This was a difficult task. There are so many performances worthy of a mention. Giancarlo Esposito stands out among the pack and has received enough attention that I will not include him in this list. But, his performance as Gustavo Fring in “Breaking Bad” is the leader of the pack for me.
Sterling K. Brown in “The People vs. OJ Simpson” (and Courtney B. Vance) & “This Is Us” is outstanding. In this list, I will try to share performances that readers may not have seen. Sterling will not be on the list but we know he is…well…sterling!
Similarly, Mahershalalhashbaz “Mahershala” Ali as “Cottonmouth” Stokes in “Luke Cage” is remarkable. It is an unforgettable performance. Also, as Remy Danton in “House of Cards”, he is wonderfully layered. For a special treat, check him out in the series “4400”! At this point, we are gleeful that readers love him as much as we do!
It is also important to say our eyes are on Jay Ellis as Lawrence in “Insecure”, Kofi Siriboe in “Queen Sugar” and the work Nelsan Ellis did in “True Blood.” These Actors have been a breath of fresh air!
Finally, the fucking entire cast of “Atlanta”!
Please share your favorite TV performances by Black Actors!
Here are my top 7.
7. Bokeem Woodbine – Mike Milligan, “Fargo”
“Fargo” is my favorite TV series. In a TV land that has a consistent rotation of things to watch, this show is a stand alone. The characters are well drawn. There is precision in every aspect of the series: cinematography, shot composition, characters with unique personalities, excellent writing. This show is unmatched.
In Season Two, Woodbine plays Mike Milligan. Milligan is a sociopathic mob henchmen with a calm exterior who delivers dialogue that both confounds and delights. Woodbine is as compelling as he is strange. Somehow he is so wrong and so right at the same time. The character is timeless, difficult to place in any era but familiar. Definitely a departure from his past work. It will be interesting to see what he does next after inhabiting such an complex role that required more from him than previous roles.
Also in this Season is Zach McClarnon. He is a Native American Actor who plays the role of Hanzee. A quiet, violent, aggrieved criminal who is observant and patient. Stunning performance.
6. Clarke Peters – Albert “Big Chief” Lambreaux, “Treme”
Clarke Peters is tops the list as the most talented, seamless, actors to ever grace the small screen. I will watch him in anything. He is understated, respectful of the men he portrays, he brings a quiet strength and dignity to his characters that is unmatched. His performances are complete. Nothing else need be added. We understand who his characters are, we love them and we will go on whatever journey with them.
As Detective Lester Freamon in “The Wire” he was superb. I chose Big Chief Lambreaux because the character allows us a window into the life of a man rarely get to engage. It’s a beautiful portrait of a human being.
I would be remiss if I did not mention the more renowned Wendell Pierce for both Detective William “Bunk” Moreland and Antoine Batiste in “Treme.” Similar to Peters, these men bring a humanity to their characters that is rarely seen on the small screen. There are no gimmicks, no distractions. They deliver genuine, heart filled, performances that reveal the truth of what it is to be a human being.
5. Ron Cephas – Jones William, “This Is Us”
I was fortunate to see Ron Cephas Jones in “Between Riverside” and “Crazy”, Off-Broadway. I have also seen him about town in NYC. This dude is a true thespian. He respects the craft. It has been told to me that he is someone who has worked for years as an Actor in roles and venues that folks may never know. Finally, audiences are able to see him in a larger arena.
In “This Is Us,” he looks like a Jazz musician from a bygone era and plays his characters with the nuance of a Jazz solo. His earnestness jumps off of the screen and into your heart. He and Sterling provide the gravitas for that show. He can break your heart with his silence. It’s a wonderful performance. He brings a dignity to this character that most would fail to capture.
4. Andre Holland – Dr. Algernon Edwards, “The Knick”
Andre Holland can telegraph complex emotions with his eyes. It is clear that he made choices to portray this character, from the early 1900’s, with an “unbought and unbossed” disposition. He receives indignities without collapsing into subservience. His walk and grace exudes confidence. At the same time that he is vulnerable and thoughtful, he is astute. He is lovely to watch in this role. He brings a stature and modesty to roles that is refreshing. I look forward to seeing more of him on the big and small screen.
3. Daniel Kaluuya – Bingham “Bing” Madsen, “Black Mirror”
“15 Million Merits” was the first “Black Mirror” episode that I saw. It blew my mind. Daniel Kaluuya was quirky, off-balance, vibrant and endearing. He drew me in immediately. The episode placed him in colors and environments that we had yet to see a Black male performer inhabit. The episode is groundbreaking. Bing is as alluring in his silence as he is when he speaks. He’s a revelation as he doesn’t bring ego to his performance. He was an intriguing casting choice who delivered details in his body language that made one feel for Bing. Kaluuya chooses off-beat and atypical roles. I look forward to seeing more of these choices. I hope he doesn’t lose his uniqueness.
2. Lennie James – Anthony “Tony” Gates, “Line of Duty”
If you have not see “Line of Duty”, Season One, do! Lennie James captivates beyond words. He brings a dynamism and power stroke so fierce that you are rendered breathless following the trajectory of his character. I was stunned by his performance. Mouth dropped stunned. Lennie James is the truth. He can deliver realness, energy, subtlety and passion in the most understated way. He’s a marvel. If you admire the craft, do not miss his performance in Season One of “Line of Duty”. You’re welcome!
1. Jeffrey Wright – Bernard Lowe, “Westworld”
Okay, it was difficult to choose between “Westworld” and “Boardwalk Empire”. Luckily, I can include both. Jeffrey Wright is serious! Pitch perfect in all that he does. Even the damn commercial with the goat. The layers that this man delivers in one moment is mind boggling. He gives a very precise and unwavering performance. He doesn’t play a character, he inhabits the character and delivers the backstory of the person in a glance. Who the hell does that?!
I appreciated the discipline he brought to the character of Bernard Lowe in “Westworld”. The deceptive humanity of Bernard. The uncompromising body language and speech pattern. It is a joy to watch him work.
And as Valentin Narcisse in “Boardwalk Empire”…good gracious! He is frighteningly good. So compelling that every word that comes out of his mouth feels like it will be followed by a random act of violence. But, it isn’t. He just leads you to the edge and doesn’t throw you off until he’s ready.
He and his rival, Michael K. Williams (Albert “Chalky” White) in “Boardwalk Empire”, were boxers in an acting ring. One as fierce as the other. Truly one of the greatest match-ups of our time. I love the both of them and look forward to all that they do.
We are fortunate to have all of this talent at the other end of our remotes!
Please share your favorite under-seen and/or under-appreciated TV performances by Black Actors!