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Anthony Mackie's Best Onscreen Performances

Name any film or TV genre, and you'll find that Anthony Mackie has probably done it once, twice, or a dozen times. The dynamic actor first made a name for himself during an epic rap battle in Eminem's 2002 film 8 Mile. Yet Mackie hasn't lost his stride since his freestylin' days as Papa Doc.

From dramas to superhero films — and everything in between — the veteran actor's resume might as well be eight miles long. He can pack a punch with his words and his fists or even make you laugh while playing a horribly unlikeable character. With a catalog as varied as Mackie's, there's something for everyone to enjoy (and then some). 

Anthony Mackie has delivered more than his fair share of stellar performances. Between films like The Hurt Locker that explore the hardship of war, Marvel films jam-packed with as much heart as there is action, and important releases like The Hate U Give that matter to the world at large (while trying to change it), Mackie has more than proven himself as a Hollywood star. But even more than that, many of his roles make a real difference. Here are his best. 

The Hate U Give features Mackie at his most ruthless

No one roots for Anthony Mackie's King in The Hate U Give, but his powerful performance nevertheless solidifies the film's vital message. Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, the 2018 film is an essential addition to Mackie's catalog of work that seeks to create change and understanding in a world that can certainly use a little more compassion. Mackie may play a ruthless drug dealer willing to kill his own family, but even villains are necessary to paint a complete picture — especially when it's based on reality. Because some villains are real.

Most of the hard-hitting film is chilling, primarily because it's not some evil space gangster trying to destroy the world — it's the devil you know. In addition to King throwing everyone under the bus to keep himself out of prison, the Carter family learns to use their voices when a police officer guns down Starr's classmate, Khalil. His crime? Carrying a hairbrush.

The film holds up now more than ever, and Mackie's powerful performance won't be forgotten anytime soon. We've rarely seen Mackie delve into so much anger and violence, adding another layer to the kinds of characters that he can expertly play.

The Hurt Locker brought home the agony of war

Long before they were ever Avengers together, Jeremy Renner (Will) and Anthony Mackie (Sanborn) starred in the war film, The Hurt Locker. Based on the novel by journalist Mark Boal (who also served as producer for the film), the movie has a level of authenticity that's hard to replicate. But Boal's real-world experience covering a bomb squad wasn't enough to clinch the acclaim alone: Mackie and Renner helped score the film's Oscar win for Best Picture, along with five other wins. Mackie himself even clinched a solo award in Black Reel's Best Supporting Actor category

While the film has an endless amount of heart-wrenching sequences, none stand out more than Mackie's speech about not wanting to die. Unlike his brother-in-arms, Sanborn doesn't revel in the glory and rush of being a soldier: He resents it. Sanborn's frustration with the war and all of the trauma he's been through is palpable in every moment on-screen. In the span of a few days, he goes from not wanting children at all to baring his soul and revealing that he wants a son. These moments show how your whole life can change in a millisecond when you're fighting for your life, and Mackie did a phenomenal job bringing that life and death mentality to, well, life. 

The Falcon soared again in Avengers: Endgame

Sam Wilson, a.k.a. Falcon, turned to dust during Avengers: Infinity War, making him largely absent from Endgame. But a character doesn't have to be in every scene to be larger than life. One moment, in particular, ultimately makes Sam one of the most vital characters in Endgame, as an elderly Steve Rogers chooses Sam to be his successor. 

Not only did this one small scene pave the way for Phase 4 of the MCU, but it led to the creation of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. Who else can say that one scene led to an entire TV show that explores the ramifications of a single choice? Mackie tells us a lot in that single scene that fans took for granted: Sam Wilson never wanted the shield. 

While he eventually tells Cap that he'll "do his best," his body language and initial hesitation say differently. Sam is clearly just telling Cap — who is in his 80s, at least — what he wants to hear so the retired Avenger can live out the rest of his days in peace. But Mackie makes his true feelings known with slight nuances, which fans largely didn't notice until they put the pieces together during The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. Mackie's goodbye to Cap was the fandom's goodbye to Cap – making it one of the most critical scenes in the movie. 

The Falcon and the Winter Soldier explores Sam in depth

After years of being in the MCU, Mackie finally got the chance to shine the brightest in his character's self-titled Disney+ series, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. Not only is his acting superb, but he even helped shaped the origin story of his own character. Showrunner Malcolm Spellman told Looper that Mackie's own Louisiana upbringing inspired Sam Wilson's backstory — and the actor wove his insight into his character throughout the series. It's always clear when a show's creators and directors give their actors the freedom to explore and add to their own characters, and it only makes the final product that much more compelling.

