Ruth Negga’s Oscar Snub Underscores Hollywood’s Frustrating Indifference to Her Work

Rebecca Hall’s debut feature Passing was completely snubbed at the Oscars. That means that Ruth Negga received no nominations for her nuanced, conflicted performance as the carefree but weighed down with cares Clare Bellew, a Black woman passing as white in the 1920s.

As a Negga fan, I was disappointed but not exactly surprised. She’s received some accolades—notably for her wonderful turn as Mildred Loving in the 2016 biopic about the groundbreaking Virginia interracial marriage case. But considering her talent and her range (she’s played Hamlet and Lady Macbeth on the stage), the level of indifference to her work has been frustrating.

That’s nowhere more true than in her portrayal of Tulip O’Hare in AMC’s Preacher, which aired for four seasons from 2016 to 2019. Preacher was wonderfully acted and written, often improving on its source material. But the liberties it took with the Garth Ennis/Steve Dillon comic, AMC’s relative unhipness, and perhaps just bad luck, prevented it from garnering much in the way of critical or commercial attention, even in geek spaces.

As a result, almost nobody ever talks about Negga’s amazing performance—to my mind, the single best action hero portrayal since Pam Grier in Jackie Brown (1997).

Tulip in the comic books is a fairly typical tough-as-nails strong female character badass. Negga effortlessly captures the character’s swagger and resourcefulness. But she tops it off with a volcanic stubbornness, and a core of vulnerability that is not much in evidence in the comic book version.

Negga’s Tulip is both supremely confident in her ability to fight her way out of anything and filled with self-doubt about her own penchant for solving all her problems by fighting her way out of them. A lesser actor might keep those parts of the character separate, and have her be a badass when she’s a badass and vulnerable when she’s vulnerable. But Negga always brings the entirety of Tulip to every scene.

In season 1, for instance, Tulip is trying to get back together with the eponymous Preacher, Jesse Custer (Dominic Cooper), who’s leading a church in a small Texas backwater.  Emily (Lucy Griffiths), a single mother who helps with the church, has been flirting with him. Tulip is incensed, and storms into Emily’s house. She shouts “Stay away from my boyfriend!” and smashes a knick-knack against the wall.

Tulip in the scene terrifying, but she’s also obviously uncertain about her relationship with Jesse, about her own violence, about whether she’s doing the right thing, and whether she respects herself. There’s no dialogue to convey that. It’s all in the silence after the crockery breaks, when Negga pauses, shifts her head, and opens her eyes wider for a fraction of a second as if she’s trying to see inside her own skull. You can see this at about the 29-second mark in the clip below:

That’s from the beginning of the series, but Negga kept the same intensity throughout. One of her best set pieces is in season 4, episode 9, when the divine being, God (Mark Harelik) promises to call off the apocalypse if Tulip can refrain from attacking him for one minute.

“You’re going to screw it up,” God tells her, voicing Tulip’s own fears, and then starts to taunt her. He calls her a murderer, and she nods in resigned acknowledgment; “mm,” she says. “Whore, liar!” and she opens those eyes. There’s more wit in her unimpressed sigh than in a suite of MCU quips.

But then God starts talking about Tulip’s miscarriage. You can see her tough veneer crumble, as she practically begs him to have mercy, just with her eyebrows. The final twist is when, after she inevitably shoots him with no effect (you can’t shoot God), she jerks around startled and hollow-eyed when the timer goes off, too late She still hasn’t said anything.

“Strong female character” in action movies, and especially in comic-book action movies, tends to just mean female characters who carry large guns and can beat the crap out of their antagonists. Tulip loves big guns too (there’s an exuberant scene in which she teaches some children about how to assemble a bazooka.) But she’s a strong character because Negga makes her a person, complete with love and scars and doubts and hope enough to face down the almighty—even if she loses.

I’d like to believe Negga will win some big awards eventually. She’s been nominated for Passing at the Golden Globes. She’s also working on a limited series about Josephine Baker, which seems like the sort of thing juries like.

If Hollywood can’t figure out how to honor her, though, it’ll be yet another embarrassing indication that the industry is indifferent to great acting—and especially to great acting from Black woman performers. Our collective indifference to Tulip O’Hare is our loss, not hers. She deserves a better industry and a better public, as well as a better God.

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This post was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.

Image Credit: Netflix.

Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer based in Chicago. His book, Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics was published by Rutgers University Press. He thinks the Adam West Batman is the best Batman, darn it.