“That representation that I longed for when I was a young actor coming up? To be able to offer that, to be given the opportunity to offer that, is a dream come true,” Angela Bassett said during a career-retrospective interview on Thursday prior to receiving the Santa Barbara International Film Festival’s Montecito Award in recognition of her body of work and her 2022 Oscar-nominated turn as Queen Ramonda in Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. “It’s a full-circle moment.”
The youthful 64-year-old, whose best supporting actress Oscar nom marks the Academy’s first-ever recognition for a performance in a Marvel film — and the second Oscar nom of Bassett’s career, 29 years after she received a best actress nom for What’s Love Got to Do with It — reflected on her life and 35 years in the business over the course of a two-hour conversation at the historic Arlington Theatre that was skillfully moderated by the fest’s longtime executive director, Roger Durling.
She said that she was changed at the age of 15 by seeing James Earl Jones in a Kennedy Center production of Of Mice and Men while on a field trip to the nation’s capital. She subsequently landed a scholarship to Yale University and then was accepted to the Yale Drama School, which she decided to attend despite the reservations of a beloved aunt, the only other member of her family who had achieved a graduate degree, who feared that she would “waste” her Yale education by pursuing acting.
Not long after graduating, however, Bassett was on Broadway in two August Wilson plays directed by Lloyd Richards, who had been the dean of the drama school while she was at Yale, and then headed west, hoping to find worthy screen acting opportunities in L.A. Two up-and-coming Black filmmakers gave her just those: John Singleton, who was just 19, cast her in his feature directorial debut Boyz N the Hood, which was released in 1991, and a year later she was playing Betty Shabazz in Spike Lee’s Malcolm X. (She recalled that “it could be terribly intimidating” working with Denzel Washington, who played the title character and was already an Oscar winner. “I remember him taking his thumb and wiping the lipstick off my face” at her audition, she said — but she responded in-character and landed the part.)
Then came Brian Gibson’s What’s Love Got to Do with It, in which she was cast in the grueling part of Tina Turner opposite Laurence Fishburne’s abusive Ike Turner — she and Fishburne had previously worked together in Boyz N the Hood, and later reunited in Akeelah and the Bee alongside a young Keke Palmer — and she blew people away. She acknowledged that the Oscar nom that she received for that performance was followed not by many exciting offers, but rather by 18 months of “silence,” but she forged ahead. “I love when you’re underestimated,” she volunteered, “because then you really have an opportunity to shut it down. I prefer under to over, you know what I mean?”
Twenty-five years after What’s Love Got to Do with It, having been at the center of a number of films that illustrated that Black audiences were hungry for more content reflecting their community, such as 1995’s Waiting to Exhale and 1998’s How Stella Got Her Groove Back, Bassett was thrilled to be cast by Coogler in the original Black Panther. But, she said, she did not appreciate the expectations for and potential impact of the project until the film’s trailer was released. “Before we premiered the first Panther, I went down the rabbit hole on YouTube with the fanboys and girls, just watching them watch the trailer. I was astounded. They would cry, they would run into walls, they would fall off chairs, they would shake, they would shudder. It was, ‘What?!’ I’d never seen anything like that ever. That was amazing.”
She spoke glowingly of Chadwick Boseman, who played her son T’Challa in that film and then tragically passed away of colon cancer in August 2020. The 2022 sequel Wakanda Forever, which has five women at its center, was a tribute to him, she said.
At the conclusion of the conversation, Coogler himself came on stage and, before handing Bassett the fest’s award, delivered a heartfelt tribute of his own to the actress, whose early work he remembered watching with his family when he was “way too young” to be seeing such grown-up material, but who had made a lasting impression on him.
“Science tells us that life started on the continent of Africa,” he said. “I like to think that we all started through a Black woman, which means that all of the dynamics of what we are as humans had to exist in Black women — our strengths, our weaknesses, our highs, our lows, our dreams, our nightmares. And so often, this particular group of humanity has been flattened on the screen, in the medium. So what I was seeing in Angela’s performances, even as a child, was the truth breaking through the lie.”