Think of your favorite movie villains. Now, the very term “favorite villain” makes my initial point for me: though they may commit evil deeds, operate in the wrong, or manufacture and enjoy the misfortune of others, innumerable cinematic antagonists end up stealing our hearts and our sympathies nonetheless. Perhaps it’s their non-conformist ideologies, their work ethic, style, or charm; the formula varies from film to film, genre to genre, decade to decade, but the fact remains, we often finish a film more interested in the villain’s motivations than anyone else’s.
Not to mention, within the filmmaking process, the creation of a great villain is often a challenging but rewarding undertaking. Not only for the director and writer but for makeup artists and costume designers who have created some of cinema’s most indelible imagery in the form of villains’ aesthetics. And above all, perhaps, it’s rewarding for the actor who gets to embody the villain and gets the chance to be immortalized for their performance.
The attention of awards shows is not the be-all-and-end-all of a film’s longevity, but the Academy Awards do tend to fawn over particularly arresting villainous performances. Think of colorful crazies such as Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs, Joe Pesci’s Tommy DeVito in Goodfellas, and Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight, or austere psychopaths like Kathy Bates’ Annie Wilkes in Misery, J.K. Simmons Terence Fletcher in Whiplash, and Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh of No Country for Old Men. All Oscar-winning, instant entries into our cultural lexicon.
But, what happens when the villain is Black? In our cities, on our streets, and in society, the vilification of Black people, and of Blackness, is one of the most backward, violent, and deadly scourges on modern life. Police officers and other people in power regularly describing innocent Black people as “demons,” “animals,” “beasts,” “predators,” etc. encourages white fear, white fragility, and anti-Black narratives. It’s a terrible problem, which makes it understandable that many filmgoers who notice this and are rightfully repulsed by such vilification in real life tend to decry cinematic narratives that feature Black villains. Some say it’s contributing to destructive, racist mindsets to have a film’s villain be Black.
But I know a lot of us in the Black community feel, without question, that some of the greatest on-screen roles, no matter the film, are villainous. And what’s more, some of the greatest Black performances in cinema come from actors tasked with playing a villain. Surely it is limiting of Black performers’ kaleidoscopic talents to paternalistically forbid them from inhabiting roles that may not cater sufficiently to a wholly progressive aesthetic of sympathetic and easily-digestible Black life. To witness and root for a compelling, well-crafted antagonist embodied by a Black performer may be one of the most liberating scenarios we have.
The last decade has seen many acute examples of Black actors taking on great antagonistic roles — you might go so far as to say we’re in something of a golden age: Daniel Kaluuya’s terrifying Jatemme Manning in Widows, Michael B. Jordan’s outstanding Erik Killmonger in Black Panther, Mahershala Ali’s commanding Cottonmouth and Alfre Woodard’s menacing Mariah Dillard in Netflix’s Luke Cage, Samuel L. Jackson as Richmond Valentine in Kingsman: The Secret Service and the cryptic Stephen in Django Unchained. Looking more broadly, Chiwetel Ejiofor in Children of Men and Four Brothers, Idris Elba in Hobbs & Shaw, Jeffrey Wright in Boardwalk Empire, Blair Underwood in Posse — the list goes on. Thinking farther back, one might mention Moses Gunn’s restrained performance as Bumpy Johnson in Shaft, or Yaphet Kotto’s mellifluous Solitaire from Live and Let Die. These characters are memorable, intriguing, and worthy of a certain degree of celebration — not for the violence and misery they inflict, but for the space they take up as intelligent, creative characters who may do “bad” things but capture an audience’s attention and give Black actors chances to shine.
Some of these performances have been successful among the Academy’s voters; Denzel Washington’s complex turn as Detective Alonzo Harris in Training Day, Forest Whitaker’s chilling Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland, and Mo’nique’s harrowing turn as Mary Lee Johnston in Precious were all awarded Oscars. But this detail raises important and difficult questions surrounding this topic: in the continuous discourse that arises around Oscars season regarding race, there’s often a rather complicated point made that though, yes, a number of Oscars have been awarded to Black performers, they are awarded for often unsympathetic or servile roles.
Ever since Hattie McDaniel’s performance as a contented enslaved maid made her the first African-American to win an Oscar, debates have spiraled in all directions regarding whether that was a win or a loss for Black representation in cinema. The villainous roles aforementioned only exacerbate the difficult questions at the centre of this debate — is it commendable that Black people tend to be celebrated mainly when they play servile characters, abusive cops, abusive mothers, or deranged dictators? On one hand, these films may potentially forward some unpalatable implications to white audiences about inherent monstrosity in Black people, but on the other, if a Black actor wishes to take on a meaty, complex antagonistic role, surely the onus is on the audience to understand that a Black villain does not represent their entire race, and hence, it would be unfair to deny these Black actors acclaim. Denzel may be playing a monster, but he is still one of the greatest actors to ever do it, so why not award him? The answer will vary from person to person.
