Mandatory Staff Picks: Celebrating the Best Black Actors in Movie History
In the early 20th century, black actors were rarely given film roles (at least in comparison to white actors). Over the last few decades, black actors have not only been given lead roles but have won Academy Awards and changed the entertainment industry for the better; thespians like Denzel Washington and Forest Whitaker have played historically important (and world-changing) black men and have brought to life characters and stories we wouldn’t have been able to experience on screen otherwise. Their portrayals have informed and inspired us to be better not only at our craft but as human beings. This list does not compile the immeasurable contributions of all the black actors in Hollywood. However, it does celebrate some of the very best actors of their generation.
Photo: Warner Bros
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Chiwetel Ejiofor has been acting since the mid-'90s. Your earliest mainstream memory of him might be as Peter from Love Actually (you know, Keira Knightley’s husband, not Rick Grimes), but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. His filmography is immense. He’s been in Four Brothers (2005), Serenity (2005), Inside Man (2006), Children of Men (2006), American Gangster (2007), 12 Years a Slave (2013), The Martian (2015), and Doctor Strange (2016). As one of the hardest working thespians in Hollywood, Ejiofor has only one Oscar nomination under his belt as Solomon Northup in 12 Years a Slave (a mic-drop worthy performance nonetheless).
When one wants to start a conversation about cinema, all they have to say is Denzel. Mr. Washington is both one of the greatest actors of his generation and of all time. He can pull off playing historical figures like Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, Steve Biko, and Malcolm X (arguably his greatest performance, for which he did not win the Oscar…) as well as heroes and villains. His filmography includes classics like Glory (1989), Philadelphia (1993), Remember the Titans (2000), Training Day (2001), American Gangster (2007), and so, so many more. King Kong truly has no shit on him.
Morgan Freeman is probably the only actor on Earth who can play God in a Jim Carrey movie and become a staple in the almighty conversation. He’s also played the president and Nelson Mandela. Fun fact: 97.8 percent of people dream of having their lives narrated by this man. His filmography also includes Driving Miss Daisy (1989), Unforgiven (1992), The Shawshank Redemption (1994), Se7en (1995), Million Dollar Baby (2004), and The Dark Knight trilogy.
Forest Whitaker might be one of the most underrated actors in Hollywood. Those who know, know. His Oscar-winning portrayal of African dictator Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland really says it all. He’s also been in Platoon (1986), Bird (1988), Good Morning, Vietnam (1987), The Crying Game (1992), Phone Booth (2002), Lee Daniels’ The Butler (2013), Where The Wild Things Are (2009), and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2019).
We all know Will Smith’s story. He got his start as a rapper aside DJ Jazzy Jeff; then came The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air television show. His charisma naturally opened the door to many opportunities on the big screen, from big-budget action movies to dramas and Oscar nominations. He’s the biggest movie star in the world because he’s one of the most talented people in the world and easily one of the most likable. His filmography includes Bad Boys (1995), Independence Day (1996), Men in Black (1997), Ali (2001), I Am Legend (2007), and Concussion (2015).
Now we know him as James Rhodes (aka War Machine in the Marvel Cinematic Universe), but there’s so much more to Don Cheadle than that. Cheadle made a name for himself in the '90s with films like Devil in a Blue Dress (1995), Rosewood (1997), Boogie Nights (1997), and Out of Sight (1998). Then there was Traffic (2000) and the Ocean’s trilogy. In 2004, he was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for his role in the riveting and essential film Hotel Rwanda. He’s also received nominations for his roles in the Showtime comedy series House of Lies (winning a Golden Globe in 2013) and Black Monday.
Samuel L. Jackson
Samuel L. Jackson has been in everything. He’s been in so many movies that when he’s at home channel-surfing (if he even still does that), there’s no way he doesn't come across one of his movies. Every time. And you know what? He watches them. Why wouldn’t he? Jackson has been in everything from Quentin Tarantino films and Spike Lee joints to Star Wars and Marvel movies. They started drawing Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury in the comics before he even took on the role. It’s a travesty he’s never won an Oscar. Then again, he doesn’t need one. His filmography includes Jurassic Park (1993), Pulp Fiction (1994), Die Hard With a Vengeance (1995), Deep Blue Sea (1999), The Negotiator (1998), and Unbreakable (2000). We'd keep going but we'd be here all day.
