On this day of celebration for the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I’ve decided to give thanks to the work of two black actors. The fact that both of them are black Britons just shows how the concept of blackness has expanded in the wake of the Civil Rights movement and how the cinematic presence of blacks has grown since 1970s blaxploitation. Or, whatever. I just think these two are galvanizing film acting in general, regardless of their race, and now’s as good a time as any to appreciate them.
My first Thandie Newton movie was also my first Bernardo Bertolucci movie—Besieged. I went into the theater, in summer 1998, not knowing a damn thing about the film, and came out of it with goosebumps. A good part of my reaction—and Besieged is still among my favorites by Bertolucci, even though I’ve seen others since then—comes from watching a master filmmaker at work and play. But my larger reaction came from witnessing a performance so unnerving and sexy that it ignited the celluloid. When I revisited the film in 2003, here’s an excerpt of what I wrote in my film diary (a sort-of precursor to this blog):
Besieged is antsy and nervous, but it’s far from being a nervous wreck. Its compositions are breathtaking but muted, and its rhythm is so precise that Bertolucci seems to cut the frames with a gleaming, sharpened scalpel.
It’s no coincidence that the movie’s protagonist—Newton at her most vulnerable and engaging—is an African immigrant training as a medical student, but making her living as a housemaid. Her gestures and acts cut to the quick, yet she revitalizes and refreshes everything around her. The camera jitters as Newton does, concisely excising unnecessary details, as if performing economically out of need, in order to take up as little space and as little time as possible. She lives and works in Rome, but feels that her every act is a nuisance, an intrusion on the natives. She’s part of the invisible underground that we never see. This cinematic metaphor is also seen in Dirty Pretty Things, an equally great movie about how Africans and Middle Easterners are redefining Western culture from the ground up.
What differentiates Besieged from DPT is that Newton is simultaneously under and over the ground. She does the dirty work, but she’s building a future as a respectable citizen of Europe. She’s submissive, but fiery when necessary. She bottles up her emotions and hides the images of the continent she left behind, but her feelings eventually tumble out in great torrents. She tries to stay out of sight, but she’s so outstandingly gorgeous that she turns heads wherever she goes. Newton is probably the most classically beautiful woman in movies today, and it’s odd how she (and Bertolucci) reinvent classical beauty. Her voluptuous curves and dreamy face are distinctly Petrarchian, but not her nappy hair, vibrant fashion sense, and brown skin.
It’s this uneasy flirtation between Africa and Europe that’s at the core of this movie. Newton cleans house for a reclusive, kindly pianist named Mr. Kinsky. Played by David Thewlis, Kinsky is jittery and nervous, but in a different way than Newton’s Shandurai. Where Newton’s nervousness comes through in her eyes and minimal twitches, Thewlis’s gestures are wild and open. He lunges and flings himself around, finding the self-control he’s so obviously seeking only when he’s playing either with the piano or with children. He loves children—most of those in the film are his piano students—and he’s clearly more comfortable with them than with adults. He sees in the freedom of child’s play something that he wishes were in himself. When Mr. Kinsky declares his love of Shandurai, she realizes that it’s more an adolescent crush than it is the real thing. She knows, as all immigrants instinctively know, that they’re not on equal enough footing to declare anything of the sort. (After all, she always refers to him deferentially as Mr. Kinsky; we, as viewers, only fleetingly glimpse her last name.)
To even the odds and to open Kinsky up to the possibility of actually knowing her (and thus moving beyond infatuation with the Exotic Other), Shandurai demands something impossibly difficult of him. He does it, unbelievably, and in the process he matures from a boy to a man. The changes aren’t only happening to him. Shandurai finds beauty and grace in his cultural passions—classical music and art, quietude in all things—and her understanding of both Kinsky and the West he symbolizes deepens as he takes gradual action. They come to love slowly, but passionately, and become emotional equals. Shandurai and Mr. Kinsky dance an erotic do-se-do, pushing and pulling at each other until both sides blossom. It’s a convincing love story, but also a wonderful allegory about the potentials for, and hardships of, African/European relations.
I still stand by my reaction to Besieged, which led me to branch out and find more work by both the director and the actress. It’s been rewarding, particularly for the latter.
