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50 Black actors who made entertainment history

  • Kerry Washington

    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

    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

    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

    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

    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.

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  • Arsenio Hall

    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.

  • Martin Lawrence

    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.

  • Diahann Carroll

    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.

  • Ossie Davis

    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.

  • Bernie Mac

    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.

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