Black Actor Spotlight – September 2020

James Avery

I would be surprised to find someone from around my age who watched television growing up that doesn’t immediately recognize this face. James Avery was one of the all-time great television dads playing Uncle Phil on the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air for six seasons (1990 – 1996). You might not know that he was also the original voice of Shredder on the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, establishing that character’s tone for every iteration to come afterward.

Avery’s life began in Virginia in 1945. After graduating from high school, he served in the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam War. A few years later, he moved to San Francisco, where his entertainment career began with writing scripts for PBS shows. He was even part of educational programming that won him an Emmy Award for producing. Avery attended U.C. San Diego and then Third College (now Thurgood Marshall College), where he received a Bachelor of Arts degree in drama and literature in 1976. He was 31 years of age at that point. It would be four more years before he had his first film role, an uncredited background player in The Stuntman.

It would be seven more years until Avery earned a regular spot in a television production with Shredder on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1987). The impact of that show cannot be overstated. I can remember the first time I came across the original five-part TMNT pilot as it aired in the morning during my summer break. The Shredder was immediately an iconic villain in appearance and the voice that Avery brought to the show. The next year found Avery recurring as a judge on L.A. Law for a nine-episode stint from 1988 to 1992. 

The role that genuinely transformed Avery’s life happened in 1990 when he was cast as the patriarch Uncle Phil on Fresh Prince. Avery was 45 years old. Uncle Phil always walked the line between an antagonist for Will and a father figure who profoundly loved his nephew. I will never forget those episodes where Avery got to showcase his skills in serious drama as the show tackled racism and men seeking the approval of fathers. But Avery also knew how to play into the clownish aspect of Uncle Phil, a grumpy but ultimately soft-hearted giant who ruled over his Bel-Air mansion.

Avery would continue doing voice work and live-action movies & television but never as regular and recognizable as his Fresh Prince run. He has his own series, Sparks, on the newly formed UPN channel. Avery was the head of a family of lawyers working out of Compton, California. The show lasted for two seasons clocking in at 40 episodes total. 

Avery kept working all the way up to his tragic death in 2013, resulting from complications during open-heart surgery at Glendale Memorial. He was survived by his wife Barbara, and his stepson Kevin Waters. In April 2020, the Fresh Prince’s cast held a video conference during the COVID-19 lockdown to celebrate the best moments of Avery from that series. He will always be Uncle Phil to me, and I can’t imagine Shredder’s voice sounding any other way, honestly.

Nikki Amuka-Bird

Nikki Amuka-Bird first stuck out to me this year, though she in worked film & television for 21 years. Amuka-Bird is British, so much of her work I just haven’t had access to, but what I have seen I enjoy immensely. American audiences were probably introduced to her through Armando Iannucci’s latest show Avenue 5. This is a science-fiction comedy about a cruise in the future gone terribly awry. Amuka-Bird plays Rav Mulcair, the head of mission control for Avenue 5. While most of the cast is stuck on the aimlessly drifting craft, Rav is forced to be the face of the disaster on Earth, attempting to spin the horror as a positive to the questioning news media. The odyssey Rav embarks on trying to mitigate the tragedy for her employer is one of the series’ great highlights. Where her character ends up in the first season finale is hilarious and sets up some potentially interesting new directions for a possible second season. 

Nikki Amuka-Bird was born in Nigeria but left there as a young child to come to England and also spent time on the Caribbean island of Antigua. While attending boarding school, Amuka-Bird has dreams of being a professional dancer, but that ended when she severely injured her back. Theater seemed like another avenue that could satisfy her desire to perform, and quickly she realized this was what she wanted to devote her life to. She attended the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, followed by a run with the Royal Shakespeare Company. 

The most recent performance I have seen from Amuka-Bird was in Iannucci’s The Personal History of David Copperfield, where she plays Mrs. Steerforth, the mother of James, a school friend of Copperfield’s. She is responsible for her son’s ultimate demise, indulging him, allowing James to overtake her life. Amuka-Bird’s gets the film’s most heavy dramatic scene in the third act when she is confronted with the result of James’s life choices. The tragedy she suffers serves as a powerful lesson to Copperfield. Amuka-Bird absolutely nails the performance, and I actually wish we had been able to have more of her in the picture.

Helena Howard

Helena Howard came out of seemingly nowhere and, at age 20, delivered what IndieWire listed as one of the top 50 film performances of the last decade. Her breakout role in Madeline’s Madeline didn’t mean she immediately rocketed to stardom starring in big-budget studio pictures. The child of artists, I detected a savvy nature in Howard’s film choices; she isn’t going to simply settle for whatever script is dumped into her lap next.

In her debut film, Howard’s performance as Madeline showcased an actor that could give coherent voice to the struggles of teenage mental health and anxiety. The young actress was discovered by director Josephine Decker when she was a judge at the Union County Teen Arts Festival in 2014. Howard delivered a monologue that Decker states was the best performance she has seen in her life and result in both the actor & director breaking down in tears. Howard went on to play a significant role in developing Madeline’s character through improvisation workshops so that the final product on film is a profoundly collaborative work. 

Right now, Howard has a couple of internet series projects waiting to be released or newly debuted. The first is The Wilds from Amazon, which has a deceptively simple premise of a group of girls stranded on a deserted island and forced to survive. It’s essentially a female version of The Lord of the Flies, which has the potential to be interesting and quite different from the male-centered story. I would expect there to still be violence and conflict but of a different nature than that classic novel. On Quibi, Howard headlines a serial called Don’t Look Deeper that has her character confronting a world-shattering discovery about herself and the people around her.

Howard’s next film is Shoplifters of the World, based on the Smiths song of the same name and currently in post-production. The movie is based on an urban legend from the 1980s and follows four friends in Denver, Colorado, who are overcome with sorrow when the Smiths announce they are breaking up. They hijack a local radio station with a gun that night to play nothing but the Smiths until sunrise. I’m extremely curious to see what role Howard plays in this picture. Her potential to be a significant presence in American films is pretty high right now, and I’m glad I get to see it happen.

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