It’s been a long, hard road for African American actors in the movie industry. While Hattie McDaniel became the first African American to win an Academy Award in 1939, it was nearly 20 years before another black actor received a nomination. And it’s only been in the last decade that being an award-winning African American actor wasn’t seen as ground-breaking or unusual.
In celebration of Black History Month, we’re highlighting 50 actors and actresses who helped break ground for the performers who followed. While there isn’t space to list all the worthy people, these are performers who deserve a little special highlight this month.
Sammy Davis Jr.
Davis began his career in vaudeville at the age of three and continued to work steadily until his death in 1990. After years of working the clubs, he became nationally known after a memorable performance at Ciro’s Nightclub following the 1951 Academy Awards. Primarily known as a singer and impressionist, his career included the movie Oceans 11, constant touring as a member of Sinatra’s Rat Pack and a ground-breaking 1966 TV variety show.
Arguably the first female action movie star, Grier became well known for her starring roles in 1970s blaxploitation films such as Coffy and Foxy Brown. Her career was reinvigorated after an appearance in Quentin Tarantino’s 1997 film Jackie Brown.
He has been a major force in American cinema since the 1990s, winning Two Golden Globes, a Tony Award and Academy Awards for Glory (1989) and Training Day (2001). He has played real-life figures such as Malcolm X and Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, but has also found success in a variety of genres, from Remember The Titans to Flight.
Carroll’s career was defined by the number of “firsts” she achieved in film and television. She was a part of some of the earliest major films featuring black casts, such as 19542s Carmen Jones. She also starred in 19682s Julia, one of the first shows to feature a woman of color in a non-stereotypical role.
This Bahamas-born actor was a force of nature in Hollywood in the 1960s. He became the first African American to win a leading actor Academy Award in 1963, for his starring role in Lilies in the Field. By 1967 he was Hollywood’s top box office star of the year, with three hit movies: To Sir, with Love, In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. He shifted his career to directing in the 1970s, with successes such as Let’s Do It Again and Stir Crazy.
Goldberg’s first film role in 19852s The Color Purple earned her a Golden Globe Award and an Oscar nomination. In 1990, she won a second Golden Globe for Ghost, which also netted her an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. On television she’s done everything from a role on Star Trek: The Next Generation to hosting her own talk show. She’s been nominated for an Emmy 13 times and is one of the few performers of any ethnicity to have won an Emmy, Tony, Grammy and an Oscar.
Smith has truly been successful in every aspect of show business, with awards that include four Golden Globes, two Academy Award nominations and four Grammys. After a modest career as a rapper, his TV show Fresh Prince of Bel-Air made him a star. Since the 1990s he has focused on films and is the only actor to have eight consecutive films gross more than $100 million each.
He first became nationally known thanks to TV roles on the daytime soap Another World and the PBS kids show Reading Rainbow. But by the 1980s he had built a steady string of memorable roles in movies such as Driving Miss Daisy, Glory, The Shawshank Redemption and Street Smart. He has five Oscar nominations and one win in 2005 for Million Dollar Baby.
A singer who became well-known for her performances at the Cotton Club and the Apollo Theater, Dandridge was the first African American to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress. That 1954 role in Carmen Jones was a bittersweet one for Dandridge. While she was only the third African American to receive a nomination in any category, a nervous studio had replaced her singing voice in the movie with opera singer Marilyn Horne.
Samuel L. Jackson
Jackson’s early career was hampered by a 20-year drug addiction. Ironically, his breakthrough role as a junkie in Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever happened just after he went through rehab. In the year’s since the actor has made a career of tackling gruff, often dangerous characters in movies from Pulp Fiction to Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. He’s appeared in more than 100 movies and is the highest-grossing film actor of all time.
She first gained national recognition for her role in the 1950 film The Jackie Robinson Story. Since then, she’s appeared in every conceivable medium, winning a Grammy, Emmy, Obie, Screen Actors Guild Award and earning an Academy Award nomination for 20072s American Gangster. Along with husband Ossie Davis, she was known as an extremely socially conscious celebrity, with a long history in the Civil Rights movement.
