Angela Bassett has played her real-life heroes — her role as royalty may win an Oscar
Updated March 2, 2023 at 4:06 PM ET
In person, Angela Bassett is just as regal as Black Panther's Queen Ramonda. Sitting at the front of the Linwood Dunn Theater in Los Angeles, she gestures gracefully with her hands as she talks about her nomination for best supporting actress Oscar for her role in the Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. If she wins, Bassett would become the first actor from a Marvel movie to win an Oscar.
"You know, be careful what you ask for," she says. "It is a blessing, but it is a lift." Citing the Christian scripture To whom much is given, much is required, she adds – "and what is required is a lot."
Queen Ramonda rules the most powerful nation in the world and faces down the United Nations. She's lost her son T'challa, the Black Panther. And in this sequel, her daughter Shuri is taken away to an underwater kingdom. "She is mother, and she is queen, and she is strong, and she is vulnerable," Bassett says. "She's all these things at the same time, and she's not so removed from any woman."
On screen, Bassett has made a career of portraying women who are strong in many ways: Rosa Parks, Betty Shabazz, Coretta Scott King, Michelle Obama and Tina Turner. She earned her first Oscar nomination for playing the powerhouse singer in the 1993 film What's Love Got to Do With It? She says she's blessed to have played so many of her real life heroes.
"They're women who have sacrificed, women who've been an inspiration," she says. "Whether it's Rosa Parks – the seemingly simple women who, at their core, they're extraordinarily strong ... very intelligent women, very driven, very caring. Or Tina [Turner], you know, just someone who can lose or give up what seems to be a great deal and still rise like a phoenix."
Bassett's path to the big screen
Bassett was born in New York in 1958, and grew up in North Carolina, then St. Petersburg, Fla. She lived there with her single mother and was bussed to school across town, along with other Black children in her neighborhood.
"We were at that time where you would run outside and say, you know, 'Black people on TV!' when the Supremes were ... appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show."
Bassett remembers dancing to the Jackson Five — whose mother Kathrine she would later portray on a TV mini series. As a teen, she went along on a trip organized by the educational group Upward Bound to see John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, starring James Earl Jones as Lennie. She was mesmerized.
"I'm the last one in the theater, you know, as they're cleaning up and I'm sitting there bawling my eyes out because I so believe that he had been shot," she recalls. "I thought, 'oh, my gosh, if I could, I could make people feel the way I feel right now, which is to' up from the flo' up.' "
So after earning her B.A. in African American studies at Yale, she studied at the Yale School of Drama, where she met classmate Courtney B. Vance, another actor who she would marry years later. On stage in New York, she was in some August Wilson plays. But her big break was in John Singleton's 1991 movie Boyz n the Hood. She played the mother of the film's main character Tre Styles. Her feisty exchanges with Tre's father, played by Laurence Fishburne, made audiences sit up and take notice. The role helped launch her film career.
'She's a national treasure'
Oscar-winning costume designer Ruth E. Carter says audiences scream out in the theater when they see Bassett on screen: "There's my girl! There she is."
Carter has worked on seven of Bassett's films: What's Love Got to Do with It, Malcolm X, Waiting to Exhale, How Stella Got Her Groove Back, ChiRaq and the two Black Panther films.
"For a Black woman to be in this industry and to have lasted as long as she has and to have played so many amazing roles, and also to have a family," Carter says, "to have kids, to have, you know, a lovely husband. You know, she's a full package here."
Black Panther director Ryan Coogler says he grew up watching Bassett's films with his mother and his aunts. "I was particularly aware of the effect that she had on the women in my family. Everybody loves Angela ... She's a national treasure, know what I mean?"
Coogler says he's honored that Bassett played Wakanda's queen. He says after lead actor Chadwick Boseman died, Bassett was a calm anchor for the cast and crew. Coogler says the way she delivered one key line to T'Challa in the first film stays with him.
"She's like, 'yo, is your time to be king,'" he says. "And I felt myself, kind of like, stand up straighter. The way she said it was so empowering."
Coogler and Carter say this awards season, after a long career on stage, TV and film, it's Angela Basset's time to receive her crown.
Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.