Most Influential Black Actors of All Time
It is a well-known fact that Hollywood has been dominated by mostly white actors, and while the demographic is changing, there's still a long way to go.
But some famous Black actors and actresses have been responsible for many firsts in the industry and continue to influence a new generation of Hollywood hopefuls.
From Sidney Poitier to Halle Berry, these are the most influential Black actors of all time.
30. Halle Berry
Years active: 1989–present
Movies/TV: "Monster's Ball," "X-Men," "Catwoman"
Bottom line: Halle Berry began her career in the pageant world. She was the first runner-up in the 1986 Miss USA pageant and was sixth in the Miss World contest the same year.
Her breakthrough role was in 1992's "Boomerang" with Eddie Murphy, and she's been working steadily ever since. In 1999, she won an Emmy and Golden Globe as the lead in the film, "Introducing Dorothy Dandridge."
Two years later, she won a Best Actress Oscar for "Monster's Ball," becoming the first and only African-American woman to win an award in that category. She has taken on high-profile roles in the "X-Men" film franchise and has been seen in the "John Wick" series, as well the "Kingsman" franchise."
Berry also has started her own production company, 606 Films, and made her directorial debut with "Bruised" in 2020.
29. Eddie Murphy
Years active: 1976–present
Movies/TV: "Saturday Night Live," "Trading Places," The Nutty Professor," Dolomite," "Beverly Hills Cop," "48 Hours"
Bottom line: Eddie Murphy was still in his teens when he achieved stardom via "Saturday Night Live." As well as an actor and filmmaker, he's also a successful comedian, writer and musician.
Comedy Central has ranked him in No. 10 on its list of 100 Greatest Stand-Ups of All Time. In 2007, he won a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor and Oscar nod for his role as singer James "Thunder" Early in "Dreamgirls."
Eddie Murphy films are typically box-office gold. According to Celebrity Net Worth, his movies have grossed almost $7 billion in worldwide sales.
28. Tyler Perry
Years active: 1992–present
Movies/TV: The "Madea" franchise, "Tyler Perry's House of Payne"
Bottom line: Director, producer, screenwriter and actor Tyler Perry is one of the most successful entertainers in Hollywood. This is in large part due to the success of the "Madea" films, which he directs and stars in.
He's also created, produced and directed "Tyler Perry’s Sistas," which began airing on BET in early 2022.
Perry has been named one of Time magazine's most influential people of 2020.
27. Laverne Cox
Years active: 2000–present
Movies/TV: "Orange Is the New Black"
Bottom line: Laverne Cox rose to prominence as an actress through the critically acclaimed Netflix series "Orange Is the New Black" and is the first transgender person ever to be nominated for a Primetime Emmy for her role as Sophia Burset.
In 2015, she achieved another milestone as the first transgender woman to win a Daytime Emmy Award as executive producer of "Laverne Cox Presents: The T Word." Two years later, she took on the role of Cameron Wirth on CBS's "Doubt" and became the first transgender person to play a series regular.
Cox is an LGBTQ activist and has been honored with GLAAD's Stephen F. Kolzak Award for her work in the transgender community.
26. Will Smith
Years active: 1986–present
Movies/TV: "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air," the "Bad Boys" franchise, the "Men in Black" franchise, "Ali," and "King Richard"
Bottom line: Will Smith began his career as a rapper and one half of the duo DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince. Since then, he's become a serious actor in his own right and has received both Golden Globe and Oscar nominations.
He's recently won critical acclaim (and another Golden Globe nod) for his role in "King Richard" playing the father of tennis icons, Serena and Venus Williams.
His films have grossed over $9 billion at the global box office.
25. Pam Grier
Years active: 1970–present
Movies/TV: "Coffy," "Foxy Brown," "Jackie Brown"
Bottom line: Actress Pam Grier achieved fame in the 1970s through her roles in blaxploitation films. Over the decades, she's been nominated for an Emmy, a Saturn, a Satellite, and a Screen Actors Guild Award.