Jones battled a stutter until he was in high school that was so bad he was essentially mute for eight years. He battled past that to become one of the greatest American actors. A successful stage actor, his portrayal of a boxer in The Great White Hope earned him an Oscar nomination. While his on-camera career has continued throughout the years, he might be as well known for his voice-over work, including the voice of Darth Vader in Star Wars.
Berry is the only African American woman to have won an Academy Award for best actress. That role, in 20012s Monster’s Ball, has been a high point in a career that bounces between lesser roles in action movies like Die Another Day and small independent films. She’s played the mutant superhero Storm in three X-Men films and once agreed to briefly appear nude in the movie Swordfish after being paid an additional $500,000.
Cheadle’s first success was on TV, with a supporting role in the Golden Girls spin-off Golden Palace and a two-year stint on Picket Fences and a role as a man struggling with Parkinson’s on the last season of E.R. He’s appeared in a number of movies, with the most success coming from Out of Sight, Traffic, and Ocean’s Eleven. In 2005, he was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor for the film Hotel Rwanda, set during the Rwandan genocide.
A veteran of both TV and film, Woodard was nominated for an Academy Award for the 1983 film Cross Creek. She also received a Golden Globe nomination for the 1993 film Passion Fish. On television, she’s won four Emmy Awards for roles on shows such as Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere, L.A. Law, and Homicide: Life on the Street.
Whitaker has developed a reputation in Hollywood for tackling intense characters, from ex-LAPD Lieutenant Jon Kavanaugh on TV’s The Shield to Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in the 2006 film The Last King of Scotland. The latter role earned him an Academy Award. His first movie role was in Fast Times at Ridgemont High and his first television role was playing a bully on Diffr’nt Strokes.
She initially gained fame as a fashion model but transitioned in the early 1960s to television, where she appeared on The Guiding Light. She appeared frequently on Broadway and in 1972, she was nominated an Oscar for her role in the movie Sounder. Two years later, she won two Emmy Awards for The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.
He began acting at age eleven and his first major role was at age fourteen on the 1976 movie Apocalypse Now. He spent the 1980s appearing in a lot of minor TV and film roles, before 19912s breakthrough role in Boyz In The Hood. He’s probably best known for his role as Morpheus in the Matrix film trilogy, but he was also the first African American to portray Othello in a major studio film.
She began her singing career on TV’s The Lawrence Welk Show in the late 1950s and was primarily known as a singer until she starred in the TV variety show The Leslie Uggams Show in 1969. That show was the first variety series headed by an African American since Nat King Cole did it in the mid-1950s. While her TV work on programs such as the miniseries Roots have been successful, her primary focus has been on the stage for the past several decades.
Born Eric Marlon Bishop, Jamie Foxx began as a stand-up, which led to him joining the cast of In Living Color in 1991. He starred in his own sitcom from 1996 to 2001 and made his film debut in 19922s Toys. His acting in the movie Ray earned him an Oscar for best actor and he is also a Grammy winning musician.
She began her acting career on Broadway, where she won two Tony Awards before beginning her film career. While she hasn’t appeared in a large number of projects, her roles have won numerous awards. She earned an Academy Award nomination for 20082s Doubt and another in 20122 for The Help. In 2012, she was listed in Time’s 100 Most Influential People in the World.
Wright’s first motion picture role was a small part in the 1990 film Presumed Innocent. Other major movie roles include playing the character Felix Leiter in two James Bond movies and Beetee in the film The Hunger Games. He is primarily a stage actor, winning a Tony in 1994 for his role in Angels in America.
She’s best known to audiences for her current role as Olivia Page in the hit ABC drama Scandal. But her first TV role was on a 1994 ABC after-school special and besides a number of TV appearances, she’s done several high-profile films, including playing the wife of Ray Charles in 20042s Ray and Alicia Masters, the love interest of Ben Grimm in the Fantastic Four movies.
Born Dana Elaine Owens, this rapper-turned-actress has earned an Academy Award nomination, six Grammy nominations (and one win), a Golden Globe and two Screen Actors Guild awards. She prides herself on tackling roles that don’t depend on the color of her skin, including Hairspray, the musical Chicago and opposite Steve Martin in Bringing Down the House. On television she had a role on the long-running comedy Living Single and hosted her own daytime talk show.
