The intensifying buzz surrounding Spike Lee’s much-anticipated comeback film, BlacKkKlansman, is no mere hyperbole. The Oscar-nominated visionary’s early ‘70s crime drama—based on the true story of Ron Stallworth, the first African-American detective in the Colorado Springs Police Department who shockingly infiltrated the Klu Klux Klan—is relentless, unapologetic, at times legit hilarious, and sobering. BlacKkKlanseman, executive produced by Get Out director Jordan Peele, offers a powerful indictment on not just the dark legacy of white supremacy, but also a not-so-muted commentary on the brazen racial animus of the Trump presidency.
But while the reinvigorated director has long shown a gift for transforming the incendiary into poignant entertainment, it’s his impressive eye for new talent that remains a Lee hallmark. This time around it’s John David Washington, who plays Stallworth with overwhelming charisma, comic timing and quiet rage. After being introduced to many as Ricky Jarrett on HBO’s Ballers, the son of Hollywood royalty Denzel Washington joins a long list of impressive newcomers that have delivered mightily for the Brooklyn auteur. BET presents "10 Actors Who Blew Up After Appearing In A Spike Lee Joint."
Breakout Role: School Daze (1988)
While Campbell-Martin made her 1986 film debut as a member of the narrating throwback girl group in the comedy musical Little Shop of Horrors, it was her role as Jane Toussaint, the beyond bougie leader of Mission College’s African-American sorority the Gamma Rays, that truly turned heads.
Post Spike: House Party (1990), Boomerang (1992), Martin (1992-1997), My Wife And Kids (2001-2005), Dr. Ken (2015-2017)
Award Highlights: Nominated: NAACP Image Awards, Actress In A Comedy Series (My Wife And Kids, 2003)
(Photo by Marcus Ingram/Getty Images)
Roger Guenveur Smith
Breakout Role: Do The Right Thing (1989)
The brilliance of Smith’s all-heart Smiley, a mentally impaired neighborhood man who sells pictures of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. on the block, is that he is the most self aware character in arguably Lee’s most critically hailed cinematic achievement.
Post Spike: King Of New York (1990), Deep Cover (1992), Malcolm X (1992), Eve’s Bayou (1997), A Huey P. Newton Story (2001), American Gangster (2007)
Award Highlights: Nominated: Obie Award (A Huey P. Newton Story stage version, 1997), Nominated: NAACP Image Awards, Outstanding Television Movie, Mini-Series, or Dramatic Series (A Huey P. Newton Story, 2002); Winner: Peabody Award (A Huey P. Newton Story, 2002)
(Photo by Stefanie Keenan/Getty Images for CalArts)
Breakout Role: Do The Right Thing (1989)
The gone-too-soon 1990 death of comedian Robin Harris echoes throughout his scene-stealing magic as regally profane neighborhood jokester Sweet Dick Willie.
Post Spike: Harlem Nights (1989), House Party (1990), Mo’ Better Blues (1991)
Award Highlights: Nominated: Independent Spirit Awards, Best Supporting Male (House Party, 1991)
Breakout Role: Do The Right Thing (1989)
The Soul Train favorite’s hard-charging opening dance sequence to Public Enemy’s landmark “Fight The Power” alone was worth the admission.
Post Spike: In Living Color (choreographer, 1990-1993), White Men Can’t Jump (1992), Fearless(1993), Lackawanna Blues (2004), Pineapple Express (2008)
Award Highlights: Nominated: Academy Award, Best Supporting Actress (Fearless, 1993), Nominated: Golden Globe, Best Supporting Actress (Fearless, 1993)
(Photo by Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival)
Breakout Role: Do The Right Thing
One could only imagine what darkness Turturro tapped into when he broke into the searing racist soliloquy as Pino, the bitter, eldest son at Sal’s Pizzeria.
Post Spike:Mo’ Better Blues (1990), Miller’s Crossing (1990), Jungle Fever (1991), Barton Fink (1991), Quiz Show (1994), Clockers (1995),O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), Transformers (2007)
Award Highlights:Winner: Cannes Film Festival Awards, Best Actor (Barton Fink, 1991), Nominated:Golden Globe Awards, Best Supporting Actor (Quiz Show, 1994)
(Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for TNT)
Breakout Role: Clockers (1995)
Phifer beat out thousands of newcomers during an open casting call for the career-igniting lead as narcotics dealer Ronald “Strike” Dunham.
