February is Black History Month and since everyone else is doing lists to tribute the “Black Panther” film, the first Marvel film with a predominantly black cast and the MCU’s first film focusing specifically on a black hero, I decided to take a different road and pay homage to the most iconic black actors and actresses of all time. To be fair I decided to split my list into two, the top ten men and the top ten women. As is proper, ladies are first and this was not an easy list to narrow down. So without further ado, here is my list of the Top 10 Iconic Black Actresses. Look for the men later this week.
For this list I looked at any and all female actors specifically in theatrical films that are African American and rated them based on many factors including awards success, acting success and quality, their contributions to the world outside of acting and their iconic status as actresses and public figures in general. The men will have their own list later this week. Because this is a movie blog not a television blog I focused more on performers more famous for film than TV so while there are a lot of black actresses who stand out on the small screen, this is a list for the big screen icons only.
Obviously with a list like this there are bound to be a few favorites left out so I want to know from you who your favorite iconic African American actresses are. Be sure to look out for part two of my list later this week.
10. Jada Pinkett Smith
While not as popular as her husband Will Smith and, for some, a little too outspoken Jada Pinkett Smith is a talent that should not be ignored. Her career dates back to 1993 and she has been featured in comedy films like “Girls Trip”, science fiction features like the “Matrix” trilogy, horror films like “Scream 2”, biopics like “Ali”, animated films like the “Madagascar” trilogy, and dramas like “The Human Contract” which she also directed in 2008. She has won numerous popularity awards, although never a Globe or Oscar, and even when she isn’t nominated Smith has proven to be a powerful and unrelenting voice in Hollywood. She was a leading figure in the “Oscar So White” movement of the 2016 Academy Awards and while she has received backlash for speaking up only when it seems a friend or loved one of her’s is snubbed there’s no denying Smith has a voice and is willing and able to use it. Plus, she’s a pretty damn good actress too. While she is married to a famous actor, Jada Pinkett Smith is no pushover. She has made a name for herself beyond her famous marriage and proven that she can hold her own outside of her husbands shadow and her fanbase will never let anyone forget that.
9. Taraji Henson
In 2016 Taraji Henson was named one of Time Magazines 100 most influential people in the world and it’s not hard to see why. Her career in film spans back to her big break in 2001 in “Baby Boy” and since then she has appeared in numerous big screen features including praised roles in “Hustle & Flow” and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”. For more modern audiences she is known for her starring and awards nominated role in “Hidden Figures” in 2016 a role that drew attention to black women across the country and made it’s trio of leading African American ladies household names. Her co-star in that film Octavia Spencer was also considered for this list, but Henson is not only a recognizable name now, she’s also an amazingly committed philanthropist. A member of PITA and an LGBT community supporter Henson has earned a name for herself as an activist although a particularly murky incident in 2014 involving her son had her on the wrong side of a battle with police where it turned out the police were in the right. All the same her clout as a talented actress and as a spokesperson have made her influential and respected and her star only continue to get brighter even 17 years after she made her big break.
8. Ethel Waters
Multitalented doesn’t even begin to describe the late Ethel Waters who made a name for herself as a vocalist and actress in the 1920s eventually becoming one of the most inspiring performers of her era. While her filmography only spans 12 films, thus her lower placement on this list, her place in cinematic history is not to be ignored. She was only the second African American woman to be nominated for an Academy Award (for her role in “Pinky” in 1949) and also received an Emmy nomination years later in 1962, a first for an African American woman. What made Waters such an inspiration wasn’t just her talent, it was her resilience. Despite growing up in poverty and being born as the result of a rape of her mother by the man whose last name she would adopt on the stage Waters used her incredible vocal talent and acting range to become a fixture in early cinema and on the music scene. Although today she might be overlooked by others on this list, Waters is among the most respected black actresses of all time and one of the most beloved singers in modern history. She was approved for a Hollywood Walk of Fame star in 2004 and today a fundraiser still exists to have that star finally be installed in her honor.
7. Ruby Dee
A woman of many talents, Ruby Dee is among the most iconic women on this list and while she may not be a household name she certainly deserves to be. A apprentice of one of the most respected black actors of all time, Sidney Poitier, Dee started out on stage and worked her way to film by the late 1940s and continued acting through 2013 before her death in 2014. Among her memorable roles were turns in “The Jackie Robinson Story”, “Gone Are the Days!”, “Do The Right Thing” and “American Gangster”. Dee is probably most known for her civil rights activism however and as a member of the Congress of Racial Equality and the NAACP. She was friends with both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, putting her squarely in the middle of both sides of the black rights movement, adding to her legacy. While she never won a Globe or an Oscar she did win an Emmy and a Grammy and lives on as an icon to this day respected and admired by many black artists in film and music.
6. Cicely Tyson
Despite only appearing in minor films and television shows in her early career, Cicily Tyson established herself as a truly inspirational African American actress garnering numerous awards nominations and critical acclaim for her portrayal of strong black female characters, a typecasting she seemed to embrace with open arms. A recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Tyson became a breakout star in her Academy Award and Golden Globe nominated turn as Rebecca Morgan in 1972’s “Sounder” and from there appeared in over 20 big-screen movies from 1976 to as early as last year. Tyson has fully embraced her place in the medium starring in films like “The Help”, “Diary of a Mad Black Woman”, and “Fried Green Tomatoes” as strong African American women in America becoming a symbol of inspiration for both her gender and her race. Her work on the big screen has earned her nominations from several black-centric film award programs culminating to an NAACP honor for her role in “Diary of a Black Woman”. Tyson remains a powerfully talented actress who has embraced her role in the zeitgeist of race relations of today and yesterday and as a result deserves her place on this list.
