Mandatory Staff Picks: Celebrating the Best Black Actresses in Movie History
Great actresses make the ineffable effable, but black actresses haven’t been granted the same opportunities for meaty roles as, well everyone else. However, intrepid female performers of color have found a way to succeed in the face of discrimination.
This stretches back to 1940 when Hattie McDaniel became the first African-American to win a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for playing Mammy in Gone with the Wind. You may have heard that movie (which takes place in the South during the Civil War) has very little respect for its black characters. Hollywood also had very little respect for McDaniel. On the night of the Academy Awards, she wasn’t allowed into the theater until receiving her award and had to read an acceptance speech written by the studio.
This is the type of deplorable marginalization that has existed in the entertainment industry. We don’t want to feel or think about it whilst sinking into our couches (and munching Doritos), but we do every time an actress gives an incredible performance in an otherwise limiting role. Hollywood is becoming more inclusive, but it still has a lot of work to do.
The following list compiles just a handful of the greatest black actresses to play Hollywood’s game and win (at least in our eyes), bringing to life unique characters and stories against insurmountable odds.
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As previously stated, Hattie McDaniel was the first African-American to ever win an Oscar. She’s also appeared in over 300 films (though only credited for around 80). She was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame in 1975 and, in 2006, became the first black Oscar winner featured on a U.S. postage stamp. She was also a comedian and singer-songwriter who became the first black woman to sing on the radio. That said, she has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame; one for acting and the other for contributions to radio.
Angela Bassett is one of the most celebrated but also strangely overlooked actresses in Hollywood. She’s been nominated for an Academy Award/won a Golden Globe for playing Tina Turner in What’s Love Got to Do with It (1993) and an Emmy for playing other biographical figures like Rosa Parks in The Rosa Parks Story (2002). She’s also appeared in Malcolm X (1992), Panther (1995), The Jacksons: An American Dream (1992), Notorious (2009), Betty & Coretta (2013), Black Panther (2018), and Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018).
Alfre Woodard broke through in 1997 with her role in For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf. In 1983, she won an Emmy for her role the NBC series Hill Street Blues (she’s been nominated for 18 Emmys total). In that same year, she was nominated for an Academy Award for her role in Cross Creek. She went on to star in Passion Fish (1992), How to Make An American Quilt (1995), Miss Firecracker (1989), Primal Fear (1996), Grand Canyon (1991), 12 Years A Slave (2013), and even Captain America: Civil War (2016). You can now see her in the Apple show See.
For her role in Carmen Jones (1954), Dorothy Dandridge became the first African American actress to be nominated for the Best Actress Oscar (she also received Golden Globe and BAFTA nominations). She worked in the entertainment industry as a singer, dancer, and actress from 1935 until her untimely passing in 1965. Her legacy is one of a trailblazer, paving the way for many African American actresses.
Kerry Washington is best recognized as Olivia Pope from ABC’s Scandal (2012-2018). She’s received Golden Globe and Emmy nominations for the latter as well as her role in the HBO limited series Confirmation (2016). She’s also been in films like Our Song (2000), The Dead Girl (2006), Ray (2004), The Last King Scotland (2006), Mother and Child (2009), Night Catches Us (2010), and Django Unchained (2012).
Pam Grier came to fame in black exploitation films like The Big Bird Cage (1972), Coffy (1973), Foxy Brown (1974), and Sheba Baby (1975). In 1998, she received a Golden Globe nomination for her role in Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown. In recent years, she appeared in Bones (2001), The L Word (2004-2009), and This Is Us.
Viola Davis is one of the best television, film, and stage performers around. She’s won an Oscar, Emmy, and Tony (the only black actress to do so). She’s received Academy Award nominations for Doubt (2008) and The Help (2011). She won Best Supporting Actress for her performance in Fences (2016). Her filmography also includes Antwone Fisher (2002), State of Play (2009), Prisoners (2013), Get on Up (2014), and Suicide Squad (2016).
Cicely Tyson’s role in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1974) made her the first black actress to be nominated for the Lead Actress in a Television Series Emmy. In 2013, she also become the oldest actress to ever win a Tony for her performance in The Trip to Bountiful. She’s also been in The Rosa Parks Story (2002), Diary of a Mad Black Woman (2005), and The Help (2011).
Lupita Nyong’o had some very minor roles before 2013’s 12 Years a Slave. The role as Patsey won her an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress (only the ninth actress to win in a debut film and first Kenyan-Mexican ever). Since then, she has become one of the most in-demand actresses in Hollywood, starring in the Star Wars sequel trilogy, The Jungle Book (2016), Queen of Katwe (2016), Black Panther (2018), and Us (2019).
Halle Berry is one of the most famous actresses ever. Period. She’s played a Bond Girl, Storm in the X-Men franchise, and Catwoman. She won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role in Monster’s Ball (2001), and a Primetime Emmy for Introducing Dorothy Dandridge (1999). She’s also been in Swordfish (2001), Perfect Stranger (2007), Frankie & Alice (2010), Cloud Atlas (2012), Kingsman: The Golden Circle (2017), and John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum (2019).
Rudy Dee has been in The Jackie Robinson Story (1950), Do the Right Thing (1989), Jungle Fever (1991), and American Gangster (2007), receiving an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress for her role in the latter. She is best known for her role as Ruth Younger in the stage and theatrical versions of A Raisin in the Sun (1961). On top of being an actress, she was also a writer and avid civil rights activist.
Taraji P. Henson
Taraji P. Henson is beloved for her roles in Hustle & Flow (2005), The Karate Kid (2010), Hidden Figures (2016), and the Fox series Empire. She’s received Emmy nominations and won a Golden Globe. Most notably, she received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button in 2008.
Whoopi Goldberg has won an Emmy, Oscar, and Grammy. Her Academy Award nominations are a result of her roles in 1985's The Color Purple and 1990's Ghost (for which she won), becoming the first African-American actress to be nominated as both a Best Supporting Actress and Lead Actress. She has also been nominated for 13 Emmys. When you see Goldberg on The View, you don’t necessarily think "acclaimed actress," but that’s exactly what she is -- one of the best (maybe the best). With a litany of credits and comedy specials to her name, Goldberg’s body of work speaks for itself.
Octavia Spencer has been in films like A Time to Kill (1996), Fruitvale Station (2013), Smashed (2012), Snowpiercer (2013), Get on Up (2014), and 2018’s The Shape of Water (Academy Award nomination). Her most critically acclaimed roles were in 2017’s Hidden Figures (for which she received another Academy Award nomination) and The Help (2011). The latter won her an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress and combined with Hidden Figures, makes her the first black actress to receive back-to-back nominations.
Regina King’s popularity is currently at an all-time high, but her filmography stretches back to Boyz n the Hood (1991), Poetic Justice (1993), Friday (1995), Jerry Maguire (1996), and Ray (2004). For her role in the ABC anthology series American Crime, she won two Primetime Emmys. More recently, she won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in 2018 for If Beale Street Could Talk. In 2019, she starred in the HBO series Watchmen as Angela Abraham.
British actress Naomie Harris has been in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise and plays Eve Moneypenny in the James Bond films. She’s been in other films like 28 Days Later (2002), Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (2013), Southpaw (2015), and Moonlight (2016). Her role in the latter earned her an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress as well as Golden Globe and BAFTA nominations.