“When I think of all the time I wasted on your sorry ass!” Desiree Dupree spits out to the man she thought could be a decent husband. A violent liar, he was anything but decent. On AHS: Freakshow, Desiree (Angela Bassett) is a three-breasted performer who gets pulled into this fourth season’s events of killer clowns and David Bowie cover songs. It isn’t Bassett’s strangest role, it won’t be the only time she's a scorned wife either.
She often plays women of authority, forced to deal with the struggles of that power. Vampire In Brooklyn (1995) is a cult classic where Bassett is the victim and the monster. A 1998 rom-com is a nice contrast to more serious work, with a character recapturing a passion for life. On two procedural shows, origin episodes allow Bassett to shine in performing intense material. And while Black Panther (2018) gives Angela Bassett a crown, she’s always been a queen of acting.
11. Music of the Heart (1999)
In director Wes Craven’s only non-horror movie project, Meryl Streep is the lead with Angela Bassett and Gloria Estefan making up the supporting cast. For this true story, Roberta Guaspari (Streep) builds a violin music program that expands across NYC public schools. Her fight for funding and security turns her into a remarkable figure. Bassett’s Principal Williams is stuck in a tough place, hesitant to allow Roberta to start the music program in the first place. Once seeing the positive change for the kids, she becomes a staunch supporter.
At a low point for the violin instructor, Williams arrives to help with an upcoming meeting with parents. If the school board won't give the funding, maybe there's another way. At the end, she attends a charity concert, happily introducing it. Streep is the star, but Bassett doesn’t get lost on-screen. The performance is naturalistic; you can easily imagine meeting countless people like her.
10. Vampire in Brooklyn (1995)
Rita Veder is a NYC detective, picking up a strange new case that washes up at a Brooklyn dockyard. Eddie Murphy’s vampire Maximillian has arrived. His fangs and yellow eyes are searching for a special lover. Unbeknownst to Rita, it’s her. She’s a Dhampir, a half-human, half-vampire. West Indies mythology adds a new element to traditional vampire mythos. Long ago, Rita would have waited to be rescued by Jonathan Harker.
Here, she is the one who must take on the undead Max. Bassett is also the anchor to her male co-stars. Murphy does his familiar charade of multiple roles. Max turns Julius (Kadeem Hardison) into a ghoul, causing the man to increasingly decay. And Julius’ uncle (John Witherspoon) doesn’t really care why his nephew looks so awful, as long as he gets the rent money.
9. Malcolm X (1992)
In Spike Lee’s epic biopic, Denzel Washington plays Malcolm X. Major events are shown that led him into becoming the historical activist. Throughout the decades, Malcolm X falls in love with nurse Betty Shabazz. In a small but pivotal role, Angela Bassett is devoted and loyal as they date, marry, and start a family. In his expanding role with the Nation of Islam, he is unable to see a hard truth. The group’s leader has many faults.
In an intense scene, Betty attempts to get Malcolm to realize this. Malcolm is quick to be angry, hardly listening to her. Betty continues, not backing down. Washington’s voice booms and the few inches he has on Bassett makes him look massive. He glares down, wanting the conversation to be over. Bassett hardly blinks, glaring back. The performance is riveting, revealing how much Betty loved and respected Malcolm X, but that her voice was also important.
8. The Jacksons: An American Dream (1992)
The five-hour ABC miniseries explores the rise to The Jackson 5 and Michael Jackson’s mega stardom. It all begins with the parents. Katherine (Bassett) struggles with how Joe Jackson (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs) reprimands the kids. She’s a parent first, but Joe’s attention is more on getting them ready for the music industry. Bassett doesn’t give one way on how a wife will respond to infidelity. On The Jacksons, she doesn’t explode on Joe. Although she damn well deserves to do so.
A phone rings. On the other end, she overhears Joe’s mistress. The confirmation is painful. “I don’t want you no more,” she sobs, saying it again and again, to hear it and for her husband to know it. She has done her best to keep her family okay, as Joe’s focus went elsewhere. Unfortunately, she made two attempts to divorce, both times rescinding the papers.
7. Waiting to Exhale (1995)
In Terry McMillan’s book adaptation, Bassett is another wife who learns of an affair. This time, her character erupts. Bernadine is not only cheated on, her husband plans to leave for the other woman. What happens next, lives out the fantasy anyone might feel when they learn of such a betrayal. It’s a pissed off, wrathful, sad state of mind. She wishes to rid herself of any sight of the man who wronged her. Bernadine collects his wardrobe, perfect suits, ties, and shirts, dumping it into his car. Parking it a reasonably safe distance away, she lights it up to watch the ensuing fireball.
There is the melodrama, but friendship is the movie's crux. In the ensemble, Whitney Houston, Loretta Devine, and Lela Rochon make up the friends, along with Bernadine, who support each other. Their love lives aren’t doing too hot. While they work on that, at least they have their friendship. Bernadine’s story isn’t all about heartbreak. Wesley Snipes arrives at a hotel bar where Bassett sits. An intimacy sets in. The night doesn’t end the way Bernadine might hope for, but it allows her to see a future for herself.
