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Jada Pinkett Smith Has Been Quietly Killing the Game for Decades

To celebrate the release of ‘Girls Trip’, Ringer staffers make the case for their favorite Jada performances

(Warner Bros./New Line Cinema/Ringer illustration)
(Warner Bros./New Line Cinema/Ringer illustration)

Jada Pinkett Smith is one of the radiant, multifaceted actresses in Friday’s Girls Trip, a riotous Malcolm D. Lee–directed comedy about four friends (Pinkett Smith, Queen Latifah, Regina Hall, and Tiffany Haddish) reuniting after five years. But Pinkett Smith has been holding her own for decades now as a powerful addition to a host of films and TV shows alike. Here are some of her best roles.

‘Menace II Society’

Shea Serrano: Every time we see Ronnie, the main matriarchal figure (and love interest) in the Hughes Brothers’ devastating Menace II Society, she’s either trying to preempt violence (like when she tries to talk Caine into moving away with her so they can try to live a safer life in a less tumultuous neighborhood), attempting to stop violence (like when she tries to stop Caine from pistol-whipping a man who was harassing her at a party), or dealing with the consequences of violence (like when she peels her son away from Caine’s bloody body after he’s been shot multiple times in the film’s heartbreaking final moments).

And yet, despite the hardness of the situations she’s dropped into, we only ever experience her as caring, as thoughtful, as considerate, as hopeful. It’s a remarkable achievement, really — to be able to balance all of those ill-fitting pieces against each other in such a convincing fashion. Lean too far in one way, and the character becomes too opaque to be believable. Lean too far the other way, and the character becomes too rigid, which is equally troubling. And Jada Pinkett, an actress at her best when she’s playing someone caught in some sort of crisis (Stony in Set It Off, Lyric in Jason’s Lyric, etc.), plays it absolutely perfectly.

‘Magic Mike XXL’

Amanda Dobbins: "My queens, gather. I need you." The most remarkable thing about this inspiring piece of dialogue is how casually Jada Pinkett Smith delivers it. The natural instinct (or, at least, my natural instinct) would be to yell for your queens — to express your need via volume and desperation. But Jada knows that she already has your attention; Jada knows that the real power is in getting you to lean in. The Magic Mike XXL showcase is one of the most ridiculous displays of male athleticism that I have ever seen, and emceed by a lesser woman, it would play as pure parody. But there is Jada, in a power suit, encouraging every woman in the room and at home to enjoy. It is hard to say no to her. She knows that, too.

‘Set It Off’

Hannah Giorgis: The first time I watched Set It Off, I wanted to fight the friend who suggested we play the movie; surely, someone who would make me witness an ending like that didn’t value my well-being. But the 1996 film is as tender as it is devastating, a warm depiction of the friendship among four women whose desperation drives them to commit a bank robbery. Jada Pinkett Smith (then Jada Pinkett) plays Lida "Stony" Newsom, who helps her friends Cleo (Queen Latifah), T.T. (Kimberly Elise), and Frankie (Vivica A. Fox) rob the bank where Keith, Stony’s new lover, works after their first heist leads to violence. Stony is a complex character, a woman driven by duty. Pinkett’s ability to capture Stony’s apprehension and raw fear while still conveying the love she felt for both Keith and her girls held so many Set It Off scenes together. Pinkett lends Stony a sense of triumph even in her most tragic moments. And she shines in the most difficult moments, somehow able to soothe others while struggling with her own palpable anxiety. Years later, her grace still buoys the film.

‘The Matrix’ Sequels

Micah Peters: The Matrix sequels were a little like the backwash at the bottom of a Gatorade bottle. Everyone knows that. Well, Reloaded was fine — the fight sequences were among the best in the series. (Remember how Neo ripped out a parking sign and played an entire football roster of Agent Smiths like the tympanies?) But Revolutions was pretty bad, mostly because it was cheesy to the point of self-effacing, but also because it was shot consecutively with Reloaded and didn’t work as a film unto itself. And the ending kind of sucked. And they blinded Neo. And the final two movies introduced way too many characters to keep track of. BUT, out of all that mess, we got Niobe. Niobe, who was played by Jada Pinkett Smith. Niobe, who was well-actually’d one too many times, and volunteered to go on the suicide mission that eventually saved all humanity. Niobe, who believed when Mr. Are You Beginning to Believe didn’t.

Niobe, who was roundhousing dudes (and making out with Monica Bellucci) in HEAD-TO-TOE SNAKESKIN AND BANTU KNOTS. Listen, Jada was doing leg presses and learning kung fu to get ready for this role while she was breastfeeding Willow. When next you see her on the street, show her some respect.

‘Gotham’

Kate Knibbs: Jada Pinkett Smith’s performance as conniving, flashy mobster Fish Mooney in Gotham is a personal favorite of mine because it reminded me that Jada Pinkett Smith should be on my screen with far more frequency. Gotham is not a good show, but Jada kept me watching well after the narrative wheels completely fell off, just because she inhabited the role with such gusto. Gotham suffered from a wildly inconsistent tone; it seemed confused about whether it wanted to riff on the gritty Christopher Nolan Batman universe or whether it wanted to lean into the camp of the ’90s Batman films. But Pinkett Smith was never confused. Her electric acting felt like it belonged in a different and better version of the show, one which embraced its flamboyance and cartoonishness. Anyone looking to cast a superhero movie should show it to executives as proof that Pinkett Smith deserves a larger, more thoughtfully rendered stage to unleash her formidable skill at portraying a good old-fashioned megalomaniacal villain.

‘Girls Trip’

K. Austin Collins: In Girls Trip, Jada Pinkett Smith plays Lisa Cooper, an uptight, middle-aged mother of two who’s lived with her own mother since getting divorced a couple of years ago. It’s a movie about four black college friends who’ve drifted apart over the years. A trip to New Orleans for the annual Essence Festival is what brings them together — with the secondary goal of, among other things, getting Lisa laid.

Pinkett Smith is way too vibrant and luminous, and way too far out of basically every other human’s league, for any of us to easily accept her as the spinster. That’s what’s hilarious about it. The movie has her flirt with men by telling them about making health shakes from her babies’ placentas. One moment, she’s standing on her tiptoes to get phone signal; the next, she’s straddling a tall, hot younger man’s face for more, um, leverage. She’s hapless but confident, firm but loving: qualities we’ve seen from her before, but have seen so rarely in comedies, especially nowadays. She’s a breath of fresh air.