As we find out whether or not Sam will wield Cap's shield in Steve Rogers' absence, Mackie and Spellman brought their own experiences with racism onto the screen, making the show a superhero story for the times. More than anything else, the series showcases every range of emotion you could possibly ask of its actors. Be it hopelessness, hope, humor, intensity, love, and self-discovery, Mackie brings it all to the table. Having so heavily influenced the series himself, the show is one of his most varied and memorable projects yet.

Half Nelson's drug dealer somehow became a hero

Anthony Mackie has the rare ability to make you like him even when the character he's playing is kind of a jerk. In Half Nelson, he plays drug dealer extraordinaire Frank. What's Frank's deal? Oh, he's just actively trying to recruit a young girl into joining the family business — after presumably getting her brother arrested for the same reason. Frank got off scot-free, so he's seeking out a new mark for his, uh, extracurricular activities.

Normally you would absolutely loathe a character like this. He's trying to get a kid to deal drugs. Yet something about Mackie's performance makes you forget about that in the moment, and you end up low-key rooting for him. As the film's events unravel, most fans end up hating Ryan Gosling's character, Dan, more than Frank (the one actually painted as a villain). Through Mackie's charm, intensity, and layered emotion, he wins over the audience. So how is it that Dan is painted as a hero while he gets high in the school bathroom, even as he vilifies Frank for making hard choices in a rough neighborhood without the heaps of privilege Dan is accustomed to?  

The veracity with which Mackie delivers this line is bone-chilling: "What is white is right, right?" The question, which points out Dan's hypocrisy, isn't explored much after that, but even if he's not the center of the film, Mackie's performance has the movie's greatest takeaways. 

Million Dollar Baby put Mackie up against Freeman, Swank and Eastwood

It takes a whole lot of talent to stand with (and stand out) with the likes of Morgan Freeman, Hilary Swank, and Clint Eastwood — yet Mackie does both in just a few scenes in Million Dollar Baby. Mackie's role as Shawrelle marks one of his first (and only) characters that fans truly despise — making it all the more impactful in his vast catalog. Whether Shawrelle is making lewd remarks about Maggie's body or beating the crap out of a sweet kid with a neurological condition, Mackie sells the persona of a bully in spades.

The real treat for fans comes when he interacts with Freeman's character, Eddie — Shawrelle's polar opposite. The two feed off their opposing energy, quipping back-and-forth with their dialogue and their fists. It's always great to see a bully get taken down a few pegs, and Mackie gave fans that opportunity, with Morgan Freeman no less, during an otherwise pretty bleak film. Sometimes you've just gotta take the win — or the L in Shawrelle's case.

Captain America: Civil War tested Falcon's loyalty

While our favorite Avengers spend most of Captain America: Civil War feuding, we do get an in-depth introduction amid the squabbling to Falcon's drone Redwing, who only briefly showed up for the first time in Ant-Man. Sam Wilson's new and improved Falcon gear has a personality all its own, and the hero interacts with Redwing as if the robot is Sam's pet — which it basically is. With the drone's souped-up capabilities, Falcon gets down and dirty with some majorly impressive fight sequences in a way we hadn't seen before.

Between facing off against Spider-Man and tag-teaming with Wanda, Sam holds his own with Redwing by his side. According to Mackie, flying is no easy task, but it looks effortless anytime he does it onscreen. The film also features the iconic car moment between Sam and Bucky as they watch Cap kiss Sharon (his future/past niece?). Their chemistry and bickering paved the way for their future series, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier – and without that sequence, the buddy Avenger show might never have existed. There's probably an alternate timeline where it doesn't, but we much prefer the one where it does.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier introduced us to Sam Wilson

When we first meet Mackie's Sam Wilson at the beginning of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, we had no idea just how integral his character would become to Captain America and the MCU as a whole. But his hilarious exchange with Cap at the opening of the film would spawn a friendship so powerful that Cap would later bequeath his shield to Sam. They instantly bond over their service, and it gives fans a glimpse into the transition from WWII-era Captain America to the modern-day Cap we came to love in The Avengers. In turn, the fandom instantly fell in love with Sam, too. 

When it comes to epic action sequences, few can beat Captain America evading an explosion and Falcon giving him a lift mid-air. His battle with the Winter Soldier is nothing to blush about either, jumpstarting the heavy rivalry that continues straight into The Falcon and the Winter Soldier years later. 

However, the most heartwarming scene comes when Sam is the only one sitting with Cap in the hospital, playing the soft tunes of Marvin Gaye in the background — a callback to their earlier "what did I miss?" conversation. As far as epic character introductions go, Mackie played the part brilliantly enough to become a core Avenger and an instant fan favorite. His Saturn Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor didn't hurt, either. 

All the Way found Mackie playing a giant

It's no easy task taking on a persona that's larger than life — especially when you're channeling the likeness of one of the most celebrated men in American history. Anthony Mackie's portrayal of Martin Luther King Jr. in All the Way is arguably his most empowering role to date. Despite the immense pressure that comes from walking in the shoes of a man who died fighting for what he believed in — and who changed the country for the better in the process — Mackie puts on a masterful performance.

