Throughout cinematic history, legendary Black actors have shattered barriers and pioneered new standards of excellence through their groundbreaking work on screen and off. Their compelling performances not only entertained audiences but also, reshaped the landscape of storytelling by destroying tired stereotypes and introducing more authentic narratives.
These icons possess a rare, enduring star power that has resonated across generations. They continued to thrive not just through one great role, but through delivering consistently pioneering performances over decades. Their influence extends beyond Hollywood, as they open doors for future generations of young black actors and actresses through activism and advocacy.
This list celebrates 18 of these transformative Black actors who redefined stardom by leaving an indelible mark on entertainment. They are ranked by the breadth of their impact both on screen through their iconic roles, as well as through enduring contributions to the industry. While each legendary figure stands alone in their artistry, together their collective work moves the needle on diversity and inclusion in monumental ways that continue inspiring today.
18. Gabrielle Union
Gabrielle Union, born on October 29, 1972, in Omaha, Nebraska, is a versatile actress and advocate recognized for her dynamic performances and commitment to social causes. Union’s career gained traction with standout roles in popular teen comedies like Bring It On and 10 Things I Hate About You during the late ’90s.
Throughout her career, Union has portrayed a wide range of characters across genres, showcasing her versatility in both film and television. Notably, her roles in impactful films like Deliver Us from Eva, Being Mary Jane and her participation in the critically acclaimed film The Birth of a Nation underscore her ability to tackle complex and compelling characters. Off-screen, Union is an outspoken advocate for issues such as diversity in media, women’s rights, trans rights, and social justice. Her candid discussions about her experiences in the industry and her dedication to breaking barriers have made her not only a respected actress but also an influential figure in shaping conversations around representation and equality in Hollywood.
17. Mahershala Ali
Mahershala Ali, born on February 16, 1974, in Oakland, California, has risen to prominence as one of the most compelling and versatile actors in Hollywood. His breakthrough came with his standout performance in the critically acclaimed film Moonlight, where he portrayed the compassionate drug dealer Juan. This exceptional role earned him an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. This marked the beginning of Ali’s meteoric rise in the industry, showcasing his ability to bring depth and nuance to his characters.
Ali continued to solidify his status as a powerhouse in the acting world with another Oscar win for Best Supporting Actor, this time for his role in Green Book. His ability to convey complex emotions and his knack for choosing diverse and challenging roles have made him a sought-after talent in both film and television. Beyond his acting prowess, Ali is known for his humility, intelligence, and dedication to his craft. His impact extends beyond the screen. This makes him not only a celebrated actor but also a symbol of excellence and inspiration for aspiring artists in the industry.
16. Kerry Washington
Kerry Washington was born on January 31, 1977, in The Bronx, a borough of New York City. She is a talented actress and producer celebrated for her compelling performances and commitment to diverse storytelling. Washington quickly became a sought-after talent in Hollywood after rising to prominence with her role in the critically acclaimed film Ray, where she portrayed the wife of Ray Charles. However, it was her portrayal of Olivia Pope in the hit television series Scandal that catapulted her to widespread recognition. As a formidable crisis manager, Washington not only became the first Black woman to lead a network drama in over three decades, but she also earned critical acclaim and several award nominations for her outstanding performance of this fiercely iconic character.
Washington’s impact goes beyond her acting career. She has been a vocal advocate for social justice, using her platform to address issues of representation and equality in the entertainment industry. Washington has also been involved in producing projects that amplify diverse voices, contributing to the ongoing conversation about the importance of inclusivity in storytelling. This is even reflected in some of her work, like in the emotional Broadway stage play turned movie American Son. Her multifaceted career and dedication to social causes make Kerry Washington not only a celebrated actress but also a prominent figure in the push for positive change within the entertainment landscape.
15. Chadwick Boseman
Chadwick Boseman left a lasting legacy after regrettably departing the world too soon. He was born on November 29, 1976, in Anderson, South Carolina. Boseman became a symbol of strength and representation in Hollywood, rising to international prominence with his portrayal of iconic figures. He garnered widespread acclaim for his portrayal of baseball legend Jackie Robinson in 42 and the groundbreaking Black superhero T’Challa in Marvel’s Black Panther. His turn as the Black Panther resonated deeply with audiences and became a cultural milestone.
Beyond his on-screen success, Boseman’s impact extended into his personal life, where he battled privately with colon cancer. Throughout his fight, he continued to work on significant projects, such as Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, showcasing his dedication to his craft. Boseman’s untimely passing in 2020 left a void in the industry. However, his legacy endures through his groundbreaking roles and the inspiration he provided to countless individuals, particularly within the Black community. He will forever be remembered as a trailblazer and a symbol of strength.
