An esteemed African-American playwright and actor whose roles almost invariably contend with the politics and dynamics of race (frequent collaborator Spike Lee once famously described him as a "racial cheerleader"), thespian Roger Guenveur Smith grew up in Berkeley and debuted onscreen in the late '80s. Over the ensuing years, Smith cultivated and sustained a reputation for tackling demanding, challenging, and thought-provoking assignments with immense aplomb. He achieved much of his success thanks to repeated collaborations with Lee, who cast him as Yoda in the musical School Daze (1988) and Smiley, the hipster street philosopher in Do the Right Thing (1989); in fact, Lee later noted that Smith was the one who devised the idea for the juxtaposed photographs of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X in one of Thing's pivotal scenes. Meanwhile, Smith remained extremely active in regional theater, both by authoring his own efforts (such as a musical about Christopher Columbus that painted commonly accepted versions of the man's life story as historical revisionism) and by teaching drama to juvenile delinquents.
As the years passed, Smith's onscreen activity crescendoed; he signed for plum roles in such contemporary classics as King of New York (1990), Deep Cover (1992), and Eve's Bayou (1997), and, significantly, extended his professional relationship with Lee to many additional projects. The celebrated director cast Smith in such features as Malcolm X (1992), Get on the Bus (1996), He Got Game (1998), and Summer of Sam (1999), all of which received considerable acclaim. Their actor-director working relationship culminated in the little-seen (but arguably brilliant) A Huey P. Newton Story (2001) -- a Lee-directed film of Smith's one-man stage show on the life of controversial Black Panther leader Huey P. Newton. The film preserves the original Smith-authored play, and stars the thespian as Newton; Lee augments the film with visual pyrotechnics and interpolates archival footage to give the feature depth and dimension. Unfortunately, the project failed to receive even a limited theatrical release, and premiered instead on the Black Starz cable network.
Thereafter, Smith continued his theatrical work (albeit very infrequently) with such plays as the 2003 Iceland, a psychological drama about four unrelated characters that debuted in Philadelphia. He also continued his frequent film roles, with assignments including Shade (2003), God's Waiting List (2006), Confessions of a Call Girl (2006), and Ridley Scott's American Gangster (2007). ~ Nathan Southern, Rovi