest Best Actress nominee in history as well as the youngest Black Oscar nominee ever.
5. Royalty Hightower in The Fits
In 2016, Royalty Hightower took the Sundance Film Festival by storm with her performance as Toni in the sports drama The Fits. Directed by Anna Rose Holmer, the film charts of a young tomboy who becomes entranced by the world of dance. Running 72 minutes long, the film rests solely on the shoulders of Hightower, who elevates the movie with a grounded debut performance.
6. Brandon Quintin Adams in The People Under The Stairs
Before he stole hearts as Aaron on Moesha, Brandon Quintin Adams was fleeing a house owned by a pair of incestuous siblings who held cannibalistic youth captive in their basement. Yes, you read that last part correctly. In the Wes Craven’s horror cult classic The People Under The Stairs, Adams starred as Poindexter “Fool” Williams, a young boy who accompanies his father in robbing their landlord’s household to steal a collection of rare coins. However, the young boy uncovers something even more sinister and must use his wits to make it out of his landlord’s household alive.
7. Alex Hibbert in Moonlight
Of the three actors who portrayed Chiron in the 2016 Best Picture Oscar winner Moonlight, Alex Hibbert’s portrayal is perhaps the most tender. It’s no surprise, given that Hibbert (who was 11 at the time) portrayed the character at the time when he was disaffected by the difficulties that would come with being a Black gay man. In 2016, director and writer Barry Jenkins charted the journey of a Black man grappling with his sexual identity in Miami. Hibbert delivers the film’s crowning moment early on in a scene when Juan (Mahershala Ali) teaches Chiron how to swim.
8. Meagan Good in Eve’s Bayou
Before she entered the consciousness of many with her role as Nina in the Nickelodeon show, Cousin Skeeter, Meagan Good left a haunting impression on many viewers as Cisely Batiste in of Eve’s Bayou. The older sister to main character Eve (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), Cisely navigates the difficult transition every Black girl endures in their entrance to adult, from puberty to bodily changes. Good effortlessly captures every emotion that aids her character’s journey, from confusion to embarrassment.
9. Evan Alex in Us
At just 10 years old, Evan Alex manages to pull off Jason Wilson and his doppelganger, Pluto in Us, Alex manages to pull off an acting performance with an ease we’ve come to expect from actors three times his age. The challenge is made all the more difficult, considering that Pluto’s mouth is burned, essentially rendering him mute. This leaves Alex with the task of communicating a variety of emotions without dialogue, which he masterfully pulls off.
10. Shahadi Wright Joseph in Us
In the same vein as Evan Alex, Shahadi Wright Joseph has a challenging task in Us. As runner teen Zora Wilson, the daughter to Adelaide and Jason, Wright has to bring a dose of physicality to her character and her doppelganger, Umbrae. She portrays her characters masterfully.
Joseph is also slated to voice the role of Young Nala in Disney’s upcoming live-action adaptation of The Lion King, set to be released on July 19.
Photo: Fox Searchlight, A24, Trimark