Jurnee Smollett’s Commitment To Black Stories Like Eve’s Bayou, Underground, Selma, Lord, Selma, The Great Debaters, and Lovecraft Country Deserve To Be Recognized
Being an actor takes talent and dedication, but there is a different level of skill attached to telling the sensitive and important stories of Black people. Angela Bassett as Tina Turner, Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles, and Chadwick Boseman’s portrayals of James Brown, Thurgood Marshall, and Jackie Robinson are some examples of the attention to detail required to tell these specific experiences. Some actors have only been fortunate enough to land one role like these, but Jurnee Smollett has made a career out of bringing Black stories to the screen.
A lot of us fell in love with Jurnee’s big smile and bright personality when she appeared on Full House and The Cosby Show, but viewers knew she possessed a unique level of artistry after her lead role in Eve’s Bayou. At only 10 years-old, she narrated the journey of a complex family dynamic in the South during the 60’s. Her authentic performance made people feel like they were on her front porch watching the story unfold as the young girl struggled to trust and understand herself and her family. The desperation of wanting to fix her household made it hard to separate her from her character. Though many child stars rely on charm, Smollett brought a grit and intensity uncommon to her counterparts. As her career progressed, Jurnee found herself in many projects and continued to take on roles dedicated to sharing the experiences of Black Americans.
Selma, Lord, Selma, The Great Debaters, and Underground all have a special spark in them; and that spark is Jurnee Smollett. Whether she played a house slave, a young woman navigating passion and love during the Great Depression, or a Black adolescent in the segregated South, her commitment was consistent. Her demanding demeanor, forceful speech, and eyes that hold compassion and fragility allow her talent to penetrate viewers in an undeniable way.
As she discussed her current role as Letitia on HBO’s Lovecraft Country, Smollett told Vogue the importance of showing the many sides of Black women, especially in horror projects.
“While she is definitely a bit of a tornado and a bit of a disruptor, we didn’t want to portray her as just a strong Black woman because that also does a disservice to us as Black women,” she said. “Then you don’t hold space for our pain, you don’t hold space for our weaknesses, you don’t hold space for our fragility. It increases this notion that we don’t need comfort, that we don’t need to be cared for, and that we can just shoulder everything on our backs.”
Though some actors tend to fall into one version of the character they are playing, there is intention behind every action Jurnee makes. Her bared soul makes it impossible not to dive into the lives that inspired each story. While she pulls inspiration from various other women, her personal experience with racism and navigating the world as a Black woman has fostered her depth and versatility. Her involvement with social and racial activism is far from a trendy act of performative heroism and dates back as far as she can remember.
Early in her life, her mother Janet took her and her siblings to the Rodney King riots and exposed them to the harsh realities of the world they lived in. Her passion for justice grew as she became a board member at a local social justice nonprofit at 18. As the years have changed, her efforts have remained focused on the advancement of Black people. Jurnee told The Hollywood Reporter that her mother continued to set an example for her as she turned down opportunities that weren’t in her daughter’s best interest. The love poured into her at a young age exposed her to the protecting and nurturing side of Black women in addition to their unwavering strength.
Jurnee Smollett’s on and off-screen traits have connected various generations. She not only pushes boundaries in her roles but also demands respect from her peers. Even minor details such as determining who cares for her hair and establishing her lack of tolerance for sexual harassment on set have become staples in her career. While she inspires others to stand for themselves, much like the women she portrays, Jurnee Smollett is rarely applauded or recognized for her efforts. However, there is an opportunity to start appreciating the contributions made by Black women across the globe. Words spoken by Jurnee Smollett as she played Samantha Brooke in The Great Debaters ring true today; when discussing Black artists, leaders, kin, and people, “the time for justice, the time for freedom, and the time for equality, is always right now.”
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