Beychella is easily her best musical performance, but which of these eight is her greatest acting role?
Beyoncé has broken the Internet more than once in her storied musical career, but even by her lofty standards, her record-breaking powerhouse of a Coachella set was something special. Infused with political currency, educational potential, and pop-cultural throwbacks, “Beychella”, as it’s come to be known, demonstrated how deeply rooted Beyoncé is in modern culture.
As much as it seems like she’s been a fixed presence in music forever, though, film has been one arena in which she’s had to prove herself recently. With a starring role on the cards as Nala in next year’s Lion King – the Lion Queen, more like – we thought it would be timely to look back at her history with the silver screen and rank each of the eight roles she’s played so far.
8. The Pink Panther, 2006
In many ways, Beyoncé’s role here is akin to her part in Austin Powers in Goldmember, only this one’s marginally worse. Released soon after Destiny’s Child disbanded, this dismal reboot of the blundering detective series relies on trading Beyoncé’s star power to pull in audiences, and that singular purpose shows up clearly in the one-note role she’s given. Mainly there as eye candy for Steve Martin’s lustful Inspector Clouseau, Beyoncé plays pop star Xania, the bereft girlfriend of Jason Statham’s character, who owns the titular Pink Panther diamond and is quickly assassinated early on for reasons only Clouseau can deduce. There really isn’t much to praise here, but that’s hardly Beyoncé’s fault. What creative aspects she did have control over far outshine the rest of the film: take “Check On It”, her Slim Thug-featuring banger written for the film and its accompanying pink-rich video, as proof.
7. Austin Powers in Goldmember, 2002
Beyoncé’s Coachella set demonstrated how capable she is of making expert choices – artistic, sartorial, and choreographical – so it’s jarring to know she once read the script for Austin Powers in Goldmember and decided that making her cinematic debut in a movie where Mini-Me (Verne Troyer) humps her leg in a scuba suit would be a good idea.
Modeled on the archetypal Blaxploitation heroine, Beyoncé plays undercover-agent-slash-singer and Austin’s ex Foxxy Cleopatra, but, as in Pink Panther, she’s mainly only here so that all the aforementioned sexual innuendo has something to bounce off of. There is a silver lining, though: Goldmember gave Bey the chance to display her natural screen warmth and an instinctive knack for comic timing – and to prove her versatility as a musician with the funk-heavy “Work It Out”, her first ever single as a solo artist.
6. The Fighting Temptations, 2003
Beyoncé’s first lead role in a theatrical movie came when she was just 22 years old, in 2003’s crowd-pleasing, gospel-themed comedy The Fighting Temptations. Here, she plays Lilly, a reluctant member of Darren’s (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) hodge-podge of a church choir. A single mother previously ostracised from the church because of her job – she sings at nightclubs – Lilly is also Darren’s love interest, as well as the reason he undergoes an emotional transformation from an unscrupulous and cynical ad exec into a principled, God-fearing family man (because if anyone can inspire such a seismic personality change, Beyoncé can).
As clichéd and as generally unremarkable on the surface, as The Fighting Temptations is, there’s a sweet humbleness to the film – something that Beyoncé’s similarly gentle, unassuming performance as the persecuted but faithful Lilly complements well.
5. Carmen: A Hip Hopera, 2001
This rap musical – the first of its kind – produced by MTV marked Beyoncé’s acting debut (although Goldmember was her first foray into theatrical film). A modern reimagining of Georges Bizet’s opera Carmen, it swaps sopranos for sixteen bars, and as such, much of Bey’s work here comes in the form of rap, rather than straight acting or her natural comfort zone of singing. If she was nervous about the artistic change, though, it never shows; the bars she brings to “If Looks Could Kill, You’d Be Dead” manage to outshine even those of her more experienced scene partner, Mos Def:
While Carmen is certainly dated now – its costume design and props make the early ’00s seem positively prehistoric – it is remarkable for bringing together such icons of rap at the time as Mos Def, Rah Digga, Wyclef Jean, Jermaine Dupri and Bow Wow, and for introducing us to the burgeoning acting talents of a certain Beyoncé Knowles. Specific highlights in her performance include a spooky duo number with Jean as a bad omen-bringing mystic and a saucy, fraught chemistry with love interest Derek (Mekhi Phifer) that plays on her natural charm and hints at early shades of a “Lemonade”-era no-nonsense approach to men.
4. Epic, 2013
The plot of this forest-set fairy tale is too reminiscent of other animated movies – FernGully, The Borrowers and Arthur and the Invisibles, for example – to be really noteworthy on its own, but it does have the honor of being the only movie so far to address Beyoncé by her proper royal title.
