Cynthia Erivo Takes Center Stage

Her early years in Hollywood are filled with high notes, and we're ready for more.
Cynthia Erivo In Harriet

Welcome to Filmographiesa column for completists. Every edition brings a working actor’s resumé into focus as we learn about what makes them so compelling. In this entry, we spotlight the filmography of Cynthia Erivo.

In less than five years, Cynthia Erivo has curated a film and television resumé brimming with veritable, unforgettable heroines. Initially emerging in the theater scene, she cut her teeth on the English stage, nursing a focus on musicals. Before long, she received decorated acclaim — including prestigious Tony and Grammy wins — for her Broadway debut in The Color Purple.

Erivo’s subsequent dabbling in movies and TV only proves that her various artistic aptitudes impeccably translate across media of all sorts. Her earliest guest-starring roles in notable small-screen projects such as Chewing Gum, The Tunnel, and Broad City are palate cleansers for the constant string of exciting endeavors bulking up her slate.

In this edition of Filmographies, we celebrate Erivo’s modest but cogent selection of onscreen credits.

Widows (2018)

The resonant caliber of acting prowess in Steve McQueen’s heist thriller Widows enhances the presence of the most minor of supporting players. For Cynthia Erivo to craft such a standout persona in her debut film appearance then immediately solidifies her status as a formidable performer.

The narrative of Widows follows the travails of three women who briefly enter a life of crime to repay the illicit debts left behind by their deceased husbands. By chance but not without reason, Erivo’s altruistic Belle becomes embroiled with the newfound syndicate’s questionable plot to steal millions from a local politician.

The titular widows each epitomize respective moral quandaries in their individual storylines. However, as a single working mother, Belle exemplifies a specific circumstance of struggle and desperation that highlights the absolute necessity of the group’s venture.

Belle entirely espouses the ethos of hard work. She carries herself from job to job on her own two feet, literally running to ensure that her time equates to monetary gain.

Erivo’s acute physicality is one of the most salient indicators of Belle’s unyielding determination. The actress’ phlegmatic straightforwardness further impresses us, as the character’s stoicism never comes at the cost of her kindness.

Bad Times at the El Royale (2018)

Drew Goddard’s ambitious neo-noir thriller Bad Times at the El Royale raises the stakes for Cynthia Erivo quickly and considerably. The ensemble picture marks her first starring role on the big screen. Yet, opposite the likes of Jeff Bridges, Jon Hamm, and Dakota Johnson, Erivo turns in the most inspired, empathetic performance in the film.

Set against a backdrop of tumultuous 1960s America, several mysterious strangers converge on the eponymous hotel one fateful night. Little do they know, their respective personal baggage would destructively collide there, leading to perturbing questions of faith and morality.

Erivo steps into the sunshine yellow pumps of aspiring singer Darlene Sweet. By design, the combination of her vibrant attire and hearty goodwill immediately brightens the forebodingly rich color palette of her surroundings.

That said, Darlene is fundamentally stuck at a crossroads of a stagnant profession. Casual discrimination of her Black womanhood halts her dreams and diminishes her sense of self.

Armed with a conflicting amalgam of soft-spoken hesitancy and steely resolve, Erivo is especially poignant and relatable as she unveils Darlene’s fraught ambitions. There is a purposeful rawness in the character’s quest for self-worth, fueling our compassion for her.

Erivo is thus the perfect conduit for the lessons of this sprawling, confronting story. Disreputable antiheroes and villainous creeps envelop Darlene. Regardless, she stays an undoubtedly compelling paragon.

Harriet (2019)

Cynthia Erivo brings the legendary freedom fighter Harriet Tubman to life on the big screen in the action-driven biopic Harriet. The film dramatizes the crucial activist years of Tubman’s adulthood, detailing her evolution from runaway slave to tenacious, uncompromising abolitionist on the Underground Railroad.

Tubman’s resolve to escape the white family she had served since birth arises from the elementary need for autonomy. Erivo’s textured portrayal burns with an ardent, unrelenting spirit. Whether she wilts or blooms, every slight shift in emotional pitch is palpable via her body language — especially a gaze that contains multitudes.

What’s more, Tubman’s almost uncanny otherworldliness is kept at the forefront. As the character’s desperation transforms into a valiant intention — as she gains the strength and confidence to defend civil rights — Erivo allows a meditative quality to wash over the proceedings without surrendering Tubman’s mental and physical fortitude to pure faith.

