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Laurence Fishburne was born in 1961 and began acting when he was only eleven years old. A few years later he famously lied about his age and got a part in Apocalypse Now, playing an American soldier on a Patrol Boat. From there, Fishburne took a string of roles on TV and bit parts in films until 1991, when he earned praise and acclaim for his role in John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood. The role was supporting but put him on the proverbial map where his natural lead-like posture and delivery paved the way to a career as mentor and authority figures. Impressive in size, with a distinctive voice and expressive face, Fishburne has won over audiences for decades with his unique style and intensity. Here are That Moment In’s Top 5 favorite moments from Laurence Fishburne.
Film Summary: In 2047, the starship Event Horizon, equipped with an experimental gravity drive and thought lost seven years earlier on the outer rims of the solar system, suddenly begins transmitting a distress signal. The crew aboard the rescue ship Lewis & Clark head to investigate and discover something terrible has occurred and someone or something has taken over the ship.
Scene Setup: Rescue ship Captin Miller (Fishburne) and his crew discover what appears to be a massacre on the decks of the Event Horizon. Worse, the ships gravitational drive kicks on and one of the crew is pulled into the portal where he witnesses something horrifying on the other side, forcing the captain to put him in stasis since he becomes disturbed enough to attempt suicide. The energy from the gravity drive also sent a shockwave to the Lewis & Clark, damaging it so badly all crew must evacuate. Not long after, they begin having nightmarish hallucinations before finding a video log of the Event Horizon’s captain. What’s on it isn’t pretty.
The Scene: On the video, the captain of the Event Horizon has apparently pulled out his own eyes and is holding them in his open palms, clearly so horrified at what he was seeing on the other side of the gravity drive portal, he couldn’t bear it. In Latin, he warns iberate tuteme ex infers, or save yourselves from hell. More than that, the clip contains footage of the Event Horizon crew gruesomely mutilating and eating each other. Justifiably freaked out, Miller decides he’s seen enough. He orders the crew back to the now (barely) repaired Lewis & Clark and declares he’s going to fire upon the doomed vessel and destroy whatever has caused the horrors within. All agree except the Event Horizon’s lead designer, Dr Weir, along for the ride based on his expertise of the ship, claiming Miller can’t just abandon the Horizon. “It’s done,” Miller replies flatly.
Why it Matters: Captain Miller is a man utterly ill-equipped for what he encounters. Expecting to rescue whatever crew might have survived the seven years lost in space, his job is only to salvage as much of the Event Horizon as possible. It is not a military mission. So when it comes to fighting for his and his crew’s lives, he must become someone new. And that he does. A leader from the start, he now evolves into a savior of sorts as he fights off the murderous demons of (literal) hell who have possessed Dr. Weir and is trying to take the rest. While it succeeds in killing some, Miller is finally faced with the most dreadful of choices, his life or those he commands over. What he chooses defines him entirely and it begins with his decision to destroy the Event Horizon.
“You still think your ol’ buddy Dave wouldn’t hurt a fly?”
Film Summary: Three men, haunted by a childhood event that has shaped their lives, are reunited by another tragedy. The daughter of a small time hood is killed and his long ago friend is the cop who investigates. All evidence leads to a timid recluse, their friend from decades past, sexually abused by a stranger and forever scarred.
Scene Setup: At the police station, Whitey Powers (Fishburne) and Sean Devine (Kevin Bacon) interrogate Dave Boyle (Tim Robbins). Dave is a soft spoken often frighten look man, a shell of a person ruined by his tragic abduction while as a child. He’s the prime suspect in the death of a young woman after blood has been found in his car. Powers is convinced and sees more in Dave than his old friend Devine does. He can’t imagine Dave hurting anyone. The questions get heavy and it becomes clear that maybe Dave isn’t exactly as he portrays.
The Scene: Powers has sort of bent the law a bit in getting Dave to the police station. Earlier, Dave’s car was stolen, and by stolen, don’t think a couple of pesky neighborhood thugs on a joyride. It was Whitey himself. He tells Dave the lie, that the car was found by police with blood in the front seat and the trunk and now Dave’s got to answer for it. Sean is not happy about the set up but is intrigued by the blood and decides to listen to the interrogation and see how Dave explains his way out. While we’ve come to expect Dave is a pushover, a timid softie, in the room, he’s got an answer for everything and turns the tables on Powers, telling him, that who ever stole the car got the blood in it. What’s more, Dave see’s an opportunity to pit the police against each other, trying to manipulate his old friend, a tactic that actually works in that it unsettles Sean. When the two cops leave the room, the tension is high and Sean is upset. Whitey recognizes the anger and knows that Sean is shaken because Dave has revealed a darker side. “You still think your ol’ buddy Dave wouldn’t hurt a fly?” he smugly asks.