Although she was quiet during the 1980s, this groundbreaking female action star made a comeback in Quentin Tarantino's "Jackie Brown" in 1997 and was nominated for a Best Actress Golden Globe.
Recently, she was a regular on "The L Word" for six seasons.
24. Diahann Carroll
Years active: 1950–2015
Movies/TV: "Julia," "Dynasty"
Bottom line: Carroll is one the industry's Black pioneers. This actress, model, singer and activist starred in "Carmen Jones" and "Porgy and Bess," which were two of the earliest films released by major studios to have all Black casts.
Carroll was the first Black woman to win a Tony for Best Actress in a Musical for "No Strings, but it was the titular role in the 1968 TV show "Julia" that brought her to national prominence.
"Julia" was the first-ever U.S. television series to star an African-American woman in a non-stereotypical role.
23. Angela Bassett
Years active: 1985–present
Movies/TV: "What's Love Got to Do With It," "Malcolm X," The Rosa Parks Story"
Bottom line: Angela Bassett is known for her portrayal of strong Black women. Additional film credits to those above include "How Stella Got Her Groove Back," "Black Panther" and "Avengers: Endgame," among others.
Most recently, Bassett has been a series regular on the FX series "American Horror Story: Coven," which earned her two Primetime Emmy Award nominations. In 2018, she began producing and starring in the series "9-1-1" on Fox.
22. Dorothy Dandridge
Years active: 1933–1965
Movies/TV: "Carmen Jones," "Porgy and Bess"
Bottom line: Dorothy Dandridge died at a young age at 42, but nonetheless made a major impact in film. She was the first African-American film star to get an Academy Award nomination (for her role as "Carmen Jones" in the movie of the same name.)
While working in the studio system, she frequently encountered racism and became an activist for the NAACP and the National Urban League.
Dandridge died in 1965 and was largely forgotten about until the 1980s, when stars including Halle Berry and Angela Bassett began to openly acknowledge her contribution to the film industry. When Berry won the Academy Award for her role in "Monster's Ball," she dedicated it to Dandridge, Diahann Carroll, and Lena Horne.
21. Harry Belafonte
Years active: 1949–present
Movies/TV: "Carmen Jones," "Uptown Saturday Night," "Kansas City"
Bottom line: Harry Belafonte was born in Harlem but spent much of his childhood in Jamaica with his grandmother.
When he returned to New York City, he joined the Navy and fought in World War II. After the war, he fell in love with the stage and began his acting career with the American Negro Theater. To support himself and his interest in acting, he became a club singer and was primarily known for making hits in the calypso genre.
Belafonte was a civil rights activist who refused to perform in the segregated Southern states until 1961. President John F. Kennedy later named him a Peace Corps cultural advisor, and in 2007, he was awarded the Chief Justice Earl Warren Civil Liberties Award.
20. Ossie Davis
Years active: 1939–2005
Movies/TV: "Do the Right Thing," "The Hill," "No Way Out"
Bottom line: While an acclaimed actor in film and on Broadway, Ossie Davis was equally known for his activism. He and wife Ruby Dee were close friends to Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X and other civil rights icons of the 1960s. They helped organize the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and were its emcees.
Davis and Dee were inducted into the NAACP Image Awards Hall of Fame, were recipients of the Kennedy Center Honors, and awarded the National Medal of Arts.
Davis also was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame in 1994.
19. Nichelle Nichols
Years active: 1959–2020
Movies/TV: "Star Trek"
Bottom line: Nichelle Nichols is best known for her groundbreaking portrayal of Lieutenant Uhura on "Star Trek," one of the first major reoccurring roles in a series for a Black woman.
Nichols was tempted to leave the series during its first year, but the one and only Martin Luther King Jr. talked her out of it. One weekend, while attending an NAACP banquet, she was told a fan wanted to meet her.
"I thought it was a Trekkie, and so I said, 'Sure.' I looked across the room and whoever the fan was had to wait because there was Dr. Martin Luther King walking toward me with this big grin on his face. He reached out to me and said, 'Yes, Ms. Nichols, I am your greatest fan.' He said that 'Star Trek' was the only show that he, and his wife Coretta, would allow their three little children to stay up and watch.
