Most actors and actresses have to pay their dues before they become famous, and one genre well versed in due-paying is horror. Popular with producers out to make a quick buck yet reviled by critics, horror movies are both high in number and low in esteem, making them perfect entry-level fare for aspiring thespians. In fact, some of the biggest names in Hollywood “slummed” with early roles in fright films — including some of the who’s who of black acting talent.
1. Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Congo (1995)
Before Lost, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje was featured in this Michael Crichton adaptation as Kahega, the right-hand man to hunter Captain Munro Kelly (Ernie Hudson) and a leader of a band of African porters who escort a team of Americans on an expedition to find a lost colleague in the Congolian wilderness. Along with the rest of the porters, he’s mauled to death by the gray gorillas who protect a legendary hidden diamond mine. “Triple A” would later play another sidekick — a more nefarious one — in 2001’s The Mummy Returns, in which he would also die.
2. Angela Bassett, Critters 4 (1991)
Angela Bassett’s Academy Award-nominated turn as Tina Turner was literally light years away from this fourth and (thankfully) final Critters movie, in which she fought the prickly aliens in outer space…and lived!
3. John Boyega, Attack the Block (2011)
Before landing the coveted role of Finn in the Star Wars movies, John Boyega starred as the leader of a ragtag group of inner city kids defending their apartment building against an alien invasion in this acclaimed British sci fi-horror flick.
4. Deon Cole, The Evil One (2005)
When he was just a local comedian, a much chubbier Deon Cole had a role in the low-budget Chicago production The Evil One as Dejuan, a weed-headed gangsta searching for his missing cousin, who may or may not have been kidnapped by the ghost of a 19th century serial killer. He ends up accidentally shot to death by his homies (including rapper Big Gipp) in one of the few action scenes in this lethargic film.
5. Michael Dorn, Demon Seed (1977)
If you can spot a pre-Star Trek: The Next Generation Michael Dorn in this Dean Koontz adaptation about a malevolent sentient computer, you’re a better person than I. His part is so small, it’s not even credited.
6. Giancarlo Esposito, The Changeling (1980)
Like Michael Dorn’s turn in Demon Seed, Giancarlo Esposito’s role in the classic ghost story The Changeling is that of an uncredited extra, but six years later, he’d have a more memorable role as a video game player who’s zapped by an arcade game in Stephen King’s Maximum Overdrive.
7. Louis Gossett, Jr., J.D.’s Revenge (1976)
Future Oscar winner Louis Gossett played a supporting role in the Blaxploitation film J.D.’s Revenge as a preacher whose past comes back to haunt him when the spirit of a 1940s gangster he killed possesses a man and sets his sights on revenge.
8. Danai Gurira, My Soul to Take (2010)
The soon-to-be Michonne played a paramedic transporting a wounded serial killer in an ambulance, and if you’ve seen your fair share of horror movies, you know how that turns out. The killer springs to life and slashes her throat, causing the ambulance to crash.
9. Hill Harper, Pumpkinhead II: Blood Wings (1993)
Hill Harper’s first movie role was in this direct-to-video sequel as one of a group of teens (never mind he was 27 at the time) who mess around and resurrect a murdered boy in the form of the demon Pumpkinhead, who sets about getting revenge on those who killed him decades ago. When he’s done, he turns on the teens — including Harper, who’s turned into a human shish kebab.
10. Taraji P. Henson, Satan’s School for Girls (2000)
Before her Oscar-nominated turn in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and her Golden Globes nod for Empire, Henson was featured as a member of a satanic coven of witches at a private girls’ school in this Shannen Doherty TV movie (a remake of the 1970s movie of the same name) .
11. Samuel L. Jackson, Def by Temptation (1990)
Jackson’s role as the dead father of a young minister tempted by a succubus in Def By Temptation was the latest in a string of small roles the actor had landed over the course of a decade-plus of acting before he finally made it big.
12. Sanaa Lathan, Blade (1998)
Lathan played half-vampire Blade’s mother, who died while giving birth, only to return at the end of the movie for a quick “bite.”
13. Romany Malco, Urban Menace (1999)
Before breaking through in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Romany Malco played a reluctant gangsta named Syn in the low-budget Crow ripoff Urban Menace, starring Snoop Dogg as a vengeful preacher (!) who’s risen from the grave. Sent to kill Dogg’s character, he himself is almost killed, but Snoop takes pity on him because, well, he’s so pitiful. In the end, he returns the favor by punching one of his fellow gangstas who’s about to shoot Snoop — although if he’s already dead, I don’t know if there’s much point.
