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Stacker presents 50 Black actors whose performances broke barriers and made entertainment history.
Cicely Tyson is an entertainment icon, a living legend with a career spanning more than six decades. The first Black person to star in a prime-time drama in the ’60s, Tyson has made history numerous times with her acting performances and her ability to break records and pave the way for Black women in entertainment. In 2018, she became the first Black actress to receive an honorary Academy Award, and was inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame in 2020.
Hattie McDaniel showed true strength and hope as a Black woman in Hollywood in the 1940s. Because of her color, McDaniel was forced to sit in the backroom inside the Academy Awards’ segregated venue when she became the first Black person to win an Oscar for the film “Gone With the Wind.” She was not allowed to attend the film’s premiere, and was often criticized for her portrayal of the racist stereotype, the Mammy. Still, she paved the way for Black representation in the film industry.
Angela Bassett is another notable name in Black Hollywood, well known for her role portraying Tina Turner in the emotional classic “What’s Love Got to Do With It.” Since then, she’s appeared and starred in countless films representing Black culture, such as “Waiting to Exhale” and “Black Panther.” Bassett has also portrayed some of the most iconic women in history, including Rosa Parks, Katherine Jackson, Coretta Scott King, and Betty Shabazz.
Spike Lee has made his fair share of marks in the film industry as a writer, director, producer, and actor. He made his directorial debut with “She’s Gotta Have It” in 1986, but in 1989, “Do the Right Thing” placed Lee on the map as a notable filmmaker and actor internationally. Since then, he’s gone on to make numerous films that tell the story of Black livelihood in America, including “Malcolm X,” “4 Little Girls,” and “BlacKkKlansman,” which won an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay in 2019. His recent “Da 5 Bloods” was not released in theaters due to the coronavirus, but is streaming on Netflix.
One of the most prominent names to have paved the way for all Black actors in Hollywood, Sidney Poitier has been continually honored for his endeavors throughout his career as an actor, director, and author. Known as the Godfather to Black Hollywood, Poitier broke color barriers in the United States and became the first Black actor to win an Academy Award for best actor in “Lilies of the Field” in 1964. You may also like: 30 musicians with legendarily long careers
Chadwick Boseman did a lot for Black history with his dynamic portrayals of African American figures throughout his tragically short acting career. He has portrayed historical figures such as Jackie Robinson in “42,” James Brown in “Get Up,” and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall in “Marshall.” Boseman became a household name when he starred as the Black Panther as a part of the Marvel Universe, in the film “Black Panther,” which became the ninth-highest-grossing film of all time at $1.3 billion. In August 2020, on the day Major League Baseball was celebrating Jackie Robinson Day, Boseman died of cancer at 43.
The second Black man to win a best actor Academy Award, for his performance in “Training Day” in 2001, Denzel Washington has made his mark in entertainment history and broke barriers with his powerful performances. He has been described as an actor who reconfigured “the concept of classic movie stardom” by film historian Donald Bogle. Some of his most notable films include “Glory,” “Remember the Titans,” “Philadelphia,” “Malcolm X,” “He Got Game,” and “Fences,” which he directed.
Ethel Waters began her career in the 1920s, singing the blues in the midst of the Great Migration. She became the first Black woman to integrate into Broadway and was well known to play by her own rules. Waters was the first Black person to star in her own television series, “The Ethel Waters Show” on NBC in 1939, and the first to be nominated for a Primetime Emmy in 1962 for her appearance on “Route 66.” Three of the songs she recorded in her singing career—”Dinah,” “Stormy Weather,” and “Am I Blue?”—are in the Grammy Hall of Fame.
Before she was an opinionated moderator on “The View,” Whoopi Goldberg established herself as an all-around award winner, joining the small group of "EGOT" winners, or people who have won an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony award. Goldberg won a best actress Golden Globe in 1985 for “The Color Purple,” a Grammy Award for best comedy album in 1986, a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for “Ghost” in 1990, and a Tony Award for her work as producer of the 2002 production of “Thoroughly Modern Millie” on Broadway. She has been nominated for numerous other Daytime and Primetime Emmys and is also an accomplished author.