Born in Georgia in 1917, Davis experienced racism first-hand as a child when the KKK threatened to shoot his father, because they felt he had a job that was “too advanced.” That experience formed his social conscience and guided the types of roles he would tackle as an actor and director. While he never found huge commercial success, he was well regarded by the industry as a talented actor and filmmaker. He was also a close friend of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., spending time marching with them at a cost to his career.
Lou Gossett Jr.
He began his acting career at the age of 17, when he was cast in a major Broadway show before he had even graduated from high school. Gossett’s movie and TV acting career consisted of a few minor roles until 1977, when he was cast as Fiddler in the television miniseries Roots. That role won him an Emmy and led to his Academy Award-winning role in 19822s An Officer and a Gentleman.
The youngest daughter of producer Quincy Jones and actress Peggy Lipton, Jones mixed-race background has not seemed to have an impact on her career. She attended Harvard planning to be a lawyer but changed majors to acting after the O.J. Simpson trial. Her first major TV role was a 2000-2002 stint on Boston Public, then bounced through several other shows before being cast in 2006 on The Office. In 2009 she moved to NBC’s Parks And Recreation, where she currently works.
His first major role was a three-year stint on NBC’s E.R. before being cast in the feature film Mission Impossible opposite Tom Cruise. The next year he played a role in the action film Con Air. Whether on TV or the movies, he tends to play larger-than-life characters who can be either gentle or intimidating.
His first major TV role was playing Jackie Jackson in the 1992 miniseries The Jacksons: An American Dream. In 1995 he got his movie career started with a role in Mr. Holland’s Opus. In the years since he’s alternated between screen roles and stage work. His most recent TV work was in 20102s Law And Order: Los Angeles.
Bassett’s best-known movie roles have been in biographies, from Tina Turner in What’s Love Got to Do with It to Betty Shabazz in Malcolm X. She also had roles in Waiting To Exhale and How Stella Got Her Groove Back. On TV she played Katherine Jackson in the miniseries The Jacksons: An American Dream. In her free time she is an Ambassador of UNICEF for the USA.
Murphy is a performer who really has done it all. He was a TV regular on Saturday Night Live from 1980 to 1984. His string of hit films make him the second-highest grossing actor in the U.S. As a singer, he scored two hit singles in the 1980s and in recent years has carved out a career doing voice work on movies such as the Shrek films. In 2007 he received an Academy Award nomination for his work in Dreamgirls.
Ross’s singing accomplishments as a member of The Supremes and a solo artist might distract from her few acting roles. But stellar performances as Billie Holiday in 19722s Lady Sings The Blues and 19782s The Wiz showcased her acting chops. Her take on Holiday’s career earned her an Academy Award for best actress, the first for an African American since Dorothy Dandridge in 1954.
Burton’s first professional audition netted him the role of a lifetime as Kunta Kinte in the ABC miniseries Roots. Nominated for an Emmy, he bounced around a bit before settling in 1983 as host and executive producer of the PBS kids show Reading Rainbow. That series ran 23 seasons. In 1986 he was cast as Geordi La Forge in the Star Trek: The Next Generation, a role he played during the TV series run and in five motion pictures.
Billy Dee Williams
He began his Broadway career in 1945 and he made his first film in 1959. But Williams shot to fame in the 1971 made-for-TV film Brian’s Song, where he played football player Gale Sayers. The 1980s brought a number of iconic roles for Williams, including Lando Calrissian in the Star Wars films and Harvey Dent in 19892s Batman.
Although she’s primarily known for her work on Broadway and as a dancer/choreographer, her film career contained one role that changed her professional life. Although her part in the 1980 feature film Fame was a small one, her character became a central figure of the TV spin-off, which ran from 1982-1987. She was later a producer/director on the NBC series A Different World, which ran for six seasons. In recent years she’s made appearances as a mentor on So You Think You Can Dance and had a recurring role on Grey’s Anatomy.
He began his career as a tap dancer at the age of three and was best known as a dancer until he was cast in the Mel Brooks film History of the World, Part 1. That opened up a string of hit movie roles, including White Nights, Running Scared, Waiting To Exhale and Tap. Hines died of liver cancer at 57, on August 9, 2003.
