Saturday, May 12, 2018

In Character: Keith David

Keith Davis is expert at sticking out amongst an ensemble. Many of the actor’s film and television roles (he has an astounding 287 credits on IMDb) include standout work he’s delivered in a large ensemble cast. In fact, four of those performances are listed below, as well as a few genuine supporting turns. The point is, no matter the size of the role, you always remember Keith David.

Five Essential Roles
The Thing (1982)
Keith David’s first credited film role was as the flame throwing badass, Childs, in John Carpenter’s The Thing. Much of the film revolves around MacReady (Kurt Russell), who is so intensely paranoid that everyone around him could be a shifty alien being. MacReady’s suspicion forces him to call out Childs as a “Thing,” resulting in a sustained tension of Fuck Your bravado that is a joy to watch. And who can forget David’s final moment of the film? Waiting it out with the last friend he has. Funny how the tables can turn.

They Live (1988)
Frank Armitage
They Live is great for many reasons, and Keith David’s sidekick character, Frank, is certainly among them. Frank’s transformation from vehemently denying that aliens exists on Earth, to eventually joining forces with John Nada (Roddy Piper) to fight the aliens, is a blast to watch unfold. And, of course, the key of Frank’s transition can be found in one of the most insane movie fights ever captured, which features David and Piper beating the shit out of each other in an alley for six minutes. Glad you came around, big Frank. The world needs you.

Dead Presidents (1995)
The Hughes Brothers packed a lot into Dead Presidents. The film tackles coming of age life in ‘60s New York, the brutality of Vietnam, and the harsh reality of coming home from war and being forgotten. Kirby is a surrogate father figure to Larenz Tate’s Anthony. Though Anthony has a dad, Kirby is the man who teaches Anthony how to live and survive in the streets. The chemistry between David and Tate is immediately palpable, and grounds the film in genuine emotion, as opposed to cheap thrills. Dead Presidents is an underrated thriller with a hell of a punch, but it also has a sneakily large heart.

Pitch Black (2000)
Abu ‘Imam’ al-Walid
Keith David is known for playing big, strong, intimidating men, which makes me appreciate his against-type performance in Pitch Black that much more. Imam is a gentle Muslim preacher traveling to New Mecca with his three young sons. Iman is the voice of calm reason amongst the insane chaos in the film, and watching David quietly assert that petty fights are useless (“This. Solves. Nothing.”), allows us to appreciate David’s range. He certainly does not have to yell to be heard.

Requiem for a Dream (2000)
Big Tim
It all starts with a laugh. That dangerous, menacing laugh. Big Tim (or Little John, as he introduces himself), appears nice enough at first, but his worth quickly becomes apparent. The second time we see him is in extreme close-up, as he smiles politely and greets Jennifer Connelly by saying “Maid Marian.” “Oh no,” we may think. “Oh. Fucking. No.”

Wild Card
There’s Something About Mary (1998)
Mary’s Dad
One of the foundations of good comedy is showing us something we don’t expect. And Keith David revealing himself as Cameron Diaz’s stepfather in There’s Something About Mary certainly does just that. David is only in one scene of the film, but he steals every second of it. There is no shortage of amusement to be found in Keith David busting Ben Stiller’s balls as Stiller gears up to take Diaz to the prom. What a joy it is to watch David go for broke in a comedy role.

The Best of the Best
Platoon (1986)
The best of Keith David’s ensemble work, and, for my money, the best work of David’s career, is as King in Oliver Stone’s Platoon. King is a wise, pragmatic soldier nearing the end of his tour, and David plays every note of him beautifully. The actor’s standout moment in the film comes just before the lengthy battle that closes the movie. As King and Chris (Charlie Sheen) wait patiently for the storm of war to arrive, King is informed that his orders have come through to leave. He’s free from war, not after the battle – right now.

King celebrates, as one would, and offers a polite goodbye to Chris. But before King leaves the jungle, he turns and gives it one final look. He stares off and offers the hellish wilderness a final nod of appreciation, of acceptance, of understanding. It’s a look that says, “You nearly got the best of me, but I gave you a fight, and now I’m gone.”  The look last roughly three seconds, and then King is gone.

I’ve written at length about this moment before, because this is what movies are all about to me. They’re about emotion. They’re about a look of acceptance, a nod of mutual appreciation. This is scene encapsulates acting at his most pure, and Keith David absolutely seizes it.

Other Notable Roles
in Armageddon
Bird (1988)
Road House (1989)
Always (1989)
Gargoyles (1994-1996)
The Quick and the Dead (1995)
Clockers (1995)
Volcano (1997)
Armageddon (1998)
The Tiger Woods Story (1998)
Spawn (1997-1999)
Where the Heart Is (2000)
The Job (2001-2002)
Barbershop (2002)
Head of State (2003)
Crash (2005)
Mr. & Mrs. Smith (2005)
ATL (2006)
The Princess and the Frog (2009)
Death at a Funeral (2010)
Cloud Atlas (2012)
Community (2012-2015)
Greenleaf (2016-2018)


  1. Keith David is truly one of those great character actors who can pretty much play anything. He's always a joy to watch no matter what movie he's in. Even if it's a shitty film like Armageddon as he always find a way to bring what a film needs.

    His work in Cloud Atlas is often overlooked as I really liked the roles he played as he was a hitman for one scene and then a man of great intellect in another.

    That performance in There's Something About Mary is hilarious as I just loved how he looked in that 'fro.

    Ah, and of course.... They Live. If you don't think that fight scene is one of the best scenes in film. I will fight you.

    1. Haha that's damn right! So happy you're a fan of his. And I also think he was one of the best parts about Cloud Atlas. Truly, I've liked this guy in everything.

  2. He was great on Community as well, in a different role than he usually takes. He's also in Road House too! Looking at his Wikipedia page, is reminding me of so many quick bursts of screen time like from Volcano or Replacements. Gosh, I didn't realize he was the voice of Spawn for that animated series that was better than it probably deserved.
    He's either been or voiced so many police officers or other commanding individuals, and that makes total sense, one doesn't waste a voice like his.

    1. He's in everything! I don't know if I've ever covered someone who has more credited acting roles. And you're so right about that voice... even Aronofsky used it so well, as it's the first thing we "get" from David in Requiem. So happy you're a fan of his work!

  3. I also really like Keith David's work in Clockers as the counterpoint to Delroy Lindo's father figure (sort of) for Strike. There are so many good options here!

    1. I wanted to include that performance so badly! I rewatched that movie for this post, actually, and I was reminded how much I like it. It's so gritty and dirty. I wish Lee would go back to that (but I'm crazy excited for BlacKkKlansman).

  4. I always enjoy it when Keith David pop up in a movie. He never just phones it in even in the worst movies. My favorite performance from him is probably from Clockers. Very underrated. I also really love him in all the movies you listed. His scenes in There's Something About Mary are still the best part of the movie. Ben Still getting caught in his zipper though might be an image i will never be able to forget.

    1. Man, I really wanted to include Clockers, but it just barely missed the mark. I was surprised how taken I was with his work in Dead Presidents. I hadn't remembered much about his performance, but it was great to revisit. So happy you're a fan!