In 2002, Halle Berry became the first Black woman to win an Oscar for Best Actress, for her work in "Monster's Ball." To this day, Berry remains the first and only Black actress to take home an Oscar in the leading category. The leading lady of “Catwoman” recently claimed the win is one of her biggest heartbreaks, as no other Black woman has ever won this honor. You may also like: Lyrics to 50 famously misunderstood songs, explained
Early in his career, Eddie Murphy won national attention as a member of television’s “Saturday Night Live” cast. In addition to his majorly successful stand-up comedic career, he made cult classics such as “Coming to America” and “Beverly Hills Cop,” which was the highest-grossing film released in 1984. The famous comedian has had a thriving acting career starring in such films as “The Nutty Professor,” “Dr. Dolittle,” the voice of Donkey in “Shrek,” and “Dreamgirls.”
With a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, a Tony Award, and three Emmys, Debbie Allen is one of the most influential names in the entertainment industry. Well known for her dance choreography and director roles, Allen is also a talented actress starring in television shows “In the House” and “Grey’s Anatomy.” In 2001, she opened her dance studio, the Debbie Allen Dance Academy, in Los Angeles.
Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, a third-generation wrestler and headliner of “Wrestlemania XXVIII,” the most successful pay-per-view event ever for the WWE, shifted to acting in 2004 and became one of the highest-grossing actors of all time, earning more than $10 billion worldwide. Johnson slowly integrated himself into the film industry as a career switch and became one of the most recognizable faces to hit the big screen in films such as “The Game Plan,” and the “Fast and Furious” and “Jumanji” franchises.
Born in London, Daniel Kaluuya has had a breakout couple of years on the big screen. In 2017, Kaluuya starred in “Get Out,” a film critically praised worldwide. He earned a nomination for an Academy Award, Golden Globe Award, Screen Actors Guild Award, and a British Academy of Film and Television Arts Award for best actor. He also appears in “Black Panther,” "Widows," and "Queen & Slim."
Gail Fisher got her start and climbed her way up the entertainment headlines as Peggy Fair on “Mannix,” a television show in the ’70s. Fisher won two Golden Globe Awards and an Emmy Award, and this made her the first Black actress to win either award in the supporting category. She was also the first Black actress to appear on a television commercial with a speaking role. You may also like: '1984' and 19 other dystopian novels that predicted the future
Tyler Perry has a true and inspiring rags-to-riches story that put him in the billionaire status. In the 1990s, Perry birthed Madea, which has become one of his most well-known and fan-favorite characters to date for her sassy attitude and her representation of the protective, Black grandmother figure—really Perry in drag apparel. After producing stage plays with the character, he went on to produce and star in many feature-length films and television shows. He created an entertainment studio that various production companies use in Atlanta.
Mother to actor and musician Lenny Kravitz, Roxie Roker became a household name as Helen Willis on the popular sitcom “The Jeffersons,” where she made television history by becoming one half of the first interracial couples to appear on prime-time television. After this, she went on to act in other projects and garnered a Tony Award nomination.
Laverne Cox made television history in 2014 when she became the first openly transgender person to be nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award in any acting category for her role on Netflix’s “Orange is the New Black.” An activist and outspoken advocate for transgender rights, especially in the entertainment industry, Cox was the first transgender person to be featured on the cover of Time magazine.
The first Black woman to own her own production company (Harpo Productions), to be nominated for an Oscar for her first movie, and to be television’s highest-paid entertainer, Oprah Winfrey is a hugely influential household name. Once a local journalist, she transformed herself into one of the biggest talk show hosts of her time, reaching 15 million people a day. She's also acted in several films, most notably as Sofia in “The Color Purple.”
Lena Horne was a singer, actress, civil rights activist, and one of the top Black performers of her time. She often refused roles that portrayed racial stereotypes to better Black representation in Hollywood. Horne appeared on Broadway in more than 300 performances of her show “Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music,” among her many accomplishments during a 70-year career.
