He’s worked with some of the most notable directors of our time – from Spike Lee to Steve McQueen – and for each film, Chiwetel Ejiofor brings his A-game. Over the years, his trademark intensity and commitment to roles have endeared him to filmmakers and audiences alike.
Born to Nigerian parents who moved to the U.K. to flee the Biafran War, he grew up in South London. When he was 11 years old, Ejiofor suffered a great tragedy. While traveling back to Nigeria for a wedding, a car accident killed his father and left Ejiofor seriously injured.
Theater offered him some solace. As a kid, he enjoyed taking part in plays, which gave him a way to understand the world. As a teen, he joined the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art and was cast by Steven Spielberg for Amistad, after only three months into his course.
In 2007, he stunned audiences in a production of Othello at London’s Donmar Warehouse and earned a Laurence Olivier Award for Best Actor. A few years later, he went on to earn an Oscar nod for his role in 12 Years A Slave. Despite his success, he stays true to his African roots, as his directorial feature, The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind, attests – along with his love for both Crystal Palace and the Super Eagles alike.
OkayAfrica breaks down his best roles over the years so far.
Amistad - Traileryoutu.be
With an ensemble that includes Morgan Freeman, Anthony Hopkins and Matthew McConaughey, Ejiofor more than holds his own — even though this was his feature film debut in the early days of his career. Then 19, he was cast by Spielberg for his epic historical drama, based on the true story of the 1839 mutiny aboard the ship, La Amistad, and the international legal battle that followed when abducted Mende men overthrew their captors’ ship off the coast of Cuba. Ejiofor plays James Covey, a young, formerly enslaved man who serves as an interpreter for the defendants in the film’s central trial.
Dirty Pretty Things (2002)
Dirty Pretty Things | 'Innocent’ (HD) - Audrey Tautou, Chiwetel Ejiofor | MIRAMAXwww.youtube.com
In his first lead role, Ejiofor shines as Okwe, an undocumented Nigerian doctor living in London, who makes a living as a cab driver by day and a hotel attendant by night. Ejiofor is central to the film’s success, playing an immigrant who carries a sadness from his past with him. Directed by Stephen Frears, the film is a hypnotic thriller, but it also has much to say about illegal immigrants trying to make a life in the U.K. To play the part, Ejiofor reportedly copied his Nigerian accent from his parents. As the late critic Roger Ebert notes, this film shows he’s a natural actor with leading man presence, who has the “rare ability to seem good without being sappy.”
Love Actually (2003)
Love Actually (2003) Official Trailer - Colin Firth, Emma Thompson Movie HDwww.youtube.com
A beloved staple in homes across the world, come December, it’s hard to believe this film is 20 years old already. It’s a role that remains close to Ejiofor’s heart, because, as he told Entertainment Weekly, the film is, “so fully romantic and optimistic.” He plays Keira Knightley’s new husband who has no idea his best friend, a pre-Walking Dead Andrew Lincoln, secretly pines after her. Although we haven’t seen much of Ejiofor in the rom-com genre, this film gives us a glimpse of what we’re missing by not having more of his charming self in these kinds of roles.
Kinky Boots (2005)
Kinky Boots | Official Trailer (HD) - Joel Edgerton, Chiwetel Ejiofor | MIRAMAXwww.youtube.com
“Ladies, gentlemen, and those who’ve yet to make up your mind,” it's Chiwetel Ejiofor as we’d yet to see him before. Playing Lola, the drag queen who helps save the shoe factory of Joel Edgerton’s Charlie, Ejiofor commits to the part wholeheartedly. He sports those titular high boots, makeup, nails and false eyelashes, as well as dances in the aforementioned heels. Not someone who’s known for his comedic or musical talents, Ejiofor positively delights in the role – even if he didn’t express any interest in going on to reprise the part in the hit Broadway version of the film.
Inside Man (2006)
Inside Man Official Trailer #1 - Christopher Plummer Movie (2006) HDwww.youtube.com
The second time Ejiofor was directed by Spike Lee (after a small role in She Hate Me), he worked alongside Denzel Washington. As Detective Bill Mitchell to Washington’s Detective Keith Frazier, Ejiofor and Washington set about trying to solve an elaborate New York City bank heist in New York City. Ejiofor had to do some work to nail his American accent, but he proved his acting chops once again, as part of a formidable ensemble that also included Jodie Foster and Clive Owen.
Children of Men (2006)
Children of Men - Trailerwww.youtube.com
Owen and Ejiofor would once again feature together in a film that same year, in the explosive sci-fi drama, Children of Men. Who can forget the car scene – considered one of the greatest tracking shots in cinematic history – in which Ejiofor, a radical political activist, and Owen try to save Julianne Moore’s character? Although he doesn’t have a major part in Alfonso Cuaron’s film, Ejiofor brings a fiery intensity to his character that ensures he’s still thought of long after he leaves the screen.
12 Years a Slave (2013)
12 YEARS A SLAVE - Official Trailer (HD)www.youtube.com
The role that earned Ejiofor a much-deserved Oscar nomination for Best Actor is in the film that won Best Picture at the 2014 ceremony. As real-life Solomon Northup, the actor went to places we’d yet to see him go in portraying a free Black man from the North who is kidnapped and sold into slavery during the 1840s. Ejiofor won a host of acting awards for playing Northup in the run-up to the Oscars, losing out on that coveted statue to Dallas Buyer’s Club’s Matthew McConaughey. But the anger, frustration, hope and dignity he brought to Northup lives on in movie lore, and it can’t be understated how much of a role he played in the film’s success, and the way it changed the industry in the years to come.
Doctor Strange (2016)
Marvel Studios' Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness | Official Trailerwww.youtube.com
Get you a man who can do Shakespeare and Marvel! Joining Benedict Cumberbatch in the Marvel franchise, Ejiofor plays Baron Mordo, a complex villain who exists in the gray of the Multiverse of Madness. It’s fun to watch him embody this character, which is developed a little differently from the comics and takes on a more complicated dynamic. At first a friend of Doctor Strange, Mordo experiences a deep change through the course of the film, allowing us to revel in the expanse of Ejiofor’s range as an actor. Personally for the actor himself, the film was a thrill too, as he’d grown up reading comics like Watchmen, too.
The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind (2019)
The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind | Offical Trailer [HD] | Netflixwww.youtube.com
For Ejiofor’s directorial debut, he looked to his home continent. Set in Malawi and based on the true story of inventor William Kamkwamba, it won him the NAACP Image Award for outstanding direction of a motion picture in 2020. Ejiofor wrote the screenplay and also starred in the film, as Kamkwamba’s father, and learned to speak Chichewa, the local language, for it. The story of Kamkwamba’s love of science and desire to find solutions to the challenges his family face remains inspiring, and we look forward to Ejiofor’s next directorial venture.