Born to Nigerian parents in middle-class London, Chiwetel Ejiofor suffered a great tragedy at the age of 11 when he was seriously injured in a car crash which killed his father. Acting became his chosen outlet for catharsis and healing, allowing the young boy to channel his anger, sadness, and grief through characters ever since enrolliing in Dulwich College at the age of 14. He joined the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art while still a teenager, but didn’t stay long; a true testament to his acting chops, Ejiofor was cast by Steven Spielberg for the film Friendship after only three months into his coursework.
Over the next two decades, Ejiofor would work with some of the greatest living directors: Spike Lee, Stephen Frears, Woody Allen, Ridley Scott, John Singleton, David Mamet, Alfonso Cuaron, Steve McQueen and many others, all tapping into his talent, for which he’s received dozens of acting nominations. He’s even begun writing and directing his own films. The actor is becoming more popular than ever with his introduction into the Marvel Cinematic Universe as Baron Mordo in Doctor Strange and is reappearing prominently in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. Most excitingly, he is taking on the lead role in the upcoming remake of David Bowie’s classic film The Man Who Fell to Earth. The showrunners of this reboot have told Deadline, “Chiwetel Ejiofor’s stage and film career are staggering in their bravery, commitment, and quality. He’s everything we could imagine and a million things we can’t.” With the way audiences and critics are responding to him, it seems that they must agree. Here are Chiwetel Ejiofor’s best films, ranked.
8 Dancing on the Edge
While not actually a film, Dancing on the Edge is an important and critically lauded part of Ejiofor’s career. He received Emmy, Golden Globe, and Satellite award nominations for his portrayal of Louis Lester, a bandleader of a black jazz group in 1930’s London. The actor plays Lester as a charismatic, suave, but prideful person who is rightfully frustrated that his talented group of musicians aren’t achieving the kind of success he’d dreamed of. When the group gets involved with a murdered woman, Lester is considered a suspect, launching a mysterious series of events in which Lester hides out and attempts to prove his innocence. Ejiofor embraces the slick British character with zeal, relishing the opportunity and leading a great cast (including Jacqueline Bisset) through a short but sweet series.
7 Children of Men
Ejiofor is perfectly cast as radical political activist Luke in Alfonso Cuaron’s apocalyptic masterpiece Children of Men. While not a major part of the film, his character is nonetheless crucial for the narrative and is evidence that the actor can bring an intensity and radiance to even a smaller part. Luke is an especially interesting part representative of some of Ejiofor’s best performances, someone with zealous passions who has a noble cause, but whose violent methods and ulterior motives obfuscate whatever inspiring heroism he displays. Alternating between quiet menace and all-out rage, Ejiofor locates the humanity in a radical and complicated character.
The actor continued to display his skills at creating empathy within otherwise villainous characters in Serenity, Joss Whedon’s big-screen sequel to the short-lived but beloved series Firefly. “I wanted a villain who was more then an antagonist,” Whedon said of Ejiofor’s character, The Operative. “I wanted one who was idealistic and dedicated to nobility. Chiwetel was soulful. He didn’t play it harsh at all. He understood he was a decent man who was also a serial killer. He can play anything.” Combining desperate idealism with a kind of heartbreak, Ejiofor brilliantly captures the despair of an unrelenting, vicious, and grandeloquent assasin who believed in something greater than himself.
5 Doctor Strange
Baron Mordo is yet another of Chiwetel Ejiofor’s complex ‘villains,’ someone who exists in the gray area between protagonist and antagonist. Initially a friend and ally of Doctor Strange, whom he brings into the Masters of the Mystic Arts, Mordo experiences a personal journey that thoroughly changes him throughout the film. Ejiofor is great at manifesting the deep respect Mordo has for nature and the natural order, imbuing the character with an almost stubborn commitment to and reverence for his strong beliefs. His character arc allows the actor room to explore a wide range of emotions, resulting in a performance which displays a vast spectrum of the actor’s skills.
4 Kinky Boots
Ejiofor is not known for his comedic or musical talents, which is a genuine shame considering how utterly delightful he is in the deliriously fun Kinky Boots. His Golden Globe-nominated performance as the incredible and larger-than-life drag queen Lola is the real star of this charming British film about a struggling shoe designer (played by the excellent Joel Edgerton) who discovers success by making women’s shoes in men’s sizes. Belting out versions of great songs with his own surprisingly peppy pipes, Ejiofor’s performance was vibrant and hilarious enough to launch the film into a successful run as a Tony Award-winning Boradway sensation.
3 Dirty Pretty Things
Dirty Pretty Things contains Chiwetel Ejiofor’s first leading performance in a film, and is the first time the actor felt he belonged in the industry. The great director Stephen Frears cast him as Okwe, an African immigrant living illegally in London; he was an excellent doctor, but is now a cab driver and clerk for a hotel which houses others who are in hiding from the U.K. Immigration Service. His involvement in a black market medical operation and the life of a young, asylum-seeking Turkish Muslim is often heartbreaking and tense in what is an utterly empathetic performance. Ejiofor’s kindness and humanity amidst the exploitation and cruelty in the film earned him the British Independent Film Award for Best Actor, and launched his career as a leading man.
Playwright David Mamet’s film Redbelt was divisive but perfectly in tune with what Ejiofor is arguably best at playing– people fighting to maintain their high ideals and vision. Mamet is always interested in casting against type (using comedians Steve Martin and Tim Allen for dark, serious roles), and his choice to utilize Ejiofor as martial-arts instructor Mike Terry here is a fascinating and brilliant one which elevates an already unique picture. Ejiofor carries the film with an immensely physical performance, as the instructor’s beliefs and principles are challenged by systems and institutions which attempt to break him. Time will hopefully reveal the film to be an underrated masterpiece, but meanwhile, there’s no arguing that this is one of the actor’s greatest performances.
1 12 Years a Slave
The performance which rightfully took Chiwetel Ejiofor to the most celebrated strata of stardom, Ejiofor’s work in 12 Years a Slave was nominated for practically every single acting award of 2013, and for good reason; it “is an essential film for all to see.” Gracefully capturing idealism and resilient commitment yet again, this portrayal of the real-life Solomon Northup nonetheless opens up different emotional and psychological spaces for Ejiofor. His painful expressions of the anger, frustration, hope, and dignity of a free Black man from the North who is kidnapped and sold into slavery during the 1840’s is a masterclass in acting. He somehow manages to ground the film with a devastating performance and yet give breathing room for other excellent actors, even strengthening their performances with his own; Lupita Nyong’o deservedly won an Oscar for her performance alongside Ejiofor, for instance, and has said of the actor, “We needed each other to go to these really difficult places.” It’s clear in the film that Ejiofor’s passion and intensity was contagious, inspiring the best in everybody who interacted with him (from Michael Fassbender to Brad Pitt), and without his ability to guide this powerful story through its dark night, the film would surely not have won its Academy Award for Best Picture. That is the value of great actors, ones who not only elevate films with their own performances but who also elevate everyone around them, and Ejiofor shows here why he should be considered truly great. It’s no wonder audiences are thrilled to see him return in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.
Benedict Cumberbatch has teased the ambition of Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, and it sounds like it could leave Spider-Man: No Way Home in the dust.
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Best Chiwetel Ejiofor Movies, Ranked