As the star of WGN’s Underground, now in its second season, Jurnee Smollett-Bell plays a docile house slave named Rosalee. It’s the kind of role that’s important for the story it tells — a narrative about enslaved Black people fleeing the South for a better life. The series is executive produced by John Legend. For all of the historical significance, slave isn’t the version of Blackness that a Black actor would want to get typecast into. But Smollett-Bell has little to worry about. The 30-year-old has been giving powerful performances that reflect Black history since she was a child.
My first memory of Smollett-Bell is her asking Diane Lane, “Can Jack come out and play?” as a minor character in the movie Jack. However, my strongest memory of her will always be her title role in Eve’s Bayou, a pseudo-supernatural drama about a Creole-American family in Louisiana. Eve is a young and unconsciously feminist heroine with the gift of “second sight,” seeking vengeance on her cheating father. It was the first Lemonade, as far as I’m concerned. All young Smollett needed was a yellow dress and a baseball bat.
That’s not the only meaningful role the actress has undertaken. In 1999, Smollett retold the story of Bloody Sunday through the eyes of an 11-year-old girl in the TV film Selma, Lord, Selma. She played Henrietta Bell Wells, the first female member of the debate team at Wiley College, for the film The Great Debaters with Denzel Washington in 2007. Smollett-Bell has been been reliving Black history through acting her entire life.
While Black fans cherish her nostalgic portrayals of Blackness the most, Smollett-Bell has had a pretty robust and well-rounded career. She was a regular on season 6 of True Blood as Sam Merlotte’s wife. She was also a regular on Friday Night Lights and The Defenders. You can also expect to see her in the upcoming film One Last Thing, set to be released later this year.
If the name Smollett rings bells for you, it should. Her brother is Jussie Smollett, our favorite woke bae and one of the Lyon clan on Fox’s Empire. Jurnee and Jussie, along with their four other siblings have a cooking show on the Food Network called Smollet Eats.
What amazes me the most about Jurnee is that despite her long-standing career, she has still been able to do things like be a proud sister, get married, and become a mom with relative privacy. She’s an all time fave, for sure, but we’ve found a way to let her live, and that’s refreshing in this day and age.