Black Actor Spotlight – November

John Amos

John Amos is an actor that feels like he should be more revered as a veteran of film & television. Life for Amos began in 1939 in Newark, New Jersey. Amos lived in a working-class family and attended Colorado State University. While there, he played football while attaining his sociology degree with plans to become a social worker. Football led to a position on the Denver Broncos, but a pulled hamstring sidelined Amos after two days. This sent Amos into the minor leagues with stints in the United Football League, the Continental Football League, and Atlantic Coast Football League. He finally made his way back onto the AFL with the Kansas City Chiefs. It was his time with the team that led Amos’s coach to tell him he “wasn’t a football player, you’re a man trying to play football.”

A career change was needed, and Amos found writing to be an outlet for his creative potential. Writing led to acting, and his first significant tv role was playing weatherman Gordy Howard on The Mary Tyler Moore Show for three years. Near the end of his tenure, he appeared on Norman Lear’s Maude as James, the husband of the title character’s housekeeper, which led to the spin-off Good Times. This sitcom started out with an ambitious and welcome diversity to American households. Good Times told about the Evans family and their friends & neighbors who lived in Chicago public housing building. It was an attempt to show the struggles of a Black working-class family with the hopes it could be a sort of All in the Family for Black Americans.

This changed dramatically when actor Jimmie Walker became a break-out sensation as the fast-talking J.J. The writers began focusing less on the family’s struggles and triumphs and more on the buffoonish antics of J.J. His character was unemployed, couldn’t read, and didn’t think through things playing into many problematic stereotypes Black actors have had to fight against for over a century. John Amos was deeply dissatisfied with this but was not as vocal as other cast members. After one too many disagreements with producer Norman Lear, Amos was fired from Good Times, and his character died off-screen, leading to one of the series’s gravest episodes. Amos would later say in a 2017 interview that he felt the white writers of Good Times has no understanding of how Black people spoke and acted, which led to the show becoming a distortion of the Black American experience.

His next project would propel Amos into even higher levels of acclaim as he took a starring role in the mini-series Roots, based on Alex Haley’s best-selling novel. Amos would play the lead role of the adult Kunta Kinte. This would lead to his first Emmy nomination and even more work. Amos would never have any long-running television series where he’d take the lead role, but he became a solid character actor showing up on series like Hunter, The West Wing, and Two and a Half Men. He makes frequent guest appearances in television programs, making him a very familiar face to audiences.

I’ve always felt John Amos was an actor that brought gravitas to his roles. He still refused to play parts that consisted of racist tropes and sought to portray dignified Black men who were equals with their white peers. Amos was always believable in authority positions but never came across as someone who would wield that power unjustly. There is a quiet strength in his performances. He is still acting today and is set to reprise one of my favorite roles of his, Cleo McDowell, in the sequel to Eddie Murphy’s Coming to America. Amos shined in this comedic role and proved he is more than just a dramatic actor. He also made a cameo playing himself in the recent Uncut Gems, which was a wonderfully spontaneous moment in that picture. At 80 years old, Amos is still consistently working and hasn’t lost a step.

Regina King

Regina King has been on your television screens for decades. Before acting, she was just a girl growing up in Los Angeles, the daughter of a special ed teacher and an electrician. Her first taste of show business came when her older sister Reina appeared on the kiddie sitcom What’s Happening Now!! in the late 1970s, but King’s start wouldn’t come until 1985. That was the year she booked the regular role of Brenda Jenkins on the NBC series 227. The series was a vehicle for Marla Gibbs, an actress famous for playing the no-nonsense maid to the Jeffersons. King played Marla’s daughter until 1990 when the series ended. 

The 1990s found King playing roles in three John Singleton films: Boyz in the Hood, Poetic Justice, and Higher Learning. She had a great part in Friday as Ice Cube’s sister as well. One role always seemed to lead to the next, and she gained an even larger spotlight playing Marcie Tidwell, the wife of Cuba Gooding Jr. in Jerry Maguire. These supporting roles kept coming into the 1990s. But you might have noticed something, King wasn’t getting starring parts with one reason being those were and sadly still are few and far between in Hollywood for Black women.

The role that first put King in the lead came from an unexpected place, Adult Swim. In 2005 and continuing for nine years, King would voice both Huey & Riley Freeman on Aaron McGruder’s The Boondocks. The role I first noticed King in was as Dr. Erika Murphy in The Leftovers. She was part of a family introduced in the second season who were a dysfunctional match for the previously established characters. It was a supporting role, but she made it feel so much larger than that. 

My favorite role of King’s and likely many others was as Angela Abar in HBO’s Watchmen mini-series. Not only is the show a phenomenal sequel that seemed like an impossible thing to pull off, King nails it from the very start. Angela is one of the most interesting & complex characters I’ve seen on television in a long time. King can convey the pain she goes through and those moments of joy. She doesn’t play Angela as a tough as nails detective but as a real human with vulnerabilities. If you haven’t seen this mini-series, it is a must-watch in my opinion and should get you excited for King does next.

Kelvin Harrison, Jr.

Kelvin Harrison Jr. is only 26 years old but has played some complex and exciting roles already. Harrison was born in New Orleans to musicians and grew up in that storied city. It looked like Harrison might follow in his parents’ footsteps by studying studio engineering. Eventually, he got some experiencing acting, enough that he moved to Los Angeles to pursue that dream.

Harrison’s parts were small and supporting for a few years, but the moment I noticed him was in 2017’s It Comes At Night. This is the first collaboration he would have with writer-director Trey Edward Shults, which would lead to Harrison’s best performance to date (more on that a little later). The film was not a huge success, mainly because of the audience’s expectations. However, Harrison is absolutely fantastic as Travis, a teenage boy experiencing the fall of civilization, sheltered away in his parent’s home in the woods. 

There were some interesting, more increasingly prominent roles, but the big one for me is Tyler Williams in Waves. This was his second collaboration with Trey Edward Shults, and this film had Harrison playing a more prominent role in the writing and development of his character. Tyler is an intense role, and Harrison doesn’t hold back. He’s a teenage boy being pushed by his father, who demands nothing short of excellence from his son. Tyler becomes dependent on prescription meds (not his, of course), and it becomes clear that his life is headed on a collision course. I know Harrison has so many great performances left in him, and I can’t wait to see what he delivers in the future.

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