Why it matters: In a film filled with star power, including two Oscar winning performances, it might be easy to forget that Laurence Fishburne was even in the movie. His is certainly secondary, but no less impactful. His importance is obvious early on. He stands as the counter position for Sean, his partner, a stoic, ballsy cop who uses whatever and whomever he can to get the truth. Or at least a confession of the truth. While he’s never the lead, he is always in the back, a constant voice in Devine’s ear and here, he shows his partner that his nostalgia has tainted his vision. The game for Powers was a win win. Either he got Dave to confess or he got him to show a dark side that he gambled was there. In the end, it succeeded in showing Sean that his old friend might not be the pushover he suspected, and it turned us as well, getting us to wonder about just how unhinged in this Dave and what is he capable of? Fishburne is exceptional in this film, overshadowed by both Penn and Robbins, but his work throughout is some of his best.
“So you bad now?”
Film Summary: A harrowing story of life in the ghetto of South Central L.A., following the life of a boy named Tre and his separated parent’s attempts to keep him safe from the the cycle of violence steadily destroying the neighborhood where they live.
Scene Setup: Since he was a small boy, senseless death has been a near everyday part of young Tre Styles (Cuba Gooding Jr. ) life. As a maturing man, he lives under the watchful eye of his educated and proud father, Furious Styles (Fishburne). He hopes to change people’s thinking, to find peaceful, positive solutions to ending the horrors dominating the streets. He teaches his boy about the manipulation of the social classes, how all the fighting and death are part of a larger plan to keep the Black community down. After Tre’s best friend Ricky, who had a real chance at getting into college football, is gunned down, Tre finds his dad’s pistol to exact some revenge. With his son still covered in Ricky’s blood and his hands wrapped around a .357 Magnum, Furious stops him in the living room.
The Scene: Tre is straight from bringing Ricky’s body to Ricky’s house. His clothes are soiled in blood and he’s out of his mind with rage. He knows Furious keeps a gun by the bed, so he digs it out and loads it, intent on heading right back out. Furious stands in the living, blocking the door. He recognizes the pain in his son’s eyes but plays it hard. “So you bad now?” he asks Tre, looking down on the boy. “You gotta shoot somebody.” He then offers himself as a target, telling his son to shoot him. He tells him he’s sorry about Rick but that’s not his problem. His problem is Tre. He asks him if he wants to end up like the street thugs, a bunch of nobodies with no future, like some of his friends. He demands the gun and eventually the boy gives it up and falls into his dad’s embrace.
Why it matters: The movie is a commentary on the hard life in the hood and how people try to make a life around. Tre and his friends grew up in it and though not immune, have allowed it to become a part of them. Furious sees this and works tirelessly to not give up his little patch of sanity amid this chaos, keeping a clean home, an honest trade, and a vision for his family’s future. He stands unmoved by gangs crowding in, and instead tries to show the kids on his street that there’s is a doomed road. Fishburne is commanding here, a powerful presence throughout the movie, he towers in this scene. Watch how he slips off his necktie when he enters the room, closing the door behind him, placing himself solidly in his son’s path. The door is important as is shuts out the world Tre wants to run to, as Ricky’s house is across the street. Outside, the sirens are wailing, people are screaming, but Furious puts all that out of reach to Tre. This moment is between him and his son, and will be the most important moment in Tre’s life. Furious knows it. To save his son, he has to stop him now while the very demons that have infected all those in Tre’s circle try to take him. His offer to have Tre shoot him is frightening but effective. He wants his son to feel the power the gun has but also know how to control it. We’ve already seen Furious use the Magnum to scare off a burglar, so we suspect Furious has some background. Tre, however has none, and Furious sees that the temptation to become the mindless thug who shoots people in the street has got a hold on his boy. But he has to know what it means to take a life, and his life is the one Tre should start with, because that’s how valuable Furious sees all life. You must commit to it if you’re going to do it and that terrifies Tre. Furious stops his son, and from there, we feel hope.
“I ain’t hear you, what’d you say?”
Scene Setup: After some success, Tina (Angela Bassett) and her husband Ike (Fishburne), a songwriter and producer for her career are living a good life, if not comfortable. One afternoon, as Tina and some girlfriends are lounging outside, Ike is inside trying to work. Tina comes in, a little flirty and asks him to take break. He refuses, claiming someone has to keep the act together, managing it and writing songs. He wants to build a studio but complains it’s not possible because she doesn’t sing the songs they way he asks her to, meaning they’d be far more successful. She says she tries but the songs all kind of sound the same. The cork pops.
