Entertainment Weekly recently published an article on the “Top 20 Heroes and Villains in Popular Culture” (both lists can be found here). I’m delighted that my favorite movie hero, Ellen Ripley, ranked #5 and wow, what a nice surprise to see Foxy Brown (#13) featured three spots higher than Jack Bauer (#16) on the hero roll call.
I was disappointed, however, by the representation of African Americans, particularly among the pop culture villains. On that list, the closest we get to a black person is the voice of Darth Vader (#2) – the mighty James Earl Jones. I would take nothing away from Hannibal Lecter (#3) or Annie Wilkes (#14) who have surely earned their notoriety, but hey, EW, “how come their ain’t no brothas on the wall?”
To make up for this oversight, I’ve been inspired to compile a list of my own (in close consultation with Frieda, my husband, and anyone else who would listen). Let me know what you think. Did I forget anybody important? Would you rank these characters different? I’m just having fun with this, so let the debate begin!
Top 10 Villains in Black Popular Culture
1. Evilene (Mabel King) in The Wiz:
Nobody embodies villainy better than The Wiz’s Wicked Witch of the West, Evilene, who runs a sweatshop in the NY sewer, wreaks havoc on the lives of Dorothy and her friends, and can belt out a tune that brings flying monkeys to their knees. And the way she steps down off her throne and cracks her whip is without match. Just listen to her growl don’t nobody bring me no bad news! and it’s end of discussion, no contest.
2. Mister (Danny Glover) in The Color Purple:
Abuser, adulterer, and sniveling idiot. Although he works to redeem himself at the end of The Color Purple and eventually earns the privilege of being identified by name (Albert), his cruelty and contempt can never be forgotten.
3. Russell “Stringer” Bell (Idris Elba) in The Wire:
Stringer Bell’s memorable run on The Wire represents the emergence of a new and improved villain, soft-spoken, college-educated, and ruthless. He’s street smart and book smart (and yummy to look at).
4. Eartha Kitt’s Catwoman:
Eartha Kitt is the classic Catwoman and the sexiest villain ever. Who doesn’t know her trademark purr?
5. Nino Brown (Wesley Snipes) in New Jack City:
The Scarface of crack-cocaine, Nino Brown has become synonymous with parasitic drug dealers who cripple their own communities for greed and power. Though some may want to put him on the list of heroes, there’s nothing about Nino worth emulating. Rock-a-bye, baby!
6. Stagger Lee (Lee Shelton), Black Folk Legend
Okay, so I went way back for this one. The legend of the cold-blooded murderer, Stagger Lee, has been the subject of dozens of blues songs since the early 1900s including Mississippi John Hurt’s wonderful “Stack O’ Lee Blues.” That bad man, oh, cruel Stack O’ Lee! His story is unraveled in the excellent graphic novel by Derek McCulloch and Shepherd Hedrix, and he just recently popped up in my favorite webcomic, Bayou.
7. John Harris, Sr. (Michael Beach) in Waiting to Exhale:
Angela Bassett’s character set this cheatin’ man’s car on fire and millions of black women across America cried out in victory!
8. Alonzo (Denzel Washington) in Training Day:
I don’t think any of us were prepared to see Denzel transform from an easy-going mentor to a heartless criminal with a badge. This Oscar-winning role instantly secured his place as a top villain in black popular culture.
9. Simon Legree in Harriet Beecher’s Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin:
Of all the slave drivers who could (and should) have made this list, few are more vicious that Simon Legree, the fictional Louisiana planter that beat Uncle Tom to death without an ounce of regret. Even black folks who have never read Uncle Tom’s Cabin get chills when they hear the name Simon Legree.
10. Ol’ Pharaoh (Ramesses II) from “Go Down, Moses”
The first villain our enslaved ancestors dared to identify by name in the most well-known Negro Spiritual of all time. Taken from the Book of Exodus, Ol’ Pharaoh was a symbol for any and every slave owner, for the institution as a whole, and the will of millions to overcome their oppression.
- Mr. T in Rocky III
- Sweet Daddy Williams (Teddy Wilson) in Good Times
- Darryl Jenks (Eriq La Salle) in Coming to America
- Elijah Price (Samuel Jackson) in Unbreakable
- Wilhemina Slater (Vanessa Williams) in Ugly Betty