The Best Performances Of The Year Came From Black Women, Whether They Get Awards Or Not

Welcome to “What’s Good,” a column where we break down what’s soothing, distracting, or just plain good in the streaming world with a “rooting for everybody Black” energy. These are the best onscreen performances of the year by Black women.
What’s Good? Black women. As always. Every year, there are a slew of Black women performances that my timeline gushes over, that my friends and I are obsessed with, that remind me why I fell in love with movies in the first place, and yet, they end up deserving far more recognition than they get. Yes, we’ve long since divested from the gatekeeping archaic institutions that continually exclude Black folks from legacy awards, but ‘tis the season (awards season, of course) to look back on the best of the best of the year. And the best, as always, is Black as hell — whether they get accolades from certain governing bodies or not.
If you look at most of the year-end lists by legacy (read: white) publications, you’ll find the same — mostly white — women: Emma Stone for Poor Things, Carey Mulligan for Maestro, Sandra Hüller for Anatomy of A Fall, Margot Robbie For Barbie, Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore for May December,  and more. Greta Lee for Past Lives and Lily Gladstone for Killers Of The Flower Moon are the few women of color exceptions this year (they deserve!). The only Black woman who is consistently showing up on these Oscar prediction lists is Da’Vine Joy Randolph for The Holdovers. Danielle Brooks and Fantasia might sneak in for The Color Purple (they both garnered Golden Globe noms) but as of right now, the odds are shockingly not looking in their favor. As good as all of these performances are, they aren’t the only Black actors whose work is worthy of recognition this year. And knowing these institutions (aside from The NAACP Image Awards, which should be just as big of an honor as the Oscars), they probably will just pick one (likely Randolph, but even she’s wary of the fickleness of awards) to acknowledge and say “that’s enough Blackness for today!” and keep it moving. Well, we are in the business of celebrating Black work and giving artists their flowers right on time, not long after their efforts have been overlooked for years (see: Angela Bassett receiving an honorary Academy Award next year).
Here is my exhaustive, definitive — and still not long enough — list of 2023’s best film performances by Black women.

Teyana Taylor In A Thousand And One

When Unbothered talked to Teyana Taylor about her first feature film performance in A.V Rockwell’s directorial debut A Thousand And One as Inez, a Black single mom fighting to survive and thrive in Harlem, she told us that “Inez is within all of us. Our struggles may not all be the same, but like just a lot of the things that she's been through, we've all been through it … To this day as Black women, we're still trying to be heard. We're still trying to be protected. We're still trying to be seen for real.” And that’s the beauty of Taylor and this portrayal; she brings a raw specificity to the role that is so intimate, it becomes immediately recognizable and universal. Even if you don’t know Inez’s struggles personally, you feel like you know her. At the time, I wrote that “Through Inez, we’re finally seeing the power and potential of Taylor onscreen. The performance is electric and innate, like Taylor and Inez are two halves of one whole.” It’s a stunning performance that should be mentioned alongside the best of the year because it goes toe-to-toe with every other offering, but also because it’s the movie we’re going to look back at as our introduction to Teyana Taylor Thee Actress.

Fantasia In The Color Purple

This one is for the OGs, those of us who were glued to our TVs 20 years ago when Fantasia Barrino won American Idol, sang “I Believe” through tears and had us all crying on our couches. As one of those first fans of Fantasia, I sobbed through The Color Purple not just because Celie’s story is devastating and triumphant, but because it felt like watching a family member achieve their highest potential. Like, yeah, that’s my cousin Fantasia, I always knew she’d be a star! I never saw Fantasia play the role on Broadway, but watching the movie musical onscreen, it was clear to me that she was born to sing “I’m Here” and to tell Celie’s story of pain and resilience, but also of hope and survival. Fantasia’s performance in The Color Purple is why awards exist. Sure, they are arbitrary, and it’s hard to judge one work of art against another, but when you watch an artist transform into a character with their every being, when the soul of the story spills out of their eyes and oozes from their every mannerism, you can’t help but think, THIS deserves praise. Give it a trophy or something! 

Danielle Brooks In The Color Purple

Danielle Brooks also played her character, Sofia, in the Broadway production of The Color Purple, and the role was originated by Oprah in the 1985 film adaptation of Alice Walker’s book. Brooks has revealed that even though she played Sofia on Broadway, she still had to audition for the film role. Once you see her onscreen, it doesn’t really make sense. It’s obvious she was the only choice to bring Sofia to the big screen in this way. Sofia is brash and impulsive, bombastic and brave. She’s fearless in the face of white oppression and in the trappings of the institution of marriage. Sofia does what she wants to do, a radical stance for that era. Brooks breathes so much life into Sofia, she’ll have you laughing and dancing in your seat in one scene and sobbing in the next.

