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Laurence Fishburne: Apocalypse Now And 4 Other Performances That Deserved An Oscar

Laurence Fishburne in John Wick
(Image credit: Lionsgate)

Oscar nominee Laurence Fishburne has been feeding the moviegoing public nothing but standout performances since he was a teenager. Fishburne’s film resume represents his impressive range from the Matrix and John Wick film series to gritty drama Deep Cover and HBCU pastiche School Daze. Whether he is the lead or a supporting player, the thespian has managed to keep viewers’ attention for more than five decades.

With such a long resume and endless scene-stealing performances, you would think Laurence Fishburne would have at least one or two Oscars by now. Unfortunately, the John Wick star has scored only one Oscar nomination for playing the infamous Ike Turner in the 1993 biopic What’s Love Got to Do with It. But one nomination doesn’t mean Fishburne’s other performances aren’t Oscar-worthy. So, here are just some of Laurence Fishburne movies worthy of an Academy Award.

Laurence Fishburne as Tyrone Miller in Apocalypse Now screenshot

(Image credit: United Artists)

Apocalypse Now (1979)

Before his turn as Ike Turner in What’s Love Got to Do It, Laurence Fishburne’s performance in Apocalypse Now was the first role he gained public notoriety and acclaim. The Matrix vet played teenage Vietnam soldier Tyrone “Mr. Clean” Miller.

The renowned thespian was still green to Hollywood but managed to hide that by channeling Mr. Clean’s irreverence and cockiness. As viewers have seen throughout his career, Laurence Fishburne managed to disappear into his character. As a teenager playing a teenager in the grips of war, the actor captured the chaos many young Vietnam vets experienced. Like the perils of real war, Fishburne became a vehicle for Miller’s change in perspective through his natural emotions and sensibilities.

Doing all that allowed the King of New York star to hold his own against acting titans Robert Duvall and Martin Sheen. In fostering those on-screen relationships, Fishburne became the catalyst to Sheen finishing off-screen legend Marlon Brando’s Walter Kurtz in the film’s gruesome finale.

Despite being surrounded by Hollywood royalty, his star-making turn didn’t yield the Best Supporting Actor nom he truly deserved despite Duvall being nominated in the category. Outside of Duvall, the war film scored a litany of Oscar nominations and wins. Without Laurence Fishburne’s contribution, Apocalypse Now wouldn’t be regarded as one of cinema’s greatest masterpieces.

Laurence Fishburne as Furious Styles in Boyz N the Hood screenshot

(Image credit: Columbia Pictures)

Boyz N the Hood (1991)

Unlike many Hollywood stars, Laurence Fishburne was allowed to mature through his roles. The Black-ish star’s turn as single father Jason “Furious” Styles in the cult classic Boyz N the Hood showcased that transition.

Despite only being a few years older, the Oscar nominee was able to play Cuba Gooding Jr.’s father with ease and authority. In being a real father, Laurence Fishburne raised his son with tough love but cushioned it with wisdom and understanding. This allowed Gooding Jr. to facilitate his transition to manhood by counteracting the “absentee/bad Black father” narrative often seen in films. Their chemistry and dynamic read like a real father-son relationship.

Fishburne wasn’t just Tre’s father but served as the father figure for his South Central neighborhood. He was able to check Ice Cube and Morris Chesnutt at certain times when their mother couldn’t. Those moments were indicative of his dynamics with the women in his life. Laurence Fishburne was a great scene partner to Angela Bassett and Tyra Ferrell. Each relationship operated differently – Styles was flirtatious with Ferrell’s Brenda Baker and straightforward yet loving with Bassett’s Reva Devereaux.

The coming-of-age film scored two Oscar nominations, including Best Director for John Singleton. Unfortunately, serving as the film’s moral center didn’t translate into a Best Supporting Actor nom for Fishburne. Even though he didn’t get any awards recognition, Furious Styles is still one of Laurence Fishburne’s most impactful and well-known performances.

Laurence Fishburne as Prof. Maurice Phipps in Higher Learning trailer screenshot

(Image credit: Columbia Pictures)

Higher Learning (1995)

Over the years, audiences have witnessed Fishburne transition to more authoritarian roles in films. Playing political science professor Maurice Phipps in Higher Learning placed him on that trajectory.

Laurence Fishburne channeled the tough love of Boyz N the Hood into this role as he became a contrarian voice to his idealistic students. This dynamic was emphasized by Phipps’ conservative ideology counteracting Columbus University’s liberal environment. Fishburne allowed himself to be the foil as the young cast experienced college life. Leaning into that archetype made him a consistent reality check for his young pupils.

