Back in 2009, there was a little limited-release movie called American Violet, about a real-life, wrongfully-convicted single mom who fights back against The System. In all likelihood, the film wasn’t on your radar, because frankly, it didn’t deserve to be. Not much more than Lifetime fluff, the racism-combatting underdog tale preached like a PSA, and reduced fine actors like Alfre Woodard and Will Patton to vessels for lousy dialogue. Burning like a sparkler at the film’s center, though, was poised and petite Nicole Beharie, whose excellent breakthrough performance in the leading role unfortunately got buried in the rubble of the movie’s missteps. Taking a stock character and imbuing her with specific, plausible verve, Beharie displayed a towering talent in stark juxtaposition to her diminutive frame, immediately joining the ranks of so many fine actors who make bad movies watchable. Beharie’s turn didn’t go entirely unnoticed. She won that year’s Best Actress trophy from the African-American Film Critics, and also scored nods from the Women Film Critics Circle and the Black Reel Awards. But that she didn’t find much subsequent success beyond these specialty-group kudos is as valid a sign as any of how much harder starlets of color need to work to break out in this business. Countless white ingenues of lesser talent and beauty have surpassed poor reviews and box-office returns to ink scads of deals, often for the hard, simple fact that they’re more bankable. Can you think of any black actresses under 30 who are headlining films? Take your time.
All of this isn’t to say that Beharie hasn’t gotten any breaks. The same year she did American Violet, the now-28-year-old actress co-starred in the football drama The Express, and in 2010, she appeared opposite Jill Scott in an actual Lifetime film, Sins of the Mother, which might be best summed up as a PG Precious. The majority of viewers probably know Beharie from her work in Steve McQueen’s Shame, in which she portrayed Marianne, sex addict Brandon’s (Michael Fassbender) one true shot at tame, loving monogamy. Again, with only a few key scenes at her disposal, Beharie proved her ability to elevate a somewhat disappointing picture, and more importantly, she revealed pluck, and an interest in daring fare crafted at the hands of a burgeoning auteur. Yes, Beharie disrobed in the film, but her moxie was in her willingness to align herself with the material in general, and put her trust in a director with a distinct vision. Beharie is no hollow fame-seeker with an uncertain moral compass; she’s a Juilliard alum with a theater background and a thing for The Bard, having garnered a Shakespeare scholarship and trained in the U.K. (She also has the fortunate distinction of having dated our beloved Fassbender for a spell, but, ya know, that’s neither here nor there).
Starting today, Beharie can be seen in Brian Helgeland’s 42, a Jackie Robinson biopic that’s been cranked through the Tinseltown machine, but thankfully transcends the white-Hollywood-charts-black-history traps that have hampered movies like The Help. Beharie plays Rachel Isum, Jackie Robinson’s wife, and rather than predictably fading into the background as the little, faithful woman, she’s a substantial and memorable presence in the movie. She often singlehandedly personalizes 1940s-era racism, containing in her face a whole community’s worth of pain when she gazes at a “Whites Only” bathroom sign, or looks on while her living legend of a husband is relentlessly pelted with the N-word. The role undoubtedly sounds minor, but Beharie makes it as grand as possible, thanks to her palpable empathy toward the character and the genuine chemistry she achieves with onscreen squeeze Chadwick Boseman (also remarkable). However rosily, 42 is going to educate a lot of viewers about the rise of Robinson, but here’s hoping it also propels the rise of Beharie, who’s bound to gain her most exposure yet from the film’s release. For now, she’s reportedly banking on a pilot for Fox, playing the female lead in a TV version of Sleepy Hollow, developed by the gents behind Fringe. If all goes well, Beharie will have followed a path similar to that of Scandal star Kerry Washington, another superb black actress who turned to the small screen when the big one didn’t properly exploit her gifts. As they say, you go where the work is.