Post Spike: Soul Food (1997), I Still Know What You Did Last Summer (1998), 8 Mile (2001), Paid in Full (2002), ER (2002-2008), Torchwood (2011)
Award Highlights: Winner: NAACP Image Awards, Supporting Actor in a Drama (2004, 2005, ER)
(ER -- Season 12 -- Pictured: Mekhi Phifer as Gregory Pratt -- Photo by: Mitchell Haaseth/NBCU Photo Bank)
Breakout Role: Malcolm X (1992)
After making his British debut in the 1976 comedy Find the Lady and subsequent films including More American Graffiti (1979), Lindo briefly retired from movie acting to establish himself in the theater world. A decade later, he finally garnered film acclaim as no-nonsense gangster West Indian Archie in Lee’s epic Malcolm X, the Academy Award-nominated biopic of the revered civil rights firebrand.
Post Spike: Crooklyn (1995), Clockers (1995), Get Shorty (1995), Ransom (1996), The Cider House Rules (1999), Gone in 60 Seconds (2000), Romeo Must Die (2000), Heat (2001), Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (2009), The Good Fight (2017-present)
Award Highlights: Nomination: Tony Awards, Best Featured Actor in a Play (1988, August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone), Nominated: Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture (1992, Malcolm X), Nominated: Screen Actors Guild, Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture (1995, Get Shorty), Nominated: Screen Actors Guild, Outstanding by a Cast in a Motion Picture (1999, The Cider House Rules)
(Photo by: David Giesbrecht/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
Breakout Role: Jungle Fever (1991)
The former Miss USA runner-up significantly downplayed her legendary beauty when she showed startling range as a crack-addicted homeless woman.
Post Spike: Boomerang (1992), Losing Isaiah (1995), Bulworth (1997), X-Men (2000), Swordfish (2001), Introducing Dorothy Dandridge (1999) Monster’s Ball, (2001), X2 (2003), X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014), Kingsman: The Golden Circle (2017)
Award Highlights: Winner: Academy Awards, Best Actress (2002, Monster’s Ball)
(Photo by Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic)
Breakout Role: She Hate Me (2004)
The future Olivia Pope was one of the few bright spots of Lee’s uneven story of a successful biotechnology executive who, after being falsely accused of securities fraud, becomes a sperm donor in order to climb out of financial dire straights.
Post Spike: Ray (2004), Mr. & Mrs. Smith (2004), Fantastic Four (2005), The Last King of Scotland (2006), I Think I Love My Wife (2006), Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007), For Colored Girls (2010), Django Unchained (2012), Scandal (2012-2018), Confirmation (2016)
Award Highlights: Nominated: Emmy Awards, Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series (2013, 2014, Scandal), Lead Actress in a Limited Series or a Movie (2016, Confirmation)
(Photo by Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images)
Samuel L. Jackson
As tragic crack addict Gator, Jackson, a longtime bit player, was finally given space to showcase his criminally underrated acting chops. But it wasn't his first rodeo with Spike. Jackson also appeared as a disgruntled local in Lee's aforementioned love letter to the Historically Black College School Daze. Decades later, the fanboy/girl favorite (from Star Wars to Marvel’s Avengers franchise) now stands as one of Hollywood’s most successful and hardest working actors in game. To date, Jackson’s films have grossed an astounding $16 billion.
Post Spike: Juice (1991), Jurassic Park (1993), Pulp Fiction (1994), A Time To Kill (1995), Jackie Brown(1997), Star Wars: Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace(1999), Iron Man(2008), The Incredibles (2003), Iron Man 2 (2010), Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), The Hateful Eight (2015), Avengers: Infinity War (2017)
Award Highlights: Nominated: Academy Awards, Best Actor in a Supporting Role (1994, Pulp Fiction); Nominated: Golden Globe Awards, Best Supporting Actor (1994, Pulp Fiction), Best Supporting Actor (1996, A Time to Kill), Best Actor – Motion Picture Musical or Comedy (1997, Jackie Brown)
Photo Credit: FOCUS FEATURES