Playing the foil culminated in the Oscar nominee becoming his students’ moral compass. The combative dynamic was exemplified in the scenes shared with Omar Epps’ Malik Williams. Phipps and Williams often clashed over their ideologies but eventually evolve as the two characters came to a mutual understanding. While the young cast was filled with the likes of Epps, Ice Cube and Regina King, Laurence Fishburne managed to capture audiences’ attention in every scene.

For his performance in Higher Learning, Laurence Fishburne scored an NAACP Image Award for Best Supporting Actor. Unfortunately, that didn’t translate into an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Fishburne’s performance stabilized the film’s multiple storylines and heavy themes.

Laurence Fishburne as Dr. Joshua Larabee in Akeelah and the Bee screenshot

(Image credit: Lionsgate)

Akeelah And The Bee (2006)

Being a pseudo-father figure to young rising stars has become a pattern in the Ice Road star’s decades-long career. So, taking on renowned English professor and mentor Dr. Joshua Larabee in Akeelah and the Bee fell right in line with his acting resume.

Much like his recurring co-star Angela Basset, the Matrix vet was a big name for the indie drama. But his true purpose was to serve as a strong supporting player for the film’s lead Keke Palmer. Dr. Larabee and Palmer’s Akeelah’s relationship started off rough as they experienced a push-and-pull dynamic. His resistance to help Palmer made him an obstacle in Akeelah’s journey. Eventually, Laurence Fishburne came around to become a much-needed father figure and champion for the character’s goal. Through mentorship, he was subtle and quiet but authoritarian and a moral compass to the young spelling savant. His performance heightened Palmer’s as she delved into multiple emotions and feelings throughout the film.

As mentioned before, the coming-of-age drama saw him reteam with his What’s Love Got to Do It co-star Angela Bassett. Even though their energy at first is adversarial, the two recurring co-stars proved that genuine chemistry never dies. Just like their previous pairings, the Oscar nominees displayed their trademark chemistry and dynamic.

While Hustler’s Keke Palmer received acclaim and Oscar buzz while obtaining stardom, the actor deserved a trip to the Oscars with a Best Supporting Actor nom. Playing off all those dynamics allowed Laurence Fishburne to bring one of his best film performances.

Laurence Fishburne in Contagion

(Image credit: Warner Bros.)

Contagion (2011)

The medical thriller has experienced a renaissance over the COVID-19 pandemic due to the similarities. But what was rediscovered were the stellar performances in Contagion, especially Fishburne as CDC director and renowned virologist Dr. Ellis Cheever.

Overseeing a worldwide pandemic can be a huge undertaking for anyone, but Fishburne managed to show the complexities of being America’s top medical authority. Throughout the film, Dr. Cheever served as the voice of reason among the chaos. Serving in this capacity allowed the John Wick star to maintain a delicate balance between assertiveness and empathy. Playing the steadfast authority didn’t shield him from feeling the effects of the health crisis. Unlike most male authority figures, the doctor showed his complexities as he was emotional, intelligent and competent without sacrificing his humanity.

But what made Laurence Fishburne stand out was seeing a Black man take the lead in an unbelievable crisis. Given his complexities, his performance didn’t feed into Black male stereotypes and tropes. While Fishburne showed layers, his storyline played around with the government conspiracy narrative surrounding infections and vaccinations. The doctor eventually leaned into government coverups to help push an agenda. While the film is a decade old, his portrayal echoed today’s skepticism surrounding government and authority figures.

Despite the A-lister ensemble receiving some recognition, Laurence Fishburne’s performance didn’t lead to a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nom. With the film’s complex narrative and serious themes, it was Fishburne’s Dr. Cheever who tied everything together, and for that he deserved something.

The above performances showcased what a force Laurence Fishburne is to the craft of acting. Never getting to take the Academy Award podium hasn’t stopped the thespian steadily working throughout his career especially with 2021 movies. The Under the Stadium Lights star has multiple upcoming 2022 movies lined up, including John Wick: Chapter 4 and The School for Good and Evil. Maybe someday Fishburne will get say a thought-provoking speech on the Oscar stage.

Adreon Patterson

A boy from Greenwood, South Carolina. CinemaBlend Contributor. An animation enthusiast (anime, US and international films, television). Freelance writer, designer and artist. Lover of music (US and international).