Continuing my celebration of Black History Month, I am examining the most iconic African American actors and actresses from today and yesterday and after exploring the women earlier this week, it’s time to give the men their due. Many black actors have graced the big screen and not all of them have been awards season gods. Some have earned their keep as consistent big screen stars, others have become philanthropists and more artistic performers but regardless this list focuses on the most iconic and memorable of them all to date. If you’d like to read my list of iconic black actresses you can click here, but for now this is my list of the Top 10 Iconic Black Actors.
This list follows the same general rules as the actress list, only this list applies to specifically African American men. Once again I am focusing only on those actors who have found most of their success or their most notable successes on the big screen, not television, and taking into consideration their memorability and general iconic status in the public eye as well as factors like awards success, philanthropy and their general talent as actors in general.
There have been a lot of great African American actors over the years and while many have proven to reach milestones revolutionary to their art some bigger names and trendsetters will be left off this list because they faded into the background compared to the iconic status of the men I picked for this top ten. These men are not only successful, their popularity and accolades stand the test of time and that has earned them a spot here.
Who are your favorite iconic black actors? Let me know in the comments below and enjoy the list!
10. Don Cheadle
Acting since the mid-1980s, Don Cheadle starts off our list as one of the most charismatic actors on this countdown. A veteran of several franchises, including the “Oceans” trilogy and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Cheadle has over 50 films, both released and in production, to his credit and has become one of modern cinema’s most recognizable black actors able to embrace a variety of roles and characters leading him to become somewhat of a “token” black actor in the industry. Cheadle has risen above this label however, earning himself credibility as an awards season contender with Screen Actors Guild Awards for his roles in “Traffic” and “Crash”, a Satellite Award win and an Oscar nomination for his role in “Hotel Rwanda”. Cheadle is also a noted activist earning humanitarian awards and working with George Clooney to raise awareness for the genocide in Darfur, which earned him a Summit Peace Award. All this combined makes him a fitting starting point for this list of iconic actors.
9. Laurence Fishburne
With a voice and a look that is now rooted in the legacy of science fiction, Laurence Fishburne has had one heck of a career from his early beginnings in “Apocalypse Now” for his more recent works and staring in one of the most popular science fiction series of all time, the “Matrix” trilogy. Able to adapt to dramatic roles and more aggressive characters, Fishburne also possesses the innate ability to turn a phrase with his tone and delivery making him a quotable actor even with the worst of lines in a script. This year’s “Ant-Man and the Wasp” will be his 65th film with Fishburne’s filmography running the gamut from heavy dramas to war epics, superhero films, animation and, of course, science fiction. He has little industry award success for his big screen ventures but over the years he has amassed an Oscar nomination, a Saturn nomination, several African American specific award nominations including a Black Movie Award win in 2006, and several NAACP Image Award nominations including a win in 1995. As a philanthropist Fishburne is a well-known UNICEF ambassador and a supporter of stage acting, performing in numerous stage productions himself throughout his career. Still it’s hard to overlook his eye for memorable characters and his booming, demanding voice which, themselves, have made him an iconic figure in cinema.
8. Forest Whitaker
A professional in pretty much every sense of the word, Forest Whitaker’s career began back in the 1980s and since then he has become one of the most respected actors in the industry today, black or white. A master in character study, Whitaker helped revolutionize the approach actors take to characterizations with extensive research into his roles without necessarily going so far as to be considered a method actor. His distinctive lazy eye makes him an immediately recognizable actor and his involvement in franchises like “Star Wars” and the Marvel Cinematic Universe as well as legendary films like “Platoon” have made him both a fan favorite and a critical darling over the course of his career. His work in high quality films and characterizations has not gone unnoticed. In 2006 he was awarded the Hollywood Actor of the Year Award at the 10th Annual Hollywood Film Festival and that same year received numerous honors for his most praised role to date as Dictator Idi Amin in “The Last King of Scotland”. The role earned him an Oscar, a Golden Globe and numerous other industry awards making him one of the most awarded actors of that year. Whitaker is also an interesting activist being part of movements supporting vegetarianism, including working with PETA, and being a public advocate for Hope North, a boarding school in Uganda for escaped child soldiers and the like. He also became a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador in 2011 adding to a resume that makes him one of the most well rounded actors, professionally and personally, in the business.