Even as the microscopic-sized ruler of the forest Queen Tara, Beyoncé resists having her talents shrunken down, as her warm, affirming voice performance and Sia-penned end-credits ballad testify. This is one of the smaller roles on this list, but it also marked Beyoncé’s promising entrance into the world of voice-acting – an arena she’s soon set to dominate as Nala in next year’s live-action Lion King remake.
3. Obsessed, 2009
If “Becky with the good hair” were to be turned into a movie, this would be it. Pre-“Lemonade”, Beyoncé’s performance in this Fatal Attraction-style thriller might have placed lower on this list, but her role here as Sharon, the suspicious wife of Idris Elba’s Derek, gives it fresh cultural currency. Ali Larter is the scheming, psychologically-disturbed office temp Lisa who ramps up her stalking of boss Derek until Sharon snaps, in what is by far the most memorable scene in this otherwise predictable thriller.
This is juicy material – even more so in retrospect – and Beyoncé does compelling work throwing out withering put-downs and channeling a woman scorned as she comes to doubt Derek’s fidelity and, more accurately, later on, Lisa’s sanity. The culmination of the latter suspicion is an explosive, ceiling-smashing fight between Beyoncé and Larter’s characters that retrospectively gifts us the visual catharsis that the lyrics to “Sorry” established a need for.
2. Cadillac Records, 2008
Beyoncé stepped into big boots when she took on the role of Etta James in this period biopic about the rise of Chess Records – the label that was home to blues legends like Muddy Waters and rock and roll stars like Chuck Berry – but boy, did she fill them.
In a performance defined by both glamor and grit, she adeptly captures the public and private personas of the troubled singer as she battles the pressures of fame, addiction, and racism, all while pursuing a steamy romance with label boss Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody). Beyoncé handles a scene in which Etta overdoses with the kind of unglamorous grittiness you’d never have expected from this Destiny’s Child good girl, but that’s the point: you forget it’s the Beyoncé when you’re watching. There is a clear affinity in her performance with what it means to be talented and troubled, incredible and insecure — but the emotional notes she hits here aren’t music biopic-specific. You get the sense that, after this point in her acting career, she’s grown enough in her craft to comfortably stretch out beyond musical roles.
Both vocally and dramatically, hers is the performance you’ll likely most remember from the film – no easy feat considering the strength of the ensemble here – a fact that her Grammy win for her spine-tingling cover of “At Last” and multiple acting nominations attest to.
1. Dreamgirls, 2006
Cadillac Records only confirmed what we already knew: that Beyoncé Knowles can breathe full-bodied life into dramatic roles in the same way she can with lyrics. While the other performances on this list echo that conclusion, it’s chiefly because of Dreamgirls that we’re so aware of her remarkable acting talent.
This energetic, spirited drama is a thinly veiled biopic about The Supremes, with Beyoncé playing Diana Ross’ screen proxy in a Golden Globe-nominated performance. Jennifer Hudson would eventually pick up the Globe – and another trophy at the Oscars – for her post-American Idol breakout turn, but the fact that Beyoncé wasn’t awarded is, paradoxically, a testament to the strength of performance here. Hers is a layered, quiet interpretation of her character; a display of greater maturity than some of her other roles allowed for. (Her performance in Cadillac Records, for example, was played like a lead role, something that was necessary for the film to successfully convey Etta’s dominating presence.)
Let’s face it: the unequal popularity of The Dreams’ members is reminiscent not just of The Supremes, but also of Destiny’s Child. Beyoncé, like Diana Ross and the fictional Deena Jones, naturally drew the spotlight away from her band-mates, but replicating that in a supporting performance is, perhaps counterintuitively, actually quite demanding. It requires a couple of things: first, self-awareness, something that pop stars are notoriously criticised for lacking. Then, the ability (and willingness!) to curb your own natural charisma just enough so that you can convey your character’s own charm, while also making space for the true focus of the movie (in this case, Hudson’s character) to shine.
The music business rarely rewards humility, so it often goes lacking in its most successful stars. Beyoncé, who was, by the time of her Dreamgirls turn, a seasoned professional in the world of music, nevertheless produced the quality in spades when it was required of her. Putting the indignities of Goldmember and Pink Panther behind her, she took on her most complicated role yet and pulled it off with quiet aplomb, making for a performance that not only marks the pinnacle of her dramatic career – a title her role as Nala in Lion King might well steal – but one that demonstrates, yet again, that she has talents far beyond just her soul-reviving voice.