As Black Panther: Wakanda Forever opens in theaters, Angela Bassett’s role portraying Queen Ramonda becomes more important than ever. The tragic death of actor Chadwick Boseman - who played King T’Challa in the first Black Panther movie - has left an unwanted vacuum in the state of  Wakanda that Ramonda must reluctantly fill. Fortunately, Angela Bassett’s remarkable life and career have more than prepared her for tackling this role, as she brings stately - even regal - presence to bear on he Marvel Universe. 

True Superhero Angela Bassett’s Battle Against Diabetes

     

An above average child

Angela was born in 1958 to a couple living in a small apartment in Harlem. Her mother, Betty Jane, was a nurse, while her father Daniel worked around the neighborhood as a repairman. They had both recently moved to New York and begun dating, and when Angela became pregnant they married and moved in together, but were struggling to make ends meet even before Angela was born. When Betty gave birth to a second daughter, D‘Nette, just ten months later, Daniel insisted that Angela be sent away to stay with his sister Golden.  Angela describes her parent’s relationships as “troubled”, and it would not last much longer. “To hear my mother tell it, while she was living with my dad she had a couple of nervous breakdowns and ended up in court. The judge told her to take her children and go home or he’d take us or put us in foster care.” Betty Jane resolved to leave her husband and take her children “home”, which in her case was the city of St Petersburg in Florida. When she arrived to collect Angela, who had not seen or heard from her since birth, her four year old daughter had no idea who she was, and did not want to leave. 

True Superhero Angela Bassett’s Battle Against Diabetes

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As Black Panther: Wakanda Forever opens in theaters, Angela Bassett’s role portraying Queen Ramonda becomes more important than ever. The tragic death of actor Chadwick Boseman - who played King T’Challa in the first Black Panther movie - has left an unwanted vacuum in the state of  Wakanda that Ramonda must reluctantly fill. Fortunately, Angela Bassett’s remarkable life and career have more than prepared her for tackling this role, as she brings stately - even regal - presence to bear on he Marvel Universe. 

True Superhero Angela Bassett’s Battle Against Diabetes

     

An above average child

Angela was born in 1958 to a couple living in a small apartment in Harlem. Her mother, Betty Jane, was a nurse, while her father Daniel worked around the neighborhood as a repairman. They had both recently moved to New York and begun dating, and when Angela became pregnant they married and moved in together, but were struggling to make ends meet even before Angela was born. When Betty gave birth to a second daughter, D‘Nette, just ten months later, Daniel insisted that Angela be sent away to stay with his sister Golden.  Angela describes her parent’s relationships as “troubled”, and it would not last much longer. “To hear my mother tell it, while she was living with my dad she had a couple of nervous breakdowns and ended up in court. The judge told her to take her children and go home or he’d take us or put us in foster care.” Betty Jane resolved to leave her husband and take her children “home”, which in her case was the city of St Petersburg in Florida. When she arrived to collect Angela, who had not seen or heard from her since birth, her four year old daughter had no idea who she was, and did not want to leave. 

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Betty Jane built a new life for herself and her daughters in Florida, but her taste in men did not improve. Angela recounted in the book “Friends: A Love Story” (co-written with her future husband, Courtney B. Vance) that on two separate occasions she was sexually assaulted by her mother’s boyfriends, and describes how grateful she was to her mother for believing her and ending her relationships with these men. She also describes Betty Jane’s determination to ensure her children would have a better life than she did: “My mother may have struggled in school and early in life, but she had an excellence about her and passed it on to us. Mama didn’t want us to suffer her fate and would tell us as much.” This determination extended to extreme strictness when it came to performance at school. On one occasion Angela’s grades slipped to a C, to the fury of her mother. Angela protested: “Mother, a C is average, a B is above average, and an A is above. I’m average, Ma!”, to which Betty Jane replied “But I don’t have average children”.

What Black actresses do we have?

Angela certainly was not average, but when she realized what her ambition would be her mother was deeply skeptical about her choice. The epiphany came on a school trip to see James Earl Jones playing Lennie in a theater production of Of Mice and Men, which affected Angela so deeply that she remained behind in the auditorium, sobbing, after all the other patrons had left. “It was like a spark had gone off inside me. If I could make people feel as passionately as I feel right now, I thought, that would be a wonderful thing!” When she told her mother that she wanted to be an actress, Betty Jane replied ”Not in your lifetime! What black actresses do we have?” Her academically precocious daughter set about answering that question with typical determination, and before long had secured a place at Yale. She graduated with a Bachelors in African American studies in 1980 before completing a Masters in Fine Arts in 1983. 

Angela had been one of only two black women on her Masters course, and after graduating it  seemed for some time that her mother’s concerns were well-founded. Work was hard to come by, and for the remainder of the 1980s she made do with bit parts in TV shows. Her career finally took off in 1991 when she was cast in Boyz N The Hood as Reva Styles, the mother of Cuba Gooding Jr’s character Tre. Previously she’d only ever made one appearance in a movie, playing an air stewardess in Kindergarten Cop, but she lit up the screen as Reva and suddenly found herself in contention for major roles. The following year, she cemented her burgeoning reputation with a powerful performance as Betty Shabazz, in Spike Lee’s biopic Malcolm X. 

True Superhero Angela Bassett’s Battle Against Diabetes
Angela pictured alongside Tina Turner in 1993

Bow down, look up!

Her next major performance was also in a biopic, but this time she would be playing the lead as Tina Turner in the 1993 movie What’s Love Got To Do With It?. This was a biopic whose subject was still alive, and Turner would frequently visit rehearsals to offer support to her on-screen counterpart. As Angela later told Glamour magazine: “I had never seen her perform as a young person, but those older than me, black and white, had, and she had made an impact with her gift. This beautiful, statuesque Black queen with talent and power coming out of every pore! That commanded you to bow down! And to look up! That’s who we are. Her, on that stage.”

Angela was inspired to deliver a remarkable performance, and became just the sixth black woman to be nominated for a Best Actress Oscar, firmly establishing herself as a Hollywood fixture. Her subsequent career has been filled with highlights, many of them surprising; she voiced Michelle Obama in the Simpsons, and Fatboy Slim sampled her dialogue for the chorus of his international hit Right Here, Right Now, but in recent times she’s best known for her role in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, playing Queen Ramonda in Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther films with a stately poise that echoes her description of Tina Turner’s regal on-stage demeanor. When asked how she feels about being an inspiration for younger generations, in the same way that Turner was for her, she seems surprised.  “Sometimes I don’t even see it. I just have love and respect for who we are, and I have just always tried to live up to how we see ourselves. I try not to stand on the outside and critique what I’m doing in the continuum. I try to stay in love with it.” 

The True Superhero of Diabetics

Sadly, Betty Jane Bassett died in 2014 of a heart attack related to Type 2 diabetes, and ever since Angela has focused a great deal of her time and energy on raising awareness about the disease, and funds to combat it. She’s the host of Know Diabetes by Heart, a joint fundraiser by the American Heart Association and American Diabetes Association, and works tirelessly to help promote those charities and promote understanding of the link between Type 2 diabetes and heart disease: Diabetics are two to four times more likely to develop cardiovascular diseases, and Angela believes if she was aware of this earlier she could have done more to help her mother. Although this True Superhero seems to be unaware of her own importance as a trailblazer for young black actresses, she’s determined to use her fame and resources to help prevent other unnecessary deaths. Whether she’s playing Queen Ramonda in Wakanda, or merely being herself, Angela’s qualities help to carry those around her, and there’s little doubt that her assertion that her mother attempts to pass her excellence on to her daughters was successful. 

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