7. Eddie Murphy
One of the greatest stand-up comedians of all time is also one of the most iconic comedic actors ever and while poor film choices have led Eddie Murphy on the path to irrelevance on the modern cinematic stage his legacy still remains. Aside from his stand-up success Murphy has become iconic for his voice-over roles and comedy films including his breakout roles in “48 Hrs.”, “Trading Places”, “Beverly Hills Cop” and “Coming to America” which were all among the most iconic movies of the 1980s. He continued his success in the 90s and 2000s in films like “The Nutty Professor”, “Dr. Doolittle”, “Mulan”, and the “Shrek” series reaching a pinnacle of his career success in 2006’s “Dreamgirls” which finally nabbed him his first Golden Globe win and an Academy Award nomination. His comedic timing and iconic sense of humor have made him one of the most respected performers of his era and even though his more recent projects have fallen flat Murphy is still considered among one of the most beloved black actors in the industry today. In terms of philanthropy, Murphy has made significant contributions to the AIDS Foundation as well as charities supporting the arts, cancer research, and family and parent support. He has also assisted the Screen Actors’ Guild strike relief fund to support his fellow performers in the industry. A well rounded individual with a sense of humor and an unmistakable voice, Murphy has earned his place in history as one of the most memorable black performers across numerous mediums especially film.
6. Will Smith
The Fresh Prince himself makes the sixth spot on this list as one of the most recognizable black actors in history and still a staple in films today. A blockbuster master Smith made the transition from television to film in the early 90s and immediately became one of the most bankable stars of the 90s and 2000s. Along with his wife Jada Pinkett, who he married in 1997, Smith became half of an acting power couple still going strong in the 2010s and since his move to the big screen Smith has been named one of the most profitable actors in terms of film gross. Nearly 20 films in his filmography have earned over $100 million at the box office worldwide and several have cracked the $500 million mark. His name alone is reason for many to turn out for a big screen adventure with iconic projects like “Independence Day”, “Bad Boys”, “Men in Black”, “The Legend of Bagger Vance” and “Ali” to his name. Smith has not found a lot of success in big industry awards ceremonies but he has garnered two Oscar nominations and three movie-based Golden Globe nominations. He does have a Saturn award and a few NAACP Image Awards to his name however. As an activist Smith has provided millions in contributions to charities in his career and has supported numerous religious entities including Christian ministries, Scientology organizations, religious schools and a mosque. He and Jada also founded a private elementary school called New Village Leadership Academy. Smith has also used his fame to support social causes like the legalization of same-sex marriage and the equal representation of minorities in film making him an important figure in the industry on and off the big screen.
5. Samuel L. Jackson
When making a list like this sometimes actors shine because they win a lot of awards or provide some game changing element to their success. Sometimes actors become iconic just because it’s impossible to escape their presence on the big screen. There’s probably not a soul in the world who goes to the movies who has not seen at least a handful of Samuel L. Jackson performances in their lifetime. Set to appear in his 125th feature film (not counting sketches and documentaries) in this years “The Incredibles 2” Jackson is one of the most devoted actors in the business appearing in at least two movies a year every year for the last 27 years, many of them box office hits that raked up a total of $16 billion altogether worldwide and an average box office take of nearly $70 million per film. To list off the franchises and series Jackson has been a part of here would take up way too much space but this actor has appeared in nearly every genre you can think of and he’s done it mostly in style. His box office record has made him the all-time box office star which is no surprise considering how many projects he has been a part of. Jackson is not without his awards recognition either. He earned Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations for his role in “Pulp Fiction” and has taken home wins for BAFTA awards, Black Reel Awards, NAACP Image Awards and a Screen Actors Guild Award just to name a few. Outside of film Jackson was heavily involved in the Civil Rights Movement and was even an usher for Martin Luther King, Jr.’s funeral. He was part of the Black Power Movement. In more modern days Jackson, an avid golfer, has played in numerous charity tournaments and has been part of a campaign to raise money to fight Alzheimer’s. He also started a campaign called “One for the Boys” to educate men in the risks of testicular cancer. I could go on and on about why Jackson deserves a place on this list, but if the 125 movies didn’t sell you on it I don’t know what else I can say.
4. Morgan Freeman
Like Samuel L. Jackson there’s probably not a soul around who watches movies who has not seen a film with Morgan Freeman at least once. While his filmography isn’t as extensive as Jackson’s, Freeman’s roles are more iconic and memorable overall along with his trademark vocal style that has made him the go-to narrator for documentaries and films over the course of his extensive film career. From his humble beginnings as a credited actor in 1980’s “Brubaker” to his memorable roles in “Driving Miss Daisy”, “The Shawshank Redemption”, “Bruce Almighty”, “Million Dollar Baby”, the “Dark Knight” trilogy and the list goes on and on Freeman has been a part of some of the most iconic and treasured films and stories of the last three (going on four) decades making him one of the most popular black actors of all time among both casual and hard core film buffs and a respected mentor among his colleagues. He finally won his Oscar in 2004 for “Million Dollar Baby” and has a Golden Globe for “Driving Miss Daisy” as well as two Black Reel Awards, numerous NAACP Image Awards, a Screen Actors Guild Award and more to his credit. Freeman is known almost as much for his charitable work and political stances as he is his acting. He helped form the Granada Relief Fund in the wake of Hurricane Ivan and has assisted organizations like One Earth by lending his unmistakable voice to their projects. Freeman has also been a staunch anti-racism activist supporting the removal of the Confederate battle flag and opposing the Tea Party, calling them racist. One of his most famous statements was against Black History Month saying that black history is American history and that it should be celebrated as part of America’s culture not a culture unto itself. Freeman has proven to be a voice on so many levels, either literally in his works or figuratively in his activism, and in the process has established himself as one of the undeniable greats.