6. 9-1-1 (2018-)
Athena Grant-Nash is a field sergeant to the LAPD. The series follows the first responders to some of the worst case scenarios. Many are extreme incidents, like a tsunami hitting the Santa Monica Pier. When there isn’t work drama, there’s personal drama. In this ensemble procedural series, Bassett shares great scenes with her costars, although 9-1-1 knows the intensity she brings all by herself.
In Season 3’s “Athena Begins,” a painful past is explored. Going off the books, Athena sets out to solve a cold case thanks to new evidence. It gives Bassett a heavy amount of emotional scenes to perform with heartbreaking ease. She uncovers the killer she’s been searching for decades. The finale poses two choices for Athena. In the end the one she decides on is the most inevitable. She gets catharsis, both relief and pain reading across her face.
5. How Stella Got Her Groove Back (1998)
In another adaptation from a Terry McMillan novel, Stella (Bassett) needs a vacation. The kind of break that is nothing but sips of alcohol, nights of music, and days under the sun. She’s a successful stockbroker and a single parent, who finally hops on a plane to head to Montego Bay. Best friend Delilah (Whoopi Goldberg) meets her, but it isn’t long before Stella encounters Winston (Taye Diggs). He is very interested in her, but the fact that he's 20 years younger than her stresses her out.
The steely Stella chooses to give the romance a chance. What she needs is a surprise. There is good chemistry with Diggs, yet Goldberg and Bassett ace the friendship relationship. An important emotional core to the movie too. The narrative seems breezy, like the titular character’s walk on the Jamaican beach. A health concern triggers a change in tone. While the story ends more seriously, it’s nice to sit back to watch Stella ... well, get her groove back.
4. ER (2008-2009)
Dr. Catherine Banfield arrives as the new ER chief to Cook County General Hospital. She is all business. There isn’t much time for warm greetings when there are lives to save. Entering the series’ final run, it could be challenging for a new actor to enter such an established, long-running show. Bassett is up to the challenge. Like “Heal Thyself,” which comes in to peel back the layers to Banfield’s backstory. She’s mysterious, fellow physicians not knowing anything about her, like the TV audience.
Courtney B. Vance, Bassett’s real-life husband, guest-stars as Banfield’s spouse. In-show, the couple deal with the loss of their child. Flashing back and forth from the past and present, Dr. Banfield grapples with the pain as a current patient’s life hangs in the line. Like 9-1-1’s origin episode, Bassett delivers the emotional beats like the expert she is. For how serious ER can be, Banfield eventually gets to chill out in more ways than one. She gets snowed in with Dr. Morris (Scott Grimes) during a conference and their rocky relationship thaws. It helps Banfield drinks it up for a boozy karaoke.
3. Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (2022)
In Black Panther (2018), Queen Ramonda is sidelined for the father-son relationship between T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) and King T'Chaka (John Kani). In Wakanda Forever, Bassett is given a bigger arc. As a queen, Bassett brings fierceness. When she walks into a United Nations conference, she walks with absolute poise and the knowledge she has control of the room. When the underwater kingdom of Talokan attacks, she is unflinching in protecting her own. As a mother, she mourns the loss of her son and attempts to help daughter Shuri (Letitia Wright) deal with this grief.
The best is when these two identities merge. As a parent and guardian, Queen Ramonda goes through a fresh level of anguish when Shuri’s fate is uncertain. She proclaims, “I am queen of the most powerful nation in the world and my entire family is gone. Have I not given everything!” Could there be an Oscar nomination for the delivery alone? Culminating her arc, Queen Ramonda swims down a flooding palace, to save a stranger’s life, creating a haunting and beautiful visual. Her final moments are as tragic as they are heroic.
2. American Horror Story
Witch, vampire, a freak, and a ghost. AHS knows how to give Bassett unique characters to play. Marie Laveu is a Voodoo Queen who can go up against the Supreme force of Jessica Lange's Fiona. As Ramona Royale, Bassett sinks her teeth into this Hotel vampire who willingly allows the blood affliction. A big difference to Rita Veder. Inspired by Pam Grier, Ramona acts as if she doesn’t know the cameras aren't rolling from her past blaxploitation films.
“Goddamn Hulu. My old movies streaming for free. For free?!” She’s vicious, campy, and exhausted. Absent in recent seasons, Bassett should absolutely return. If for no other reason than to see how she reacts to a brutal death. In Coven, Marie snaps pics of a room filled with dead witch hunters. In Freak Show, Desiree witnesses a magic trick gone wrong leaving a shady lady literally sawed in half. Her parting words: “Steal her jewelry and bury the bitch.”
1. What’s Love Got to Do with It (1993)
From an absentee mother to a toxic marriage, Tina Turner’s life was difficult. At the movie’s darkest point, Bassett’s face is covered in cuts and bruises from a volatile argument with her husband. She seeks out help from a nearby hotel. In the performance, there is a sense of defeat is possible. Despite not having enough money, she isn’t turned away. A better future is on the horizon.
The Tina Turner biopic is the role that should have won Bassett her Oscar. She was nominated, Holly Hunter took it home instead. Watching What’s Love Got to Do with It, it might not be the experience expected, which is exactly why Bassett should have won. As Tina Turner, the actress did the research. She carefully takes in the music star’s mannerisms when performing on stage. But the power is how it takes a raw look at the struggles the singer had to endure. Which makes her rise to fame all the more inspiring and exhilarating.