List of the Top 22 All-Time Black Actresses
Since the start of the 1930s, black actresses have been appearing in the earliest adaptations of films. Long before the rise of the film industry, many were multifaceted and well-round in many forms of entertainment, having a repertoire of acting, singing, and dancing while performing at nightclubs, in chorus lines, through various circuits from vaudeville to the Chitlin Circuits, or even on the radio, all during time when minstrel shows, and racism ran rampant.
Legendary talents like Lena Horne, Josephine Baker, Ethel Waters, Dorothy Dandridge, Theresa Harris, Lillian Randolph, Mamie Smith, Ruby Dandridge, Ruby Dee, and Vivian Dandridge all began their careers around this time, from the 1920s to the 1950s. Right beside famous blues and jazz singers and performers, black actresses were the crown jewels for African-American culture during the early part of the 20th Century.
While entertainment in America was still growing, by the 1960s and 1970s there was a emergence of black actresses and entertainers, especially during the era of the Blaxploitation films, which starred the likes of Pam Grier, Vonetta McGee, Tamara Dobson, Teresa Graves, Carol Speed, Brenda Sykes, and Gloria Hendry. Only to motivate and inspire, the surfacing of dozens of women seeking roles in films and television series would bring the rise of a countless number of Hollywood greats, from the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s to today’s leading actors in Hollywood, like Letitia Wright, Yara Shahidi, or Zendaya.
Top Black Actresses
1. Lena Horne
A pioneering woman in the film industry and one of the frontline leaders of the civil rights movement, Lena Horne is a true American idol. Hailing from the historic black communities of Bed-Stuy in Brooklyn, New York and the Hill District of Pittsburgh, Lena Horne would begin as an entertainer during the 1930s and 1940s, first performing as a singer and a dancer in various New York City nightclubs and later touring and traveling with multiple jazz bands. Eventually making her way to Los Angeles, Lena Horne spent the bulk of her career within the film industry during the 1940s, mostly performing in musicals. By the 1950s, Lena Horne would mostly focus on her profession as a musician, producing over 50 albums throughout the course of her career. Receiving numerous nominations and lifetime achievement awards, Lena Horne will always remain a staple of black culture and history.
2. Pam Grier
A career expanding well into the new millennium, Pam Grier pioneered the strong black woman lead in Hollywood as she emerged as one of the leading actors of the Blaxploitation era. Debuting in the raunchy film The Big Doll House (1971), Pam Grier would eventually become an icon for black culture by building a solid career with key roles in over 50 films, movies like Foxy Brown, Coffy, Jackie Brown, Above The Law, Greased Lightning, Original Gangstas, and many more from the 1970s to the 2010s.
3. Ruby Dee
One of the premiere actresses of her time, Ruby Dee is a product of Harlem, emerging during the time following the Harlem Renaissance. Her first appearances were in the theater during the early 1940s, before debuting on film in one of the first movies to have an all-black cast, That Man of Mine. In what would begin during the late 1940s, Ruby Dee’s career in film and television would expand into the 2010s, starring in movies like A Raisin in the Sun and The Jackie Robinson Story, finishing her career appearing in over 100 films, television shows, and plays. While her life was centered around entertainment, Ruby Dee was much more than a performance on screen, alongside her husband, Ossie Davis, she was one of the key figures on the frontline for the civil rights movement.
4. Dorothy Dandridge
Daughter of actor Ruby Dandridge, Dorothy Dandridge was a renowned actress from the 1930s to the 1950s. Originating as one half of the Dandridge Sisters, alongside her sister Vivian Dandridge, the duo would perform in theaters and nightclubs during the 1930s. Eventually, Dorothy would begin her own career in film as a young aspiring actress venturing off into a solo career. Acclaimed for roles in Carmen Jones and Porgy Bess, along with appearing in over 30 films, Dorothy Dandridge was truly an inspiration for many, becoming one of the first black actresses to become a megastar in American culture.
5. Halle Berry
One of the all-time greats, Halle Berry quickly became one of the most highlighted actresses, especially following her debut during the early 1990s with appearances in films like Jungle Fever, Boomerang, and The Last Boy Scout. A native of the city of Cleveland and former Miss America runner-up, Halle Berry would follow her passion and seek a career in acting, first landing a gig as Emily on the television show Living Dolls. As her career progressed, Halle Berry became acclaimed for her roles of the 2000s in the X-Men series and in films like Monster’s Ball, Swordfish, Gothika, Die Another Day, and Why Do Fools Fall in Love.