Say the name “Olivia Pope” out loud almost anywhere, and people will recognize the pop culture phenomenon. Kerry Washington portrayed the character in the hit prime-time show “Scandal,” and became the first Black woman to headline a network TV drama since 1974. She is the eighth highest-paid television actress with a number of major roles under her belt in films such as “Ray,” “Django Unchained,” and “American Son.”
Chiwetel Ejiofor has received numerous awards for his works in acting, and many people know him as the lead character, Solomon Northup, in “12 Years a Slave.” His breakthrough came when Ejiofor, who was 19 at the time, caught the attention of Steven Spielberg, who added him to the cast of “Amistad.”
Will Smith started as rapper The Fresh Prince in 1985, starred in his own television show “The Fresh Prince of Bel-air,” and has appeared in blockbuster films for the past 25 years. “The most bankable star worldwide,” according to Forbes, Smith is the only actor to have eight consecutive films gross over $100 million at the box office. He received Oscar nominations for best actor for his role as Muhammad Ali in “Ali” in 2001, and as a stockbroker in “The Pursuit of Happyness” in 2006. He also has shown relevance to today’s culture as a contributor to YouTube and TikTok.
Pearl Bailey was an extraordinary Black entertainer who learned to sing in church and left high school to hone her entertainment skills in small-town theaters with the big bands. She recorded albums with Count Basie and appeared in nightclubs with Cab Calloway and his band. In 1946, she debuted in a Broadway musical, and in 1947, her first film. In 1967, Bailey was back on Broadway for her Tony Award-winning portrayal of Dolly Levi in an all-Black production of “Hello, Dolly!” In 1971, she hosted “The Pearl Bailey Show” on television.
Lena Waithe is a woman of many talents. As a writer, she created the dramas “The Chi,” “Boomerang,” and “Twenties” for Showtime. She appears in Netflix’s “Master of None,” and became the first Black woman to win an Emmy Award for outstanding writing for a comedy series for its episode “Thanksgiving.” Waithe has showcased her writing, acting, and production talents for some of television’s most popular shows and is an advocate for LGBTQ+ rights. You may also like: Can you answer these real 'Jeopardy!' questions about TV shows?
The star of “The Arsenio Hall Show” starting in 1989, Hall became the first Black late-night talk show host. After its cancellation in 1994, the show picked back up briefly in 2013, giving viewers a nostalgic memory of its impact. Hall used the show’s popularity to discuss issues surrounding the times, such as HIV/AIDS prejudices.
Widely popular for his hit ’90s series “Martin,” Martin Lawrence began his career appearing in films like “Boomerang” and “House Party” before he starred in many beloved movies like “Bad Boys” and “Big Momma’s House.” Lawrence, also a successful stand-up comedian, garnered enormous success and continues to break box office numbers with his films.
In 1968, Diahann Carroll made television history as the first Black actress to star in the prime-time TV series “Julia,” portraying a Black woman in a non-stereotypical way—not the usual domestic worker. Popular shows like “Dynasty,” “The Hollywood Palace,” and “The Love Boat” all made Carroll a household name throughout the ’70s. In 1974, she received an Oscar best actress nomination for her work in “Claudine,” a film she appeared in with James Earl Jones.
A civil rights activist and broadway star, Ossie Davis is well known for his Broadway performances and outspoken politics for the Black community. Davis hit his break playing a role in Broadway’s “A Raisin in the Sun” and was inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame in 1994. He is also well known for raising money in the ’60s for the Freedom Riders’ cause.
Born and raised on the South Side of Chicago, Bernie Mac rose to fame as a stand-up comedian and became one of his generation’s most well-known actors. He joined his fellow comedians in the comedy film “The Original Kings of Comedy,” starring himself, Steve Harvey, Cedric the Entertainer, and D. L. Hughley. He was the star of his own show, “The Bernie Mac Show,” which gained him two Emmy nominations. You may also like: Best miniseries available to stream
The ’90s was a pivotal period in Wesley Snipes’s career. With films like “New Jack City,” “White Men Can’t Jump,” and “Passenger 57” under his belt, he was one of the most discussed upcoming artists during this time. He has since run into trouble with the law involving taxes, but the legacy he created for Black actors and filmmakers still has impact today.