"I never got to tell him why [she wanted to leave] because he said, 'You cannot, you cannot...for the first time on television, we will be seen as we should be seen every day, as intelligent, quality, beautiful, people who can sing, dance, and can go to space, who are professors, lawyers. ... If you leave, that door can be closed because your role is not a Black role, and is not a female role. He can fill it with anybody, even an alien.'"
Her kiss with actor William Shatner on "Star Trek" was the first interracial kiss in a series on U.S. television.
18. Paul Robeson
Years active: 1922–1960
Movies/TV: "Show Boat" "Song of Freedom"
Bottom line: Paul Robeson began his career on the stage in the early 1920s and became quickly known for his rich baritone. In 1925, he became famous through the musical "Show Boat." It showcased his voice in "Ol’ Man River," which he also performed in the movie version.
At the beginning of World War II, he supported the war effort, but his history of supporting civil rights and Soviet causes put him in the crosshairs of the FBI. He was investigated during the McCarthy era and was denied a passport because he wouldn't recant on his beliefs.
His career waned as a result, and although he attempted a comeback tour in the late 1950s, he had a breakdown and subsequently retired.
17. Chadwick Boseman
Years active: 1993–2020
Movies/TV: "Black Panther," "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom"
Bottom line: After graduating from Howard University, actor and playwright Chadwick Bozeman worked nonstop as a stage actor, writer, and director. He began his transition to TV in "Persons Unknown" in 2010.
He then made the jump to the silver screen in "42," a biopic about baseball player Jackie Robinson. In 2015 and 2017, respectively, he played singer James Brown in "Get on Up" and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall in "Marshall."
Boseman came to worldwide fame for his role as the superhero "Black Panther" and was the first Black actor to star in an MCU film. For this portrayal, he won an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Actor in a Motion Picture and a Screen Actors Guild Award.
Boseman was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2016, but kept his condition a secret and kept working until his passing in 2020. He earned a posthumous Academy Award nod for "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" and won a Golden Globe for Best Actor.
16. Whoopi Goldberg
Years active: 1982–present
Movies/TV: "The Color Purple," "Ghost," "Sister Act," "The View"
Bottom line: These days, you may know Whoopi Goldberg as a host of "The View," but she's made waves in the entertainment industry since the 1980s, when she began her career doing stand-up.
Goldberg is one of just 16 people in the world with an "EGOT." She's won an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony and continues to work in all mediums. She also won Golden Globe awards and nominations, several NAACP Image awards, and in 2001, she became the first Black woman to be awarded the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.
15. Richard Pryor
Years active: 1963–2005
Movies/TV: "Stir Crazy," "Silver Streak," "Lady Sings the Blues"
Bottom line: Widely regarded as one of the most influential stand-up comedians of all time, Pryor was one of the first performers to address racial issues in front of broad audiences.
While he appeared in movies, he reached more people through his comedy albums, for which he won five Grammys. He also won the first Mark Twain Prize for American Humor in 1998 and is listed at number one on Comedy Central's 100 Greatest Stand-Ups of All Time.
14. James Earl Jones
Years active: 1948–present
Movies/TV: "Star Wars," "Field of Dreams," "Dr. Strangelove"
Bottom line: Known for his fathoms-deep voice, James Earl Jones is a critically acclaimed actor with a career spanning over 70 years.
He made his Broadway debut in 1957 performing in various Shakespeare plays and made his screen debut in Stanley Kubrick's "Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb" in 1964.
Jones become known to the masses as the voice of Darth Vader in the "Star Wars" franchise and has appeared in a number of successful films ever since. He's been nominated for Tonys five times (he won three), and he has also been nominated for Emmys and a Grammy.
In 2002, he received a Kennedy Center Honor and President Barack Obama invited him to perform Shakespeare at the White House in 2009.
13. Fredi Washington
Years active: 1922–50
Movies/TV: "Imitation of Life"
Bottom line: Fredi Washington was one of the few African-Americans to work in the silent film era.
