You’re going to hear a lot about Gugu Mbatha-Raw in 2015.
She has a role in the much-anticipated Wachowski space opera Jupiter Ascending (seen above) in February. She’s filming the "Untitled NFL Concussion Project” (really) with Will Smith. And, perhaps most significantly, she just signed on to star opposite The Unsinkable Matthew McConaughey in Free State of Ross, a Civil War drama that should cement the awards-season period-piece cornerstone of the ongoing McConaissance.
This isn’t Mbatha-Raw’s first year to be crowned Queen of the Break-Out Star Prom: Clutch gave her that honor in 2014, as did the Washington Post, Yahoo Movies, Hitfix, and Buzzfeed. Her “break-through role” in Belle, a period piece based on the true story–and little-known painting–of a biracial woman raised as an aristocrat amongst a British society that still engaged in and benefited from the slave trade, won her a British Independent Film Award for Best Actress. In November, The Atlantic gave the break-through role title to her turn as Noni in Beyond the Lights, a critical darling that disappeared too quickly from theaters to pick up any speed with audiences.
Let’s hope that Mbatha-Raw doesn’t go on being lauded next year as a break-out star, and the year after, and the year after that. Whether she finally crosses the magical finish line into stardom or remains forever poised just on the verge, this is a woman telling amazing stories about complex characters, and a role model on the forefront of the changing face of cinema.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw (and her purple hair) in Beyond the Lights.
Mbatha-Raw, the daughter of an English nurse and a South African doctor, trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London. In addition to British and American TV appearances, she’s had a thriving stage career, appearing opposite Jude Law as Ophelia in Hamlet, playing Cleopatra in Anthony and Cleopatra, and Juliet in Romeo and Juliet. Her “break-through” into film has been both focused and thoughtful, reflecting values built on self-respect.
"If you're trading your self-worth for an image of sexuality and something that you think is going to be commercial and sell, I just don't think those are very healthy messages for young women today and I think that people often believe the fantasy," she said of choosing her role in Beyond the Lights, in which she plays a young pop singer of the Ciara or Miley Cyrus model, pushed to display sexuality well beyond her comfort level and conform to the expectations of a Music Industrial Complex and an overbearing stage mother. “I really responded to the message of the movie about finding your voice and the idea of being who you are.” Speaking of 2014’s book-ended projects, she said, “In terms of Beyond the Lights and Belle, they’re definitely stories about identity. They’re female empowerment stories. So I’m exploring that through my work.”
She’s spoken explicitly about sexism, both through her roles and more personally. After inviting Renee Zellweger to attend Elle magazine’s Women in Hollywood Gala (Zellweger, her co-star in upcoming film The Whole Truth, presented her with an award), she spoke out about the over-the-top media reaction to Zellweger’s appearance: “She's stunning and she's so talented and she's such an amazing actress. It was very irritating to me… It's a shame that that's all there is talk about. There must be other things to talk about.”
In upcoming film Jupiter Ascending, Mbatha-Raw plays a powerful woman with giant deer-like ears.
In addition to building a community of women in Hollywood through her costars, she’s also made a conscious choice to work with female directors, including Courtney Hunt, who directed The Whole Truth. “The last couple of roles that I’ve played, particularly, [have been on] very female-centric films, and it’s exciting because I think that for so long that perspective has not been told in a three-dimensional way, and to have complicated female characters, conflicted female characters, that’s what I’m interested in,” she told The Spectator. Gina Prince-Bythewood, who directed Beyond the Lights, (and, incidentally, every girl who grew up in the 90s’ dream-relationship movie Love and Basketball) was described by Mbatha-Raw’s co-star Nate Parker as a leader: "She’s an activist. She’s a feminist. She’s so aware of what’s happening. She has such a grasp on her vision.” Amma Asante, who directed Belle, was explicit in her desire to use the story to explore tensions around race and gender that are as relevant today as they were in the eighteenth century. And, she says poignantly, “If I'm honest, I wanted to show a woman of color being loved. We don't see it that often. I wanted to change the conversation a little bit, change the dialogue a little bit—we are loved, [and] we can be loved. Dido was valuable enough to be loved, she was worthy of being loved, and she was loved.”
Gugu Mbatha-Raw starred as a biracial member of the gentry in Belle.
It’s that notion that Mbatha-Raw seems most dedicated to in her work: the idea that it isn’t merely “better representation” that we need in media. We don’t simply need to see new faces, we need new stories. "I had never done anything period so for me this was a refreshing story," she said of Belle. “You never see a biracial aristocrat. She's not a maid. She's not a slave. She's wealthy and dignified.” That resonates deeply with viewers; Jezebel’s Dodai Stewart wrote a piece on the film called, “For a Woman of Color Who Loves Jane Austen, Belle Is a Dream Come True”:
It's worth noting that while it may be rare to see a black woman playing an aristocrat in a period piece, there's no way Dido Belle's true story is actually rare. Human history is full of all kinds of untold stories — interracial love, black queens, Asian spies, Latina women at war. Without the people passionate about the stories telling them — without women writing the scripts and directing the films — they earn little attention. But the truth is: Those stories are universal. As much as I loved the tender sweetness of Belle, and felt it deeply resonate with me as a black woman, at its core, it's a movie for anyone. The issues at its heart — of feeling like an outsider, of forming your identity, of finding your voice — are ones we can all relate to. Beautiful dresses and settings are a bonus.
Mbatha-Raw’s ambition is to continue to explore new terrain in cinema. She told The Root in May that she would love to be in a film about apartheid. And also: she would love to play Cleopatra. “That is a role I have had my eye on for a long time,” she said. As much as I love me some Angelina Jolie (her still-in-the-works Cleopatra film made headlines recently during the Sony hack), it would be utterly different, compelling, and tragically long overdue to see a woman of color play that iconic role, so historically and senselessly white-washed, on the big-screen.
If you want to know more about the woman you’re going to be seeing everywhere, you’re in luck: she’s got a long history on screen. Check her out in 2013’s criminally under-appreciated Odd Thomas with Anton Yelchin and Willem Defoe, or see her as the “break-out star” of J.J. Abrams’ sexy-married-spies-who-aren’t-Brad-and-Angelina 2010 drama, Undercovers, or even earlier—and nerdier—in 2007, as Martha Washington’s younger sister Tish on BBC cult classic Doctor Who.
Mbatha-Raw is a star, and not simply of the “break-out” variety. She’s a compelling voice for and among women in film, an actress making thoughtful and complex choices about both representation and storytelling in her work. She’s A-list not when mainstream Hollywood says so, but when the community of women she speaks so eloquently on behalf of does. This is the star we need and, if we’re our absolute best selves, maybe, just maybe, even the one we deserve.
Related Reading: Belle Skillfully Merges Historical Drama With Race, Class, and Sexism.