The first is half-naked, standing onstage in front of 15 or so art patrons, her overly thick sunglasses shielding her eyes from the punishing spotlights above. She’s playing Detroit, a Bay Area bohemian in Boots Riley’s 2018 satire “Sorry to Bother You.” As she speaks with gusto and purpose, visitors throw batteries and blood-filled balloon at her exposed body, with Detroit not becoming the least bit flustered or perturbed.
The second Thompson is fully-clothed, trudging through an alien landscape called the Shimmer behind a group of more outspoken peers, taking comfort in a brown military uniform that cloaks her from the dangers in this colorful world. She’s playing Josie Radek, a soft-spoken astrophysicist in Alex Garland’s sci-fi thriller “Annihilation.” With every step in the supernatural environment causing rapid biological changes, Josie is the only one of her crew to embrace these unexpected evolutions, blossoming into a newly-realized form.
You wouldn’t expect these two Thompsons to hit it off if they ever bumped into each other on an Oakland street corner or underneath the Shimmer’s towering, mutated trees. But like most characters Tessa has portrayed in 2018, Josie and Detroit both undergo a literal stripping of self and a figurative rebirth, abandoning the ideas and guiding principles of their past in favor of a new path where nobody else has trudged before.
This all makes Tessa Thompson not necessarily 2018’s biggest star, but the one most emblematic of our current political moment, representing those individuals with strong voices and those who are still figuring out what they want to say. You’ll never find movie lovers asking when Tessa Thompson is going to win an Oscar so much as how she thinks and feels about the awards industry. She isn’t guided by a singular political message but more the importance of having one. She’s crisscrossed between Marvel megahits and indie passion projects, always avoiding being typecast since she’s moving too fast to pin down. And she’ll be whispering into the ears of moviegoers for the next few years in films like the highly-anticipated “Creed 2” and a “Men in Black” spinoff in 2019.
Thompson is far from the first actress with an opinion, but she is the first in a long time who has managed not to be drowned out. With more movies available for viewers to watch than hours available to watch them, that means that even the most astounding performances or thought-provoking films can be forgotten in the wake of something fresh and new. But Thompson always remains a joyous and welcome presence, conjuring emotions and moments that stay relevant in viewers’ heads long after the closing credits.
Case in point: “Avengers: Infinity War,” a 2018 cinematic behemoth that Thompson didn’t actually star in. Thompson played the hard-drinking, shit-talking, space warrior Valkyrie in “Thor: Ragnorok” and based on the events of that movie, it seemed natural her character would show up in “Infinity War,” even for a few seconds. But Thompson’s absence sparked an internet brouhaha of worried comic fans trying to determine Valkyrie’s fate.
Even in a film where she has no appearance or association, viewers still can’t get Thompson off their minds.