Richard Pryor is credited for bringing a new storytelling style of comedy to the stage and is a major influence on comedians today. Pryor won an Emmy Award in 1973 and five Grammy Awards in the following years for his performance on stage and in his concert movies. In the 1980 film “Stir Crazy,” directed by Syndey Poitier, Pryor stars as one-half of a comedic duo with Gene Wilder, who worked with Pryor on many projects, including "Blazing Saddles."
In 2017, Viola Davis became the first Black actress ever to win Oscar, Emmy, and Tony awards for her roles in the drama category. Her supporting role in “Doubt” alongside Meryl Streep proved she was a talent that could stand with some of the greatest names in Hollywood. For this, she received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress.
After rising to fame in the ’80s as a member of the rap group N.W.A, Ice Cube was introduced to film after being cast for “Boyz n the Hood,” a film famously quoted and praised for its visual representation of Black livelihood in, but not limited to, South Central Los Angeles. He went on to appear in other films, including “Friday,” which he co-wrote, “The Player’s Club,” which he directed, and was the executive producer of “Straight Outta Compton.”
John Witherspoon had a 40-year career in movies and television, and he’s most remembered for his role in “Friday,” as the character played by Ice Cube’s father. He’s had many roles in movies such as “Boomerang,” and television series such as “The Wayans Bros.,” and “The Boondocks.” During these now-famous roles, Witherspoon became a notable figure to the Black community and an elderly fatherlike role model. You may also like: Best Bob Dylan albums of all time
Dorothy Dandridge was the first Black person to be nominated for an Academy Award for best actress in “Carmen Jones” in 1954, and a Golden Globe in 1959 for best actress in “Porgy and Bess.” As a young Black singer and actress in the ’30s, she often felt the impact of prejudices toward her skin color and faced segregation and racism. She was allowed to sing on stage, but not permitted to eat or socialize in the clubs where she performed.
Dave Chappelle is critically praised for his significant impact on Black culture and comedy. He made a mark in the entertainment industry, starring as himself in his own show, “Chappelle’s Show” in the early 2000s. He has also had his fair share in feature films such as “The Nutty Professor” and “Undercover Brother.” Today, he is still performing stand-up specials.
Lupita Nyong’o’s skills caught the eyes of director Steve McQueen, who cast her in the film “12 Years a Slave” just weeks before she graduated from Yale School of Drama. For her performance in this role, she won an Academy Award for best supporting actress in 2014. Since then, she’s made her mark in both the “Star Wars” franchise and the Marvel Cinematic Universe in “Black Panther."
Before becoming the funny man on the big screen, Kevin Hart began his career as a stand-up comedian, often performing small shows. After placing his shows on film, Hart soon made his way into Hollywood. In 2015 he became the first comedian to headline and sell out an NFL football stadium for a stand-up comedy show, making history. Since then, he has become popular on big and small screens with movies, hosting gigs, and other projects.
Harry Belafonte was the first Black person in entertainment history to win an Emmy Award in 1960. Six years earlier, the actor, singer, and activist also became the first Black man to win a Tony Award. Belafonte also made a breakthrough in music outside of his acting career, introducing Trinidadian Caribbean music to a more mainstream audience. You may also like: Most Emmy wins of all time
Phylicia Rashad first gained notoriety for playing Clair Huxtable on “The Cosby Show,” which garnered her two Emmy nominations. Later on in her career, she became the first Black woman to win a best actress Tony Award for her performance in the play “A Raisin in the Sun.” She broke barriers portraying a Black woman on prime-time television who was a lawyer and financially content.