Taraji P. Henson In The Color Purple

Did we know Taraji P. Henson could sing like that!? As Shug Avery in The Color Purple movie musical, Henson delivers the best vocal performance we've ever seen from her in her 20+ year career. Henson isn't getting the same love for her work in this film as her costars listed above and that's fair. Barrino and Brooks are outstanding. But without Henson as the confident, sultry, quick-witted Shug Avery, Celie wouldn't come into her own, and the sisterhood at the center of The Color Purple wouldn't be as profound. Henson has been holding it down as a booked and busy Black actress in Hollywood for decades. With this role, she's solidified her standing as a living legend.

Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor In Origin

Ava DuVernay’s Origin is an ambitious, audacious masterpiece about the systems in the world that continue to uphold oppression. It tackles tough, hard topics, but at its core, it is about a Black intellectual working through grief and a big thesis. When I first saw the film at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), there was a Q&A with DuVernay after the screening, and TIFF’s Cameron Bailey said it was the first film about a Black woman academic that he’d ever seen. I thought about it and Bailey is right. I have never seen a Black woman and her work depicted like this in a film. Ever. Origin is based on a true story and Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor plays Isabel Wilkerson, a journalist and author, as she writes her book Caste: The Origins Of Our Discontent. There’s a lot to say about how the film parses through its themes of racism, caste, and inequality, but the heart of the story lies with Ellis Taylor’s Isabel and what she’s dealing with in her personal life as she searches for answers to life’s big questions. The film is gut-wrenching, real, emotional and educational, like all of DuVernay’s work, but it’s Ellis Taylor’s performance that grounds it and takes it from a could-be documentary to a sweeping, tear-inducing, epic classic. Plus, this is Ellis Taylor’s first leading role and this moment is long overdue.

Tessa Thompson In Creed III

I got to spend some time with Tessa Thompson before Creed III’s premiere in March, and I promise what I’m about to say is in no way influenced by how beautiful and charming she was in person. On the surface Creed III is a classic showdown between two foes (Michael B. Jordan’s Adonis Creed and Damian, played by an unknown domestic abuser). But Thompson’s Bianca isn’t the stereotypical wife or girlfriend sports films are known for. There’s no doubt that the Creed franchise revolves around Adonis, but, as Thompson put it, Bianca is the film’s “beating heart.” And it’s Thompson who elevates the film from just another Rocky movie to a commentary on masculinity, marriage, motherhood, and what happens when two kids from Philly achieve their dreams. In Thompson’s hands, Bianca is tough yet nurturing, loving yet strong in her boundaries, and ambitious yet selfless. Her story is as fascinating and thrilling as Damian and Adonis going toe-to-toe in the ring, and that’s a testament to Thompson’s unmatched talent.

Da’Vine Joy Randolph in The Holdovers

Not to be obnoxious, but I’m going to quote myself: “With The Holdovers, the rest of the world seems to be catching up to what those of us who have been watching Da’Vine Joy Randolph in awe for years already know: she deserves it all.” Randolph plays Mary, a woman who recently lost her son in the Vietnam War, and in a lesser film, Mary would simply be a side character used to advance the lead characters Paul and Angus’s journey from antagonistic rivals to unlikely allies. But she’s more than just punchy one-liners and a somber backstory to make us care more about the lonely uppity white man and the bratty selfish kid he’s stuck with. Mary is a fully-fleshed out Black woman character (what a concept!) dealing with an unimaginable tragedy who is fighting to hold onto her warmth, compassion, and spirit amidst unbearable grief. The Holdovers gives Randolph room to show off her Yale-educated acting prowess, and that skill is why she’s amassed an eclectic arsenal of a filmography that proves she’s ready to move from swiping attention in the shadows and step into her very own spotlight.

Vivian Oparah In Rye Lane

The romantic comedy is back, baby! That’s what I said out loud to myself while I was watching Rye Lane, one of my favorite movies of the year. Rom-coms usually get overlooked when it comes to year-end roundups and during awards season. Not this year, not on my watch! Director Raine Allen-Miller just won The Toronto Film Critics Association’s award for Best First Feature (as she should!) for her warm, exhilarating rom-com about two strangers in South London who fall in love in a day. One half of that coupling is Yas, played by Vivian Oparah, who is a hysterically irreverent revelation. She and Dom (David Jonsson) are both reeling after bad breakups and set out on a day of adventure, messiness, and mayhem. They’ve both got chemistry and charm bursting through the screen, but it’s Oparah’s unfiltered Yas that makes Rye Lane a modern rom-com that holds up against the classics. She’s effortless and enigmatic like Sandra Bullock, confident like Queen Latifah, as sexy and independent as Sanaa Lathan, and as adorable and delightful as Meg Ryan. She’s the Gen Z/ millennial rom-com leading lady we’ve been waiting for.
Photo: Courtesy of Netflix.