This actress and activist, was active during the Harlem Renaissance, the cultural revival of African-American arts during the 1920s and 1930s. She's best known for her starring turn as Peola, a woman who passes as white in "Imitation of Life," released in 1934.
After the 1937 film, "One Mile from Heaven," she left the film business for the New York stage and became a civil rights activist after she experienced racism in Hollywood.
12. Eartha Kitt
Years active: 1942–2008
Movies/TV: "Batman" (TV series), "I Spy"
Bottom line: Eartha Kitt was a singer, dancer, and actress who began her career in the 1940s. She had a series of hit records in the 1950s, including "Uska Dara" and "I Want to Be Evil," before becoming a TV and film star.
She starred as Catwoman in the TV series "Batman," but her career was derailed after upsetting First Lady "Lady Bird" Johnson with her statements about the Vietnam War.
Kitt said, "You send the best of this country off to be shot and maimed. No wonder the kids rebel and take pot. ... The children of America are not rebelling for no reason. They are not hippies for no reason at all. We don't have what we have on Sunset Blvd. for no reason. They are rebelling against something. There are so many things burning the people of this country, particularly mothers. They feel they are going to raise sons — and I know what it's like, and you have children of your own, Mrs. Johnson — we raise children and send them to war."
After the outcry about her statements, her career waned in the U.S. Kitt mainly performed in Europe and Asia throughout the rest of her life.
11. Forest Whitaker
Years active: 1981–present
Movies/TV: "The Last King of Scotland," "Black Panther," "Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai"
Bottom line: Known for the intensity of his roles, Forest Whitaker made his film debut in "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" and went on to star in such classics as "Good Morning, Vietnam" and "The Crying Game," among others.
His portrayal of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in "The Last King of Scotland" won him accolades and awards around the world, including an Oscar for Best Actor in 2006.
In 2011, he became a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador, and later, a Special Envoy for Peace and Reconciliation.
10. Lincoln Perry
Years active: 1925–1976
Movies/TV: "In Old Kentucky," "Show Boat"
Bottom line: Lincoln Perry was known as "Stepin Fetchit" to moviegoers of the 1920s and 1930s. He began his career as a vaudevillian and comedian, and was the first Black actor to be successful in film, the first to earn a million dollars, and the first to get screen credit.
By the 1950s, African-Americans began to see the Fetchit persona as a negative stereotype, and his career was all but over. However, today's scholars argue that he was not playing a man who was lazy or dumb, but a man who deliberately tricked the people he worked for into doing the work.
9. Josephine Baker
Years active: 1921–1975
Movies/TV: "Siren of the Tropics"
Bottom line: Josephine Baker was born in America, but made her career in France due to the racism she experienced in the U.S. She didn't make many movies, but she made an impact on entertainment overall.
Baker was the first Black woman to star a major film in Europe ("Siren of the Tropics") in 1927. Her live show in Paris the same year caused a scandal, as her costume was minimal, consisting of only a banana skirt and beaded necklace.
During World War II, Baker aided the French Resistance and was awarded a Resistance Medal in her adopted country.
When in the States, she refused to play for segregated audiences and contributed to America's civil rights movement.
8. Ruby Dee
Years active: 1940–2013
Movies/TV: "Do the Right Thing," "A Raisin in the Sun," "The Jackie Robinson Story," "American Gangster"
Bottom line: Actress, playwright, and civil rights activist Ruby Dee was married to Ossie Davis and often appeared with him in films until his 2005 death.
Dee won Grammy, Emmy, Obie and Drama Desk awards and was nominated as Best Supporting Actress in 2007's "American Gangster." She was a Kennedy Center Honors and National Medal award recipient. Dee also won the Frederick Douglass Award from the New York Urban League in 1970.
Dee and Davis were emcees of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and were friends with Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.
7. Jamie Foxx
Years active: 1989–present
Movies/TV: "In Living Color," "Ray," "Django Unchained"
Bottom line: Jamie Foxx found stardom through the sketch comedy show "In Living Color" in the early 1990s. After the "Jamie Foxx Show" ended in 2001, he made the successful jump from television to film and became an A-lister overnight.