Theoretically, almost any depiction of such a prominent figure in American history precipitates a career-defining performance. Erivo, who earned Academy Award, Golden Globe, and Screen Actors Guild nominations for her role as Tubman, does not disappoint, driving forward the very essence of this passionate narrative.

The Outsider (2020)

Cynthia Erivo found her first substantive TV effort in the supernatural police procedural The Outsider. The 10-episode show based on the Stephen King novel of the same name sees her portraying a reimagining of one of the author’s recurring literary creations: Holly Gibney.

The plot centers on the rippling effects of a horrific unexplained murder that destabilizes the tight-knit community of a small Georgia town. In an attempt to make sense of clashing evidence, a local detective hell-bent on solving the crime soon enlists Holly — a savant private investigator — to join the task force.

At the outset, Holly is already noticeably dissimilar to Erivo’s prior protagonists. Before she actually appears on screen, her colleagues define her with an eccentric, socially stunted brilliance.

As a result, Erivo often embodies awkward, reticent precision that highlights Holly’s hyper-focused observational expertise. Still, the actress’ quiet gravitas allows ruminative contradictions to percolate beneath Holly’s aloof exterior.

As composed as Holly is when she’s on the job, the fear and trauma unearthed by the violent incidences of the series compel a more frazzled side to materialize. Moreover, Erivo underscores Holly’s tireless conviction for truth with a genuine, endearing sincerity that only reveals itself around loved ones and trusted colleagues. In this way, she transcends the stereotype of this oddball guru trope with care and subtlety.

Genius (2021)

The anthology series Genius chronicles the lives of attested legends throughout the ages. Its third season spotlights gospel singer Aretha Franklin, with Cynthia Erivo playing the Queen of Soul herself.

The eight-episode season adopts a fairly haphazard approach to the good, the bad, and the ugly of Franklin’s many milestones. In cherry-picking an assortment of her biggest years between 1967 and 1998, the show certainly ensures that Erivo has found her most glamorous but challenging enterprise to date.

Every costume change that honors a new era of Franklin’s musical journey demands distinct emotional investment from the actress. Trauma often inflicts the character’s life. Erivo as Franklin staunchly battles the male establishment at home and in the studio, all the while preserving the integrity of her creative vision.

Of course, Erivo gets to show off the true extensiveness of her singing chops, too. Past projects like Bad Times at the El Royale and Harriet have substantially utilized her musical talents. Notwithstanding, the range of genres that the real-life Franklin experimented with — gospel, R&B, disco, and even opera — provides Erivo with an impressive showcase.

Above all, Erivo threads the season together by treating this version of Franklin with the utmost humanity. Franklin’s ingenuity is not mutually exclusive to her flawed perspectives, which Erivo draws together with appreciable respect (pun unintended) and a deep understanding of her motivations.

What’s Next

Studying Cynthia Erivo’s most commanding and affecting onscreen contributions guarantees a single fact: there is so much she has left to do. Also evidenced through her work in music and on podcasts, Erivo’s capabilities would greatly serve a plethora of genres.

Romantic dramas come to mind, given that Needle in a Timestack regrettably sidelines her. Chaos Walking presents a graver example of misusing Erivo’s abilities, although that does not mean her future in science fiction is necessarily ominous.

In fact, Erivo keeps incredibly busy. Speaking of sci-fi, she will star in and produce Blink Speed for Netflix. She is set to contribute to a women-driven anthology for Apple titled Roar. One of Erivo’s podcast undertakings, Carrier, is primed for a movie adaptation sometime down the line.

Her future in renowned IP remains bright as well. Erivo is set to appear as the Blue Fairy in Robert Zemeckis’ Pinocchio adaptation, the Luther feature film is underway, and Wicked has found their Elphaba in her.

Erivo’s impact on the entertainment industry has not yet reached its full potential. Her careful, tender, and inventive approach to character work draws unique agency from her pursuits. Hollywood is so lucky to have her.

Sheryl Oh: Sheryl Oh often finds herself fascinated (and let's be real, a little obsessed) with actors and their onscreen accomplishments, developing Film School Rejects' Filmographies column as a passion project. She's not very good at Twitter but find her at @sherhorowitz anyway. (She/Her)