Famous African-American Actors

Good actors are the ones who immortalize the characters they play; like these famous African-American actors here, who have used their talent to carve a place for themselves in the hearts of people around the world.
Did You Know?
In 1939, Hattie McDaniel became the first African-American to win an Oscar. It was the first instance of an African-American being nominated for one.

African-Americans constitute only 14 percent of the US population, but that hasn't stopped them from making their presence felt in diverse fields, right from politics to sports ... and of course, filmdom. In 2002, Denzel Washington and Halle Berry won the Oscars for their respective lead roles in the Training Day and Monster's Ball. Since then, there have been several instances of African-Americans being nominated for the coveted Oscar statuette, with people like Jamie Foxx and Morgan Freeman making the cut.

Nevertheless, it is impossible to compile a list of best, famous, or worst for that matter, which would go down well with everybody―a fact we realized after we sat down to compile this list of famous actors of African-American origin.

Denzel Washington

Denzel Washington is perhaps best known for his portrayal of real-life figures, like Malcolm X, Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, and Frank Lucas. But then, he also has films like Crimson Tide and Inside Man to his credit. Born on December 28, 1954, in Mount Vernon, New York, Washington made his feature-film debut with the 1981 British-American comedy, Carbon Copy. Over the course of his career, spanning just over 3 decades, Washington bagged 2 Academy Awards and 2 Golden Globes alongside numerous other awards.

Noteworthy Performances

Detective Alonzo Harris in the 2001 American crime drama, Training Day. (Academy Award for Best Actor)

Former middleweight boxing champion, Rubin "The Hurricane" Carter in The Hurricane in 1999.

Ex-slave and Union Army Soldier, Pvt. Trip in the 1989 war film, Glory. (Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor)

Lieutenant Commander Ron Hunter―a newly appointed executive officer (XO) aboard a nuclear submarine in the 1995 film, Crimson Tide.

African-American human rights activist, Malcolm X in the 1992 biographical film, Malcolm X.

Sidney Poitier

In 1963, Sidney Poitier made history by becoming the first African-American to win an Academy Award in the Best Actor category. Beginning with his debut feature film, No Way Out―the 1950 black and white film about racial tension, Poitier worked in several films based on racial equality throughout his career. That included some of his famous works, like Cry, the Beloved Country, Blackboard Jungle, and A Raisin in the Sun. Incidentally, Poitier was also the first male African-American actor to be nominated for a competitive Academy Award; Best Actor in a Leading Role for his portrayal of Noah Cullen in The Defiant Ones (1958).

Noteworthy Performances

Homer Smith, a construction worker who helps a group of nuns build a chapel, in the 1963 film, Lilies of the Field. (Academy Award for Best Actor)

Noah Cullen, an escaped African-American prisoner, in the 1958 black and white film, The Defiant Ones.

Mark Thackeray, a teacher who unwillingly accepts a job at a school in the East End of London, in the 1967 film, To Sir, with Love.

Philadelphia-based detective, Virgil Tibbs in the 1967 mystery film, In the Heat of the Night, and later in its sequels, They Call Me MISTER Tibbs! (1970) and The Organization (1971).

Dr. John Wayde Prentice Jr., an African-American physician who is in a romantic relationship with a young white woman in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner in 1967.

Trivia: Sidney Poitier was the lone African-American actor with an Oscar for the Best Actor to his credit for a period of 38 years, until Denzel Washington won one for the Training Day (2001). At the 74th Academy Awards ceremony held on March 24, 2002, wherein Denzel Washington was awarded the Oscar statuette, Sidney Poitier was honored with the Academy Honorary Award "for his extraordinary performances and unique presence on the screen and for representing the industry with dignity, style and intelligence."

Will Smith

Will Smith is best known for his sci-fi films, like Men in Black, I, Robot, and Independence Day, wherein he is seen saving the human race either from aliens, or machines. One of the highest grossing stars in Hollywood today, Smith started off as a rapper, moved to the television, and eventually ended up on the silver screen ... fame (and awards) followed. His feature film debut came with the 1992 drama, Where the Day Takes You. He hasn't won any Academy Award as yet, but that hasn't affect his popularity and fan base; he does have 4 Grammies to his credit though.

Noteworthy Performances

An MIB agent, Agent J. in the Men in Black series: Men in Black (1997), Men in Black II (2002), and Men in Black 3 (2012).

Muhammad Ali in Ali―the 2001 biographical film about the legendary boxer who won the world heavyweight championship at the age of 22.

Salesman-turned stockbroker, Chris Gardner in the 2006 biographical film, The Pursuit of Happyness.

Detective Mike Lowrey of the Miami-Dade Police Department in the 1995 action film, Bad Boys.

