50 Greatest Black Actresses of All Time: Iconic Women in Film and Television

Ben Kofi

Viola Davis

The world of cinema has seen many great talents, but few have made as lasting an impact as the greatest Black actresses of all time. These women have broken barriers and delivered powerful performances that have captivated audiences. From the trailblazers of past generations to today’s leading icons, their achievements are noteworthy.

Actresses like Viola Davis, Angela Bassett, and Halle Berry have redefined roles and opened doors for future generations. Their work spans diverse genres, showcasing their extraordinary range and talent. Whether starring in dramas, comedies, or action films, their contributions have enriched the entertainment industry.

If you have ever marveled at the remarkable influence of Black actresses in Hollywood, this article will highlight their incredible contributions and celebrate their achievements. Learn about the pioneers, the contemporary stars, and the rising talents who continue to inspire and pave the way for others.

Image Credit: Red Carpet Report on Mingle Media TV, CC BY-SA 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

A Legacy of Talent and Triumph: Celebrated Black Actresses

The world of film and television has been shaped by the incredible talent and captivating performances of Black actresses. From trailblazing pioneers to modern icons, these women have made an indelible mark on the industry and left behind a legacy of powerful storytelling and representation.

Pioneers of the Golden Age

  • Hattie McDaniel: Became the first Black person to win an Oscar for her role as Mammy in “Gone with the Wind” (1939).
  • Dorothy Dandridge: A talented singer and actress who became the first Black woman nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for “Carmen Jones” (1954).
  • Lena Horne: A singer, dancer, and actress known for her beauty and talent, she starred in numerous films and became a civil rights activist.
  • Cicely Tyson: A renowned actress known for her portrayals of strong Black women, she earned an Oscar nomination for “Sounder” (1972) and won numerous awards throughout her career.

Dorothy Dandridge, Studio Publicity, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Modern Icons and Trailblazers

  • Whoopi Goldberg: An EGOT winner (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony), Goldberg has captivated audiences with her comedic timing and dramatic depth in films like “The Color Purple” and “Ghost.”
  • Angela Bassett: Known for her powerful and regal presence, Bassett has delivered unforgettable performances in films like “What’s Love Got to Do with It” and “Black Panther.”
  • Viola Davis: A critically acclaimed actress, Davis became the first Black woman to achieve the “Triple Crown of Acting” (Oscar, Emmy, and Tony) with her roles in “Fences,” “How to Get Away with Murder,” and “King Hedley II.”
  • Octavia Spencer: Spencer’s charm and versatility have earned her an Oscar for “The Help” and numerous other accolades.

Image Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/40272616@N07/4800636882

Emerging Stars and Future Icons

ActressNotable Works
Zendaya“Euphoria,” “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” “Dune”
Issa Rae“Insecure,” “The Photograph,” “The Lovebirds”
Thuso Mbedu“The Woman King,” “The Underground Railroad”
Lashana Lynch“Captain Marvel,” “No Time to Die”

These rising stars are just a few examples of the talented Black actresses who are making their mark in Hollywood and shaping the future of film and television. They continue to inspire and entertain audiences worldwide with their compelling performances and powerful stories.