His portrayal of singer Ray Charles in 2004's "Ray" resulted in many awards and nominations, including a Best Actor Oscar. He's worked nonstop ever since and is currently playing Electro/Maxwell Dillon in “Spider-Man: No Way Home."
6. Cicely Tyson
Years active: 1948–2021
Movies/TV: "Sounder," "Roots," "The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman"
Bottom line: During her seven-decade long career, Cicely Tyson received accolade after accolade for the strong Black characters she played onscreen.
In addition to film, she kept busy with various stage productions and won a Tony in 2013 for the "The Trip to Bountiful." In 2018, she was the first Black woman to receive an honorary Oscar.
In 2016, Tyson received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and in 2020, she was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame.
5. Lena Horne
Years active: 1933–2003
Movies/TV: "Stormy Weather," "Cabin in the Sky"
Bottom line: Horne was more singer than actress but did make her mark in film in a career that spanned over 70 years. Activism was also equally important to her throughout her career.
When entertaining the troops in the USO during World War II, she would not perform for segregated audiences or if German POWs were seated in front of Black soldiers. After quitting the USO, she financed her own tours and continued the tradition.
She worked with then First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to pass anti-lynching laws and attended the March on Washington in 1962.
After announcing her retirement in 1980, she starred in the Emmy award-winning one-woman show, "Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music," which had more than 300 performances on Broadway.
4. Hattie McDaniel
Years active: 1920–1951
Movies/TV: "Gone With the Wind"
Bottom line: Best known for her portrayal of Mammy in "Gone With the Wind," McDaniel was the first Black woman to win a Best Supporting Actress Oscar.
McDaniel experienced racism throughout her career. She could not attend the premiere of "Gone With the Wind" because it was held in a "whites only" theater, and she had to sit at a segregated table during the Oscar ceremony.
Even when she died in 1952, she could not be buried in Hollywood Memorial (now Hollywood Forever) Cemetery, which was her final wish. Back then, it was restricted to whites only.
3. Denzel Washington
Years active: 1975–present
Movies/TV: "St. Elsewhere," "Glory," "Malcom X," "American Gangster"
Bottom line: Denzel Washington is a highly decorated performer, and according to The New York Times, one of the greatest actors of this century. He has earned numerous awards, including two Oscars, three Golden Globe Awards, a SAG award and a Tony. And his career is far from over.
He also works with a number of charitable organizations, such the Boys and Girls Clubs of America. He has donated money to the Nelson Mandela's Children's Fund and presented Purple Heart medals to Army soldiers recovering from injuries they received while stationed in Iraq.
2. Morgan Freeman
Years active: 1964–present
Movies/TV: "The Shawshank Redemption," "Driving Miss Daisy," "Se7en"
Bottom line: Freeman is a well-respected actor with a career that spans over five decades. He first became known to audiences in the early 1970s as a cast member for the children's show, "The Electric Company."
His breakout role in 1987's "Street Smart" earned him his first Oscar nod. His second came with "Driving Miss Daisy" in 1989. His third Oscar nomination came with the "The Shawshank Redemption," which is frequently on critics' lists as one of the best movies of all time.
Freeman finally won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in the 2004 sports drama, "Million Dollar Baby." He has won other major awards, including a Kennedy Center Honor, a Cecil B. DeMille Award, and the Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award.
1. Sidney Poitier
Years active: 1946–2009
Movies/TV: "In the Heat of the Night," "Lillies of the Field," "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?"
Bottom line: Most of Sidney Poitier's best-known films explored the dynamics of race against the civil rights movement of the 1960s. He became the first Black man to win an Oscar for his 1963 portrayal of a traveling laborer who helps nuns build a chapel in "Lillies of the Field."
Sidney Poitier played a visiting detective in a racially charged small-town in Mississippi "In the Heat of the Night" and played one half of an interracial couple in "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?"
The roles he chose helped audiences of the day to envision Black people as more than just servants. They were doctors, law enforcement and teachers.