The Scene: “I ain’t hear you,” he says. “What’d you say?” Tina realizes she has said something bad, and we see a frightening glimmer of familiar fear. When Ike asks her to repeat herself, knowing full well what she said, it’s clear something awful is about to happen. And it does. It’s even worse than we expect. The backhand slap is vicious and sends Tina back on to a sofa where she cries in pain and tells him he promised he wouldn’t hurt her. But it’s too late. Whatever monster lurks within him, it’s tasted blood and wants for more. He moves toward her and she recoils over the top of the coach and onto the floor, out of our view. Ike comes around, his much smaller wife beneath him, and curls a fist, landing two shots to her face, both hidden from viewers but terrifying nonetheless. He then grabs her arms and drags her past their very young boys to the bedroom as she screams with fear. She is tossed against the bed where he finally gets hold of his rage. With Tina wailing at his feet, he calms himself and summarize that she will leave him, telling her, “Go on, then.”
Why it matters: The Ike character portrayed on film, no matter how close or far removed from reality, is a terrifying man. There is no time when he is on screen when we don’t feel something unbalanced, unsafe, and uncomfortable. Fishburne is utterly lost in the role and it’s memorizing to watch. In this particular scene, there is the illusion of peace as Tina is surrounded by her friends by their pool and Ike is working in the house. Fishburne is like a coiled spring throughout, his taut frame and seemingly quivering with every slightest movement. He is the villain, there is no doubt, and Fishburne understands that well. We must not just hate the man, we must loathe him. When he asks her to repeat herself, there is a fraction of a second where we believe it’s going to be okay. That is convened by Tina’s hopeful expression. Ike reads that face and unlike any normal man, can’t see the tenderness. For Ike, it’s contempt. She mocks him and his efforts. He cannot, will not, tolerate this unforgivable sin. Her struggle to be out of reach is aching, and his strikes upon her face are sickening. This moment is the final straw for the viewer. While his actions have, to this point, yet to merit any sympathy, whatever charitable inclination anyone watching harbors is now lost forever. What’s important for him is his recognition of this as well. From here on, no matter the physical and verbal strength he possesses, he somehow becomes weaker in our eyes. Forever.
“You’ve never used them before.”
Film Summary: A computer programmer learns that humanity is not what it seems and life exists only in our minds as A.I. controlled computers have taken over and are using people as a source for energy.
Scene Setup: Neo (Keanu Reeves), still in The Matrix and believing what he sees is reality, has met a man named Morpheus (Fishburne). For a long time, Neo has wondered about such a man, having encountered his name and hints of a thing called The Matrix online for years. He is invited to learn about it and consequently, the truth about the real world he lives in. What he discovers is terrifying. Humans are kept as slaves for a race of machines we created and everything we live in is a simulation meant to bring peak production of energy from our bodies to power the new rulers of the planet. Neo is given a choice to either go back to what he once knew or unplug and join the fight. He takes the red pill and immediately “wakes up” in a tub of pink goo and sees that Morpheus was right. Rescued by Morpheus and his crew, they bring the pale, hairless Neo aboard their levitating ship.
The Scene: Lying on a medical table, the weakened Neo is pierced by hundreds of electrodes, stimulating his atrophied muscles. He’s been in stasis his entire life from birth to adulthood even though the memories of his life in The Matrix remain. Above him, Morpheus stands in the dimly lit room, looking over the man he is confident will lead humanity to freedom, a prophecy he is devoutly attached to. Neo ask hims if he is dead. “Far from it,” he replies. And then Neo asks why his eyes hurt. The answer is disquieting. “You’ve never used them before.”
Why it Matters: Wrapping one’s head around the complexities of what is real and what is not in The Matrix is one of its great pleasures, but none of it really hits with the greatest impact until Neo is on the table and Morpheus tells it like it is. Until this time, we’ve seen Neo, or at least the projection of him, in The Matrix running around seemingly very fine and fit. In fact, it’s rather jarring to see him emerge from the stasis chamber so feeble and weak. Still, our memories are rich from his life in The Matrix and even though Morpheus is detailing it as much as he can, we are exactly like Neo in thinking this alternative can’t be true. But that begins to change when Morpheus quietly informs Neo that he’s never used his eyes before. How could this be? Our minds race to make sense of it, even though we do understand what’s happening, it fights with the logic of what think we know, therefore adding that much weight to the idea of a working simulation overtaking our brains in the first place. Fishburne’s delivery is searing, his compassion obvious but the hint of irony heavy. He understands the difficulty Neo his facing, and also knows that he must face the cold harsh truth. This better informs him of the real world and the corruption of The Matrix. Fishburne is ideally cast as Morpheus, the human embodiment of the god of dreams, and while he shines throughout the series, it is this small, quiet moment in a trilogy over flowing with action that remains the most memorable. It is the kick to the gut we need in accepting what The Matrix truly is.
Thanks for reading. What are your favorite Laurence Fishburne moments?