In the movie National Champion$, three-time Emmy winner Uzo Aduba is the “fixer” for the NCAA, and delivers a strong performance that showcases her prowess for powerful, impactful roles that far too often in the past, would not have been protrayed by Black women.
Uzo Aduba is no stranger to delivering powerful performances on the big screen that on many levels amplify the strength, versatility and leadership of Black women. In her latest role in the movie, National Champion$, she stays true to form.
National Champion$, which will be released in theaters on Friday, brings a host of societal issues facing college athletics to the big screen, with few talked about now more than Name, Image and Likeness (NIL) compensation for student-athletes. In the film, Heisman-trophy winning quarterback LeMarcus James (Stephon James) sparks a players’ strike hours before the national championship game, seeking fair compensation along with more equality and respect for student-athletes. Katherine Poe (Aduba) is the fixer brought in to help bring “tactical solutions” to the crisis the NCAA faces with a potential players’ strike on the eve of one of its biggest generators of revenue.
“She’s a go-getter; she’s a tough cookie, she’s ambitious and strong,” Aduba said in an exclusive interview with EBONY. “She holds the thankless job of being the face of an organization. So she may appear as someone who is challenging but the fact of the matter is that she’s really just doing her job, and doing it the best she knows how.”
Aduba, known best for her Emmy Award-winning role as Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren in the Netflix hit, Orange is the New Black, connected with her role in National Champion$ on multiple levels. The power and impact that her character had, was appealing. So was the fact that one of the movie’s strongest undercurrents throughout—the NIL debate —was one that she was familiar with having been a standout track athlete at Boston University which was less than an hour away from her hometown of Medfield, Massachusetts.
Aduba readily admits her experience as a former track athlete helped her in preparation for her role in the film, a role that on many levels exposed the complexities of the NIL issue and all the subcategories that sub-components within the conversation.
But what really resonated with Aduba throughout the filming was how the movie was being made at a time when the NIL debate was evolving and slowly shifting from a concept into being practiced and embraced by all involved.
“I found myself having a better, larger understanding of the conversation at large,” Aduba said. “But it certainly did help to bring some of my own field experience into the character that is Katherine.”
Aduba, a three-time Emmy winner, acknowledges there is an intentionality to the projects that she takes on as far as them being roles that check several boxes.
“I’m really...excited by new stories; stories where I haven’t either seen them before or I haven’t seen them played by that person before, that are also well-crafted, that are thrilling, that are challenging,”Aduba said. “I was drawn to a Katherine Poe because I could feel that push-pull, that internal pull within her. And I hadn’t seen her exist within the sports world. The challenges she faced internally coupled with the space she had to hold in what is often looked at, thought of, as a boys club, those were things that were exciting to me.
Aduba added with a chuckle, “It wasn’t just, ‘here’s this tough lady,’ - not that I think there’s anything wrong with being a tough woman by the way - but I think that it was exciting to watch the evolution of this character. I thought we were watching, in National Champion$, it would have been an easy film to make to oversimplify each of these characters and their struggles. And in the case of Katherine, we watched her on the surface present as this really tough, worldy, sophisticated woman who is part of the system, only to watch her unpack the unpacked and discover she does have feelings. She has come from a very different world than what anybody assumes her to be from and that we didn’t really know her until she told us who she was, and that was thrilling.”
And it is that thrill and curiosity to bring stories to the big screen in unexpected ways that has made Aduba one of the more versatile actresses in Hollywood today. But within the roles that she plays now, Aduba has consistently demonstrated a prowess in performing with power which in many ways is similar to what she did as a top-flight sprinter on the Boston University track and field team.
Yes, it’s a different lane of engagement when you’re talking about acting versus athletic competition. But they are both competitions; the that Aduba has excelled at which serve as a reminder of her strength and versatility as an actress which will not only continue to open doors for her own career, but also provides hope and promise to other Black women in Hollywood.