This feature originally appeared in the March 2017 Issue of ESSENCE Magazine.
ROLE CALL: Moonlight
UP NEXT: Burning Sands (in theaters March 10)
WHY HE MAKES THE GRADE: With a depth and sensitivity usually expected of Hollywood's most seasoned pros, Rhodes—in his heartbreaking and hopeful portrayal of Chiron "Black" in Barry Jenkins's Moonlight—tackled toxic masculinity while making space for the complexities and vulnerabilities often missing from Black characters in film. "I thought it was the most epic true love story," says the University of Texas grad of the film, which won Best Picture at the Golden Globes. "It was something that was told in a way I've never seen before. It was the best thing I've ever read." Lucky for us, the Tyler Perry's If Loving You Is Wrong star has more layered performances in 2017: He's appearing in Burning Sands alongside Alfre Woodard, Smartass with Joey King and Horse Soldiers with Chris Hemsworth.
ROLE CALL: HBO's Insecure
UP NEXT: Developing her own series, First Gen
WHY SHE MAKES THE GRADE: Making people laugh has become second nature to Insecure's Orji, who got her start in comedy more than ten years ago when she entered a beauty pageant but found herself lacking in the talent portion of the competition. Enter stand-up. "Comedy was my gateway drug to acting," she says. And Orji's gamble is paying off. In addition to playing Issa Rae's character's bestie, Molly, on the hit HBO show, the actress has her own semiautobiographical project in the works called First Gen, detailing what it means to grow up Nigerian American. (Psst! David Oyelowo has signed on as an executive producer.) More important, she hopes her newfound fame will propel other Black actresses forward: "I would like to be in the position, like Issa, to give the next wave of up-and-coming talent an opportunity."
ROLE CALL: Race
UP NEXT: Fox's Shots Fired (premieres March 22)
WHY HE MAKES THE GRADE: Though he's only in his twenties, James has a story to tell. He has portrayed historical greats, such as John Lewis in Selma and Jesse Owens in Race, but now he's taking a break from the silver screen and shifting his focus to prime time. This month he'll star alongside Sanaa Lathan and Helen Hunt in Fox's Shots Fired as Preston Terry, a young Black prosecutor who is tapped to investigate the shooting of a White teen by a Black police officer. The gravity of the subject matter is not lost on James, who prepped for the role by speaking with former Attorney General of the United States Eric Holder. But he hopes that the show will spark some discussion in today's tense climate. "It's a very powerful thing when you are abe to use your art to speak to society and current events," he says. "I see it as a blessing that I'm able to do that."