There’s a glaring, under-acknowledged inconsistency, however, when you compare the Oscar-winning villainous roles played by white actors and those played by Black actors. To put it simply, there is a stark contrast in the fun these roles can offer. When watching Ledger’s Joker (“Wanna know how I got these scars?”), Hopkins’ Lecter (“I had him over, for dinner”), Bardem’s Chigurh (“Call it, friendo”), or Simmons’ Fletcher (“Not my tempo…”), the vast majority of filmgoers will have some degree of spine-chilling excitement before the runtime is up. Many of us will even recognize their most menacing quotes, whether we enjoyed watching these films and characters or not. You watch Harris, or Amin, or Johnston, however, and the experience is nothing alike. These people are cold, often unsympathetic harbingers of pain and suffering, and though they may be complex, layered creations, the gears of the film are simply not set up to let anyone, Black or white, take any pleasure in their machinations.
What’s remarkable about our current Black villains is the capacity for complexity and pleasure in their characterization. Love them or hate them, the Black antagonists in every one of the films or series previously mentioned are capable of eliciting not only an audience’s sympathy but some level of enjoyment or excitement while observing the villains’ various misdeeds. Steve McQueen underscores Jatemme’s ingeniously understated psychopathy with a chilling one-take sequence so tense that many in the theatre couldn’t help but laugh when his violent tactics finally burst through the suspense. Jackson’s colorful performance as Valentine is filled with moments of comedy, drawing as much from smooth James Bond archetypes as Batman-esque cartoon villains. Speaking of which, though Live and Let Die features some bizarre racial dynamics, Kotto’s performance as Solitaire is so charming that he ends up rivaling the best of Bond’s bad guys. To varying degrees, the same can be said of all the roles listed, most of which have been overlooked come awards season.
The point here, despite appearances, is not to rattle off my favorite scenes from action movies. Nor is it to imply that all Black villains meant to be entertaining are contributing positively or are worthy of our guilty-pleasure affection. On the contrary, in recent memory, the blatant anti-Black, anti-Arab drivel in How To Train Your Dragon 2 stands as an excruciating example of reductive, racist use of a dark-skinned antagonist. There are also debates to be had about the retrogressive voodoo presence in The Princess and the Frog and the simplistic qualities of Elba’s Hobbs & Shaw character. Elba’s turn as criminal mastermind Brixton highlights a troubling aspect to a certain type of Black villain, namely the climactic reveal that their antics were actually in service of a broader, more sinister, and almost always more white villainous entity or organization. This opens up its own awkward implications, such as the idea that the Black villain in question is not even in charge of their own actions. This uneasy conclusion reminds us that when a Black villain is in charge of their villainy, this provokes a level of undeniable satisfaction in the Black viewer, who is ultimately watching a Black person, villainous as they may be, be fully in control of their own way of life.
This brings us back to my central intention: celebrating the immeasurable amounts of fun and talent to be found in the compelling Black villain, and to highlight the delicate situation of this figure. As filmgoers worldwide grapple more honestly and passionately than ever before with questions about Blackness in cinema, it’s wonderful to watch film fans enthusiastically embrace humane, multifaceted Black protagonists, from heroes like Black Panther and Regina King’s Sister Night in Watchmen to more complex characters such as Kelvin Harrison Jr.’s eponymous manipulator in Luce. These figures are still in short supply and deserve acclaim and attention, but if we wish to fully open cinema up to the complexities and possibilities of Black personhood, we must not forget to appreciate the compelling, capable Black villains. More of whom, thankfully, may be on their way.
Dwayne Johnson is preparing to bring DC supervillain, Black Adam, to the screen, while Kendrick Lamar expressed interest in playing the villain in Black Panther 2 (which, in this author’s opinion, is an incredible idea). And let us not forget Lakeith Stanfield’s ingenious proposal that he play the next Joker. Witness the excitement elicited by these various ideas of great Black actors bringing villainous characters to life. The capacity for Black antagonists to become celebrated figures is clear; indeed, as we come closer and closer in real life to a revolution of sorts against the establishments that have always characterized themselves as “good,” it becomes perfectly natural to embrace these villains, who may not do the right thing, but offer us an enticingly wrong way to be.
It’s perhaps fitting to recall the most important point repeated in any screenwriting school, and many scholarly analyses of fictional narratives: the villain always believes they are right. This simple truth makes the dynamic Black villain all the more important and more exciting as a cinematic presence. Instead of simply forbidding the depiction of Black villainy, these films and these characters present a unique opportunity to explore how concepts of right, wrong, good, evil, white, and Black tend to function and mislead us in society. You can’t have a great villain without a great deal of fun, and as we utilize and interrogate these notions and characters, we can and should still have a blast watching and enjoying their good old-fashioned evil deeds.