50 Greatest Black Actresses of All Time

RankActressNotable WorksImpact and Accolades
1Cicely Tyson“Sounder,” “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,” “Roots”Emmy and Tony Award winner, Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient, known for portraying strong and resilient Black women.
2Viola Davis“Fences,” “How to Get Away with Murder,” “The Help”First Black actress to achieve the Triple Crown of Acting (Oscar, Emmy, and Tony), celebrated for her powerful and nuanced performances.
3Whoopi Goldberg“The Color Purple,” “Ghost,” “Sister Act”EGOT winner, renowned for her comedic timing and dramatic versatility.
4Angela Bassett“What’s Love Got to Do with It,” “Black Panther,” “Malcolm X”Golden Globe winner, known for portraying iconic figures like Tina Turner and Queen Ramonda, celebrated for her regal presence and commanding performances.
5Octavia Spencer“The Help,” “Hidden Figures,” “Fruitvale Station”Academy Award winner, acclaimed for her authentic and heartfelt portrayals of diverse characters.
6Halle Berry“Monster’s Ball,” “Die Another Day,” “Introducing Dorothy Dandridge”First Black woman to win the Academy Award for Best Actress, known for her versatility and range.
7Regina King“If Beale Street Could Talk,” “Watchmen,” “Ray”Academy Award, Golden Globe, and Emmy winner, recognized for her compelling performances and directorial talent.
8Alfre Woodard“Cross Creek,” “12 Years a Slave,” “Luke Cage”Emmy and Golden Globe winner, celebrated for her diverse roles in film, television, and theater.
9Pam Grier“Foxy Brown,” “Jackie Brown,” “Coffy”Blaxploitation icon, known for her strong female characters and groundbreaking roles in action films.
10Diahann Carroll“Julia,” “Claudine,” “Porgy and Bess”First Black woman to star in a non-stereotypical role on American television, nominated for an Academy Award and Tony Award.
11Ruby Dee“A Raisin in the Sun,” “American Gangster,” “Do the Right Thing”Emmy Award winner, civil rights activist, and acclaimed for her diverse roles in film, television, and theater.
12Queen Latifah“Chicago,” “Bessie,” “Bringing Down the House”Grammy, Emmy, and Golden Globe winner, known for her acting, singing, and producing talents.
13Kerry Washington“Scandal,” “Django Unchained,” “The Last King of Scotland”Primetime Emmy nominee, praised for her portrayal of complex and dynamic female characters.
14Taraji P. Henson“Hidden Figures,” “Empire,” “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”Academy Award nominee, known for her charismatic and powerful performances in film and television.
15Regina Taylor“I’ll Fly Away,” “The Unit,” “The Negotiator”Golden Globe winner, celebrated for her roles in television dramas and on stage.
16Jada Pinkett Smith“The Matrix Reloaded,” “Girls Trip,” “Gotham”Known for her versatility and roles in both blockbuster films and television series.
17Thandiwe Newton“Crash,” “Westworld,” “Mission: Impossible 2”BAFTA Award winner, acclaimed for her performances in diverse genres and complex characters.
18Anika Noni Rose“Dreamgirls,” “The Princess and the Frog,” “For Colored Girls”Tony Award winner and Disney Legend, known for her powerful voice and memorable roles.
19Teyonah Parris“Mad Men,” “WandaVision,” “Chi-Raq”Rising star, recognized for her performances in acclaimed television series and films.
20Jurnee Smollett“Eve’s Bayou,” “Birds of Prey,” “Lovecraft Country”Critically acclaimed actress, known for her emotionally charged and captivating performances.
21Zoe Kravitz“Big Little Lies,” “The Batman,” “Mad Max: Fury Road”Rising star, praised for her versatility and captivating on-screen presence.
22Lupita Nyong’o“12 Years a Slave,” “Us,” “Black Panther”Academy Award winner, celebrated for her breakout role in “12 Years a Slave” and her continued success in both dramatic and comedic roles.
23Rosario Dawson“Rent,” “Sin City,” “Men in Black II”Known for her diverse roles in various genres, from independent films to blockbuster franchises.
24Sanaa Lathan“Love & Basketball,” “The Best Man,” “Alien vs. Predator”Acclaimed actress, known for her performances in romantic comedies and dramatic roles.
