This Awards Season, Where’s The Outrage For Origin’s Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor?

Welcome to “What’s Good,” a column where we break down the TV, films, and performances that are soothing, distracting, or just plain good with a “rooting for everybody Black” energy. This edition is all about Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor.
What’s Good? Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor isn’t just good. Calling her “good” does a disservice to her brilliance. Beloved Black actress Ellis-Taylor is so beyond good that even though she is already an Emmy, NAACP Image Award, and Academy Award nominee, I still think she’s underrated. Ellis-Taylor should be in the GOAT conversation right next to Viola Davis. She should be a multiple Oscar nominee by now, including for this year. It has been interesting to watch this awards season play out (which we’re not even halfway through if you can believe it) because there has been outrage over imaginary snubs (Barbie), but there has been too little acknowledgement, in my opinion, that Ellis-Taylor has been completely left out of the conversation. And now, coming off another award-worthy turn in a festival favorite, it’s undeniable that Ellis-Taylor is the best of the best. So, as we do here at Unbothered, we’re going to give her flowers while she’s still here to receive and deserve the praise. In her two most recent performances — Ava DuVernay’s Origin and the Sundance hit Exhibiting Forgiveness — Ellis-Taylor proves that, awards or not, she’s one of the greatest talents of her generation. 
Who She’s Good For: It’s hard to put Ellis-Taylor’s work into a neat category because even though she has emerged as a dynamic dramatic actress, she’s dabbled in just about every genre. Remember Sistah Girl in Undercover Brother? I have no idea if that movie holds up, but I do remember that Ellis-Taylor was hysterical (and hot) in it. I realize that starting with Undercover Brother in the long list of Ellis-Taylor’s iconic filmography was a choice, but I stand by it. In her almost 30 year career, Ellis-Taylor has delivered, time and time again, performances that many actresses could only dream of — especially Black actresses who don’t often get the opportunity to showcase their range. If we’re talking about who Ellis-Taylor’s work is for, even though she can pull off anything, I feel confident saying that her work is for her community. Because, as Ellis-Taylor puts it, she carved a path without a blueprint that other Black actresses can follow. “I'm from the backwoods. There's no template for what I'm doing. There ain't no actresses from there,” she told The Academy in a recent interview. “‘We knew about Oprah Winfrey’ — who was born in rural Mississippi — ‘but that was a fluke. That was a comet that came down and turned into Oprah Winfrey. So, I didn't even give myself the permission to think in that way.’" And yet, without a roadmap, she’s starred in blockbusters (Men of Honor, The Help, The Taking Of Pelham 123), critical darlings (Ray, King Richard, Get On Up), and some of the best Black projects of the past decade (When They See Us, If Beale Street Could Talk, Lovecraft Country). She’s become one of those character actors that if you see their name on the credits — even if they aren’t first billing – you know the film or TV show is going to be GOOD.

Ellis-Taylor is at the height of her power as a performer. And she’s so specific in her portrayal of Isabel and Joyce that each woman feels not just like a character on screen, but a person you know intimately.

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And in the past year alone, Ellis-Taylor has starred in three pieces of work that are sure to go down as instant classics: Origin, The Color Purple, and Exhibiting Forgiveness. They are also all wildly different. In Origin, Ellis-Taylor plays Isabel Wilkerson (based on the author and her book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents), a writer and academic attempting to connect the inequities of race and class around the world all while dealing with devastating loss. In The Color Purple, she takes a small part as young Celie’s mama and proves, like always, that no matter how little the screen time, Ellis-Taylor is memorable and mesmerizing. And in Exhibiting Forgiveness, which premiered at Sundance last week, she plays Joyce, the mother of an artist (André Holland) forced to reconnect with his estranged abusive father after he decides to get sober. 
Each of these performances offer a different layer of the depth of Ellis-Taylor’s talent. At her age in Hollywood, it’s easy to fall into being pigeonholed as the “wife” or the “mother.” She plays a wife in Origin and a mother in Exhibiting Forgiveness, but neither of these roles are tropes. In both, Ellis-Taylor is at the height of her power as a performer. And she’s so specific in her portrayal of Isabel and Joyce that each woman feels not just like a character on screen, but a person you know intimately. As Ellis-Taylor pointed out in an interview with Variety, Black women are held to a different standard when they are bringing stories to life. “When a writer-director like Ava, or an actor like me [wants to do it], there’s an expectation of us that we have to make it relatable and universal. We have to offer hope. And that demand is not made of our contemporaries and our peers.” She’s right. Rarely are Black women afforded the freedom to tell a story that doesn’t offer the audience a warm and fuzzy feeling, or a sense of optimism. But that’s not how the world works. And even when Ellis-Taylor has had to play into this mindset in her roles, she’s done her best to break through the boundary and give us grit and a real glimpse at Black womanhood onscreen. So when we talk about who Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor is good for, if you are the Black audience who has the privilege of watching her, that answer is us
Photo: Mat Hayward/Getty Images/IMDb.
Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor at Sundance 2024
How Good Is She? I’ve seen Origin three times. There’s a lot to unpack and say about DuVernay’s opus, but here I want to focus on Ellis-Taylor as Isabel Wilkerson. DuVernay has said in many interviews that she was told that Wilkerson’s book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents was “unadaptable.” And, one of the critiques I overheard when I first saw the film at the Toronto International Film Festival was that it wasn’t clear why this film wasn’t just a documentary. The resounding answer to both — why this film was adaptable and the importance of telling a narrative story in this way — is Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor. As we’re watching Isabel parse through research, give a lecture, or hunch over her laptop fretting over the right sentence to encapsulate decades of global disenfranchisement, while it might not seem like the sexiest things for a leading lady to be doing, Ellis-Taylor is so magnetic, she makes tedious tasks that may seem boring as a line in a script come to life so vividly you can’t look away. 
This is the first time in Ellis-Taylor’s long and illustrious career that she’s been given the chance to be number one on the call sheet. And whether Isabel is grieving loudly, sharing tender moments with her cousin (Niecy Nash-Betts), or flirting with her husband (Jon Bernthal), Ellis-Taylor is an electric leading lady. So much of Origin hinges on the audience trusting Isabel, rooting for Isabel, and believing Isabel as an academic with gravitas as well as a daughter, cousin, and wife who is soft and adoring when she’s not at work. Too often onscreen, Black women only get to be one or the other — if that. In past roles, Ellis-Taylor would have to fill in the depth her characters lacked with her talent; a knowing look or a subtle glance could give us more than was on the page. That’s been Ellis-Taylor’s superpower. Now, she’s finally getting the material worthy of her, that lets her be whole, human, and as good as she’s ever been. 