Newton, a mixed-race Briton, seems to revel in upending notions of sticking to her own kind. The white Thewlis falls hard for her in Besieged. She whips the otherwise cool-as-a-cucumber Mark Wahlberg into a frenzy in Jonathan Demme’s The Truth about Charlie, itself a self-consciously Africanized remake of Charade. (Newton slyly improves on Audrey Hepburn’s performance—Newton is emotional, where Hepburn is often merely emotive, and Newton is just as breathtakingly lovely as Hepburn.) In John Woo’s Mission: Impossible II, she seduces Tom Cruise easily. On TV, she was the smart, no-nonsense love interest that ultimately wooed Dr. John Carter (Noah Wylie) off of E.R. and into Africa. In James Ivory’s Jefferson in Paris, she plays Sally Hemings to Nick Nolte’s Thomas Jefferson.
It’s a much-lamented truth that there’s a paucity of interesting, complex roles for women in today’s film culture. The truth is doubly true for black women, and must be even more true for black women who speak with British accents. So, it’s not likely that Newton will ever be a star on the level of Julia Roberts or Cameron Diaz, even though Newton’s range is greater than either one. Newton’s been the saving grace in otherwise-unwatchable disasters—Crash (perhaps the worst Best Picture Oscar ever awarded), Shade (a straight-to-video con picture with Sylvester Stallone, Melanie Griffith, Gabriel Byrne, and Jamie Foxx), The Chronicles of Riddick (a sci-fi sequel lacking the curdled brains of the original), and the forthcoming Eddie Murphy ego-a-thon Norbit (again, he plays several characters) looks to feature her as his love interest.
Still, she gives her all in every film I’ve seen her in. She’s sly and wisecracking in The Truth about Charlie, but is willing to fall flat on her face (literally) during an intense chase scene near the end. As the title character in Beloved (also a Jonathan Demme picture), she combines the frailty of an infant’s mindset with the ferocity of a malevolent spirit; it’s a potent, gutsy mixture that’s wholly appropriate for the role. In Shade, she plays two men off of each other, and cons others besides them; we see her transform her character to accommodate what each man expects of her, but Newton’s intelligent performance is such that we as the audience see the con but also understand how the other characters can’t see it. Even if the roles aren’t well-written, Newton infuses them with depth and passion. Her body language is often so open that it’s embarrassing to watch her, as if we’re viewing something too private to be shared.
That level of immersion, perhaps more than her skin color, is why she’ll probably never be a star. There’s no Thandie Newton persona in the way that there’s a Drew Barrymore type. When we see Meg Ryan in a movie preview, we know (with a couple of significant exceptions) instantly what to expect of her in the upcoming film. If we see Newton at all in the previews—and it’s astonishing how often her work is obscured in promo materials—we don’t have a sense of what she’ll do. That instability is electrifying but it’s also not the route that a would-be star would take.
Furthermore, Newton frequently works with high-caliber filmmakers on ambitious (or at least consciously indie) projects. Jonathan Demme, James Ivory, and Bernardo Bertolucci are all big risk-takers with strong artistic bents, but they aren’t necessarily box-office draws. Even the movie that was supposed to be her star turn—Mission: Impossible II—was directed by the artsy auteur of action film, rather than some generic Bruckheimer hack. (And it’s the weirdest entry in the Mission: Impossible franchise.) Crash is an artistic and moral failure, but you can’t deny that its breadth (ensemble cast, interconnected storylines) and theme (race in America) were far-reaching.
Even her first film, shot when she was 18, shows both her formidable talent and her never-ending quest for ambitious cinema. Flirting (1990) is ostensibly a teen romantic comedy set in an Australian boarding school, but it’s so many other things besides that. It’s at once a touching interracial romance, an exploration of how whites respond to the introduction of a black face (Newton’s) in their milieu, and a political allegory about the West’s uneasy relationship with Africa. Intelligent, wry, funny, sexy, and charming, with almost ridiculously great performances by Newton and romantic co-lead Noah Taylor, Flirting should be considered a minor classic. Instead, despite the appearance of a young Nicole Kidman and a young Naomi Watts, the movie’s almost unheard-of. Even so, all of the themes that Newton continually pushes in her career—interracial romance, the complexity of black experience, womanhood beyond stereotype, Africa’s influence on the West and vice versa—are all there at the outset.