5. Viola Davis
In acting one of the most coveted and rare of accomplishments is the Triple Crown. Viola Davis is the ONLY black actor, man or woman, to ever achieve it earning a Tony, Emmy and Oscar awards for acting in her career. Davis, whose career spans back to 1992, was also the first black woman to be nominated for three Academy Awards and won her only award in 2016 for her much-deserved turn in “Fences”. Like many on this list, Davis is notable for portraying strong black female characters, specifically in movies like “Fences” and “The Help”, but has also proven to be an unstoppable force in more action packed movies like “Suicide Squad” and “Disturbia”. Davis is a multi-talented and influential actress who has become both a critical and fan favorite over the course of her career and rightfully so. Her life experience as a child beside her mother in the Civil Rights Movement is reflected in her excellent portrayal of minority women in her art and has made her a leading artistic voice for the struggles of her race and gender. She holds her own place in history as a rare and deserving triple crown winner and one of the world’s most talented actresses, black or white.
4. Angela Bassett
Angela Bassett has made a name for herself as a capable biographical film actress, appearing in numerous such movies over her extensive career. Since her debut in the 1980s, Bassett has appeared in a film almost every year since and while she has branched out to more original roles in movies like her parts in “Akeeiah and the Bee”, “How Stella Got Her Groove Back” and “Black Panther” she is mostly known for her now iconic spot-on portrayals of historical women in biopics. She played Betty Shabazz in two Malcolm X biopics, Tina Turner in “What’s Love Got to Do with It” (which earned her an Oscar nomination and a Golden Globe win), Rosa Parks in the TV movie “The Rosa Parks Story”, Voletta Wallace in “Notorious” and Coretta Scott King in “Betty & Corretta” making her a much respected adapter of history, especially strong-willed and iconic black women of America’s past. Bassett herself said she appreciates this typecasting, seeing it as a chance to spread these women’s legacies and do them justice. Her powerful, emotive and dedicated performances on the big and small screen have helped her become a fan favorite and while she hasn’t earned a lot of awards love, with only a Golden Globe win to her credit, she has garnered many nominations and her career is still going strong. She has the capability and time to build on her legacy, which is already respectable enough to make her iconic.
3. Halle Berry
Despite a few poor career choices sidelining Halle Berry’s career there’s no denying she is among the most iconic black actresses of all time and definitely one of the most notable names in Hollywood even still today. One the highest paid actresses in the business Berry’s career spans back to the 90s and early 2000s where she appeared in numerous iconic roles in “Swordfish”, the “X-Men” franchise and the James Bond film “Die Another Day” which all made her one of the first real marketable big-budget African American actresses on the scene. Her career hit its high point in 2001 when Berry won the Oscar for Best Actress for her role in “Monster’s Ball” making her, to date, the only black woman to ever win that award. The role also earned her a BET Award, Black Reel Award, and awards from the American Film Institute, Berlin International Film Festival and a Screen Actors Guild Award. Berry has also shown to have a pretty good sense of humor, completely embracing her Razzie win for “Catwoman” in 2005 as a badge of honor. In addition to her acting popularity and talent Berry is also well known for her activism. While not as involved in race related causes as others on this list, Berry was a powerful supporter of the successful 2006 campaign against the Cabrillo Port Liquefied Natural Gas facility and a supporter of Gucci’s “Chime for Change” campaign to raise awareness for women’s issues in many areas. All this combined has made her a modern icon in the industry worthy of respect.
2. Whoopi Goldberg
Say what you want about Whoopi Goldberg as an outspoken talk-shot participant. As an actress, she’s among the most iconic of her era. In a rare feat, Goldberg is one of the few artists in history to win an Emmy, Tony, Grammy and Oscar in their careers scoring her major acting award for her role in “Ghost” and becoming only the second black woman to win an acting Oscar. As a comedian and extremely marketable name Goldberg owned the late 80s and early 90s making her debut in “The Color Purple” before staring in many of the 90s most iconic features including the aforementioned “Ghost”, “Sister Act”, “The Lion King”, “How Stella Got Her Groove Back”, and “Girl, Interrupted”. Able to morph from comedic star to serious wise woman Goldberg also has an impeccable acting range and this made her a relatable actress for many different fans of film. Over the course of her career Goldberg has also earned a Golden Globe and BAFTA award, although her Tony win was not an acting award keeping her from enjoying the acting Triple Crown. As an activist Goldberg has proven to be a controversial figure, speaking mostly in favor of liberal positions and becoming a spokesperson against discrimination based on race, sexual orientation and other underappreciated social groups. Her charisma and charm combined with her spunk and sass have made Goldberg as close to an icon as one can get in the industry and one of the most recognizable black women ever to appear on the big screen.
1. Hattie McDaniel
Now here’s an actress who was revolutionary in her accomplishments. If you don’t know Hattie McDaniel you should. A performer on almost every level as a singer, comedian and actress McDaniel was a veteran of 300 films, 80 of which she was credited for, in her career spanning from the 1930s into the 1940s. However, one role defined her career and legacy. In 1939 McDaniel became the first ever African American, man or woman, to win an Academy Award as an entertainer for her role as Mammy in “Gone with the Wind”. She became a trailblazer for other black actresses and actors to make their mark in film and showed a new level of acceptance for her race on the big screen. Her breakout role and subsequent successful career path opened doors for both women and African Americans in the industry over the course of a short 10 to 20 years and despite controversy over her being typecast in numerous race-specific roles in her time McDaniel was eventually considered among the most iconic actresses ever, black or white. She has two Hollywood Walk of Fame Stars, one for radio and another for film, and was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame in 2006. For almost everyone on this list McDaniel was the start of a trailblazing effort that allowed these fantastic women to have the careers they do. For that she is my pick as the most iconic black actress of all time and rightfully so.