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Black History Month: Top 5 Underrated Black Actors
by Denise DuVernay

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Andre Braugher as Det. Frank Pembleton on

Andre Braugher as Det. Frank Pembleton on
It's February, which is Black History Month, which is where news outlets take time to do stories on the overlooked roles of African-Americans in U.S. history to make up for ignoring those achievements the other 11 months.

Your regular columnist, Du, asked me, occasional back-up columnist Joe Vince, if I wanted to take a crack at writing a column after a recent viewing of JACKIE BROWN turned into an academic lecture on black cinema.

But instead of writing about PUTNEY SWOPE or SWEET SWEETBACK'S BAADASSSSS SONG, I figured I'd keep with the unofficial theme of Black History Month and spotlight the five most underrated black actors in Hollywood. Let's face it, the pool for black actors doesn't simply consist of Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman and Will Smith.

Here's a look at five performers who deserve more recognition.

It's probably a little disingenuous to put Braugher on a list of underrated actors given that he's been working almost nonstop in TV and movies since the early 1990s. The Juilliard grad even has a few Shakespeare performances under his belt, including winning an Obie Award in 1996 for HENRY V. But ever since his phenomenal role as Det. Frank Pembleton in the NBC series Homicide: Life on the Streets, Braugher's never been given
Wendell Pierce (front) & Michael K. Williams: Reasons to watch

Wendell Pierce (front) & Michael K. Williams: Reasons to watch
the kind of quality material that's equal to his acting abilities. If you're looking for a Braugher fix, you can check him out on the TNT original series Men of a Certain Age.

Put this at the top of your queue The first six seasons of Homicide that feature Braugher are superb television, but check out Spike Lee's GET ON THE BUS for a little-known gem of a performance.

Pierce wears the brand of a good character actor: You know his face, but you don't know his name. He's starred in dramas, comedies, biopics, action films I'm pretty sure there hasn't been a genre that Pierce hasn't acted in. His breakout role came with HBO's The Wire -- a series that was a showcase for black actors throughout its five-season run as Det. Bunk Moreland. It's a role that on the surface seems like it's being played as comic relief, but Pierce portrays the character as the moral center of the series, the one person clear-sighted and principled enough to know there are certain lines you never cross. Thankfully, Pierce is teaming up with Wire creator David Simon as the star of a new HBO series about post-Katrina New Orleans titled Treme.

Put this at the top of your queueIf you haven't watched The Wire . . . well, that's pretty much the TV equivalent of never reading The Great Gatsby. You're a lesser person
Joss Whedon wrote a perfect character for Chiwetel Ejiofor in

Joss Whedon wrote a perfect character for Chiwetel Ejiofor in
because of it. Of course, if you have seen The Wire, check out Pierce as himself in the documentary WHEN THE LEVEES BREAK. Director Spike Lee interviews Pierce, who is a native of New Orleans, and this doc is an emotionally powerful look at the lives torn apart by Hurricane Katrina.

Among hip-hop fans, Mos Def has crafted a powerful reputation as a solo act as well as half of Black Star with Talib Kweli. But he's part of a new generation of rappers like Common and Ludacris who are building fascinating acting careers. He's had roles in MONSTER'S BALL, THE ITALIAN JOB and 16 BLOCKS. But he's also done strong comedic turns in THE HITCHHIKER'S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY and BE KIND REWIND. His best stuff is yet to come.

Put this at the top of your queue Mos Def combines his musical talents with his acting talents, playing Chuck Berry in the tragically overlooked CADILLAC RECORDS

Rumors had this British actor (his name is pronounced "chew-it-tell edge-oh-for") as one of the contenders to replace David Tennant as The Doctor in BBC's DOCTOR WHO series. It's a good thing he didn't, though, because that gives him more time for movies. American audiences probably have seen him in AMERICAN GANGSTER, INSIDE MAN and 2009's 2012. Ejiofor has a unique ability to convey a dark intensity behind a smiling face.

Put this at the top of
Acting 101 with Chris Cooper and Jeffrey Wright.

Acting 101 with Chris Cooper and Jeffrey Wright.
your queue
The best movie Ejiofor has been in is CHILDREN OF MEN, one of the best science fiction movies of all time. However, his best performance is as the deadly Operative in SERENITY, TV show FIREFLY's jump to the big screen. Ejiofor is charismatic, forceful and downright badass.

If I had to pick one actor on this list who could play any role in any movie, no questions asked, it would be Jeffrey Wright. He's one of greatest actors working now, regardless of color. He's played a gay nurse on stage and screen in ANGELS IN AMERICA. He's played Bill Murray's Ethiopian neighbor in BROKEN FLOWERS. He's played Martin Luther King Jr. (BOYCOTT), Jean-Michael Basquiat (BASQUIAT), Colin Powell (W.) and Muddy Waters (CADILLAC RECORDS, where he did his own singing). And yet, most people only recognize him as CIA agent Felix Leiter in Daniel Craig's rebooted James Bond series and he kills in that, too (literally and figuratively). Wright's a joy to watch because he's never acting; he inhabits his characters. Even if he's in a bad movie, Wright's worth watching.

Put this at the top of your queue SYRIANA. In a movie filled with acting talent like George Clooney, Matt Damon, Chris Cooper and Christopher Plummer, Wright steals the show with his tight, quiet performance as Washington attorney Bennett Holiday. It's not flashy, but you can't keep your eyes off of him.

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Feb 9, 2010 9:50 PM
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Mos Def won me over with his character in 16 blocks... He is THE exception to the rule that all rappers turned actors suck.

Feb 10, 2010 9:17 PM
[X] delete
would love to see a top 5 underrated black ACTRESSES for your next column.
Feb 14, 2010 5:46 PM
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Notes are in the works!

Feb 14, 2010 12:55 AM
[X] delete
Great article, you are dead on it, and I hate rap but Mos Def sold me in the movie 16 blocks.

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Take Your Queue From Du
Every other Sunday

Semi-wholesome Midwestern girl and certified Geek Magnet offers her suggestions - often new, sometimes classic - for DVDs that are definitely queue-worthy.

Other Columns
Other columns by Denise DuVernay:

Goodbye, Du

Du Chats Movies With Comics Author Lonnie Millsap

Du Reviews ALPOCALYPSE by "Weird Al" Yankovic

Another Piece Praising BRIDESMAIDS

Friendship Films and DVD Picks for May 17

All Columns

Denise DuVernay
9 out of 10 librarians think Denise is a hoot. The 10th one couldn't corroborate because she was dead.

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