6. Viola Davis
Despite starting her acting career in theater during the late 1980s and 1990s, while also initially appearing in multiple acting roles in film and television throughout the 2000s, Viola Davis became a household name during the 2010s with her starring role on the hit television series How to Get Away with Murder and for co-starring in films like Fences (2016) and The Help (2011). Years of work has led Viola Davis to become praised, obtaining numerous awards and nominations from the Screen Actors Guild, Tony Awards, Emmy Awards, Golden Globe Awards, Academy Awards, and the NAACP Image Awards.
7. Cicely Tyson
A career spanning from the 1960s to the time of her death, Cicely Tyson has been honored and awarded for her work over the multitude of six decades. Her creation of characters in films and miniseries like Fried Green Tomatoes, The Help, Hoodlum, The River Niger, Sounder, Diary of a Mad Black Woman, Roots, and King has given her the platform of longevity and a legacy unmatched. From the stage to the television to the big screen, Cicely Tyson is one of the very few actors in Hollywood that has had the talent to remain in show business for an extended period of time.
8. Diahann Carroll
Another trailblazer for black actresses in the entertainment industry, Diahann Carroll made appearances in several celebrated films, like Carmen Jones (1954) and Eve’s Bayou (1997), but she would gain fame and stardom through her time on the television screens of millions of viewers. From her notable time on various variety and talk shows to 3 seasons on the hit television show Julia, Diahann Carroll was one of the first African-Americans to have a dominant presence on television.
9. Taraji P. Henson
While the Washington D.C. native would eventually gain fame and stardom starring in a number of noteworthy films of the 2000s and 2010s, Taraji P. Henson would slowly begin her career with minor roles and guest appearances in television series like ER, Felicity, Sister Sister, Smart Guy, and Saved by the Bell. Graduating from the prestigious college of Howard University, Taraji P. Henson has now become everyone’s favorite actress, but only after years of her starring on the television show Empire and for appearing in over 30 films, like Baby Boy, Hustle & Flow, Hidden Figures, Think Like a Man, and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.
10. Whoopi Goldberg
One of the most notable actors of the 1990s, Whoopi Goldberg became a star of all stars with parts in blockbuster films like Ghost, Sister Act, Sister Act 2, Made In Ameria, Ghosts of Mississippi, The Lion King, and Star Trek. While Whoopi Goldberg was one of the most sought after actresses of the 1990s, starring in close to 40 films during the 1990s alone, the Manhattan native received her entry into showbusiness with her appearing as Celie in The Color Purple (1985). Since, Whoopi has had an extradinary career, a career that has expanded from her dominating the 1990s to hosting the number one daytime talk show, The View.
11. Angela Bassett
Introduced to moviegoers through films like Kindergarten and Boyz N The Hood, Angela Bassett quickly rose to prominence as not only one of the top black actresses, but as one of the most talented actors in Hollywood during the 1990s. Versatile with the ability to diversify her style as an actor, Angela Bassett’s proficiency in acting has been showcased with her performances as Betty Shabazz in Malcolm X, Bernie in Waiting to Exhale, Stella Payne in How Stella Got Her Groove Back, Ramonda in Black Panther, mother of Akeelah in Akeelah and the Bee.
12. Kerry Washington
Officially beginning her career during the 2000s starring in films like Our Song (2000) and Save the Last Dance (2001), while making minor appearances during the 1990s, the New York City native grew in popularity with acting parts in mega hits like Django Unchained, Ray, and The Last King of Scotland, but Kerry Washington’s most notable role was in the hit television show Scandal.
13. Regina King
Ironically, growing up near South Los Angeles, Regina Hall’s first roles were in movies that depicted life growing up in South Central during the 1990s. Debuting in Boyz N The Hood, which was followed by Poetic Justice, Higher Learning and Friday, Regina Hall has had a steady career since first appearing in the 1980s sitcom 227, in which she starred alongside Marla Gibbs, Hal Williams, and Jackée Harry. The strength of her résumé is impeccable, from starring in blockbuster films like Jerry Maguire, Ray, Enemy of the State, Miss Congeniality, and How Stella Got Her Groove Back to appearing on classic television shows like The Boondocks, Watchmen, and Southland.
14. Sanaa Lathan
Born into the industry with her father being an accomplished movie director and producer and her mother being an actress, Sanaa Lathan would eventually follow in their footsteps. Her first major role in film was 1998’s Blade, while throughout the late 1990s Sanaa guest appeared in television shows like Family Matters, NYPD Blue, Moesha, and In The House. While some of her most notable roles were during the 1990s, like Life, The Best Man, and The Wood, Sanaa Lathan would occupy the bulk of her career during the 2000s and 2010s with appearances in Love & Basketball, Contagion, and Brown Sugar, and on hit television series like The Cleveland Show as Donna Tubbs, Nip/Tuck, and Succession.