Many people consider Sidney Poitier to be the first real African-American actor (he was the first to win an Oscar for Lilies of the Field in 1963). He used his brilliance, talent, and foresight to provide a unique and necessary representation of black culture in Hollywood. His filmography includes No Way Out (1950), Edge of the City (1957), The Defiant Ones (1958), A Raisin in the Sun (1961), Paris Blues (1961), In the Heat of the Night (1967), Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967), To Sir, with Love (1967), and Buck and the Preacher (1972). He’s an absolute legend. If you haven’t seen those films, check them out.
Jamie Foxx was nominated for both Best Supporting Actor (Collateral) and Best Actor (Ray) at the 2005 Oscars. He won that year for his eerie portrayal of Ray Charles. Before those wins, he started out in the biz on the sketch comedy show In Living Color—he’s truly a jack of all trades (being a successful recording artist as well). His epic filmography also includes Dream Girls (2006), Django Unchained (2012), Just Mercy (2019), and Baby Driver (2017).
James Earl Jones
Everyone knows James Earl Jones’ voice a la Star Wars’ Darth Vader and The Lion King’s Mufasa. However, it’s important to remember that Jones is a top-tier screen actor in addition to his legendary voice work; he won an Oscar for his work in The Great White Hope (1970). You’ll also recognize him as Mr. Mertle in The Sandlot (1993) and Terence Mann in Field of Dreams (1989). His filmography also includes Coming to America (1988), The Hunt For Red October (1990), Patriot Games (1992), and Clear and Present Danger (1994).
Danny Glover’s most defining roles were as Albert in The Color Purple (1985) and Roger Murtaugh in the Lethal Weapon franchise. His filmography also includes To Sleep With Anger (1990), Predator 2 (1990), Angels in the Outfield (1994), and Operation Dumbo Drop (1995). If there’s one thing we can learn from this man, it’s that you’re never “too old for this shit.” Word on the street: he will be returning as Detective Murtaugh in Lethal Weapon 5 very soon….which is amazing considering that character meant to retire over 30 years ago.
Laurence Fishburne started his acting career as a child in films like Apocalypse Now (1979) and Cornbread, Earl and Me (1975). We know him now as Morpheus from The Matrix trilogy but it’s his understated and underappreciated roles in movies like What’s Love Got to Do With It (1993) and Boyz n the Hood (1991) that stand out to those paying attention. His filmography also includes Contagion (2011), Man of Steel (2013), the John Wick franchise, and Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018).
Eddie Murphy is one of the greatest comedians of all time; from his stand-up to his work on Saturday Night Live. His popularity in the '80s led to a string of hit films: 48 Hrs. (1982), Beverly Hills Cop (1984), and Coming to America (1988). Since then he has starred in family films like Doctor Doolittle (1998) and Shrek (2001) to Oscar-nominated pictures like Dream Girls (2006). His latest turn in Dolemite Is My Name (2019) has not only reaffirmed everyone’s opinion of Murphy as one of the greatest talents in Hollywood but sets him up for a promising resurgence in the coming years.
Mahershala Ali has appeared in films like The Hunger Games trilogy and The Place Beyond the Pines (2012), but it was his role 2016’s Moonlight that showed everyone just how legendary he is. He won Oscars two years in a row: one for playing the mentor and drug dealer Juan and again for playing Dr. Donald Shirley in Green Book (2018). The next year he won an Emmy for his role in HBO’s True Detective (he really was the best thing about season three). Ali hasn’t been around as long as some of the other people on this list, but he is definitely here to stay...for example, he has been cast as Marvel’s new Blade.
Idris Elba came to fame as the Baltimore drug dealer Stringer Bell on HBO’s The Wire, but he’s done so much since then. His filmography includes 28 Weeks Later (2007), American Gangster (2007), Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (2013), the television show Luther, The Jungle Book (2016), Star Trek Beyond (2016), Molly’s Game (2017), Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw (2019) and Heimdall in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. He’s slowly become one of the biggest movie stars in the world; if he’s not a household name yet, he will be soon.