Born John Weatherspoon in Detroit in 1942, you likely recognize his face. If you grew up in the 1990s, he was a regular on The Wayans Brothers Show. Additionally, he was a familiar character actor making guest spots on Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Martin, and hosts of other shows. Within the Black community, he was a well-known comedian and experienced one of those explosions of success later in life. After making the television circuit with one-off appearances in the 1970s and 80s, Witherspoon was cast in Kid N’ Play’s House Party as an irate neighbor. He was so well-received in this performance that it became Witherspoon’s regular film persona, the cantankerous dad/uncle. After that breakout role, it was Friday as Craig’s dad that truly solidified him as a regular in Black comedy. When his regular role on The Wayans Brothers Show was over, he didn’t have to worry about work as younger Black comedians would get him hired on their programs. Witherspoon appeared in The Tracy Morgan Show and popped up in guest spots all over the place. His third act came in the form of collaborating with Aaron McGruder on The Boondocks. Witherspoon voiced Grandpa for 55 episodes of this brilliant Adult Swim series and went on to play a role in 31 episodes of McGruder’s live-action Black Jesus satire. Sadly, in October of 2019, John Witherspoon passed away at the age of 77. He was never a leading man, but his role as a solid and reliable comedic character actor solidified his place as a great talent.
If you are a child of the 1980s or 90s, you grew up hearing Cree Summer even if you didn’t realize it. Summer was born in California but grew up Plains Cree First Nations reservation in Saskatchewan; her mother was an adopted member of the tribe. When Cree was fourteen years old, she was cast as the voice of Penny, Inspector Gadget’s niece. There was something so unique about Cree’s scratchy, throaty performance that the casting director knew they had found someone special. In 1988, at the age of seventeen, Cree booked the role of Freddie Brooks on A Different World, the Cosby Show spin-off about the students of the fictional historically black college Hillman. From 1983 to 2006, Cree voiced over 100 animated series roles, but what might arguably be her most well-known part came in 1990 with Tiny Toon Adventures. Cree would take on the role of Elmyra Duff, a little girl who was always too rough with her pets. That part became so iconic she reprised it for the Pinky, Elmyra, and the Brain show in 1998. Cree additionally began doing voice acting in video games as that industry exploded in the 2000s. The actress will pop up occasionally in live-action roles, but her work now is primarily in using her voice to bring life to a myriad of diverse characters.
Stephan James is an up and coming talent out of Canda, who has had prominent roles in both film and television already at the age of 26. He appeared as a young John Lewis in 2014’s Selma and later Jesse Owens in the Canadian film Run for which he won a Canadian Screen Award for Best Actor. American audiences likely became aware of him through Barry Jenkin’s If Beale Street Could Talk, where James played the male lead Alonzo Hunt. While I thought he did a great job in that picture, it is his role on Homecoming as U.S. Army veteran Walter Cruz that has really won me over. James can stand toe to toe with Julia Roberts in their performances and gives a nuanced, charismatic performance. I suspect James has a long and fruitful career ahead of him, with his best performances still yet to come.