When most artists start their career, they start small. Not necessarily by choice but because there’s this thing called “paying dues.” It’s an unwritten rule. Veterans in the industry are quick to remind budding artists that the journey to their goals requires patience, perseverance and most importantly paying dues. This part of an artist’s career, that typically spans several years, is what most people don’t see.
It’s all of the steps they’ve taken: the non-speaking roles they accepted, all of the non-paying gigs at crappy venues with dreadful sound systems they played, the commercials they played extras in, and all of the free work they’ve done in an effort to get one step closer to their dreams. Those are the dues they pay. Those are the rules to the game they play.
What gets labeled as “overnight success” rarely is – all of the previous nights just didn’t air before the pilot got picked up. If that artist is privileged with a long and relevant enough career, we get to see snippets of that footage on the DVD extras via interviews, in which they share bits and pieces of their journey with the audience.
Nicole Beharie is not most artists.
Post-graduation Beharie landed a role in a mainstream feature film; and not just any role, the lead role, starring opposite Alfre Woodard, and alongside Charles Dutton, Michael O’Keefe, Xzibit, and Anthony Mackie.
American Violet is an American horror story that tells the true narrative of a snapshot in American history. Beharie plays out, convincingly and captivatingly, the story of Regina Kelly, a single mother and victim of the Texas State Police department’s race-based drug enforcement tactics in 2000. Kelly went on to sue the District Attorney as the lead plaintiff, representing a bevy of other wrongfully charged Blacks. [Read the Review] This Tim Disney directed film debuted at the Telluride Film Festival in April of 2008.
Just two months later Beharie was seen in yet another feature film, The Express, playing opposite Rob Brown (Treme, Finding Forrester, Coach Carter) in the biopic of Ernie Davis, the first Black winner of the Heisman Trophy. She landed the role through her Juilliard showcase and missed her own graduation due to the film’s shooting schedule.
Though relatively small in size, the part Beharie played as Davis’ college sweetheart, Sarah Ward, was vital to bringing the personal and relatable side of this story to life. Beharie’s flawless performance did just that. It’s true, there wasn’t nearly enough of the young thespian in this film for fans and The Express is an awesome story that could’ve used some excitement in its telling, as indicated in its box office numbers.
Still, the film was a success for Beharie, wrapping up a solid debut year for the rising star. In theory, these two films set the tone and outlined the trajectory of her promising career, however not in the ways you might think. As a working actor in a saturated industry it’s easy to be typecast, an industry fact that is especially true for actors of color.
What is even more typical for actors of color, is landing the supporting roles or roles that perpetuate stereotypes of people of color that are not so positive. These roles ensure diversity quotas are met without ever having to take actors of color seriously. This is true for most artists. Her 2008 debut year proved, once again, that Nicole Beharie is not most artists.
Let’s be clear, Beharie has certainly paid her dues. After being the first from the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts & Humanities to attend the famed Juilliard Drama School, she accomplished another small feat during her time there. She was the first by unanimous vote, to receive the Robin Williams Scholarship, which is awarded every two years “to a singular and special person who evidences potential, growth, and citizenship.”
To put this into perspective, The Juilliard Drama Department accepts fewer than 2% of all applicants – Nicole Beharie was not one of them. As her mother recalls, “Juilliard actually called Nicole. It was the late fall, after the admission deadline had passed. They asked if Nicole wanted to attend and if she did there would be a place for her.”
Certainly the significance of these very uncommon accomplishments is understood. Yes?
Uncommon is an adjective that means “out of the ordinary; unusual,” or “remarkably great.” Uncommon certainly describes the tone Nicole Beharie set for herself from the very start, proving she is an exception to Hollywood’s rules.