While she has appeared in a few feature films, Tunie is best known for her television roles. She played attorney Jessica Griffin on the CBS soap As the World Turns and medical examiner Melinda Warner on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. She also appeared in season one of 24 and had a three-year recurring role on NYPD Blue.
Glover’s parents were active in the NAACP and that involvement inspired him as he reached adulthood. He has a long history of activism, both for unions and migrant workers. His film career is impressive, including the character Sgt. Roger Murtaugh in the Lethal Weapon movies and starring roles in The Color Purple, Predator, Dreamgirls and Heart Of Darkness.
Cuba Gooding Jr.
His father was the lead singer of the 1970s soul group The Main Ingredient and his family moved to Los Angeles after the band had a hit with “Everybody Plays the Fool.” His first major role was in 19912s Boyz N The Hood and a series of memorable roles followed, capped by his role in Jerry McGuire, which earned him an Oscar. In recent years his projects have mostly been direct-to-DVD films.
Born to a a Zimbabwean health-care worker and a White British lab technician, Newton’s first major movie role was in 19942s Interview With A Vampire. She was the female lead in Mission Impossible II and on TV spent three years as a cast member on the medical drama E.R. In 2012, she starred opposite Tyler Perry in the movie Good Deeds.
His first feature film role was in the 1985 movie Krush Groove. After several short stints on TV shows, he was cast in L.A. Law, where he appeared for seven years. In the years since he has done some low-profile movie acting and starred in several short-lived TV series, including LAX and The Event.
Devine’s first Broadway role was a disaster, an appearance in 19782s A Broadway Musical, which closed after one performance. But it lead to her role in Dreamgirls, which ran 1,500 performances. Her breakout film role was in 19952s Waiting To Exhale. But it’s her roles on TV that audiences are most familiar with, including Boston Public and Grey’s Anatomy, where he was won an Emmy. She currently is a cast member in the Lifetime series The Client List.
Michael Clarke Duncan
He spent his early career in Hollywood splitting his time between auditions and providing security for a number of well-known celebrities. He quit that career after one of his clients, the Notorious B.I.G., was killed in 1997. He breakout role as being cast as Bear in the blockbuster Armageddon, which lead to his iconic role in The Green Mile. That role won him a Golden Globe and an Academy Award nomination. Duncan died of complications following a heart attack on Sept. 3, 2012.
Dawson began her movie career when she was discovered and cast in the controversial 1995 film Kids. Since then she’s bounced back and forth between edgy independent films and high-profile big budget studio films such as Rent, Sin City, Men In Black II and He Got Game.
Snipes struggled early in his career, at one point losing out for the role of Geordi La Forge in Star Trek: The Next Generation. But beginning with a part in Major League, he built up an impressive run of high-profile roles in films such as Money Train, White Man Can’t Jump, Passenger 57 and Blade. That streak ended in 2010, when he began serving a three-year prison sentence for misdemeanor failure to file U.S. federal income tax returns.
Courtney B. Vance
Vance began his career on Broadway, earning two Tony Award nominations for his work on August Wilson’s Fences and for his lead role in Six Degrees of Separation. His movie career has consisted mostly of forgettable films mixed with notable small roles in A-list films such as Hamburger Hill and The Hunt for Red October. Vance is probably best known for his TV work, especially as Assistant District Attorney Ron Carver on Law And Order: Criminal Intent.
She spent most of her career doing small, often forgettable supporting roles in motion pictures from the early 1950s into the 1970s. But her role as housekeeper Annie Johnson in the 1959 remake of Imitation of Life won her an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. That made her the fifth African American to be nominated for an Academy Award in any category.
Bernie Mac made his name as a stand-up comic and his first movie role was in The Original Kings of Comedy. His most notable movie roles were as Frank Catton in Ocean’s Eleven and as a struggling baseball player in the under-appreciated Mr. 3000. On TV his Fox series The Bernie Mac Show ran from 2001 to 2006 and earned him two Emmy nominations. Bernie Mac died on August 9, 2008 from complications of pneumonia.
Morton began his acting career on Broadway, where he made his debut in Hair and went on to win a Tony for A Raisin In the Sun. He’s done more than 70 movies, with his most memorable role as Dr. Miles Bennett Dyson in Terminator 2. On TV, he’s best known for his role as Dr. Miles Bennett Dyson on the Syfy series Eureka.