5 Movies You May Not Know You Know Chiwetel Ejiofor From

12 Years a Slave2 5 Movies You May Not Know You Know Chiwetel Ejiofor From

A role like Solomon Northup is long overdue for an actor like Chiwetel Ejiofor. He’s been quietly building up an impressive résumé of supporting roles for the past decade or so, but having the opportunity to take on such a challenging lead role in 12 Years a Slave, and the almost certain Oscar nomination that will come with it, is sure to make him a known lead player, at long last.

His work in 12 Years is absolutely outstanding, and since it’s a movie that’s so dependent on solid performances that make this dark world an immediate one for us, he bears the weight of its success on his shoulders, and carries it the entire way. More people are going to know his name by the time awards season rolls around, and for those that already do, they’ll likely finally learn how to pronounce it (“CHEW-wi-tell EDGE-ee-ah-for,” I’m told).

Ejiofor first gained attention by starring alongside Audrey Tautou in the woefully forgotten Stephen Frears movie from 2002, Dirty Pretty Things. It wasn’t until 2007’s Talk to Me that I recognized him again, but playing essentially the straight man up against Don Cheadle’s animated portrayal of Petey Greene, he didn’t leave a lasting impression; in fact, I may have, in my ignorance, found him to be the weak point of the movie.

He has a style that’s a little different from most actors we see in movies today, almost a kind of throwback to the type of classical British theatre actors of days past (Ejiofor actually won the 2008 Laurence Olivier Award, which seems appropriate). But his collaboration with Steve McQueen has made me feel foolish for doubting him. And more foolish for forgetting he’s done solid work in so many movies I’ve enjoyed.

Here are 5 movies you’ve probably seen Chiwetel Ejiofor in before 12 Years a Slave.

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1) Children of Men

Children of Men1 5 Movies You May Not Know You Know Chiwetel Ejiofor From

The two highest profile releases in October, 12 Years a Slave and Gravity, both have connections to the outstanding 2006 film Children of Men, which featured the direction of Alfonso Cuarón and a standout supporting performance by Chiwetel Ejiofor. His work as Luke the revolutionary was so memorable, particularly the incredible single take car sequence that drew an enormous amount of attention. I actually began to hear critics refer to him in subsequent movies as “the black guy from Children of Men” (which I’m sure they meant in the best possible way; they probably just couldn’t pronounce his name).

In a way Luke is the villain of the film; he’s the one leading the hunt by the Fishes for Clive Owen’s character as he tries to help the pregnant Kee reach The Human Project. But Ejiofor has perhaps the most sympathetic face in the world, and it’s hard not to give him the benefit of the doubt in a role like this. We see the pain in his face and the seemingly earnest desire to do what he thinks is the right thing. It helps make an already complicated film even more complicated, with one of the faces of evil (a reductive term for a movie like this) consisting of a person with good intentions.

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2) Love Actually

Love Actually1 5 Movies You May Not Know You Know Chiwetel Ejiofor From

So apparently the two people competing for Keira Knightley’s affections in Love Actually were Rick Grimes and Solomon Northup. Yes, that famous scene we can’t help but remember from the rom-com to end all rom-coms back in 2003 where the guy holds up the cue cards at the girl’s door and pours out his heart Bob Dylan-style was a young, pre-Walking Dead Andrew Lincoln. Standing in the way of what would be an adorable and surely problem-free relationship between the two of them is that perfect bastard Chiwetel Ejiofor, who is inconveniently married to the object of Lincoln’s affections, whose name is, of course, Juliet.

It’s easy in an ensemble movie like Love Actually to lose track of individual characters, even more so when it boasts so many stars who were known commodities in 2003 like Liam Neeson, Hugh Grant, Colin Firth, Alan Rickman and others. So it’s understandable if Ejiofor flew completely under the radar on this one (as well as Lincoln). You dislike Ejiofor because Lincoln is so adorbs for his dramatic gesture to 2003 It Girl Keira Knightley, but soon after you’re probably left thinking about nothing but Colin Firth. Let’s face it.

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3) American Gangster

American Gangster1 5 Movies You May Not Know You Know Chiwetel Ejiofor From

Another movie that makes good use of Chiwetel Ejiofor’s facial expressiveness is Ridley Scott’s 2007 film American Gangster. At times he’s used as the audience surrogate, playing Huey Lucas, brother of Frank Lucas, the titular figure played by Denzel Washington. Then when it’s called for, he’s the guy who begins to enjoy the benefits of the gangster lifestyle a bit too publicly, with Frank calling him out for wearing expensive clothes.

It’s not a terribly substantial role but one that’s just memorable enough for you to stop for a second and think the next time you see Ejiofor in a movie. This is a common trajectory for so-called character actors: playing relatively minor, supporting roles, maybe stealing the spotlight for a couple of moments or entire scenes, popping up in enough places that you begin to remember the face even if you never know the name. Certain actors, though, tend to be so memorable in parts that their presence in non-leading roles becomes so distracting that they can’t help but become stars. One example of this is Idris Elba, who also has a small part in American Gangster, and we’re beginning to see this with Ejiofor now.

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4) Salt

Salt 5 Movies You May Not Know You Know Chiwetel Ejiofor From

Three years after being on the other side of the law as Huey Lucas, Ejiofor again gained attention for supporting another star in a big action role, this time that star being Angelina Jolie in Salt. Jolie, of course, is the center of attention here, as well as Liev Schreiber, and it’s interesting that Ejiofor is again the man chasing down our hero, though he’s not specifically a villain.

Like in Children of Men, he’s on the other side of the protagonist, and therefore us in the audience, but we understand his motivations and based on the information his character has, his actions seem rather justified. He’s even redeemed in the end this time, recognize Salt as the hero she is and keeping her free. I think this shows that among Ejiofor’s skills is the recognition of complex characters and a tendency to play them with shades of gray, refusing to reduce them to types and milking them for as much effect as he can in the screen time he’s given.

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5) Amistad/2012/Inside Man

Inside Man 5 Movies You May Not Know You Know Chiwetel Ejiofor From

More people seem to have seen Steven Spielberg’s Amistad from back in 1997 than I tend to expect, so those that remember it vividly enough may recall that Ejiofor played Djimon Hounsou’s interpreter in that movie. Or, those that were fortunate enough to behold the masterfully nonsensical 2012 might remember him as the scientist who warns the president about the end of the world but no one will listen to him because he’s crazy or something. Chances are most people saw Inside Man, and may have the image of Chiwetel Ejiofor’s character, who was Denzel Washington’s partner in this (oh look, they’ve worked together a couple of times!) seared into their unconscious minds. If, unlike me, you saw Redbelt, you may have seen him in that too.

You know this guy. You’ve seen him in a number of movies before; it’s almost certain. But like stars like Gary Oldman and Richard Jenkins and many others before him, it’s nice to see him getting his name recognized and said out loud finally. His roles in previous movies may be solid supporting work that doesn’t leave much of a lasting impression, but you can be certain that after seeing 12 Years a Slave you will know the name of Chiwetel Ejiofor and hail his performance as one of the best of 2013.

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  • Curtis

    Serenity

    • http://techren.com Ed. Floden

      and “Kinky Boots”!

  • Niko

    What about “4 brothers”? I really liked his character in that movie.

  • Weeze

    Kinky Boots & The Shadow Line(tv) too.Both were so good.