50 Black actors who made entertainment history
Whether it’s a Hollywood film, prime-time television, Broadway, or another form of talent, Black people in the entertainment industry have worked 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 and reflect ideas of white writers instead of lived experiences, with an overrepresentation of domestic work and mimicked Black culture. 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 hold their own 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.
Despite this, Black actors have persevered and proved they have the talents and skills necessary to make it in the business. These major milestones have opened doors for future projects and creators to depict the Black experience.
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.
Read on to see which Black actors and entertainers made the list.
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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.
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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.
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