Gugu Mbatha-Raw And The Pursuit Of A-list Stardom
A Wrinkle in Time hits theaters tonight! Get your tickets here!
A Wrinkle in Time’s theatrical release will mark the third movie starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw to be released this year, an impressive accomplishment when one considers that we’re just over two months into 2018. While she takes a supporting role to newcomer Storm Reid in the DuVernay-directed film, both The Cloverfield Paradox and Irreplaceable You have her in the film’s leading role, with Mbatha-Raw’s Ava Hamilton getting the deepest character development in the ensemble cast of Julius Onah’s film. This kind of exposure should lead to someone being an A-lister, and Mbatha-Raw has proven that she has the acting talent and charisma to be one. So why isn't she?
She had a co-leading role in the JJ Abrams-produced Undercovers in 2010, followed by a supporting role in Touch, Keifer Sutherland’s follow-up to the star-making series 24. She’s been the lead in critically acclaimed films like Belle and Beyond the Lights, she’s had a supporting role in the Wachowskis’ Jupiter Ascending, worked with Matthew McConaughey and Jessica Chastain in Free State of Jones and Miss Sloane, respectively, has a key supporting role in the smash hit live-action Beauty and the Beast, and was a main cast member of "San Junipero", one of the most well-known episodes of Black Mirror. Any number of those should have propelled her career to greater heights than it is now; take, for example, Jared Leto, whose casting alongside McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club netted him an Academy Award and greater commercial success than he’d previously had. And yet, success at a similar level eludes Mbatha-Raw.
One of the things that has seemingly held Mbatha-Raw back is the fact that her projects, while sounding right on paper, have not worked out for some reason or the other. Free State of Jones is one of the lesser-known entries in Matthew McConaughey’s critical revival in Hollywood, in stark contrast to Dallas Buyers Club, which netted six Oscar nominations and three wins. Undercovers was a one-season show, in contrast to other JJ Abrams-produced series like Lost or Fringe. The Cloverfield Paradox, while gaining a large number of viewers due to Netflix’s surprise marketing strategy, did not garner the critical acclaim that its predecessors did. Mbatha-Raw’s biggest role to date has been in "San Junipero", and is unfortunately one that, due to the model on which Black Mirror is built, doesn’t allow for recurring roles.
The other thing that has to be addressed is Mbatha-Raw’s status as a woman of color in Hollywood. It is well known that both women and non-white performers get fewer opportunities than their white male colleagues, and the combination of two aspects that Hollywood usually sees as a negative is undoubtedly affecting Mbatha-Raw’s career prospects. Success is likely to be more difficult for her, and the steeper uphill climb she has had to face due to being both a woman and a PoC is undoubtedly playing a part in why she hasn’t ascended to stardom yet.
So the question then is, will Mbatha-Raw ever be able to make that final leap? The answer is maybe. It is true that the actress has been undeniably gaining popularity over the last few years. While The Cloverfield Paradox may not have garnered a high critical score, it was seen by a lot of people, building on the fanbase she’d gathered, or grown, from "San Junipero". The argument can certainly be made that if she can stay the course, she will get the A-list recognition that's seemingly been coming her way for some time.
The key thing Mbatha-Raw needs in her career now is a lead role in a film that's both critically and commercially successful. So far, she has ended up in supporting roles in movies that have gotten both, a trend that promises to carry on with A Wrinkle in Time. However, given that the supporting roles haven’t given Mbatha-Raw the spotlight she needs to elevate her profile, aiming for more lead roles is the right step for her, and one she’s already taking.
One thing Mbatha-Raw has done throughout her career and shouldn't stop doing is working with women filmmakers. Along with DuVernay and the Wachowskis, Mbatha-Raw has also worked with Gina Prince-Bythewood and Amma Asante over the past few years. Of the two movies of hers that have already been released this year, Irreplaceable You is directed by a woman as well, as is her next film, Fast Color, which is set to make its debut at SXSW.
Essentially, the path Mbatha-Raw has been taking is the correct one, with a combination of the industry’s natural biases and her own bad luck working against her success at large. Her breakthrough appears to be just a matter of time, and the only thing she can do herself to ensure that it happens is to keep pushing for leading roles, given that her presence in supporting roles in movies such as Beauty and the Beast haven’t done much to boost her profile. If she continues down the path she’s on, stardom seems to be inevitable, and it will be well-deserved when it arrives.