Unlike fictional characters on TV and film, anyone can easily find clips of Dr. King's impassioned speeches. When you watch Mackie become the civil rights leader, not only does he have his mannerisms down to a T, but you can feel the heart too. Mackie manages to capture the commanding, powerful, yet mildly soft-spoken timbre of King's voice, his speech, and volume patterns, right down to his pauses to create emphasis and anticipation — all while making you immediately want to fight for everything he's fighting for. 

Some people are born leaders: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was one of them, and Mackie makes you believe that you're really watching one of the greatest leaders of all time. 

Sam got dusted in Avengers: Infinity War

Anthony Mackie arguably has the best line in Avengers: Infinity War. After the horribly uncomfortable and entirely out of nowhere Nat and Bruce fling in Avengers: Age of Ultron, someone had to call it for what it was: really freakin' awkward. Of course, Sam Wilson, who always says what he's thinking, breaks the uncomfortable reunion by saying, "This is awkward." Thank you, Sam, for consistently speaking fandom's truth. 

But that's the great thing about Mackie: No matter how small of a role he has in any given project, he steals every scene he's in, making them his own. Due to the film featuring heroes from every corner of the MCU, Sam isn't front and center for most of the movie, but when he's onscreen, he dominates. 

As the fighting begins, Sam is one of the first characters to take a stand, flying high into the formation along with Iron Man. Later, he makes his move, tumbling to the ground against Thanos in an act of bravery that could have caused his death. But he tries — because, like Cap, he always fights to the end. And that's what makes the heartbreaking scene when he turns to dust so hard to watch. Mackie imbues Sam Wilson with enough heart to fuel the Milano.

Ant-Man features a small problem for Falcon

Ant-Man certainly doesn't feature Mackie's longest or most influential appearance in the MCU, but it's definitely one of the funniest. Sure, Marvel films aren't void of humorous scenes, but usually, they tend to get overshadowed by the action and drama that comes with the superhero adventures. There's just something about Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) and Sam Wilson's comedic timing that makes their showdown a memorable MCU moment. What happens when an ant-sized Scott takes on Falcon and Redwing? Frankly, not much — and that's what makes it such a great scene. The two are so well-matched that the delightful scene plays out like two kids on the playground fighting over who's king of the jungle gym. 

When Scott crashes the Avengers Compound, he and Sam face off in a battle of wills where we see Mackie's comedic chops come out in full force. The actor has long since proven that he can tackle any genre and excel at any range of emotion, and Sam's ridiculous gun-slinging posturing proves that. The scene also makes way for Scott to team up with Sam in the future, even though Sam likes to give him the cold shoulder. We definitely need to see more of this pair in the MCU.

Night Catches Us makes a powerful statement on race

Mackie is no stranger to powerful performances that make a statement, and his stint as Marcus in Night Catches Us is no exception. Set in the late '70s, the movie is a tribute to the sacrifices people make to create change. The film tackles vital subjects that are, sadly, just as relevant now than they were then. Whether it's police brutality, racial injustice, or the challenges of being a single mother, the film has it all — and Mackie is front and center. Long before Mackie worked alongside the beloved Chadwick Boseman as Black Panther in the MCU, Mackie's role as Marcus sheds light on the real Black Panthers: the '70s activist group formed to fight against racial inequality. 

Watching Mackie go from a lovelorn guy with an ages-old thing for the girl next door to a self-assured man who tells her to find him when she's ready is the kind of brilliant character development fans and actors dream of. Through it all, Mackie lends a heart-wrenching voice to the sacrifices real activists made, teaching a new generation the U.S. history that's generally left out of textbooks both on and off the screen. Mackie keeps Marcus's motivations well hidden throughout the film, making it that much more compelling. Let's just say that box of Black Panther comics is more relevant now than ever. As icing on the cake, Mackie even won Black Reel's Best Actor award for the role. 

Synchronic sends Mackie on a mission through time

Anthony Mackie has the sci-fi genre locked up, but his role as Steve in Synchronic takes the genre to new heights. The movie has everything you could ever want from a great story: A quest for love and purpose, a life and death component, time travel, a drug chase, and the bonds of brotherhood. Mackie's incredible performance as Steve takes on a whirlwind of a journey when he discovers that a new synthetic drug takes teenagers back through time on a whim — and of course, his diagnosis has some very unpredictable side effects in that regard.

Mackie has a talent for simultaneously playing hope and hopelessness all at once, and it has never shone brighter than in Synchronic. To find the meaning in his own life, he has to fix his best friend's family first. He makes the audience feel every single emotion as he treks through both pre-history and the Civil War with grit and determination. Only a few actors can pull that off, and Anthony Mackie is one of them.