If you wondered why Jurnee Smollett looked comfortable busting the windows out of racists’ cars, it’s because she’s trained for this moment. Longtime fans of hers know that Lovecraft Country isn’t the first time Smollett has been placed in a project set in the Civil Rights era. In fact, Smollett has made her mark as the reigning queen of Black history projects. Here are five of her projects that depict African American history.
Smollett’s breakout role was in 1997’s Eve’s Bayou as Eve Batiste, a young girl growing up in an elite Creole community in 1960s Louisiana. Eve’s life changes for the weird when she realizes she has the family’s gift of “second sight” and asks the community’s fortune teller Elzora (Diahann Carroll)to put a voodoo spell on her cheating father (Samuel L. Jackson).
While the film itself doesn’t explicitly deal with race relations, the implicit social and racial politics of Creole life, plus the focus on the midcentury time period, cements the beginning of Smollett’s career as a go-to actress for Black period drama.
Selma, Lord, Selma
In 1999, Smollett led the Disney TV film Selma, Lord, Selma, detailing a young girl’s dream to follow in Martin Luther King (Clifton Powell)’s footsteps after hearing one of his speeches. She becomes a young marcher among the multitudes walking from Selma to Montgomery to challenge the South’s racist voting suppression tactics, but the mission tests her in more than just mileage on foot.
Smollett’s character, Sheyann Webb, was one of several inspirational characters Smollett played during her childhood, giving young viewers a window into a time they’d only read about in history books. Also, by taking on these complex roles at such a young age, Smollett proved herself to be a talent to watch.
The Great Debaters
Smollett’s role in the 2007 film, The Great Debaters, placed her in 1935 as Samantha Booke, a member of the Wiley College debate team who challenged Harvard, proving that Black students were just smart as their white counterparts. The role was like a bridge between Smollett’s childhood career and her more mature path as an adult in the industry. She also got to work with Denzel Washington and Forest Whitaker, the film’s main leads.
Smollett starred opposite Aldis Hodge in WGN America’s 2016 drama series Underground, co-written by Misha Green. The series was loved by critics and viewers alike for showing an unflinching look at America’s racism while providing a new, fresh, and sobering look at slavery.
In the series, Smollett played Rosalee, a woman who was determined to earn her freedom by escaping to the north. During two seasons, fans were able to follow Rosalee’s journey from captive to becoming Harriet Tubman’s (Aisha Hinds) assistant on the Underground Railroad.
Smollett’s career through Black American history has brought her to her present role in HBO’s Lovecraft Country, hailing from Misha Green and producer Jordan Peele. As Leticia ‘Leti’ Lewis, Smollett is bringing everything she’s learned from her past historical roles to the forefront, creating a new type of heroine for the modern age.
Leti’s journey is as strange as it is powerful, and while we haven’t seen everything Leti will learn about herself, we know that Leti will prove to be more than capable of preserving.
Which role of Smollett’s is your favorite?