Total Recall: Keith David's Best Movies
We take a look at the most memorable work of the Princess and the Frog star.
You may not know his name, but you almost certainly recognize his face -- and you might even know his voice too: Since the early 1980s, Keith David has been one of the most prolific actors in the business, scoring roles in a dizzying array of films, lending his voice to cartoons and videogames, and even singing when he feels like it. Heck, he even popped up on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood during the 1980s, appearing as Keith the Southwood Carpenter. You've heard of "that guy" status for actors? That's Keith David in a nutshell -- and since you'll be hearing his voice in The Princess and the Frog this weekend, we thought now would be the perfect time to give this ubiquitous thespian the Total Recall treatment!
10. Pitch Black
Pitch Black was Vin Diesel's coming out party, the perfect vehicle for a hulking bruiser with a menacing glower. But Richard B. Riddick's resolute refusal to put faith in anything wouldn't have meant half as much if the movie hadn't contrasted his nihilism with the unshakable religious beliefs of Abu al-Walid, the imam played by Keith David. The character -- usually referred to simply as "Imam" -- wages a philosophical battle against Riddick as their plucky band of space-marooned travelers fights for survival against a planet full of bloodthirsty creatures, lending a smidgen of subtext to a movie that, as far as most filmgoers were concerned, was in theaters simply to add a couple hours of solid action fare to the bleak February release schedule. And okay, so it's kind of a stretch to imagine anyone saw Pitch Black for its script -- but David's character had enough mojo to return for the sequel, and the interstellar thrills were sufficient to win the approval of critics such as Hollywood.com's Ted Murphy, who wrote, "Some hard-core science-fiction fans might nitpick over details in Pitch Black, but for the average moviegoer looking to be entertained, this roller-coaster of a film should not be missed."
Sam Raimi doing a Western sounds like a can't-miss proposition, especially when the cast of the Western in question includes Gary Sinise, Lance Henriksen, Pat Hingle, Leonardo DiCaprio, Russell Crowe, and Gene Hackman. Unfortunately, 1994's The Quick and the Dead missed in a big way, only earning back about half of its $35 million budget and going down as one of the biggest commercial whiffs of the year, thanks in part to a promotional campaign that focused on Sharon Stone's character instead of the ensemble surrounding her. Based on its dismal grosses, you'd think Quick and the Dead was a mess, but most of the critics who saw it found favor with Raimi's half-cracked take on the well-worn genre, as well as Simon Moore's script, which pits a crew of would-be gunslingers against Hackman's John Herod in a rootin' tootin' tourney with a $123,000 cash prize. As competitor Sergeant Clay Cantrell, Keith David doesn't get a lot of screen time, but he does score a scene that manages to sum up a large chunk of his appeal:
Cantrell: Sergeant Cantrell.
Shemp: How do you spell that?
"Raimi's movie borrows heavily from classic spaghetti westerns," admitted Jeffrey M. Anderson of Combustible Celluloid, "but Raimi has a style of his own, and plenty of it."
Even for an actor as prolific as Keith David, 1995 was a big year, giving him screen time in the Hughes brothers' Dead Presidents, Sam Raimi's The Quick and the Dead, and Paul Aster and Wayne Wang's Blue in the Face -- along with Spike Lee's Clockers, which cast David as a take-no-prisoners housing authority cop nicknamed Andre the Giant. When your police partner is Harvey Keitel and you're still the most menacing member of the duo, the bad guys had better be careful -- a lesson painfully learned by "Strike" Dunham (Mekhi Phifer) in one of the film's most memorable sequences, a three-minute clinic in unfiltered rage led by David as he makes it clear to Phifer that he doesn't approve of Phifer's illegal activities. Overlooked at the box office, Clockers nonetheless earned the praise of critics such as Boxoffice Magazine's Shlomo Schwartzberg, who wrote, "Spike Lee's adaptation of Richard Price's powerful novel about a drug dealer and a cop pursuing him for a crime captures the story's essence, evoking a melancholy world in which the chances of surviving and staying on the straight and narrow are small."
Warning: NSFW -- language and violence.
Clint Eastwood's tribute to Charlie Parker, Bird is mostly a showcase for Parker's music and Forest Whitaker's outstanding performance as the legendary saxophonist, but Eastwood is smart enough not to skimp on the supporting players -- and when you care enough to send the very best, you get Keith David, who shows up here as Parker's (fictional) mentor, Buster Franklin. While not a major element of the film, Franklin certainly had a significant influence on Parker's career, and that's reflected here in sequences that illustrate the ways both men struggled to remain true to their respective muses. Eastwood was criticized for dwelling on the more sensationalistic aspects of Parker's life and times, but the glimpses we're afforded of Franklin -- as well as the way David carries the character during his limited screen time -- illustrate that fading away can be just as painful as burning out. Roger Ebert was one of the many critics impressed with Bird, writing, "Whitaker occupies this world as a large, friendly, sometimes taciturn man who tries to harm nobody and who cannot understand why the world would not let him play his music. Neither can we."
6. The Thing
A bleak, horrifying sci-fi thriller as cold and dark as the Antarctic climate in which it takes place, John Carpenter's The Thing represented Keith David's first big break -- not only was it the first major role for an actor whose biggest part to that point was an uncredited role in 1979's Disco Godfather, but it also openly flouted the unspoken rule that the black dude is always the first one to get whacked in a horror movie. In fact, David and Kurt Russell are the last men standing in The Thing -- and if Carpenter ever gets his way, their frostbitten faces will someday be seen in a sequel. That doesn't seem terribly likely at this point, but even if it never comes to pass, David will always have the distinction of starring in the movie that eFilmCritic's Rob Gonsalves says "contains everything you could want to know about horror filmmaking."