Alex "Hitch" Hitchens, a professional dating consultant, in the 2005 romcom, Hitch.

Samuel L. Jackson

Other than Denzel Washington and Will Smith, if we are to make a list of the current lot of African-American actors taking popularity as the measure, the next in line is bound to be Samuel L. Jackson. Best known for his portrayal of Jules Winnfield in Pulp Fiction and more recently, as Nick Fury in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Jackson has played some of the most popular film characters since his debut in 1972's Together for Days. He has not been lucky with the Academy Awards as yet; that, however, doesn't make him any less popular.

Noteworthy Performances

Jules Winnfield, the Bible-quoting hitman, in Quentin Tarantino's 1994 crime film, Pulp Fiction.

Carl Lee Hailey, seeking justice for his 10-year-old daughter, in 1996 film, A Time to Kill.

Lieutenant Danny Roman, a police hostage negotiator―considered the best in business―in the 1998 thriller, The Negotiator.

Private investigator Mitch Henessey helping an amnesia-affected school teacher rediscover her past, in The Long Kiss Goodnight in 1996.

Coach Ken Carter inculcating some discipline in a basketball team―both, on the athletic and academic front, in the 2005 sports film, Coach Carter.

Additionally, Samuel Jackson was the voice behind Lucius Best (a.k.a. Frozone) in the 2004 animated superhero film, The Incredibles.

Morgan Freeman

An Oscar moment for Morgan Freeman was long due, and it finally came on February 27, 2005, for his performance in Million Dollar Baby. It was Freeman's fourth Oscar nomination after having missed out for Street Smart, Driving Miss Daisy, and The Shawshank Redemption. Other than his acting prowess, Freeman, who made his debut with the 1971 flick, Who Says I Can't Ride a Rainbow!, is also widely known for his portrayal of the God in Bruce Almighty, Lucius Fox in The Dark Knight, and the Academy Award-fetching film, Million Dollar Baby.

Noteworthy Performances

Former boxer, Eddie "Scrap-Iron" Dupris in the 2004 sports drama film, Million Dollar Baby. (Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor)

South African anti-apartheid revolutionary, Nelson Mandela in 2009 biopic, Invictus.

Contraband smuggler, Ellis "Red" Redding, serving life sentence at the Shawshank State Penitentiary in the 1994 film, The Shawshank Redemption.

Leo "Fast Black" Smalls Jr., a pimp, in the 1987 film, Street Smart.

Chauffeur Hoke Colburn in 1989 comedy drama, Driving Miss Daisy.

Halle Berry

In 1986, Halle Berry became the first African-American to take part in the Miss World. In 2002, she bagged the Academy Award for Best Actress, thus becoming the first woman of African-American descent to do so. Berry made her feature film debut with a small role in the 1991 Spike Lee film, Jungle Fever. Her portrayal of Catwoman in the film by same name, and Storm in the X-Men series also added to her popularity.

Noteworthy Performances

Leticia Musgrove, a woman whose husband is on death row, in the 2001 Marc Foster film, Monster's Ball. (Academy Award for Best Actress)

Bond Girl, Jinx―an NSA agent―in the 2002 Bond flick, Die Another Day.

Audrey Burke, a woman trying to cope with the loss of her husband in 2007 drama, Things We Lost in the Fire.

A woman with dissociative identity disorder in the Canadian drama film, Frankie & Alice in 2010.

Dorothy Dandridge, the first African-American to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress, in a made-for-TV film, Introducing Dorothy Dandridge in 1999.

Forest Whitaker

Such is the image of Forest Whitaker in real life that even director Kevin McDonald initially thought he was "too nice a guy" to play the Ugandan dictator, Idi Amin, who ruled the African nation in the 70s. All these doubts were laid to rest when Whitaker literally transformed himself into Amin in The Last King of Scotland, and went on to win the Oscars, Golden Globe, BAFTA, and several other awards for this performance. Since his debut in the 1982 comedy, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Whitaker has given quite few astounding performances.

Noteworthy Performances

Ugandan dictator, Idi Amin in the 2006 British drama film, The Last King of Scotland. (Academy Award for Best Actor)

American jazz saxophonist and composer, Charlie "Bird" Parker in the 1988 American biopic, Bird.

A hitman called Ghost Dog in the 1999 American crime action film, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai.

Jody, a British soldier captured by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in the 1992 psychological thriller, The Crying Game.

James L. Farmer, Sr., in the 2007 period drama film, The Great Debaters.

Additionally, Whitaker was also noted for his small role of a pool hustler in 1986 drama film, The Color of Money.

