The underrated brilliance of Cynthia Erivo as Darlene Sweet in ‘Bad Times at the El Royale’
Darlene does not make decisions out of fear.
Editor’s Note: April is Black Women’s History Month. Throughout this month, Black Youth Project is celebrating Black women. This month is also National Minority Health Month, Autism Awareness Month, Sexual Assault Awareness Month, Child Abuse Prevention Month. We are interested in publishing works that address these topics and the things surrounding them.
This essay contains spoilers for Bad Times at the El Royale
A once-bustling novelty Lake Tahoe hotel, with the appeal of having one side in California and the other side in Nevada, becomes the setting of a slow-burning and multi-layered mystery when seven strangers unexpectedly cross paths and each bring with them their own secret agenda, some more sinister than others. In just one night, these seven worlds collide and then unfurl in a deranged, voyeuristic tale bleeding with tension and anxiety. Bad Times at the El Royale is a dark and suspenseful, often perverse, neo-noir thriller with one particularly bright spot, who also happens to be the only Black character in a sea of whiteness, soul singer Darlene Sweet.
Darlene is portrayed expertly by Cynthia Erivo, who starred in The Color Purple on Broadway and Steve McQueen’s Widows (2018). With a Daytime Emmy, Grammy, and Tony, she’s more than halfway through an EGOT, and her role as the titular Harriet in the Harriet Tubman biopic due sometime this year (just the type of thing the Academy loves) could potentially give her a shot at the Oscar. During Black Women’s History Month, I felt it was an opportune moment to sing her praises for her work on a film that has unfortunately gone under-appreciated since its release in October 2018, partly due to criticisms of it being too long, too slow, and too ambitious. Regardless of the film’s overall quality, both Cynthia Erivo’s performance and Darlene Sweet’s grit stand out, and they don’t deserve to be drowned out by the rest of it.
Bad Times writer and director Drew Goddard describes the film as “a love letter to music.” As an integral character in the larger ensemble—padded out with Jeff Bridges, Jon Hamm, Dakota Johnson, and Chris Hemsworth, to name a few—and as the voice providing the soundtrack to this unhinged story, Erivo’s work was imperative and arguably the most significant contribution to the project. Her skill has been heralded by Goddard, as well as the Producer, Music Producer, and co-star Jeff Bridges, as being remarkable and steadfast.
“One of the things I really loved about doing this was that I had the chance to sing in real time, so every time you see me sing in a room, wherever, it’s happening in that room and I’m singing for real. There’s no pre-records,” Erivo says in an exclusive featurette. Her vocal mastery is just as important as her acting talent, as there are moments in the story when the Darlene’s singing seems to hypnotize those who are blessed to hear it.
Darlene is neither a martyr nor a magical negro. Neither a mammy nor a jezebel, nor is she a token or a helpless damsel. She is smart and cautious and ready to fight, but only if she has to. And this is a refreshing sight compared to how we normally see Black women written and conceived of in films set during this time period, the 1960s, especially as the sole Black character.
A modest singer traveling to perform a solo show in Reno, Darlene is sincere, timid, and soft-spoken. But as the danger of the story begins to unfold, so does her character. While the others at the hotel are revealed to be imposters, criminals, abductors, and murderers, both guilt-ridden and without remorse, Darlene’s secret is nothing so scandalous. She just wants to make it as a singer and her residency on the Reno stage is her means to leave behind a life where her talents were overlooked, her spotlight dimmed by a white man who propositioned her to trade sexual favors in exchange for help with her career. But the modest Darlene later ends up breaking a bottle over a white man’s head and threatening to shoot him in the face, but only because he damn sure deserves it.
Set in 1969, the film does not try to revise the gendered and racialized realities that a Black woman in Darlene’s position would face during that time. The most egregious of these moments, aside from the predatory music producer hovering behind her during his proposition, comes when Darlene finds herself in a predicament alongside Father Flynn (Bridges). She wants to take her chances and run after witnessing a murder at the El Royale, but he reminds her of what might happen if she does, especially if she is armed. “People are gonna come looking,” he says, and emphasizes that he wouldn’t want to be “the Black woman in the woods at night with a gun when they do.”
But regardless of the dangers or the agendas of those surrounding her, Darlene does not make decisions out of fear. She always stands firm in her own intentions, to make a better life for herself and to be true to who she is. In the moment of highest tension, as the film edges towards its climax, she refuses to stroke the ego of a narcissistic megalomaniac and even calls him out on his bullshit and misogyny with the kind of raw honesty and steely resolve no one has ever dared to give him.
“I’m just tired. I’m just bored. Of men like you. You think I don’t see you for who you really are? A fragile little man. Preying on the weak and lost,” she says to the man calmly as he sits, bowled over by her nerve.
By the end, Darlene reveals herself to be defiant and formidable—“You spend your whole life getting shook, you learn how to spot a shaker,” she once tells Father Flynn—but she keeps her tenderness, too, and she gives it where it’s due: only to those who are deserving in her eyes.
It’s fair to say we’ve had our fill of white savior narratives and stories that use interracial “friendships” as propaganda for the myth of post-racialism (and Taraji P. Henson seems to be the most consistent offender of late, see: Hidden Figures, The Best of Enemies, and the upcoming Coffee & Kareem that nobody asked for). Darlene, and her interactions with the white people around her, is a welcomed change of pace.
Darlene is Bad Times at the El Royale’s most compelling character, even though her story seems to be the most simple, straightforward, and faultless of the entire ensemble. It’s unfortunate that this film went so overlooked, and Erivo’s performance in it by extension. I know that the film’s resonance with me is because of Cynthia Erivo’s portrayal of Darlene Sweet, and my small tribute here doesn’t feel like nearly enough compared to the amount of recognition I believe she deserves. Still, I am always glad to express my appreciation for a Black woman’s stunning work, especially when others have denied her the praise she is due.