The problem with the rise and fall of Blaxploitation is that it happened too fast for any real emphasis on “but what if we made this star a woman” and therefore a chance for black women to have more interesting roles. Sure, I have a deep an abiding love of Cleopatra Jones, but Denise Nicholas could have helmed a similar movie and is instead possibly best known as the second female lead in Blacula. Which is, don’t get me wrong, a better movie than it has any right to be, but it’s also full of people who deserved better careers that they didn’t get because the genre remained a brief-running novelty instead of an obvious alternative to white-led films.
Denise Nicholas is also probably the only person who’s played the significant other of both OJ Simpson and Bill Cosby and therefore obviously deserves better, because practically anyone would. One assumes she made Ghost Dad because she wanted to be in a movie directed by Sidney Poitier, and who can blame her for that? And while I loathe it for a lot of reasons, Capricorn One was something of a prestige project at the time. Besides, people didn’t know yet how genuinely awful Simpson was, and he seemed pleasant and goofy—honestly not too dissimilar a persona to Cosby’s in several important ways.
Now, she did get some solid work in television, playing major characters on both Room 222 and the TV version of In the Heat of the Night. Her In the Heat of the Night character started as recurring and ended as regular and in fact married to one of the leads. (A much nicer person by all accounts than her other two notable romantic partners in media.) That’s a total of 182 episodes of prestige television, which is 182 more episodes than most people get. Even most people in Hollywood.
She also got a wide array of minor guest slots. She did two episodes as Lilah James, Synclaire’s mother, on Living Single. She played Leddy Hutch, the “we couldn’t get Dionne Warwick” character in the Rockford Files movie “Shoot-Out at the Golden Pagoda.” She frankly went back and forth between media with different intended audiences by doing, for example, both Magnum, PI and thirteen episodes of something called Baby . . . I’m Back! In the latter, one of her children was even played by Kim Fields. She did both Rhoda and 227.
All in all, it’s not that Nicholas hasn’t had a better career than quite a lot of other people, though we as a nation owe her a lot for those two partners in her earlier movies. It’s that I watch things like, yes, Blacula and think, “I could watch an entire movie where she’s the lead,” and she’s never gotten that chance. It’s interesting to think about what her career could have looked like if different opportunities were available to her.
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