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A snapshot of our April/May cover story with Angela Bassett

When Angela Bassett was cast as the monarch in the world of Wakanda, it wasn’t a stretch. The Oscar-nominated actress has always ruled the stage and screen with regal grace. Here she opens up about what the future holds.

This summer, in some mean August heat, Angela Bassett – stunning in a white, form fitting gown, a soft-wave bob dancing with the angles of her face – emerges from her curtained-off dressing area and takes her place on a stool before a camera.

The crew is finishing setup, and Bassett prepares herself. As the teleprompter rolls, she mouths the words, so fervently that the tech staff tiptoe and all the air in the room seems to hush.

During this five-minute meditation, Bassett’s face telegraphs a range of affective states, queueing them, bringing them forward, then allowing them to fade. Chest raised, she is the wise woman, undaunted. She summons the pensiveness and furrowed brow of a woman who remembers how things used to be, what we now prefer to forget. At one point she stops and looks around, asking the crew whether she’s distracting them. She is reassured that she is not, and she continues.

She raises her hands just in front of her, cupping and rowing them, as if she is folding the ocean. We are watching Bassett conjure something – the power that has propelled her through a singular career on the stage and screen.

“There’s a saying I heard years ago, and it’s ‘Don’t mistake your presence for the event’,” Bassett says, recalling the words of the late theatre great Roscoe Lee Brown. It certainly feels like her effervescent presence in and of itself is the event. But she offers so much in every gesture and word that every tiny moment is made into something spectacular.

Photography by Lauren Dukoff

Across a photo shoot day with multiple hair, makeup, and wardrobe changes, Bassett, 64, gives and just keeps on giving – face, angles, shapes, body, wit. She does so with humility, pretending to find the light when it’s obvious that the light is duty bound to seek her.

When we speak the next afternoon, she’s reflecting on her process – why she shows up the way she does to every project, regardless of scale. She immediately recalls her late mother, Betty Jane Bassett, who used to tell her: “If you gonna do something, you do it right. You do it excellently.”

“I have a lot of that on me,” she says. “And sometimes that slows me down because I want it right. I want it to be excellent.”

Reciprocities of excellence are the ethos of the artist-at-work Angela Bassett. She is in a perpetual season of serving – of pouring out into the cups of others what has been poured into her over the course of her life and career.

From her aunts and mother, grandparents and great-grandparents, preachers and choir directors, she received love and pride, a sense of rootedness and belonging despite the realities of racial and economic discrimination. She speaks about her “angels,” such as teachers and staff at Boca Ciega High School in Gulfport, Florida – advocates who witnessed and cultivated her obvious talents. And then there’s her deep reverence and passion for the history and culture of Black people, her desire to honour us on screen and stage, and to make her mentors and elders proud.

Photography by Lauren Dukoff

“The Word says, ‘To whom much is given, much is required,’ and I have been extraordinarily blessed,” she says. “And I know it.”

Bassett has not tired of the divine requirements. And lately she is the epitome of booked and busy. She returned last year as star and executive producer of Fox’s first-responder show, 9-1-1, showing up for a sixth season as police sergeant Athena Grant. She has a part in Jordan Peele’s Halloween stop-motion film, Wendell & Wild. For an out-of-this-world haunting, Bassett can be heard narrating Good Night Oppy, the NASA documentary featuring footage from Mars rovers Opportunity and Spirit. She also narrates the fireworks show at Florida’s Disney World.

“You are the magic!” she reenacts for me, pointing. “Umph,” I reply inside myself, making sure to underline that in my notes. Behind the scenes, Bassett and her husband, the Emmy-winning actor Courtney B. Vance, are bringing stories to the screen via their production company, Bassett Vance Productions. Vance is in Chicago shooting the company’s next film, Heist 88, a chronicle of a real-life notorious bank heist in the 1980s. A limited series about Tulsa, the site of one of the most violent massacres of Black people in the US, is in the works. Bassett is excited about the team they have – “individuals who get it done” – and the voices and new playwrights coming into storytelling.

On screen, perhaps no project featuring Ms. Bassett is more anticipated than Black Panther 2: Wakanda Forever – the sequel to the 2018 Marvel blockbuster. In the film’s teaser trailer, aside from Nigerian singer Tems’s rendition of “No Woman No Cry” interspersed with Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright,” the only voice we hear is that of Bassett as Queen Ramonda. “I am queen of the most powerful nation in the world,” she bellows, “and my entire family is gone! Have I not given everything?”

Image: Getty

The grief and indignation in her face and voice, cut with a visual of a mural of Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa, the Black Panther, are designed to communicate wearied outrage far beyond Wakanda and the Marvel universe. Layered together in the moment is the public’s grief about Boseman’s death and their frustration with the ongoing disproportionate deaths of Black people, including the persistent devastation of the global pandemic and exhaustion with police brutality and extrajudicial terrorist violence.In confoundingly painful moments like this, who else do we want to hear from but our mother?

Over three decades ago, Bassett arrived in Los Angeles, armed with a master’s in fine arts degree from Yale University. She left New York in October 1988 – to hell with waiting for the west to come to New York and cast her. The move was a risk, but it was a necessary fulfilment of an implicit promise she had made when she was coming of age in Civil Rights–era St. Petersburg, Florida. Bassett was reared in a multigenerational community of family, the kind you’re given and the kind you make, and early life was church and Sunday dinners with grandparents and great-grandparents, choir-women disciplinarians o¡ ering harmony and structure, and summers in North Carolina with her sisters and college-educator aunt Golden Bassett Wall.

Bassett recalls when the family had “come up” and moved into Jordan Park, St. Pete’s first housing project. Bassett’s mother had come home from New York and gotten on her feet after a divorce. “I imagine it was tough raising two girls and yourself and tryna make ends meet,” Bassett says of her mother.

“She was that mother who may have been sleeping after work every day, but if that teacher called and said, ‘Angela can do better,’ she was up there in front of their faces with her stenographer’s pad taking notes,” she says.

Bassett recalls protesting to her mother in one such instance, “Mother, a C is average, a B is above average, and an A is above. I’m average, Ma!”

“But I don’t have average children,” her mother replied. It was a sort of lightning strike, and Bassett has bottled and transformed it, applying its lesson throughout her career and in relationships. “Consider more of yourself, hold yourself to a higher standard, and you’ll reach it.”

It was on a school fi eld trip that Bassett found her purpose – that thing at which she was decidedly not average. With attendants collecting discarded playbills around her, a 15-year-old Angela was still in her seat at the Kennedy Center, sobbing after a performance of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men in which the screen and stage titan James Earl Jones had starred as Lennie. “I could get tears right now! ‘Oh, I feel so bad and so good’,” she recalls. “Like life,” she adds with a softness that contains the bitter and the sweet of things.

Jones’s performance, like a flipped light switch, made her decide there and then: When she returned home, she would act. With the encouragement of another one of her angels, an Upward Bound director at Eckerd College, she applied to Yale. She got in, earning her BA in African American studies and then an MFA in theatre.

She was under no illusions about the kinds of roles that awaited her. “I wasn’t going to be the lead or the co-lead or the second lead, I was gon’ be the wife of the girl of the friend of the lead,” she says. But she wanted to work, she needed an opportunity, and she relished a challenge. What was supposed to be a planting-and-waiting season of six months to see what fruit LA might bear has turned into a diverse and eternal spring of a career, with varied raucous, dignifi ed, and transformational parts. A state of bloom.

Read the full cover story in our April/May issue at the link here or pick up a physical copy in stores from Wednesday 5 April 2023.

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