25Gabrielle Union“Bring It On,” “Bad Boys II,” “Being Mary Jane”Popular actress, known for her roles in comedies, dramas, and television series.
26Kimberly Elise“Diary of a Mad Black Woman,” “Beloved,” “John Q”Acclaimed actress, known for her powerful performances in dramas and independent films.
27Tracee Ellis Ross“Girlfriends,” “Black-ish,” “The High Note”Golden Globe winner, celebrated for her comedic timing and stylish presence on screen.
28Loretta Devine“Waiting to Exhale,” “Crash,” “Grey’s Anatomy”Emmy Award winner, known for her versatility and memorable roles in both film and television.
29Vanessa L. Williams“Ugly Betty,” “Soul Food,” “Shaft”Multi-talented actress and singer, recognized for her roles in television series and films.
30Tiffany Haddish“Girls Trip,” “The Kitchen,” “Like a Boss”Breakout comedic star, known for her hilarious and relatable performances.
31Phylicia Rashad“The Cosby Show,” “Creed,” “A Raisin in the Sun”Emmy and Tony Award nominee, acclaimed for her roles in television, film, and theater.
32Loretta Young“The Farmer’s Daughter,” “Come to the Stable,” “The Bishop’s Wife”Academy Award winner and multi-talented actress known for her versatility and range.
33Dorothy Dandridge“Carmen Jones,” “Porgy and Bess,” “Island in the Sun”First African-American woman to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress, known for her beauty and talent.
34Eartha Kitt“Catwoman,” “The Emperor’s New Groove,” “Boomerang”Iconic singer, actress, and activist, known for her distinctive voice and sultry persona.
35Nina Mae McKinney“Hallelujah,” “Pinky,” “Cabin in the Sky”One of the first African-American film stars, known for her captivating beauty and performances.
36Fredi Washington“Imitation of Life,” “Cab Calloway’s Hi-De-Ho,” “Ouanga”Pioneering actress, known for her role in “Imitation of Life” and her activism for racial equality.
37Ethel Waters“Cabin in the Sky,” “Pinky,” “The Member of the Wedding”First African-American woman to be nominated for an Emmy Award, celebrated for her roles in film and theater.
38Louise Beavers“Imitation of Life,” “She Done Him Wrong,” “The Vanishing Virginian”Character actress known for her portrayals of maids and servants in classic Hollywood films.
39Theresa Harris“Baby Face,” “Professional Sweetheart,” “Miracle in Harlem”Talented actress who often played comedic roles, known for her quick wit and charm.
40Hattie McDaniel“Gone with the Wind,” “Judge Priest,” “Show Boat”First African-American to win an Academy Award, though often typecast in stereotypical roles.
41Juanita Moore“Imitation of Life,” “The Girl Can’t Help It,” “The Singing Nun”Academy Award nominee, known for her powerful performance in “Imitation of Life.”
42Nichelle Nichols“Star Trek,” “Truck Turner,” “Heroes”Iconic actress known for her role as Lieutenant Uhura in “Star Trek,” a trailblazer for Black women in science fiction.
43Esther Rolle“Good Times,” “Driving Miss Daisy,” “Rosewood”Emmy-nominated actress, best known for her role as Florida Evans in “Good Times.”
44Nell Carter“Ain’t Misbehavin’,” “Gimme a Break!,” “The Grass Harp”Tony Award winner, renowned for her powerful voice
45Eartha Kitt“Catwoman,” “The Emperor’s New Groove,” “Boomerang”Iconic singer, actress, and activist, known for her distinctive voice and sultry persona.
46Rosalind Cash“Klute,” “The Omega Man,” “Cornbread, Earl and Me”Blaxploitation star known for her strong performances in diverse roles and independent films.
47Lynn Whitfield“The Josephine Baker Story,” “Eve’s Bayou,” “Madea’s Family Reunion”Emmy Award winner, acclaimed for her portrayal of complex and dynamic female characters.
48Debbie Allen“Fame,” “A Different World,” “Grey’s Anatomy”Emmy and Golden Globe winner, accomplished actress, dancer, choreographer, and director.
49Sheryl Lee Ralph“Dreamgirls,” “Moesha,” “Abbott Elementary”Emmy Award winner, celebrated for her versatile career in theater, television, and film.
50Vanessa Bell Calloway“Coming to America,” “What’s Love Got to Do with It,” “Hawthorne”Known for her roles in popular films and television series, often portraying strong and independent women.

