Charmaine Bingwa had just finished a monologue on the set of Emancipation when she had a request for director Antoine Fuqua. Could she do the speech she had just done in English, but this time in Haitian Creole? He said yes. “If my characters speak in another language, but I don’t know it, I feel like a fraud,” Bingwa says. “So I just kind of took it upon myself [to learn the language].” That take, without subtitles, is the one that ended up in the drama starring Will Smith.
In Emancipation, Smith plays Peter, a character based on a man in a photograph commonly called “Whipped Peter” because of his scarred back. The movie traces Peter’s escape from slavery to find Union forces after learning that Abraham Lincoln has declared enslaved people free. Bingwa plays Peter’s wife, Dodienne. As he is pursued in Louisiana swamps, her faith tells her that her husband will return. The movie is the first big-budget project ($120 million) for the Zimbabwean Australian actress — plus she was acting opposite Smith, whom she calls “iconic.” The project also required a lot of her emotionally. Her scenes, for instance, were filmed on a real plantation. “I don’t care what religion you are,” she says. “There is extra presence there.”
Bingwa has had a circuitous journey to acting. On the insistence of her “typical African parents,” she earned a business degree and spent time trying to fit into a corporate world before heading back to school to pursue music. “I had to choose two electives to finish the degree, and one of them was acting,” she says. “Something just clicked and I realized, ‘I think this is what I’m supposed to be doing with my life.’ “
Her knack for music is one of the reasons she says she has an ear for languages and dialects, but she also prepared to play Dodienne by listening to at least 120 hours of narratives by enslaved people. Bingwa was an advocate for her character on set, not just asking to perform the aforementioned scene in Dodienne’s native language, but also working with Fuqua and screenwriter Bill Collage to give her more of a voice. “Initially the scene was a bit more adjunct, but I went to Antoine and the screenwriter and was like, ‘I think she has more to say here,’ ” she remembers. “I think it’s especially important for Black women in cinema. In the past, we’ve either missed out altogether or we’re marginalized, so it’s important to me that they have a voice.”
While Bingwa has designs to write and direct her own material, her collaboration with Fuqua is extending into his next project. She’ll appear in the Showtime series he’s producing, King Shaka, playing a warrior she describes as “fierce and formidable.”
“I feel like Emancipation was the gloriously tender mother, and it’s lovely when somebody else sees more potential in you,” she says.
Both characters are a departure from Carmen Moyo, the lawyer Bingwa played on the final two seasons of The Good Fight, which finished its run in November. “This is such a gift of a year to me, being able to play these three incredibly remarkable but incredibly different women. It’s encouraging to see that what women can be onscreen is being expanded. I’m not sure these roles have always been around.”
This story first appeared in a Jan. stand-alone issue of magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.