14. Thandie Newton, Interview with the Vampire (1994)
In an early role, Newton played vampiric Brad Pitt’s maid, who was lucky enough to be around when he decided to stop feeding on animals and instead switch to humans.
15. Brandy Norwood, Arachnophobia (1990)
This is perhaps the most interesting entry on this list because it might not have actually occurred. Although singer Brandy is listed on IMDb as playing a character named Brandy Beechwood in Arachnophobia, and the ending credits in the film list “Brandy” (no last name) as playing a character named Brandy Beechwood, I didn’t see any 11-year-old black girls running around in this lily-white movie. In fact, the Beechwood family in the film is white and is comprised of two parents and three kids: Bunny, Becky and Bobby. No Brandy. Deepening the mystery is the fact that there’s even a biography (granted, unauthorized) of Brandy that details her auditioning for the role, filming it and seeing herself on screen with three lines of dialogue! Perhaps there’s a deleted scene (which maybe explains how she’s related to an all-white family) I’m not aware of, but otherwise, this sounds like a job for Oliver Stone.
16. Nate Parker, Cruel World (2005)
One of Nate Parker’s earliest screen roles is in this slasher, in which he plays the “black guy,” named Techno, in what he thinks is a Big Brother-style reality show, but is actually a deranged game by a twisted maniac (an increasingly Peter Lorre-like Edward Furlong) who kills the losers (including him).
17. Ving Rhames, Jacob’s Ladder (1990)
Before breaking through in Pulp Fiction, Ving Rhames early career mined the horror genre for a small role in Jacob’s Ladder as George, a member of the titular Jacob’s (Tim Robbins) Army division during the Vietnam War. Within the first five minutes, George has a seizure and dies (Or does he? This movie is a mind screw.), victim of a mysterious ailment that strikes the soldiers (also affected: Eriq LaSalle, in an early role before ER). A year later, Rhames have a bigger, featured role in The People Under the Stairs, which ended with him more definitively six feet under.
18. Octavia Spencer, Pulse (2006)
In this Hollywood remake of the Japanese film Kairo, future Oscar winner Octavia Spencer played the landlady of leading lady Kristen Bell’s dead boyfriend. She pawns the dead guy’s computer to cover his back rent; you better believe she has attitude! Later, in 2009, Spencer would appear in Rob Zombie’s Halloween II as a nurse who catches the business end of Michael Myers’ butcher knife.
19. Woody Strode, Bride of the Gorilla (1951)
Before he earned a Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his role in Spartacus in 1960, Woody Strode appeared in this slice of cheese as Nedo, a policeman serving under Lon Chaney Jr.’s Police Commissioner Taro, who’s investigating the death of a plantation owner. He doesn’t play much of a role in the film because he wisely heeds a local witch’s warning not to interfere with her plan to get revenge on Barney Chavez (Raymond Burr) for killing the man in order to steal his wife.
20. Meshach Taylor, Damien: Omen II (1978)
Meshach Taylor had an early role in this sequel as Dr. Kane, one of the unfortunately group of people in the film who meet their demise because they come too close to discovering a now 12-year-old Damien Thorn’s identity as the Antichrist. In Kane’s case, he runs a routine medical test on Damien that reveals his blood cells resemble a jackal’s — reason enough for the evil powers that swirl around the boy to cut him in half with an elevator cable. Taylor would go on to have roles in several other horror movies in the 1980s, including The Howling, The Beast Within and Warning Sign, before becoming widely known for his roles in Mannequin and TV’s Designing Women.
21. Michael Jai White, Toxic Avenger II and III (1989)
Before breaking through as superhero Spawn, Michael Jai White battled superhero the Toxic Avenger in these two sequels (which appear to have been filmed simultaneously, using some of the same sets), playing an unnamed executive in the evil corporation Apocalypse, Inc. in both films. However, he seems to play a double role in Part II, flexing his martial arts skills as an Apocalypse, Inc. thug who engages in hand-to-hand combat with Toxie before running away, defeated (fast-forward to 2:51 below). Surprisingly, he survives both movies.
To be fair, Attack the Block featuring John Boyega was well received by critics and audiences alike. A fun movie featuring a great cast comprised largely of young black actors.
I think Naomie Harris deserves a mention here, too. While she certainly had a successful television career, the ‘zombie’ horror movie 28 Days Later propelled her star into orbit.
Let’s not forget Angela Bassett also played a police captain in Innocent Blood. It was a vampire film directed by John Landis of An American Werewolf in London and Animal House fame. You ever get the chance you should check it out. Though Bassett’s part is minimal it’s still a good movie with a couple funny cameos.