3. James Earl Jones
Speaking of a voice! With a career spanning over 60 years you may not necessarily know him by name but you definitely KNOW James Earl Jones. Considered among the most distinguished and versatile actors of all time and one of the best ever to enter the industry, Jones makes this list not only due to his years in the business, but his numerous iconic roles and his overall impact to the art of entertainment. A master of voice overs with his big booming vocals, Jones has become a household name for more casual fans as the voices of Mufasa from “The Lion King” and Darth Vader in the “Star Wars” franchise but his career is so much more than these popular roles. He has appeared in other notable films like “Dr. Strangelove”, “The Exorcist II”, and “Field of Dreams”. His talents have also led him to the stage and into video games with his booming baritone voice earning him numerous narrator roles. The winner of a Tony in 1969, a Golden Globe in 1970, a Grammy in 1977, two Primetime Emmys in 1990, a Daytime Emmy in 1999, a Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award in 2008 and an Academy Honorary Award in 2011 Jones’ legacy is one not to be unappreciated. A military veteran and a spokesperson for type II diabetes, a disease he has dealt with himself, Jones also overcame a stutter in his youth making his legendary vocal performances all the more inspiring. His success in the industry helped pave the way for many like him and while several actors on this list have lent their memorable voices to projects over the years Jones was one of the first to start that narrator trend so if nothing else we can thank him greatly for opening the door for actors like Morgan Freeman and Laurence Fishburne to grace us with this deliveries.
2. Denzel Washington
I once saw someone call Denzel Washington the “black Daniel Day-Lewis” because of Washington’s consistent award’s nominations and success. That comparison is not far off. Washington has won three Golden Globes (including the Cecil B. DeMille Award), a pair of Academy Awards, and a Tony awards in addition to seven other Oscar nominations and seven other Globe nominations. He also has a Screen Actors Guild Award win, numerous BET Awards, and 17 NAACP Image Award wins to his credit making him one of the most honored black actors in history. Washington has made a name for himself portraying strong black male characters including a few roles, specifically in “Fences”, “Glory”, “Malcolm X” and “Remember the Titans”, where he portrayed black males in a time and era with a racial subtext. He is also well known for his work in biopics taking on such figures as Malcolm X, Rubin “Hurricane” Carter and Steve Biko just to name a few. Washington is known for his dedication to his craft, bringing an emotion and development to the screen that truly brings his characters to life. He has also directed three films including bringing the Tony Award winning “Fences’ to the big screen in 2016, earning it an Oscar nomination for Best Picture. A devout Christian, Washington has put his beliefs to practice in the real world as a philanthropist supporting the Boys & Girls Clubs of America and the armed forces. He has also been a part of celebrity heavy projects to battle AIDS and, at times, he’s been a symbol of racial equality for many although this is a role implied more than fully embraced by Washington himself. As one of the most well-rounded actors on this list Washington is a true force in the industry who has worked his way to iconic status through careful film choices and an incredible craft earning him the penultimate spot on this list. However, there is one actor even more iconic who takes the top spot.
1. Sidney Poitier
It doesn’t get more iconic than this. Sir Sidney Poitier has lived an accomplished life many of us can barely even dream of enjoying let alone see through. This Bahamian American actor started his career in 1949 and overcame racial divides, tone deafness and other roadblocks to become the most distinguished black actor of all time if not in actin awards then overall lifetime honors. From 1950 until 1997 Poitier appeared in 43 feature length films as well as shorts and documentaries not counted in that total. He also directed nine films, the last being 1990’s “Ghost Dad”. In 1964 he cemented his name in the history books as the first black actor to win the Academy Award for Best Actor AND the Golden Globe for Best Actor both for his role in “Lillies of the Field”. He followed this up with three iconic movies tackling race issues in their themes, “To Sir, with Love”, “In the Heat of the Night” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” all in 1967 which made him the biggest box office star of that year. Poitier racked up numerous other awards during his time in the spotlight including the Golden Globe Cecil B. DeMille Award in 1982, the NAACP Image Awards Hall of Fame Award and even a Grammy and Honorary Oscar in 2001 and 2002 respectively. Possibly his biggest achievement however is receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009 from President Barack Obama. To top it all off Poitier acted as ambassador of the Bahamas to Japan for ten years, served on the board of director at Disney, and earned a BAFTA membership in 2016. Many have sited Poitier as a figure of prominence. Some see him as an inspiration, others as a trail blazer and others as a Cinderella story to strive for. Regardless it’s hard to deny Poitier the credit he deserves. His ability to endure and blaze a trail for those who followed his success made him the very definition of an icon in the film industry and for that he rightfully tops this list of iconic black actors.