MIB: International could fortify Tessa Thompson's unique position in Hollywood as a queer woman of colour
Tessa Thompson has some big boots to fill. MIB: International releases this weekend with mighty huge expectations, as the franchise makes a comeback to the big screen after seven years. There’s been an overhaul of sorts, with Agent J (Will Smith) and Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) being dumped for Agent H (Chris Hemsworth) and Agent M (Tessa Thompson). And the film has an international spin, answering all those non-American fans who’ve been asking, “Hey who’s gonna kill our aliens?” Why, Thor of course. But what’s got us really excited about the film is that hot Asgardian woman who turned up drunk a couple of years back to take Thor home (and fell off the gangplank of her ship).
When Tessa Thompson played Valkyrie in Thor: Ragnarok, she stole her moments, as she’s been wont to over a career that’s spanned fourteen years. And that’s the thing — she’s always been the bridesmaid, but never the bride. With a history of picking up slightly flaky characters, she’s charmed her way into recognition and created a style that’s distinctly hers, despite never having played the lead in any feature. Up until now that is.
Her first on-screen acting gig came when she was all of 21, on an episode of the TV show, Cold Case. Donning a three-piece suit and a Fedora hat, Tessa played the role of an early twentieth century lesbian—she recited verse, smoked hand rolled cigarettes and simply killed it. In hindsight, there couldn’t have been a more poetic debut for someone who’s done everything the Hollywood guidebook for beginners says not to do.
The next decade went by doing the occasional indie film, interspersed with a lot of theatre gigs, while becoming a fairly regular face on television. She played a teenager on Veronica Mars, and appeared in episodes of shows like Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice, Life and even Heroes. A singer-songwriter, Tessa was also a member of LA based electro-soul outfit, Caught a Ghost. But mostly, she said no. By her own admission, Tessa was bored. She’s spoken of the numerous times she’d walked into auditions only to find roles that were ‘race specific’ and not very compelling.
It was Dear White People (2015) that really kickstarted a career that’s beginning to blossom today. She plays the role of Samantha White, a college radio DJ in the film and comes into her own doing what she does best—breaking stereotypes. As a biracial character who takes pride in her black activism, Samantha finds herself caught in a world where she’s neither white nor ‘black enough’. It was a tricky role with multiple layers but one she nailed, and got her noticed. In an interview with Rolling Stone in 2017, her writer-director on the film, Justin Simien says, “In her close-ups you can see how her characters want to be seen, as well as how they see themselves behind the eyes. She’s funny and vulnerable and fierce all at once.”
What’s so incredible about this descriptor is that Simien could have been talking about the person or the actor; the lines begin to blur a little when it’s Tessa Thompson. A couple of years ago she created a bit of a stir when she tweeted to fans about Valkyrie, the Marvel superhero she plays, as being bisexual. And despite this being the case in the comic books that form the source material, there was no way that a big studio like Disney was going to commit to potentially alienating audiences. So, she went ahead and turned the conversation into one about representation.
Thompson herself doesn’t identify with labels or as she succinctly put it in an interview with the Independent in 2018, “I don’t think in those binaries. Some people categorised it as coming out or something. And I have never been in, so I don’t know what that means.” There’s a deep conviction that cinema too can do without the stereotypes, and you see that in films like Selma and Creed, where the roles are race specific but not within Hollywood’s confines of what a black character 'should be'. And having successfully done that, she began training her sights on more commercial stuff, and getting the big boys to play ball. That she’s succeeding speaks volumes about the cultural change that’s sweeping across Hollywood, and is also a testament to the belief she has in her identity.
The sci-fi and fantasy genres, which are notorious for being the domain of ‘White Male Hollywood’, have seen some radical changes in the past three years, with Marvel dishing out their first black superhero film, and both DC and Marvel having women-centric films. It’s this universe that Thompson stepped into, playing characters that weren’t written with a race in mind (Thor: Ragnarok) or a specific gender (MIB: International).
As a queer woman of colour and an outspoken feminist, Tessa Thompson finds herself in a unique position today. One that makes her an automatic A-lister. One that put her on the cover of TIME magazine despite not having headlined a film till date. All of that changes this Friday, and it remains to be seen what she does with this new-found influence.
Updated Date: Jun 13, 2019 11:10:38 IST