The Five Heartbeats was a 1991 musical drama film about a Motown-type singing group in the 1960s. Drawing inspiration from the real lives of members of the legendary groups The Temptations and The Dells, the script was written by Robert Townsend and Keenen Ivory Wayans.
The five-man singing group featured Robert Townsend as Donald “Duck” Matthews who wrote all the music for the group. Leon played Duck’s older brother J.T. Matthews who always wants whatever his brother has. Michael Wright was featured as the troubled lead singer Eddie King Jr in a breathtaking performance. Tico Wells played as Anthony “Choirboy” Stone who struggles to balance the temptations of stardom with his religious upbringing. Harry J. Lennix rounded out the group as Terrence “Dresser” Williams, the group’s bass voice and resident choreographer.
While the entire cast of The Five Heatbeats joined together to provide mesmerizing performances, it is Michael Wright as Fast Eddie that stands out above all the rest. Wright draws inspiration from the tormented life of David Ruffin, the charismatic lead singer of The Temptations whose addictions destroyed his music career. Wright’s Fast Eddie is one of the most amazing performances I have witnessed.
Wright plays Eddie with a burning intensity that bleeds raw emotion. His performance takes him from unknown singer to a seemingly invincible star. Like many stars, Eddie’s ego and addictions cause him to fall from grace. When you fall from the heights of stardom to the depths of Skid Row, the result isn’t pretty. It is as the fallen Fast Eddie that Wright’s command performance is most moving. Not to mention, his lip syncing is probably the most believable such performance that I have ever seen. (Marvin Junior of The Dells provides Fast Eddie’s gritty singing voice).
The nominees for the Academy Award for Best Actor for 1991 included Anthony Hopkins as Dr. Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs, Warren Beatty as Bugsy Siegel in Bugsy, Robert De Niro as Max Cady in Cape Fear, Nick Nolte as Tom Wingo in The Princes of Tides, and Robin Williams Parry Sagan in The Fisher King. Hopkins won the Oscar for his brilliant performance in The Silence of the Lambs, however as good as he was in the role, Hopkins’ performance pales in comparison to the masterful characterization turned in by Wright in The Five Heartbeats.
Born in 1956, Wright first graced the silver screen in 1979’s The Wanderers. His first role of any substance was as Elias Taylor in the 1983 television miniseries V. He reprised the role in the 1984 sequel V: The Final Battle, and on V the Series that ran NBC from 1984-1985.
Wright’s body of work after The Five Heartbeats includes the 1994 film Sugar Hill opposite Wesley Snipes; the HBO series Oz, in which he played Omar White from 2001-2003; the 2004 film Downtown: A Street Tale, the 2005 film The Interpreter, and two episodes of the CW series Black Lightning in 2019 as Lazarus Prime.
Plain and simple, Wright’s performance in The Five Heartbeats should have garnered him an Academy Award for Best Actor.
Sidney Poiter was the first black man to win a Best Actor Academy Award for his performance in the 1963 film Lilies in the Field. The next black man to win a Best Actor Academy Award wasn’t until 2001 when Denzel Washington received the award for his performance in Training Day. That’s almost 40 years in which no black man won a Best Actor Oscar.
This long span without a black man having the opportunity to win the Best Actor Academy Award is indicative of systemic racism that has permeated our country for so long. Had the Academy been more open to actors of color in the Best Actor category, Wright would have justifiably won the Oscar for his 1991 performance as Fast Eddie King. Yet he was not even nominated. The contest that year featured five Caucasian actors vying for the award.
Had Wright won the Oscar, or even had he been nominated, I would think his subsequent career would have offered him more meaty roles. Denzel Washington’s career took off after winning the Best Supporting Actor award for his role in the 1989 film Glory. It is reasonable to think the same might have happened for Wright.
If you have not seen The Five Heartbeats, I recommend you add it to your viewing queue. It is a film that has aged well, and you are guaranteed to be fully captivated by Michael Wright. Watch the film, then let me know what you think.
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