15. Jada Pinkett Smith
Of late, Jada Pinkett Smith has been in the headlines for being the wife of Will Smith, the mother of Jaden and Willow, and for her Emmy award winning talk show Red Table, but Jada Pinkett Smith began her journey into entertainment decades ago. Following her attendance at Baltimore School of the Arts alongside Tupac Shakur, Jada Pinkett Smith would begin her career with minor roles on television before landing a role on A Different World. Outside of television, Jada Pinkett Smith’s legacy was set following her casting in films like The Matrix Reloaded & Revolutions, Set It Off, Menace II Society, Jason’s Lyric, The Nutty Professor, and Collateral.
16. Nia Long
A career that expanded well into the 2000s with her most recent film being Look Both Ways of 2022, Nia Long became an icon in black and urban culture following her roles as Brandi in Boyz N The Hood and Debbie in Friday. While born in the city of New York, Nia Long would become a homegrown girl of Los Angeles before appearing in Soul Food, Love Jones, The Best Man, and as Lisa on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
17. Regina Hall
Raised in Washington D.C., while receiving much of her education in New York City’s top universities, Regina Hall made her premiere as an actress in the 1999 film The Best Man. Since her first appearances, Regina Hall has displayed much versatility with her acting skills ranging from comedic performances to dramatic roles. One of the faces of today’s generation of black actresses, Regina Hall has starred in the Scary Movie series, Love & Basketball, Think Like a Man, Barbershop, About Last Night, Girls Trip, and Ally McBeal.
18. Octavia Spencer
Years of minor roles in multiple notable films, Octavia Spencer would break through the barriers of Hollywood with 2011’s The Help, but not before featuring in almost 50 films from 1996 to 2010. With iconic roles in films like The Help and Hidden Figures, Octavia Spencer is one of Hollywood’s most underrated and underappreciated actresses. Growing up in Montgomery, Alabama, Octavia would begin her path in acting working behind the scenes before first appearing on the TV series Moesha in 1998 and on the big screen with A Time to Kill and The 6th Man.
19. Gabrielle Union
Nebraska’s most famous, Gabrielle Union went from the small town of Omaha to one of the top black actresses of the 2000s. While introducing herself in the 1990s, first by guest appearing on over a dozen television shows before having a recurring role on 7th Heaven, followed by moviegoers viewing her in She’s All That and 10 Things I Hate About You, Gabrielle Union would spend the highlights of her career starring in films throughout the 2000s. Unlike most actors, Gabrielle Union would stay consistently active in both film and television, expanding her career from 1993 with first appearing on Family Matters to starring alongside Jessica Alba on L.A.’s Finest.
20. Vivica A. Fox
Known for numerous iconic roles, from blockbuster films like Independence Day and Kill Bill to all-time classics like Set It Off and Soul Food, Vivica A. Fox was at the top of the film industry during the late 1990s and early 2000s. Before starring in multiple films, Vivica A Fox made her initial acting debut on television guest appearing on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Family Matters, and Beverly Hills, 90210, while also starring as a regular on shows like Generations, Out All Night, and The Young and the Restless.
21. Loretta Devine
A career dating back to the late 1970s, Loretta Devine would conquer every avenue of acting, from theater to television to film. Officially beginning on the stage, Loretta Devine entered onto the screen during the 1980s featuring in movies like Little Nikita and Sticky Fingers and appearing on the first season of A Different World. An extensive list of starring, co-starring, and appearing in dozens of films and television shows, Loretta Devine surfaced as one of the most prestige actresses in Hollywood through her roles in The Preacher’s Wife, Waiting to Exhale, Grey’s Anatomy, and Boston Public.
22. Queen Latifah
Along with being one of the top female rappers of all-time, Queen Latifah began her career in acting during the 1990s, only to become one of the top black actresses during the 2000s. As Queen Latifah was becoming a leader in hip-hop, the homegrown New Jersey native would start her journey in film by having minor roles in Jungle Fever, House Party 2, and Juice. Her moment of arrival was her starring as Cleo in the 1996 classic Set It Off. Continuing to appear in movies throughout the 1990s, like Sphere, The Bone Collector, and Hoodlum, the 2000s was the era Queen Latifah truly transformed from being a hip-hop artist to a leading actress in Hollywood.
Black Actresses Related Topics:
*The Above List is in No Particular Order.