Jeffrey Wright, First-Time Nominee, Could Win His First-Ever Oscar This Year. He Should Already Have One For this 2005 Performance

Jeffrey Wright excels in the grey zones. His face holds apprehension and contemplation like a mountain holds fog. In director Cord Jefferson‘s American Fiction, he’s in the kind of grey zone that’s pickled many a writer: He’s respected but not loved, published but not read. A novelist insistent on writing against the primary colors and dull messaging of the film’s version of corporate New York publishing, Wright’s Monk Ellison swings from grief at his upper-class family’s unraveling to delighted trolling of the corporate publishing establishment. Monk snaps at a white student who’s unwilling to engage with a story whose text contains the N-word. He roasts a colleague for writing airport novels.

Monk might be Wright’s showiest role yet. But in American Fiction’s quieter moments, his face and posture give us an entire life. At the easy, joyous wedding of a family friend, hard-partying club kids and elderly civil servants dance the night away. Wright sits alone on a porch railing, too anxious and self-stymied to commune. Even with his people, he is a man apart. It might be the most humane moment in a movie filled with pathos.

My favorite ambivalent Jeffrey Wright character anchors the quietest thread of 2005’s Syriana, a mosaic of op-ed-y monologues about the Middle East and spy-movie set pieces. Parts of the movie have aged like milk and others remain subtly ahead of their time. Wright plays Bennett Holiday, a rising star at the kind of D.C. law firm that has ambassadors are on speed dial, where a win on a big case can net you a summer home. Not unlike Monk in American Fiction, Bennett is torn between being good at his job and being successful at it.

He’s been presented as a do-gooding young Black face in an old white place, here to placate the DOJ. Buffeted by premium grade character actors like Ciarán Hinds and Peter Gerety, he’s got to sort out who might sour the impending merging of two oil companies and how to keep the DOJ away from their collective door. His success or failure may remake not only the oil industry but also America’s presence in the Middle East. When he finds that the treachery is inside his own firm, he turns on his senior partner with an ugly line that recalls that partner’s insult to him earlier in the film. Maybe it’s Wright’s greatest gift that under his quietude there are storms. As a senior partner tells Holiday earlier in the film, “Maybe you’re a lion everyone thinks is a sheep.”

As we begin our final approach to the 2024 Oscars, we’re taking one more look back at the films and performances that blew our minds last year—and looking even further back, to spotlight earlier Oscar-worthy work from the filmographies of this year’s nominees.

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