Teyonah Parris In They Cloned Tyrone

It’s hard to classify They Cloned Tyrone. Is it a sci-fi thriller? A comedy? A satire? It will have you laughing in one scene and blowing your mind in the next, your jaw on the floor while also agape with laughter. It is unsettling and uplifting, joyful yet distressing. It takes a very skilled cast to pull off all those contradictions. Sure, John Boyega as Fontaine, a drug dealer just trying to go about his day and Jamie Foxx as a pimp named Slick who’s got debts as long as his fur-lined leather trench, seem like the obvious draws to the movie, but it’s Teyonah Parris as a sex worker named Yo-Yo who steals every scene. Yo-Yo is fed up with her life and the men controlling it and Parris plays her with wit and grit, with tenacity and a softness that instantly gives her depth. She’s strong enough to save the ‘hood, but she’s also just a girl with dreams to get out of it. With the doubleheader of Tyrone and The Marvels, Parris should have had a bigger breakout year. But the ones who get it get it: Teyonah Parris is one of the best actresses of her generation, and this is only just the beginning.

Kaylee Nicole Johnson and Charleen McClure in All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt

Rolling Stone called director Raven Jackson’s All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt a “poetic look at a young woman’s coming of age in rural Mississippi” and “a peerless portrait of American beauty.” You could easily describe so much of Toni Morrison’s work in the same way and it’s the highest compliment I could possibly give that this film felt like a Morrison novel. It’s a quiet, simmering story that sits in the sounds of the South. And its protagonist Mack (Kaylee Nicole Johnson plays her as a child and Charleen McClure as an adult) is portrayed like a poem, rhythmically and deliberately, meditative and immersive. Mylee Shannon and Zainab Jah play Mack at other ages, and they could all be applauded for their work. There’s little dialogue, and the story unfolds in nonlinear vignettes, forcing the audience to get lost in its exploration of memory. It’s a tender, beautiful piece of art that is elevated by performances that feel more like inhales and exhales of the human condition than actors playing pretend.

Tracee Ellis Ross and Erika Alexander In American Fiction

Jeffrey Wright is a strong contender to be nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of Monk in Cord Jefferson’s American Fiction. Sterling K. Brown is in the running too. They are both incredible in the film and should be recognized for their work (Brown is electric and chaotic while Wright is restrained and mesmerizing), but I want to take a moment for the Black women who are the heart of the film. Tracee Ellis Ross plays Lisa, Monk’s sister and even though her screen time is minimal, she’s the spark that explains so much of Monk’s story, but also kicks off the film with a grounding presence that acts as the foundation of the family drama which unfolds in the B-plot and is the backbone of the movie. She’s instantly likable (it’s Tracee Ellis Ross, duh) and immediately calls Monk on his bullshit. Ross is so good she manages to make her presence in a couple of scenes remain felt throughout the rest of the film, even when she’s not on camera. Then there’s Erika Alexander as Coraline, Monk’s love interest. She’s inquisitive and mysterious, and even though she’s just a sweet side character, she also stands up to Monk and Alexander plays her with a quiet strength. Ross and Alexander probably won’t win any awards for their work in American Fiction because they aren’t given enough screen time, but they both do so much with what they’re given, like the legends they are.

Halle Bailey In The Little Mermaid

My colleague Ineye Komonibo wrote this about Halle Bailey in The Little Mermaid: “Bailey’s angelic tone makes our mermaid princess feel even more ethereal and mystical, and as the notes of Ariel’s famous siren song float throughout the film, the melody is as mesmerizing as it is haunting. Remember, this is one of Beyoncé’s mentees; singing is where Bailey shines.” As usual, she was right. The latest Disney live action remake was an uneven offering, but Bailey was a consistent bolt of joy. She delivered the perfect mix of sweetness and rebellion that Disney princesses are known for, and gave us the quiet grace and humor that makes Ariel come to life. No matter what the right wing trolls say, this is our Ariel, and with this performance Bailey cemented herself as a certified Movie Star.

Beyoncé In Renaissance: A Film By Beyoncé

Renaissance is a concert documentary, so you may think that Beyoncé’s performance shouldn’t be listed here alongside actresses who gave us scripted performances this year. I beg to differ. I love Beyoncé deep. She is the greatest artist of our generation and the musical light of my life. My love and knowledge of Queen Bey makes me uniquely qualified to say that everything she allows us to see of her life is a performance. And that’s OK! I’ve seen Renaissance twice in theaters and each time, watching Beyoncé do the impossible on stage (seriously, how?) while also having to stand up to people trying to play in her face behind the scenes (one thing Bey is going to do is gently drag anyone who doesn’t respect her as thee director) gives me an inexplicable thrill. I also know that everything she shows us is carefully crafted and curated, even the seemingly private moments. I think Beyoncé deserves fair criticism for what she has or has not said this year, AND Renaissance is one of my favorite films that delivered a striking sensory experience that was the most fun I’ve had at the cinema all year. If Queen Bey can sing live while putting those knees to work on those stages, we can hold multiple truths at the same time.
What Else Is Good?
•  Team Unbothered. Period.
• Charles Melton in May December, my personal favorite non-Black performances of the year and proof that when I was thirsting over him in Riverdale and The Sun Is Also A Star, I was correct!
• Colman Domingo. I told you in September that it was Domingo’s year. Once again, I was right.
• Corny Black Christmas movies that make us smile, swoon and remember what the true reason for the season is: to become one with your couch, turn your brain off and watch two people fall in love! At Christmas!
• Although it’s been said, many times, many ways, defunding the police.

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