Key Takeaways

  • Learn about the greatest Black actresses in Hollywood.
  • Discover the trailblazers and contemporary icons.
  • Find out about their significant contributions to entertainment.

Pioneers and Trailblazers

Octavia Spencer, Kevin McIntyre, CC BY 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Some Black actresses have made historic strides in the entertainment industry. They broke barriers with their achievements and have had significant impacts through iconic roles in films.

Groundbreaking Achievements

Hattie McDaniel was the first Black actress to win an Oscar for her role as Mammy in Gone with the Wind. Her win in 1940 was a monumental moment in Hollywood history.

Dorothy Dandridge became the first Black woman to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance in Carmen Jones. This nomination in 1954 paved the way for future generations.

Lena Horne was a trailblazer on many fronts. She was the first Black actress to sign a long-term contract with a major Hollywood studio. Her presence on the Hollywood Walk of Fame celebrates her barrier-breaking career.

Recognition during Black History Month often highlights these actresses. Their contributions continue to inspire new generations of performers.

Influential Films and Roles

In Gone with the Wind, Hattie McDaniel’s role as Mammy remains iconic. Despite the racial stereotypes of the time, her performance brought depth and humanity to the character.

Dorothy Dandridge’s portrayal in Carmen Jones was groundbreaking. The film showcased her talent and highlighted the challenges and triumphs of Black actresses in the mid-20th century.

Lena Horne’s roles in films like Stormy Weather helped normalize the presence of Black actresses in Hollywood. She refused to play stereotypical roles, often pushing for better representation.

These films and roles not only showcased their talents but also challenged the industry’s norms. Their legacy lives on in the performances of today’s Black actresses.

Contemporary Icons

The following highlights contemporary Black actresses who are making significant impacts through award-winning performances and diverse roles across various genres.

Award-Winning Talents

Viola Davis stands out with her Academy Award for her role in Fences. She also has Golden Globe and Emmy Awards, further cementing her status. Taraji P. Henson, known for her role in Empire, has received a Golden Globe Award and an Academy Award nomination for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Octavia Spencer won an Academy Award for The Help. Angela Bassett has numerous Golden Globe and Emmy nominations, widely recognized for her role in Black Panther. Halle Berry made history with her Oscar win for Monster’s Ball. Whoopi Goldberg is celebrated for her roles in The Color Purple and her EGOT status, having won an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony Award.

Diversity in Roles and Genres

Oprah Winfrey has excelled in both acting and producing, with memorable roles in The Color Purple and Selma. She also produces diverse content through her network. Angela Bassett has shown remarkable versatility from action-packed roles in Black Panther to emotional performances in What’s Love Got to Do with It. Taraji P. Henson has taken on varied roles in films such as Hidden Figures and the TV show Empire. Octavia Spencer can be seen in comedies like Hidden Figures, dramas like The Help, and thrillers like Ma. Viola Davis has captivated audiences in projects ranging from action movies like Suicide Squad to TV series like How to Get Away with Murder.

Frequently Asked Questions

Many black actresses have achieved enormous success in their careers. This section addresses some of the most common questions about them.

Which black actress has won the most Academy Awards?

Hattie McDaniel was the first black actress to win an Oscar for her role in “Gone with the Wind.” Whoopi Goldberg and Halle Berry are also notable winners, with Berry being the first and only black woman to win the Academy Award for Best Actress for her role in “Monster’s Ball.”

Who has been influential in breaking barriers for black women in film?

Dorothy Dandridge, the first black woman nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress, paved the way for many. Oprah Winfrey has also made significant impacts through both her acting and production work. Angela Bassett and Viola Davis have consistently been influential in their groundbreaking roles and performances.

What black actress has the most Box Office success?

Halle Berry remains one of the most successful black actresses in box office history. Her roles in films like “Die Another Day” and “X-Men” have garnered significant revenue. Taraji P. Henson has also enjoyed box office success, notably with “Hidden Figures” and the “Empire” TV series.

Who are some iconic black actresses who have also excelled on stage?

Audra McDonald is one of the most decorated actresses in American theater. She has won multiple Tony Awards, demonstrating excellence in both stage and screen acting. Phylicia Rashad, known for her role in “The Cosby Show,” has also earned critical acclaim for her stage work.

What black actresses have made significant contributions to television acting?

Kerry Washington’s role in “Scandal” broke new ground for black actresses in prime-time television. Viola Davis has also made a monumental impact with her role in “How to Get Away with Murder.” Both actresses have set high standards in television acting.

Which black actresses are known for their significant philanthropic efforts?

Oprah Winfrey’s philanthropic work spans education, healthcare, and more. She has funded numerous scholarships and programs supporting underserved communities. Viola Davis is also known for her charitable efforts, focusing on hunger relief and childhood education through various initiatives.