Those themes are also writ large in the career of what could be Newton’s male twin: Chiwetel Ejiofor. Looking back at it, it’s telling that my film log entry for Besieged mentions Dirty Pretty Things so prominently, as it is Ejiofor’s breakthrough film. Hell, my 2003 entry for DPT could be the b-side of my take on Besieged:
In Dirty Pretty Things, Okwe (Chiwetel Ejiofor), in explaining his harsh past, simply says that “It is an African story,” and waves his hand as if he’s brushing away history with the flick of a wrist. This quick, economical action conveys the enormity of his experience, his desire not to delve it, and its influence on his current life. Just like that. The movie is as economical and precise in its moments. No detail is shown unnecessarily—from the glimpse of a man running barefoot, to the blue-white glare of a surveillance camera’s emissions, to the seeping of blood in a toilet. The camera and the editing take only—but exactly—what is needed from a scene, emulating the survival instincts of its illegal immigrant protagonists. The London that Stephen Frears focuses on is one only half-glimpsed as we walk by. This underworld of immigrants teems with backstories a mile long beneath the clean exteriors. The actors conjure up these backstories with whispered words, extracting beauty from the most minimal of gestures. They’re trying not to be noticed—and not to take up too much space. Audrey Tautou, as a Turkish woman outrunning immigration officials, is a delight. She often shows frailty and steely resolve in the same facial expression, and I don’t know how she does it. Benedict Wong, as a philosophical Chinese porter as a morgue, provides most of the film’s wit, but metes it out with gravitas. But it’s Chiwetel Ejiofor as a Nigerian doctor who doesn’t sleep and is reduced to working as a hotel deskman and a taxi driver, who best embodies the movie’s spirit. He’s graceful, resourceful, dignified, but deeply fragile. A prostitute calls him an angel and, by the end of the movie, I agreed. But he’s an angel who dirties his wings, cries just like us, and walks among us, almost invisible. Set in London, filmed by a Westerner, and deeply concerned with the machinations that make Western capitalism possible, Dirty Little Things is nevertheless an utterly African story.
In retrospect, I would have spent much more space describing Ejiofor’s performance, but the above gives a sense of just how closely his work reflects Newton’s work in a similar role. As with Newton, he’s so beautiful and charismatic that you’re drawn to his presence even when bigger stars overwhelm the screen. And, as with Newton, it’s Ejiofor’s peculiar mixture of sharp intelligence and naked emotion that mesmerizes me. As Okwe, he takes a character who seems too saintly to be real, and humanizes him so effectively that we thinks saints still walk the earth. His even-keel vocal inflection works at odds with his tortured facial expressions. His anguish rests on elegantly timed gestures—all the more elegant because you don’t expect it from a shoddily-dressed taxi driver—but so does his wit.
At one point, he cooks an elaborate, tasty dinner for Audrey Tatou, wooing her without really being aware of it. She asks, “In Nigeria, is it the men who cook?” His perfect pause implies that yes, of course they do, and not just in the kitchen. But his answer is even better: “In Nigeria, we do many interesting things with pork”—Tatou freezes, mid-chew; she’s a practicing Muslim—“but of course I used lamb.”
His use of comic timing is used to great effect in Inside Man and his brilliant should-be/could-be star performance as a transvestite in Kinky Boots. In both cases, Ejiofor is hilarious without ever becoming buffoonish—if anything, his comic gifts make him seem even more humane.
Ejiofor’s résumé is even more pedigreed and ambitious than Newton’s. In a cinematic career that spans less than a decade, he’s already worked with a plethora of critically acclaimed heavyweights: Spike Lee (Inside Man, She Hate Me), Woody Allen (Melinda and Melinda), Alfonso Cuarón (Children of Men), Joss Whedon (Serenity), Stephen Frears (Dirty Pretty Things), and Steven Spielberg (Amistad). He’s got less duds than Newton does, and his range is just as good. Either he’s got the sense to make better choices about scripts, or he’s positioned himself so that he can afford not to act in obvious crap.
He’s played villains, sure, but they’re always complex. In Children of Men in particular, Ejiofor plays an overzealous “freedom fighter” who isn’t intrinsically evil but rather is overwhelmed by his own ideals. It’s a tricky performance to pull off, in that he does a number of unspeakably cruel things but is also sympathetic, even at the film’s end. In Serenity, he’s a genuine badass, but a smart and engaging one. Although he romances white girls in Dirty Pretty Things and Love, Actually—he weds the luminous Keira Knightley—he’s no Sidney Poitier-esque perfect black man or Magical Negro. That sort of simplification just doesn’t seem to interest him.
Ejiofor and Newton are black presences in film that neither pander to white culture nor idealize black experience. Their simplest roles are still complicated. As a result, despite the sexiness and grace and intelligence that they both bring to the silver screen, I’ll be surprised if either becomes a megastar. In a way, that saddens me. On the other hand, the lack of star wattage means that they’ll continue to hone their craft and complicate black experience, even if in the margins.
That’s worth rooting for. And, if some smart filmmaker decides to put Newton and Ejiofor together in the same movie as romantic leads, it’ll be beyond thrilling to watch the sparks fly.
UPDATE: Speaking of great, beautiful black Britons, here’s Zadie Smith on the perils of writing fiction.