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Octavia Spencer's Best Onscreen Performances

Octavia Spencer flew under the radar as an actress for several years, playing small but often memorable roles in a number of films. Variety writes that Spencer actually began acting by working with a casting department in her home state of Alabama, eventually working up the experience and connections to start getting auditions.

Spencer moved to Hollywood in 1996 and continued to steal scenes in a number of films. After winning an Academy Award in 2012 for The Help (and being nominated for a couple of others within five more years), Spencer quickly evolved into one of the most in-demand actresses in the game. Whether she's doing comedy, drama or somewhere in between, you know you're going to get something unique and impressive whenever you see her onscreen.

Octavia Spencer has dozens of great roles to her credit, so picking out her best performances is tricky. That's what we've set out to do today, however. Here are 10 picks for Octavia Spencer's best performances in film and television.

Ma -- Sue Ann Ellington

Octavia Spencer is an absolutely magnetic presence onscreen, but she generally gets to showcase it in just a few types of roles. Ma was Spencer's pushback of her standard character; as she told Variety, "it's exciting to play something outside of the three archetypes that people like to see me in." It was also her third collaboration with director Tate Taylor, after The Help and Get On Up.

Ma itself is actually not that groundbreaking of a production, as it weaves a pretty standard and predictable yarn. As such, reviews of the film were fairly tepid — it hovers in the mid-50% range from critics with just over a 60% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes. However, seemingly everyone agrees that, without Spencer, Ma would barely be worth watching. The Associated Press review of the film calls it a "campy revenge fantasy," but says Spencer is the only reason to watch it and that she's having "a grand old campy time" playing Sue Ann.

You buy Sue Ann's reason for going off the deep end in Ma, and Spencer's acting skills make what could have been a cookie-cutter horror villain into both a terrifying and sympathetic character. When it hits the fan in Ma, Spencer is a blast to watch.

Onward -- Corey the Manticore

Even though Ian and Barley are the "heroes" of Pixar's Onward, they wouldn't make it very far in their quest if it weren't for Corey. Octavia Spencer's beastly manticore was once heavily involved in the adventuring game, but has since settled down to operate a family-friendly restaurant. Some of that adventurous spirit still lurks inside of her, however, and she joins forces with the boys' mother (voiced by Julia Louis-Dreyfus) in order to help them on their quest.

Corey goes through one of the better transformations in Onward, and more movies could take note of the classic movie-making technique of "Let's pair up Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Octavia Spencer and just...let that happen." Spencer takes the role of Corey, which could otherwise be forgettable, and makes it into one of the best parts of the film.

Reviews like the one from In Their Own League might point out that, while Onward may not be quite as pioneering as some of Pixar's best, it still does some pretty heavy emotional lifting. A big reason why it's so successful is because of Spencer's character.

Get On Up -- Aunt Honey

A few years after Spencer won an Oscar for her role in The Help, she reteamed with director Tate Taylor for the James Brown biopic Get On Up. She plays Aunt Honey in the film, a caretaker for Brown during his early years.

Spencer does a great job with the character, a rough-around-the-edges woman who runs a brothel and sells bootleg alcohol to make ends meet. Just like in Brown's actual life, Aunt Honey recognizes that young James is destined for great things. However, the movie glosses over some of the darker aspects of their relationship, like the abuse he suffered from Honey and her brother, and being forced to hide in the closet whenever men came to visit her.

Aunt Honey is one of those classic Spencer roles: she's a source for plenty of great line deliveries and razor-sharp comebacks, but she ultimately has warmth and a good heart underneath it all. She adds quite a bit to an incredibly strong cast that also includes Chadwick Boseman as Brown, Viola Davis and Dan Aykroyd.

Gifted -- Roberta

Octavia Spencer is known for providing warmth and sharp humor in a lot of her films, and Gifted is one of the best examples of a tried-and-true Spencer role. Gifted often gets a bit overlooked, but it's a heartwarmer with some strong performances from well-known commodities like Chris Evans, Spencer, Jenny Slate and the always dynamite Lindsay Duncan. On top of all that is the incredible performance by 11-year-old Mckenna Grace, who plays a believable mathematics genius.

Grace plays Mary Adler, a young girl who turns out to be mature and intelligent beyond her years, specifically in math. However, she also has a hard time adjusting to the "normal" children around her. Instead, her best friend is Octavia Spencer's Roberta, her next door neighbor. Grace is so good in Gifted that you really believe her when she talks about being bored by the other kids, and Spencer is equally superb as the impressed caretaker of the little prodigy next door.

The Star Tribune review of Gifted talks about how easy it is to overlook the film's formulaic nature because of the empathy of its characters. That's something that always comes naturally to Spencer.

Luce -- Harriet Wilson

Luce seemed to get a bit overlooked on its release — despite incredibly strong reviews and being one of the most talked-about films at the Sundance Film Festival, it didn't gain a ton of traction with audiences. Maybe it was too uncomfortable for mainstream audiences, with its poignant view on race and expectations, or maybe it dealt with too many shades of gray morality.