14. Sidney Poitier
Sidney Poitier, born on February 20, 1927, in Miami, Florida, was and will remain a legendary actor, film director, and author. His impact on the entertainment industry transcends his exceptional talent and lasts through the test of time. Rising to prominence during the mid-20th century, Poitier became the first Black actor to win an Academy Award for Best Actor for his role in Lilies of the Field (1963). This historic achievement marked a significant milestone in Hollywood and paved the way for greater diversity and representation in the film industry.
Poitier’s career is characterized by a series of groundbreaking roles that challenged racial stereotypes and addressed societal issues. He starred in iconic films such as Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, addressing interracial marriage, and To Sir, with Love, exploring race and education. Beyond his on-screen success, Poitier continued to make history as a director with films like Uptown Saturday Night. His contributions to cinema have left an enduring legacy, inspiring generations of actors and filmmakers while breaking down barriers and fostering a more inclusive landscape in the world of entertainment.
13. Regina King
Regina King is a name that quickly comes to mind when listing Black actors famous for their work and talent. She was born on January 15, 1971, in Los Angeles, California, and has earned widespread acclaim and numerous accolades for her remarkable contributions to film and television. Starting her career as a child actor in the popular sitcom 227, King has grown into one of the industry’s most respected and versatile performers.
Her breakout role came in the critically acclaimed film Jerry Maguire, and she continued to captivate audiences with powerful performances in movies like Ray and Boyz n the Hood. More recently, she has gone on to even bigger achievements. This includes winning an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role in If Beale Street Could Talk. King also lives up to her name as on-screen royalty, especially when it comes to her iconic comedic roles in classics like The Boondocks and Friday.
However, it was in the realm of television that Regina King truly solidified her status as a force to be reckoned with. Her portrayal of Detective Lydia Adams in the police procedural drama Southland and her role in the groundbreaking series Watchmen earned her critical acclaim and several Emmy Awards. Beyond her acting prowess, King has stepped into the director’s chair with notable success. This subsequently led to her receiving widespread recognition for her directorial debut, One Night in Miami (2020). King’s multifaceted talent, combined with her advocacy for diversity and inclusion in the industry, has positioned her as a respected, king-like figure in the world of entertainment.
12. Angela Bassett
Angela Bassett, born on August 16, 1958, in New York City, is a renowned actress whose illustrious career has been marked by powerful and commanding performances. Bassett has become a trailblazer and mother of acting in Hollywood known for her ability to bring strength and authenticity to her roles. She gained widespread acclaim for her portrayal of Tina Turner in What’s Love Got to Do with It, earning her an Academy Award nomination and establishing her as a force to be reckoned with in the industry.
Bassett’s career is impressively filled with diverse and impactful roles, ranging from historical figures to fictional characters. Her commanding presence and emotional depth have made her a sought-after talent, and she has delivered standout performances in films such as Malcolm X, The Rosa Parks Story, and Black Panther. Beyond her acting, Bassett is recognized for her contributions to the cultural landscape and her advocacy for representation in the entertainment industry. Angela Bassett’s enduring talent, coupled with her dedication to telling meaningful stories, has solidified her as a respected figure in both Hollywood and the broader realm of the arts.
11. Jamie Foxx
Jamie Foxx, born on December 13, 1967, in Terrell, Texas, is a multi-talented entertainer known for his prowess as an actor, comedian, singer and producer. He burst onto the scene as a stand-up comedian and gained early recognition for his comedic brilliance on the sketch comedy show In Living Color. Foxx’s career soared to new heights with his transformational performance as Ray Charles in the biographical film Ray (2004), earning him critical acclaim and an Academy Award for Best Actor. This marked a defining moment in his career, showcasing his ability to embody complex characters with authenticity and depth.
Foxx’s versatility extends beyond acting. As a Grammy-winning musician, he has released chart-topping albums and collaborated with renowned artists in the music industry. His hit singles like “Gold Digger” with Kanye West and “Blame It” demonstrate his talent in the music scene. Additionally, Foxx has showcased his talent as a producer, contributing to the success of projects like The Jamie Foxx Show and Django Unchained. His impact on both the big screen and the music industry has solidified Jamie Foxx as a dynamic force in entertainment, celebrated for his exceptional range and ability to seamlessly navigate multiple facets of the industry.
10. Samuel L. Jackson
Samuel L. Jackson‘s presence on screen is magnetic. He was born on December 21, 1948, in Washington, D.C., and is a prolific actor and cultural icon known for his commanding screen presence and distinctive voice. With a career spanning over four decades, Jackson has become one of the most recognizable and bankable stars in Hollywood. His collaborations with director Quentin Tarantino in films like Pulp Fiction and Django Unchained have showcased his ability to captivate audiences with intense and memorable performances. These roles earned him critical acclaim and a reputation as one of the industry’s most versatile actors.
