Woody Strode (b.1914, d. 1994)
It’s not strange to see Black athletes transition into acting when their sports career wraps up. Back when Woody Strode played for the National Football League, he was one of the first Black players, and his move to becoming an award-winning actor was something unprecedented. Strode was born in Los Angeles, his parents both descended from Indigenous Americans and African slaves. While attending UCLA, Strode became a world-class decathlete and majored in history & education. Strode had posed nude for an art exhibition shown at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. The inclusion of Black athletes in the art show led to the Nazis shutting down the whole thing.
Strode was drafted into the war and served in the Pacific Theater, unloading bombs in Guam and the Marianas. He returned to the States and worked serving papers for the LA County D.A. before signing with the Los Angeles Rams. This experience led to Strode having his first experiences with virulent racism while on the road with the team. After bouncing around football teams and leagues, Strode dabbled in professional wrestling off and on for twenty years.
When it comes to acting, Strode would have small parts often cast as African warriors of one type or another in B-movies. One of his first notable roles came in a brief appearance as the Ethiopian king in the Charlton Heston vehicle The Ten Commandments. The part that changed his life, though, was that of Draba, an African gladiator in Spartacus. Draba becomes the character whose sacrifice kicks off the plot of the entire film. He’s put in the ring with Spartacus and chooses to not kill for the pleasure of the audience but tries to kill the people who have pitted them against each other. Draba is killed, but his act lights a spark within the other slaves.
That role was a springboard into Pork Chop Hill, a Western by the legendary John Ford. Strode became good friends with Ford on that picture, which led to him being cast in further Westerns, the genre the actor is now most associated with. The bond between Strode and Ford was so strong that when the director started declining in health, Strode slept on the floor next to his bed for four months to attend to him and was present when Ford finally passed.
In the late 1960s, Strode transitioned to working overseas in the Italian film market. He continued starring in Westerns, playing the occasional African king, or some other new type of role. By the end of the 1980s, Strode was able to become more selective. His final film role was in Sam Raimi’s The Quick and The Dead, which was dedicated to the actor. You still have a significant remnant of Strode that will likely be around for decades to come. The cowboy toy Woody in Toy Story is named after the actor because of his landmark career in Westerns.
André Holland (b. 1979)
2016 was the year I first became aware of actor André Holland. He was a supporting actor in the Academy Award-winning Moonlight. Holland played Kevin, the childhood friend of protagonist Chiron. The actor doesn’t take on the part until the final third of the picture, but he does a remarkable job. Trevante Rhodes rightfully gets acclaim for the emotion he brings to the role, but I think Holland proves a worthy acting partner. He’s playing someone more comfortable with their sexuality and has to be sensitive to the transformative moment Chiron is going through.
2016 was also the year Holland starred in American Horror Story: Roanoke. Fans of AHS will often hate this season, but I love it because it marks the last time the show really felt like it was taking chances and playing with the format. Holland plays Matt Miller, one half of a married couple who purchases the notorious house that will become the centerpiece of all the season’s horrors. This season is like a matryoshka doll, and the role of Matt Miller is not just played by Holland. Holland’s original version of the man has an ultimately dark fate, and it’s one of the most surprising entries into the long-running FX series.
Two years later, I saw Holland again in another horror series, Hulu’s Castle Rock. This show is inspired by the works of Stephen King, bringing in many of his tropes to a single season-long storyline. Holland played Henry Deaver, the adopted son of the town’s pastor. As a child, Deaver disappeared during the winter and was eventually found near his now-dead father. Deaver became a pariah and left Castle Rock only to be forced to return when a mysterious prisoner is discovered in an abandoned wing of Shawshank Prison. This gaunt, nearly silent prisoner asks for Deaver by name and sets off a dark odyssey that uproots everything the lawyer thinks he knows about his life. Holland delivers a fantastic performance in this season, and his character’s conclusion is stomach-sinking horror.
Taylor Russell (b. 1994)
Taylor Russell is a new face on the scene, probably most recognizable for her role in the shlocky horror flick Escape Room and the Netflix remake of Lost in Space. My first encounter with Russell came in 2019 when I saw Trey Edward Shults’s Waves. Russell’s role is a massive surprise because, for the first half of the picture, she is a background supporting character. In that first half, her brother (played by Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) experiences the complete collapse of his life due to substance abuse. The second half suddenly shifts focus to Emily, the sister, and the picture’s tone transforms. In the first half, there’s constant manic motion, you feel like you are living in an anxiety attack. Emily’s story is this sudden shock to the system, contemplative, melancholy, but ultimately about working through grief and finding hope in connecting with other people. I do not believe this would have worked without the skill & craft of Russell. She is so perfectly cast and actu