With Creed, the Rocky franchise finally gets its mojo back. Headlined by Michael B. Jordan and directed by his Fruitvale Station director Ryan Coogler, the film reworks everything audiences love about the “Italian Stallion” and offers a gut-punch of a film that may just be a textbook example of how to revitalize not just a dying franchise but a still mostly-white industry.
While Jordan and Stallone are at the center of Creed, the secret weapon of the film is Tessa Thompson. Playing Bianca, Adonis’s downstairs neighbor and love interest, Thompson keeps the film from being a series of riveting fights both in the ring and outside it. Whether taking the young boxer out for Philly cheese steaks or inviting him out to hear her play a gig at Johnny Brenda’s, it’s her character who offers a whole new side to the Philadelphia of Rocky and Adrian, all the while changing the script of what a love interest in a male-driven film can be.
So, to celebrate Thompson’s performance in Creed, here are five roles that should remind you why you’ll be hearing about the California native for years to come. From Dear White People where she played a biracial student (Thompson is of mixed-race herself, with a Panamanian father and half-Mexican, half-white mother) to her second season stint on Veronica Mars, these roles show that while Creed may finally make Thompson a household name, she’s been killing it for quite some time, not only making great if underseen films, but using them to raise social awareness about taboo subjects.
Creed opens in theaters on November 25, 2015.
During the second season of the UPN show, showrunner Rob Thomas introduced the character of Jackie to serve as a love interest for Wallace (Percy Daggs III), Veronica’s best friend. The daughter of a famous basketball player and thus seen as a diva, Jackie grows closer with Veronica after becoming a social pariah when her father is a suspect in the bus crash that drove much of that season’s plot. She was eventually written off the show, presumably as a response to the negative fan reaction to the character. Nevertheless, Thompson made her mark on the neo-noir series, showing her penchant for playing prickly characters that openly dealt with social issues.
Tina Mabry’s film debut which dealt with issues of sexual abuse, addiction, and poverty in rural Mississippi, premiered at Sundance in 2009 and despite a successful festival run, it never got a proper release. That changed this year when ARRAY (Ava DuVernay’s independent distribution company) made it available on Netflix. Thus, the film that earned Thompson the Best Actor Grand Jury Prize at the American Black Film Festival can finally be seen. In Mabry’s autobiographical film Thompson plays a gifted young pianist in rural Mississippi who finds it close to impossible to escape her circumstances.
For Colored Girls
When Thompson heard Tyler Perry was working on adapting the Ntozake Shange’s 1975 stage play for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf she pursued the role of Nyla aggressively, knowing it’d be a chance to be a part of something special. That meant not only joining a cast that included Janet Jackson, Thandie Newton, Loretta Devine, Whoopi Goldberg and Phylicia Rashad, but getting to play a character dealing with an unwanted pregnancy in two harrowing and demanding monologues. For her work she won a Black Reel Award for Outstanding Breakthrough Performance in 2011.
Dear White People
Justin Simien’s breakout Sundance hit tackled racism in college campuses with verve and wit. Much of that came from Thompson’s pitch-perfect portrayal of Sam White, a biracial student whose controversial radio show ruffles feathers in a predominantly white school: “Dear white people,” she states early in the film “the minimum requirement of black friends needed to not seem racist has just been raised to two. Sorry, but your weed man, Tyrone, does not count.” Nailing the dry comedic tone of Simien’s script, Thompson won Breakthrough Actor of the year at last year’s Gotham Independent Film Awards.
In the latest installment of the Rocky series Thompson plays Bianca. Just don’t call it “the Adrian role.” Writer-director Ryan Coogler gives Thompson’s Bianca enough personality of her own. Just as Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) — the illegitimate son of the famed Rocky rival Apollo Creed — is hoping to follow his lifelong dream of becoming a fighter, Bianca has dreams of her own. She’s a singer-songwriter in the Philly music scene, an element all too familiar to Thompson who’s a member of the LA-based group Caught a Ghost (Her father is Panamanian singer-songwriter Marc Anthony Thompson of the band Chocolate Genius.)