I've been on an extended binge of Paul Winfield's films the last year or so, up to more than 25 now, and continue to be amazed at the wit, tenderness, and unassuming power he was able to bring to an incredible diversity of roles, in even the schlock he was so often saddled with.
His lone Oscar nomination came in '72 for his subtle performance in Martin Ritt's Sounder, right after which he put on his mean face for two of the era's best blaxploitation films, two of the comparative few directed by actual African-Americans: Ivan Dixon's Trouble Man and Gordon's War (pictured above) by the pioneering Ossie Davis. The latter was also perhaps the first entry in the 'Nam-vet-vengeance cycle, Winfield's Gordon coming home to lay waste to the dealers who have destroyed his neighbourhood and fed his wife her fatal overdose. It's an exciting and propulsive effort with enough novelty in its action to satisfy the most jaded genre fan, while also of a piece (with some concessions) with Davis's radical politics. Winfield would go on to play vets of the war in two more very different films, the affecting telemovie Green Eyes and the genuinely subversive, almost completely unseen High Velocity, both of which criticize American imperialism overseas in then-uncommonly explicit terms.
Depressingly but unsurprisingly, there is no formal biography of this gifted and fascinating man who consistently lent his talents to commercially risky projects by Black filmmakers and about/based on the work of important African-American figures. Perhaps the most fascinating fact of all: Winfield was in a long-term relationship with the equally gifted Cicely Tyson, who played his wife in Sounder (also receiving an Oscar nom) and while they broke up in the early '70s as Winfield was coming to accept his homosexuality, they remained close and played husband and wife twice more, in King (as MLK and Coretta Scott King) and A Hero Ain't Nothin' But a Sandwich as the mother and prospective stepfather of a young heroin addict played by Larry B. Scott, a trio of performances whose collective power stacks up against almost any other film of the decade.
White Dog (1982): Winfield is an ideal grounding force for Fuller's compellingly hysterical allegory of racism.
Mike's Murder (1984): re-cut to its obvious detriment after test audiences responded poorly to its unconventional structure and salacious content, this coked-up neo-noir still packs a hell of a punch thanks to its performances (I don't think Debra Winger's ever gotten to do anything quite like this again) and the qualities highlighted by jodamico:
Go Tell It on the Mountain (1985, TV): stagey but powerful adaptation of James Baldwin's great novel; Winfield leads a truly great cast as a Pentecostal preacher modeled after Baldwin's own stepfather.Underrated, slow-burn crime film. Beautiful washed-out cinematography and a crushed spirit. Antonioni-esque.
Presumed Innocent (1990): a paranoid Pakula courtroom thriller marked by inventive and spirited performances that transcend the stock nature of the characters, or at least make a good show of convincing you they are while you're watching. Winfield's Irascible Judge and Raul Julia's Guileful Attorney are the highlights.
Tyson (1995, TV): His note-perfect Don King here is the kind of performance that makes me giddy just thinking about it. And made possible one of the best-ever Simpsons guest performances. "Fustigation aside, Moe..."
Original Gangstas (1996): A blaxploitation homage with an impressive number of genre icons onscreen together for the first time. While the screenplay leaves much to be desired on a plot level, there is an interesting subtext of intergenerational tension in Black cinema and culture that calls for close reading. Some interesting reminiscences from Larry Cohen on the sociological impact of the production and how personal it was to Fred Williamson: