Hollywood is criticized for not offering enough rich, complex roles for Black actresses. But, every once in a while, there are unforgettable roles; the rare gems that any Black actress would kill to get. Here are 25 contenders.
Kerry Washington as Olivia Pope in Scandal
Photo by ABC
Angela Bassett as Tina Turner in What's Love Got to Do with It?
Angela Bassett was so dedicated to playing Tina Turner, she would often lose herself in the role, recalled co-star Laurence Fishburne. ''It's like Angela's not there anymore," he told EW. For her performance, Bassett was nominated for an Academy Award and became the first African-American to win the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Motion Picture Musical or Comedy.
Pam Grier as Foxy Brown
A gun-wielding, tough-talking Black woman who takes no prisoners. Years later, Foxy Brown is still the epitome of girl power.
Diana Ross as Billie Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues
Pouring passion and pain into her portrayal of Billie Holiday in 1972’s Lady Sings the Blues, Diana Ross crossed over from Motown to Hollywood, scoring a Best Actress Academy Award nomination and one of her best-selling albums along the way.
Nichelle Nichols Lt. Uhura from Star Trek
As communications officer Lt. Nyota Uhura on the iconic series, Nichols became the first Black actress cast in a role that wasn't one of servitude. Lt. Uhura was tough, independent and career-oriented — a rarity on network television in the 60s.
Adepero Oduye as Alike in Pariah
This coming-of-age story explores Black women's sexuality in a way rarely seen on the big screen. Adepero Oduye masterfully plays Alike, a Brooklyn teen learning to embrace her identity as a lesbian.
Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone
Though already shrouded in controversy, Saldana's turn as the brilliant Nina Simone in the upcoming biopic is certainly a coveted role by Hollywood standards.
Tracee Ellis Ross as Joan Clayton in Girlfriends
Beautiful, confident, talented, and surrounded by supportive sister-friends, Joan Clayton was the quintessential fun-loving career girl many of us hoped to become.
Danai Gurira as Michonne in The Walking Dead
Who's the most beloved, bad-ass zombie slayer on the wildly popular post-apocalyptic drama? It's Gurira's Michonne, who made her much-anticipated debut on the season 3 premiere to the delight of fanboys and girls at home.
Photo by Gene Page/ AMC.com
Jada Pinkett Smith in HawthoRNe
Christina Hawthorne, a tough-as-nails chief nurse officer at a Virginia hospital, led the now-defunct medical drama with passion, dedication and lots of moxie.
Halle Berry as Dorothy Dandridge in Introducing Dorothy Dandridge
In this HBO film about Dandridge, the first African-American woman nominated for the Best Actress Academy Award, Berry got to pay homage to the star who blazed so many trails for herself and other Black actresses in Hollywood today. Berry won an Emmy, Golden Globe and SAG Award for her efforts.
Phylicia Rashad as Clair Huxtable on The Cosby Show
As The Cosby Show’s Clair Huxtable, Tony Award-winning actress Phylica Rashad was everyone’s favorite mom in the 80s. Clair was a welcome antidote in an era where an empowered Black woman was a rarity on network TV. She had a beautiful (and stable) family and a successful career.
Queen Latifah as Cleo in Set It Off
Probably one of the few instances of a Black lesbian in a mainstream movie, Queen Latifah's Cleo is raw and unapologetic. Unlike her friends, Cleo's motive for robbing banks is clear: she likes the lifestyle — and temporary happiness — that money can buy.
Whoopi Goldberg as Miss Celie in The Color Purple
Whoopi Goldberg crafts a beautiful portrait of a quiet and unassuming girl dealing with abuse (from her father and later her husband), her sexuality, and finding her voice. For her performance, Goldberg was nominated for an Academy Award.
Oprah Winfrey as Sofia in The Color Purple
Oprah Winfrey put in a tremendous amount of work into making Sofia one of the most intriguing female characters in Black cinema. In her own way — and though it gets her in trouble — "Miss Sofia" uses her assertiveness to fight against racism and male dominance.
Kimberly Elise as Denver in Beloved
In the movie adaptation of Toni Morrison's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Kimberly Elise delivers a masterful performance as Denver, the shy, fragile daughter of Sethe (played by Oprah Winfrey).
Jurnee Smollett as Eve Batiste in Eve's Bayou
The most intuitive 10-year-old we'll ever meet, Eve Batiste (Smollett) attempts to understand her complex family and her father's death by reaching deep into Louisiana's deep traditions. "The summer I killed my father, I was 10 years old," she declares with conviction, in one of the most riveting roles ever inhabited by a young Black actress.
Photo by Trimark Pictures, Inc.
Nia Long as Nina Mosley in Love Jones
Trust Nia Long to make Nina Mosley one of the most beloved characters on film. The fresh-faced Mosley is the voice of countless young, creative types — anyone chasing a dream career (and dream guy) in the big city.
Sanaa Lathan as Monica Wright in Love and Basketball
As Monica Wright, Sanaa Lathan engages in the sexiest basketball games ever played on screen. She's as passionate about the sport as she is her childhood sweetheart, Quincy.
Photo by New Line Productions, Inc.
Emayatzy Corinealdi as Ruby in Middle of Nowhere
Actress Emayatzy Corinealdi shines as Ruby, a nurse struggling at a crossroads: Should she continue standing by her incarcerated husband, for whom she's already sacrificed her dreams, or should she make moves toward building a new life? Ruby is a fully realized, nuanced character, and the movie delves into every aspect of her — her deep wells of love, yearning and resilience.
Photo by Courtesy of 'Middle of Nowhere'
Cicely Tyson as Jane Pittman
For the title role of the television movie The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, Tyson portrayed a former slave who lived through both the Jim Crow and Civil Rights Eras. The actress, pictured here taking a drink from a “whites only” water fountain, aged from 19 to 111 and won two Emmy Awards for her work.
Photo by Getty Images
Diahann Carroll in Julia
With Julia, Carroll became the first Black woman to lead a television series. The show — which ran from 1968 to 1971 — centered around the widowed nurse struggling to raise her son and integrate with her neighbors in her exclusively White enclave.
Keke Palmer as Akeelah in Akeelah and the Bee
Succeeding against the odds was the theme of 2008, and this film captures that feeling perfectly. Young breakout KeKe Palmer played 11-year-old Akeelah, who strives to overcome her rough Los Angeles environment one word at a time, through triumphant spelling competitions. An added bonus: the big-screen reunion of Boyz in the Hood stars Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne as Akeelah’s mother and coach.
Jennifer Hudson as Effie White in Dreamgirls
It’s hard to believe that Jennifer Husdon’s performance as Effie White in Dreamgirls (2006) was her acting debut. The talented singer experiences one of the most memorable character trajectories of the film as she goes from being a member of The Dreams to welfare mother, back to the top as she returns to the music industry.
S. Epatha Merkerson as Rachel 'Nanny' Crosby in Lackawanna Blues
Based on actor Ruben Santiago-Hudson's childhood, Lackawanna Blues paints an unforgettable picture of Rachel "Nanny" Crosby, the owner of a local boarding house who became his caregiver. The acclaimed HBO movie allowed Merkerson, long a supporting player on Law & Order, to bring all her emotion, talent and warmth to her first lead role (for which she won a Golden Globe, Emmy, and Screen Actor's Guild award).