Beyond his work in Tarantino’s films, Jackson has left a mark on popular culture through his portrayal of Nick Fury in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Serving as the connective tissue across numerous Marvel films, Jackson’s portrayal of the enigmatic S.H.I.E.L.D. director has become iconic. Jackson’s contributions to cinema go beyond the quantity of his work with over 150 film credits to his name. His impact lies in his ability to elevate each character he embodies, leaving an enduring legacy in the world of entertainment.
9. Taraji P. Henson
Taraji P. Henson was born on September 11, 1970, in Washington, D.C. She has established herself as a powerhouse in the entertainment industry with her exceptional acting skills and charismatic presence. Her breakout role came in 2001 when she portrayed Yvette in John Singleton’s critically acclaimed film Baby Boy. However, it was her role as Cookie Lyon in the television series Empire that catapulted her to widespread fame. This iconic role earned her critical acclaim and a Golden Globe Award for Best Actress in a Television Series Drama.
Henson’s career is marked by a diverse range of roles that showcase her versatility as an actress and her unique presence that cannot help but steal the show. Her performance as Katherine Johnson in the film Hidden Figures earned her an Academy Award nomination, further solidifying her reputation as a talented and accomplished performer. Beyond her acting, Henson is recognized for her advocacy work, particularly in mental health awareness, using her platform to break stigmas and promote open conversations about mental well-being. Henson continues to be a force in the industry, captivating audiences with her talent while also making significant contributions to important societal conversations.
8. Octavia Spencer
Octavia Spencer, born on May 25, 1970, in Montgomery, Alabama, has solidified her status as one of the most talented and respected actresses in Hollywood. She is another generation-spanning actor who is no stranger on screen to millions around the world. Her breakthrough came with her compelling performance as Minny Jackson in the critically acclaimed film The Help. This iconic role earned her an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. Spencer’s ability to portray characters with depth, emotion, and authenticity has become a hallmark of her career.
Continuing her success, Octavia Spencer has contributed to a wide array of film genres, including drama, comedy, and suspense. Her versatility is evident in roles such as those in Hidden Figures, for which she received another Academy Award nomination, and The Shape of Water, where she showcased her ability to excel in diverse and challenging roles. These are only a small handful of Spencer’s prominent roles. Others include Ma, The Shack, Thunder Force, Self Made and so many more.
Beyond her acting, Spencer is known for her advocacy work, promoting diversity and equal opportunities in the entertainment industry.
7. Eddie Murphy
Eddie Murphy, born on April 3, 1961, in Brooklyn, New York, is a comedic trailblazer and one of the most influential figures in the world of entertainment. He rose to fame as a cast member on Saturday Night Live in the early 1980s. Here, Murphy’s comedic genius quickly became evident, leading to a successful transition to the big screen. His roles in films like Beverly Hills Cop, Coming to America, and Trading Places not only showcased his impeccable comedic timing but also solidified him as a box-office sensation during the 1980s. However, in this decade he is still making multiple generations laugh.
Murphy’s impact on the entertainment industry extends beyond comedy. He has also proven his versatility with dramatic roles, earning critical acclaim for his performance in Dreamgirls, which earned him an Academy Award nomination. Despite facing ebbs and flows in his career, Murphy has remained a cultural icon. His recent return to the spotlight with films like Dolemite Is My Name and the sequel, Coming 2 America, reaffirms his enduring legacy as a comedic legend and a versatile actor.
6. Forest Whitaker
Forest Whitaker, born on July 15, 1961, in Longview, Texas, is a highly acclaimed actor, director, and producer known for his distinctive on-screen presence. This incredibly versatile actor is familiar through the screen by multiple generations. Whitaker has delivered captivating performances that have garnered critical acclaim and numerous accolades throughout his career. He earned widespread recognition and won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in the film The Last King of Scotland. This iconic role showcased his ability to embody complex characters with depth and nuance.
In addition to his acting prowess, Whitaker has made significant contributions behind the camera. As a director, he helmed the critically acclaimed ’90s classic Waiting to Exhale and later directed Hope Floats and First Daughter. His dedication to the craft and commitment to telling impactful stories have solidified his reputation as one of the industry’s most respected and influential figures. Beyond the screen, Whitaker is involved in various humanitarian efforts. This further emphasizes his role as a multifaceted artist and compassionate advocate.
5. Will Smith
Will Smith has been on top of the world for years transitioning from a successful music career to becoming a Hollywood megastar. Born and raised in West Philadelphia, Smith initially gained fame as one half of the hip-hop duo DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince, Smith transitioned seamlessly to acting with his breakout role in the television series The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. This early success laid the foundation for his transition to the big screen, where he became one of the most bankable and beloved actors in Hollywood. Smith’s charisma, charm, and versatility shine through in a diverse range of roles. This range includes action-packed blockbusters like Independence Day and Men in Black to emotionally charged dramas like The Pursuit of Happyness.