Laurence Fishburne

Laurence Fishburne is best known for his portrayal of Morpheus in the Matrix trilogy; the sci-fi extravaganza, which started off with The Matrix in 1999 and was followed by the two sequels in 2003. After making his debut in 1975 film, Cornbread, Earl and Me as a child actor, Fishburne returned as a supporting actor in the 1979 war film, Apocalypse Now. In 1995, he was cast to play the role of Othello; the first African-American to do so in a film made by a major studio. Fishburne's lone Oscar nomination came for What's Love Got to Do with It, where he lost to Tom Hanks (Philadelphia). If only awards were a measure of one's popularity.

Noteworthy Performances

American musician, Ike Turner in the 1993 biopic on Tina Turner, What's Love Got to Do with It.

Former CIA covert operative, Nelson Crowe in the 1995 neo-noir thriller, Bad Company.

English professor, Dr. Joshua Larabee in the 2006 drama, Akeelah and the Bee.

Jason "Furious" Styles, the responsible father of a 10 year old child, in the 1991 crime film, Boyz n the Hood.

Undercover cop, Russell Stevens, who poses as drug dealer and infiltrates a drug cartel in the 1992 neo-noir thriller, Deep Cover.

Jamie Foxx

Jamie Foxx's tryst with fame began well before he joined films; when he was into stand-up and sitcoms to be precise. His popularity in the television series, In Living Color, prompted the network to give him his own show, The Jamie Foxx Show. He made his feature film debut in Barry Levinson comedy film, Toys in 1992. He was nominated for the Academy Award twice; first as the Best Supporting Actor for Ali, and second, for the Best Actor for Ray, which earned him his first Oscar statuette.

Noteworthy Performances

Rhythm and blues musician, Ray Charles in the 2004 biopic Ray. (Academy Award for Best Actor)

Max Durocher, a taxi driver who is hired by a professional hitman (Tom Cruise) in the 2004 crime thriller, Collateral.

American musician, Nathaniel Ayers in the 2009 film based on the true story of the musician, The Soloist.

Former slave, Django Freeman in Tarantino's American Western film, Django Unchained in 2012.

Assistant trainer of Muhammad Ali, Drew Bundini Brown in 2001 biopic, Ali.

Eddie Murphy

One of the best actors when it comes to comic timing, Eddie Murphy has had his career highs and lows. That though, hasn't affected his fan base, or his popularity for that matter. He made his debut with the 1982 action comedy, 48 Hrs. for which he got his first Golden Globe nomination: Golden Globe for New Star of the Year―Actor. Over the years, he gave some brilliant performances in films like Beverly Hills Cop, Dr. Dolittle, I Spy, The Nutty Professor, etc.

Noteworthy Performances

James "Thunder" Early, a rock star from the '60s in the 2006 musical drama, Dreamgirls.

Detective Axel Foley in the 1984 action-comedy Beverley Hills Cop (and its sequels, Beverly Hills Cop II in 1987 and Beverly Hills Cop III in 1994).

A paroled criminal, Reggie Hammond who teams up with a cop to catch a killer 48 Hrs. in 1982.

A sought after star, Kit Ramsey, who is tricked into shooting an entire film, in the 1999 comedy, Bowfinger.

A homeless street hustler, Billy Ray Valentine who is led to switch roles with a snobby investor in 1983 film, Trading Places.

Additionally, Eddy Murphy is also widely known as the voice behind the character of talking donkey in the Shrek series.

Honorable Mention: Hattie McDaniel

Long before Halle Berry became the first female of African-American origin to win the Academy Award for the Best Actress, another African-American actress, Hattie McDaniel had set the ball rolling by winning an Academy Award. McDaniel won the Oscar for the Best Supporting Actress for her role of Mammy in the 1939 historical romance film, Gone with the Wind. She was not just the first African-American to win an Academy Award, but was also the first to be nominated for one.

McDaniel acted in over 300 films, but she was not credited for her role in most of these. Her first silver screen appearance came in The Golden West in 1932, while her first major role came in the 1934 American comedy, Judge Priest. McDaniel was also the first African-American woman to sing on the radio in America. In 2006, she became the first African-American Academy Award winner to be honored with a US postage stamp.

Right from Hattie McDaniel and Sidney Poitier to those hundreds of actors who are just waiting for that one great film to change their life, the African-American community is definitely a major contributor to the world of films.

Some people may argue that even though the number of African-Americans seen on-screen has increased significantly over the last couple of decades, their number in big films, or at the Academy Awards for that matter, has more or less remained the same. It may be difficult to refute these people with the numbers speaking in their favor, but one should admit that the popularity of these actors has skyrocketed, thanks to their talent.
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