Regardless of why it didn't resonate, Luce is definitely one to check out if you're a fan of strong ensembles. Octavia Spencer plays a high school teacher named Harriet, who begins to worry that an all-star athlete and well-loved student named Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) may be hiding some dark secrets. Luce is an Eritrean refugee who got a second chance on his life when he was adopted and came to the United States, but Harriet worries that his feelings of invincibility may have dangerous links to his history.

Spencer does a great job of playing a concerned but fallible woman hiding some secrets of her own. Even if her vendetta against Luce is justified, she may be going about it the wrong way.

Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker -- Madam C.J. Walker

If you're one of those people who balks at the idea of watching a three-hour movie but will gladly string together several episodes of television, then you should probably take a look at Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker. Octavia Spencer plays the title role, a woman who builds a hair care empire in the late 1800s and is credited as the first American Black woman to become a self-made millionaire.

Self Made takes a lot of liberties with its source material, as plenty of publications like Digital Spy have pointed out, but it still puts together an incredible cast and unleashes them in a compelling story. As you'd expect, Spencer is at her absolute best here — her version of Walker is charming, flawed and fiercely intelligent. You root for her from the moment you meet her, and watching her rise through the ranks to become as successful as she does is a blast, even if Self Made puts its own spin on a lot of facts surrounding Walker's life.

The Help -- Minny Jackson

The Help has a bit of a complicated legacy. The film generally received rave reviews and was a smash hit upon its release in 2011. Three of the film's actresses — Octavia Spencer, Viola Davis and Jessica Chastain — were all nominated for Academy Awards for their performances in the movie, with Spencer winning for her role as Minny Jackson.

That said, The Help would probably have a hard time even getting made just a few years later. Davis has spoken out against the film multiple times in the years since, saying that she "betrayed" herself and the Black community by appearing in the film. She claims The Help was born through systemic racism, buys into the white savior narrative and plays to black culture while only focusing on the white perspective. Bryce Dallas Howard, who plays the film's antagonist, has also spoken out about the film's viewpoint and odd perspective.

All that aside, it's tough not to argue that The Help features some incredible performances, with Spencer's obviously standing out. This may as well be the film that permanently etches the phrase "scene-stealing" into every review of a project that Spencer appears in — watch The Help to see some fantastic actresses, not to learn about the Black experience during the Civil Rights movement.

Fruitvale Station -- Wanda Johnson

Director Ryan Coogler has rapidly become one of the most in-demand directors in Hollywood over the last few years. Before he was directing the likes of Creed and Black Panther, however, Coogler got his first shot as a director with 2013's Fruitvale Station. The film tells the true story of Oscar Grant, who was killed on New Year's Day 2009 by the Oakland police. Octavia Spencer plays Wanda, Oscar Grant's mother, in yet another scene-stealing role.

After winning her Oscar for her performance in The Help, Spencer decided to start working on more personal projects and telling stories she felt were important. Fruitvale Station was one of her first films with this new mentality, telling IndieWire, "This is the biggest movie I've ever done."

Though Spencer's screen time in Fruitvale Station doesn't match some of her larger roles, she more than utilizes her charisma and acting prowess as Wanda. If hearing "Octavia Spencer and Michael B. Jordan star in Ryan Coogler's debut film," doesn't get you going, then you're probably in the wrong place.

The Shape of Water -- Zelda Fuller

One of Octavia Spencer's biggest successes, both on a critical and commercial front, came from the 2017 romantic fairy tale The Shape of Water. Director Guillermo del Toro usually knocks it out of the park when he gets to spread his wings on a "passion project," and he really got to showcase his creative vision with this film.

Spencer plays Zelda Fuller, one of the few friends of the film's protagonist, who is roped into the scheme to break out and release the Aquatic Man before he is killed. It could have been a relatively thankless role, but Spencer once again imbues her character with charm and conflict. It's very obvious that she wants nothing to do with the plan, but her loyalty to her friend overrides her common sense.

The Shape of Water wound up the darling of the 2018 Academy Awards, and Spencer's role as Zelda netted her a third acting nomination. Not bad for a weird little story about a deaf woman and the fish man she falls in love with.

Hidden Figures -- Dorothy Vaughan

The cast of Hidden Figures is incredible. We've got Octavia Spencer as mathematician Dorothy Vaughan, another role that got her nominated for an Academy Award. Taraji P. Henson and Janelle Monáe round out the trio of female scientists who helped win the Space Race. On top of that, Hidden Figures also boasts Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Mahershala Ali, Jim Parsons, Aldis Hodge and more. It's a powerhouse group.

Even with all those terrific actors surrounding her, Spencer manages to stand out in the film. She was the only actor nominated for an Oscar in Hidden Figures, though it was also nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Picture. The role of Dorothy Vaughan definitely plays to Spencer's strengths — she's intelligent, loyal and always quick with a response, especially when someone talks down to her. She also helps nurture her team of geniuses, and Spencer imbues her with enough fire and drive to make you forget you're watching a fictionalization.

In the Boston Globe review of Hidden Figures, Ty Burr writes, "It works primarily because of the women that it portrays and the actresses who portray them." Spencer may just be the best of a very strong bunch.