A man of many talents, Donald Glover, a.k.a Childish Gambino, is not only an actor, but a musical artist who won a Grammys in the categories for record of the year, song of the year, best rap/sung performance, and best music video for his hip-hop song “This Is America.” The singer, actor, comedian, and writer is mostly known in Hollywood for his character in the show “Atlanta,” which he also created.
Anika Noni Rose is known for voicing Princess Tiana, Disney’s first Black animated princess in “The Princess and the Frog,” which came out in 2009, the same year Barack Obama, the country’s first Black president, was inaugurated. It was coincidental, but timely. Her film career includes the role of Lorrell Robinson in “Dreamgirls,” she won a Tony Award for best featured actress in a musical for “Caroline, or Change,” and was nominated for a Tony Award for her appearance in a revival of “A Raisin in the Sun.”
John Legend is widely known for his vocal and piano skills in his musical career, but what many don’t know is he was the first Black man and second Black person to reach EGOT status—winner of Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony awards. Movies like “Glory” and theatrical productions like “Jitney,” aside from his music, made him a name to be reckoned with in the entertainment industry.
This actress has put her audience in awe of her performances on Broadway, but furthermore, she has won six Tony Awards, which is more than any other actor, and is the only person to win in all four acting categories. McDonald also has extensive television experience, as well as film appearances. In 2016, McDonald was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Barack Obama for her achievements. You may also like: Controversial figures who still found success
A popular actress in the ’70s, Gloria Hendry gained popularity being one of the first Black Bond girls after showcasing her on-screen romance to James Bond in “Live and Let Die.” When the film debuted in South Africa, many of her love scenes were cut from the film due to the Apartheid government.
Keke Palmer has been gracing the big and small screens since she was 11. Now 27, she made history as the first Black woman to host the Video Music Awards. During her run on Nickelodeon’s “True Jackson, VP,” she was the fourth highest-paid child star on television, and she was the first Black woman to play Cinderella on Broadway.
Vanessa Williams was credited early in her career as the first Black woman to be crowned Miss America in 1984. Following revelation of questionable events, however, Williams was stripped of her crown. Nonetheless, Williams went on to have a thriving acting career and received multiple Grammy and Emmy nominations for her work.
Quvenzhané Wallis is best known for her 2014 adaptation of the titular character in “Annie.” She was the first Black actor to portray the character in a feature-length film. She is also the youngest actress ever to be nominated for a best actress Oscar. She has since published four children’s books.
The year 2017 was a groundbreaking year for Jordan Peele as the director of the critically praised film “Get Out.” He became the first Black screenwriter to win the Academy Award for best original screenplay in 2018. Not only this, but Peele’s film will go down in history as one of the greatest thrillers to star a Black character and center around a Black theme.
The 72nd Emmy Awards was the first-ever to be held virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But what made the night even more historic was Zendaya's win for her role as Rue on HBO's "Euphoria"—she became the youngest person to win best lead actress in a drama. At 24 years old, Zendaya won against Sandra Oh, Jennifer Aniston, Olivia Colman, and Laura Linney.
Whether it’s a Hollywood film, prime-time television, Broadway, or any other medium, Black entertainers have had to work to break barriers.
While Black people make up 12.5% of Hollywood roles — a percentage close to a proportionate representation in the U.S. — many Black characters reinforce stereotypes with an overrepresentation of domestic work and mimicked Black culture. The roles generally reflect ideas of white writers instead of lived experiences.
Historically, some Black roles were played by white actors in blackface. According to Richard Dyer’s "White: Essays on Race and Culture," these images have ingrained problematic representations of who Black people are and what Black culture represents with stereotypes, racism, and oppression. Even as Black actors began to break barriers in the white space of film and television, many continued to face discrimination and segregation issues as second-class citizens despite all of their success.
Still, Black actors have persevered. Early successes opened doors for future projects and creators to depict the Black experience more authentically. Stacker compiled a list of 50 Black actors who paved the way for future generations to continue the legacy. This list of actors who made entertainment history is compiled through news articles and profiles and represents actors of all genders and various countries of origin. Each actor has achieved a different milestone in different genres, waves, and decades of film and TV.