South African trailblazer, Thuso Nokwanda Mbedu, is taking the international acting scene by storm after the Emmy-nominated thespian landed a starring role in a production depicting the African-American struggle to escape slavery. The project is based on Colson Whitehead’s best-selling novel, which has been awarded the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. Moonlight director Barry Jenkins has adapted the novel into a limited historical drama for Amazon Prime. Meilan Solly brings light to the adaptation’s arrival amid a national reckoning on systemic injustice and brutality as well as renewed activism against the cultural killings of black lives in America.
According to Deadline, the high-profile project will see Mbedu as the first South African actress to lead a US/International series. The Underground Railroad refers to the resistance and efforts of enslaved African Americans to gain their freedom. Hence, the story portrays two characters who seek salvation through the Underground Railroad, which in the story is an actual subterranean transport system created to assist “runaways”, explains Jones. Here, the 29-year-old embodies the compelling story of the fictional protagonist Cora – a feisty, young enslaved woman left to fight for her survival on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Mbedu describes Cora, a determined young woman on the Randall plantation, as someone who “keeps to herself”. In his article entitled “The Underground Railroad stars Thuso Mbedu and Aaron Pierre on how the drama series changed them”, Marcus Jones reflects on Cora’s ferocious will to flee a life of chattel slavery. In the drama series, she boards a train embarking on a journey to freedom all while she is hunted by a notorious slave catcher. According to the author, Mbedu puts it bluntly. “Thinking about freedom was actually thinking about committing suicide. It felt like a death sentence because running away and being caught would mean you being killed”, she declares.
Dramatising Cora’s character left a lasting impression on Mbedu, allowing her to heal from and reconcile her past. The storyline depicts Cora’s abandonment as a child by her mother in the pursuit of emancipation. She was amongst the outcasts “who had been crippled by the overseers’ punishments, … [and] who had lost their wits”, as Whitehead describes them. IOL News draws parallels between her life without a mother and that of her character. After Mbedu’s mother died from a brain tumour when she was just four years old, she and her younger sister were raised by her grandmother. She did not have a relationship with her biological father. Despite her aspirations of becoming a doctor, Mbedu pursued her qualification at Wits, where she studied Physical Theatre and Performing Arts Management. During an interview conducted by GQ in 2018, the television personality shared that she graduated with an honours degree cum laude from the university. Although her grandmother did not witness most of her ascent to fame, Mbedu believes that she is looking down on her ruefully admitting that perhaps acting was her destiny after all.
Here, the 29-year-old embodies the compelling story of the fictional protagonist Cora – a feisty, young enslaved woman left to fight for her survival on a cotton plantation in Georgia.
The Is’thunzi actress’ rise to stardom and subsequent climb to Hollywood success has been quite the journey. Mbedu reflects on her big break in the television industry on Isibaya where she played Nosisa. Since then the actress has never looked back. According to SowetanLIVE, a year later Mbedu took up a role in the popular eTV drama series Scandal. Thereafter she secured a small role the same year on the teen drama, Snake Park 2. Mbedu later landed a spot on the cast of Is’thunzi as Winnie, a role which earned her an International Emmy Award nomination in the Best Performance by an Actress category, paving her way to greater heights. The achievements did not stop there as she continued to showcase her acting brilliance through multiple roles in hit television series Shuga, Side Dish, and Saints and Sinners, as well as a cameo on the international series Liberty. Furthermore, in 2018, Mbedu went on to strut her acting skills during an audition that would soon change her life. During an interview with South African comedian and The Daily Show talk show host, Trevor Noah, Mbedu told the tale of her first audition and intense preparation for the lead role in the production. While preparing to film, Mbedu recalls listening to audiotapes of previously enslaved people and said it was not until hearing their voices that “it stopped being an African-American story but a story about Africans in America”. Mbedu described some of the challenges that she encountered as struggling to separate her character’s emotions from that of her own. The actress appeared on The Ellen DeGeneres Show where the famed talk show host not only raved about her talent but continued to predict that she is “a shoo-in to win an Emmy”.
It would come as no surprise that the gifted Hollywood newcomer was able to elevate her performance to the next level by being cast in a highly anticipated movie production. Thuso Mbedu is set to co-star in a leading role alongside the Academy award-winning American actress, Viola Davis, in the historical epic, The Woman King. The production is inspired by true events that took place in the 19th-century female warrior-led Kingdom of Dahomey in Africa. The film is directed by acclaimed filmmaker Gina Prince-Bythewood who is known for directing the popular film Love & Basketball. Prince-Bythewood praises the actress for her “generational talent. Her craft, her work ethic, her depth, her passion”. Mbedu not only rubs shoulders with acting elites but she has seen her name in lights, conquered Hollywood billboards, and catapulted her thespian career to new horizons. It can be said without a shadow of a doubt that The Underground Railroad leading lady, Mbedu, born and raised in Pietermaritzburg, is a force to be reckoned with, having set the bar high for existing, incoming, and aspiring acting talent worldwide, making South Africa proud.
Features journalist in my penultimate year of LLB studies. I am the current chairperson of the Students for Law and Social Justice (SLSJ). I regard myself as a night owl with extreme nocturnal habits. I only truly come alive at night.