As James Earl Jones turns 90 on January 17, celebrate his life with a trip back through his cinematic history. Jones has created amazing and memorable work with his movie performances, voice acting and even a stage performance produced here in Chicago. Here are my top five movie recommendations for you.
A romance set in Brooklyn, Claudine manages to be charming and lighthearted while dealing with heavy topics such as systemic inequality and characters grappling with a broken unemployment system. Jones and co-star Diahann Carroll were nominated for best actor and best actress Academy Awards. Check out the Criterion Collection’s 4K restoration that came out in 2020.
Jones is no doubt recognized for the commanding and intimidating bass of his voice. His on-screen performance as the villain Thulsa Doom matches that vocal power in Conan the Barbarian as he commands a cult of snake-worshipping followers.
Coming to America is a classic, and with the sequel coming out in March, now is a good time for a rewatch. Jones plays King Jaffe, ruler of Zamunda and overbearing father to Eddie Murphy’s curious and ever-optimistic Prince Akeem. The dialogue is hilarious, the movie has an amazing dance sequence and it costars Arsenio Hall. What’s not to love?
In Cry, the Beloved Country, Jones plays a South African minister summoned to Johannesburg after his son is imprisoned in connection with a robbery turned murder. A Black country priest and a white wealthy land owner must come to terms with the fate of their sons, their relationship with apartheid and their own sense of justice.
Field of Dreams is about much more than baseball. It’s about family legacy, healing the trauma of the past and finding hope in the mysteries of the world. Jones' character is a reclusive author with his own troubled past, looking for meaning and guidance in the presence of the ghostly baseball players that appear on the cornfield ballpark.
It's so hard to stop at five, so of course Jones’ work as the voice of Darth Vader in the original Star Wars trilogy is not to be overlooked. If for some reason you haven't seen The Lion King, Jones' voice as Mufasa is the essence of a powerful but caring authority figure. Matewan is another Criterion Collection film focused on a group of West Virginia miners looking to form a labor union. The Bingo Long Traveling All-stars & Motor Kings is a wacky 1970s baseball comedy with an all-star cast including Billy Dee Williams and Richard Pryor.
What's your favorite James Earl Jones movie? How much would you pay for him to record your voicemail message? Let me know in the comments.