Beyond his acting prowess, Smith is known for his resilience and work ethic. He consistently dominates the box office, making him one of the most successful actors in terms of commercial appeal. Smith’s career has been marked by his ability to seamlessly navigate between genres, providing audiences with a mix of entertainment and substance. His impact on the industry is not just limited to his on-screen achievements; Smith has also become a prominent producer. In this role, he has used his influence to bring compelling stories to the forefront. His enduring popularity, coupled with his commitment to quality storytelling, positions Will Smith as a true powerhouse in the world of entertainment.
4. Halle Berry
Halle Berry, born on August 14, 1966, in Cleveland, Ohio, is a trailblazing actress and forever superstar. Breaking barriers and shattering stereotypes, she has left an enduring mark on the film industry. Berry made history by becoming the first Black woman to win the Academy Award for Best Actress. This milestone was achieved for her riveting performance in Monster’s Ball, a testament to her talent and ability to convey complex emotions on screen.
Berry’s career consists of a collection of diverse roles, spanning genres from drama to action. Her captivating presence has graced films such as X-Men, where she portrayed the iconic Storm, and Catwoman, where she took on the titular role in this nostalgic film for many people. Beyond her acting, Berry has been a pioneering figure for women who are BIPOC in Hollywood. She does this by advocating for increased representation and opportunities. Berry remains an influential and celebrated figure, not only for her historic achievements but also for her enduring talent and commitment to pushing boundaries in storytelling.
3. Viola Davis
A trailblazer in her own right, Viola Davis has redefined the standards of acting. Davis was born on August 11, 1965, in South Carolina and has ascended to become one of the most revered and accomplished actors of her generation. With a career spanning both stage and screen, Davis’ exceptional talent and raw emotional depth have cemented her as a force to be reckoned with in the entertainment industry. She has spent years working in her field to become the matriarchal figure she is renowned as.
A breakout role in the film adaptation of August Wilson’s Fences brought her widespread recognition and an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. She is also one of the few actors in general to have achieved EGOT (winner of an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony award) status as of 2023.
Davis’ impact extends far beyond her acting abilities. She’s been a vocal advocate for diversity and inclusivity in the entertainment industry. She is known for constantly using her platform to address issues of representation and inequality. Additionally, she has been inspirational throughout the years for her vulnerability as a dark-skinned Black woman in entertainment. Her advocacy and celebration for other women who look like her have made her an inspiration and mother figure to millions. Her dedication to her craft and the fearless manner in which she approaches each character she portrays have garnered her immense respect from peers and audiences alike. Through her multifaceted career, Davis continues to set new standards of excellence, breaking barriers and inspiring future generations of actors and storytellers.
2. Morgan Freeman
With a voice as distinctive as his talent, Morgan Freeman’s commanding presence has graced numerous cinematic masterpieces. This iconic figure in the world of cinema was born on June 1, 1937, in Memphis, Tennessee. His breakthrough came with performances in films like Street Smart and Driving Miss Daisy. Both films earned him critical acclaim and set the stage for a prolific career.
Freeman’s filmography boasts an impressive array of roles across various genres that prove he knows all about versatility. He’s been known for his roles in memorable films such as The Shawshank Redemption, Se7en and Million Dollar Baby, just to name a few. These performances have garnered him numerous accolades, including an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in Million Dollar Baby. Freeman’s dedication to his craft and his distinctive ability to imbue each character with depth and resonance have solidified his place as an enduring and highly respected figure in the entertainment industry. Additionally, his philanthropic endeavors and advocacy work for various causes have further amplified his impact. Being multifaceted as such is what has earned him widespread admiration and respect both on and off the screen.
1. Denzel Washington
Denzel Washington has been regarded as a paragon of acting excellence throughout his decades-long career. He was born on December 28, 1954, in Mount Vernon, New York. Washington’s acting career began with his Broadway debut in A Soldier’s Play and a starring role in the popular television medical drama St. Elsewhere. His big-screen breakthrough came in the 1980s, marking the start of an illustrious journey in Hollywood.
Washington’s versatility is evident in the diverse array of roles he has portrayed, from historical figures like Malcolm X in Spike Lee’s biopic to action-packed thrillers such as Training Day. His performances have earned him numerous awards, including two Academy Awards for Best Supporting Actor in Glory and Best Actor in Training Day.
Washington’s impact goes beyond his acting abilities. He has also ventured into directing and producing, showcasing his multifaceted talent behind the camera. His commitment to the arts, coupled with his advocacy of social issues within the industry, has solidified his status not just as an exceptional actor but also as an influential figure shaping the entertainment landscape and beyond. Washington’s talent, charisma, and dedication have made him an iconic figure, a role model, and an inspiration for both aspiring actors and established professionals in the industry.