I wish [Aunjanue] felt the recognition and praise that swirls around her peers in big studio films. I wish the world for her. All the flowers. All the gold statues.

ava duvernay on instagram
As always, it’s frustrating to watch someone get less than they deserve. The reason we still talk about awards and keep pushing for equity within the award voting system is because they truly can change the trajectory of an artist’s career. If Aunjanue Ellis got all the Best Actress award nominations she deserved this year, she would officially be considered a lead. She would shift from a scene stealer on the sidelines into a new spotlight. I know awards are subjective and sometimes our faves miss out on nominations in competitive years (justice for Fantasia Barrino!) but at the very least, I wanted Ellis-Taylor to be in the conversation. DuVernay agrees. Earlier this month, the director took to Instagram to praise her lead. She posted a video of Ellis-Taylor promoting Origin on her own, handing out flyers outside of the Los Angeles AMC theater on the same day as the Golden Globes, which neither was nominated. “I wish she was at the Globes or SAG Awards or Critics Choice or the other nominations that didn’t come,” DuVernay wrote about Ellis-Taylor. “I wish she had commercials and magazine covers and all the things that are arranged for the actresses we are supposed to pay attention to in the awards season. I wish she felt the recognition and praise that swirls around her peers in big studio films. I wish the world for her. All the flowers. All the gold statues. I wish so many things.”
So much of DuVernay’s caption could sum up what it’s like to be a Black woman in Hollywood (and in so many other workplaces), wishing for your work to be held to the same standard as your peers, wishing for recognition, wishing for more. But DuVernay went on to write that “Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor, standing out on a windy day, passing out flyers for our film” reminded her what matters, that their job is. “To be in community with others. To reach for someone else’s hand and recognize oneself. To tell stories of human dignity and justice.” And to Ellis-Taylor, she concluded, “I see you. Your brave heart. Your singular way of moving through the world. You are the definition of Best Lead Actress. You lead me away from wishing for things not meant to be. To focus on the beauty of what matters and what is.” When Variety asked Ellis-Taylor about Origin’s lack of awards love this season, Ellis-Taylor was diplomatic but honest. “That ship has sailed, and that’s alright. What I’m excited about is my family members came out in droves to see that film… It was overlooked, but what I’m excited about is the notion that it’s the people’s movie.” It’s those same people who have created the buzz that has given Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor the boost that these nominations normally do. Sure, it should be bigger, but she garnered an NAACP Image Award nom for Outstanding Actress in a Motion Picture and with the reviews coming out of Sundance for Exhibiting Forgiveness, Ellis-Taylor is gearing up for a great year. She’s got four projects in the works, including The Nickel Boys (the adaptation of the Colson Whitehead novel) and The Supremes at Earl’s All-You-Can-Eat (co-written by Gina Prince-Bythewood). 
As disappointing as it has been this year to watch Ellis-Taylor miss out on accolades I think she deserved, one thing is certain: there will be many more chances to lift her up, shower her with the love she’s been owed for decades, and reward her work. Let’s hope Hollywood doesn’t miss the next opportunity to place Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor among the greatest to ever grace our screens, exactly where she should be. 
What Else Is Good?
• Megan Thee Stallion. Period. Protect her at all costs. It ain’t a beef if only one is doing the cooking, if you know what I mean.
• The “Black Girl Smile.” IYKYK
• I got to attend my first Sundance Film Festival, and I’m grateful to The American Society of Magical Negroesstar Justice Smith for being thoughtful on the red carpet of the film’s premiere and engaging with criticism of the film.
• It’s the Ursher Bowl, baby! I am still not over the Detroit Lions blowing that lead or the fact that everyone thinks lifelong KC fans are just jumping on the Swiftie bandwagon (I’m not new to this, I’m true to this, OK!), but let’s not get it twisted, come Super Bowl Sunday, we are tuning in for Usher and Usher only.
• As always, defunding the police.

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