All this month, Essence.com will present TWENTY, THE REMIX—three digital exhibits I curated celebrating excellence in the worlds of acting, art, and fashion. Continuing with a theme I love, exalting Black greatness while telling our stories, these galleries showcase those who pave the way for the next generations. These are our superstars, bright lights illuminating the way for others to follow.
TWENTY ICONIC ACTORS is a group of men whose work redefines the world of entertainment. Historically, the Black actor has dared to challenge the stereotypes of what it means to be a Black man in a White world. This list contains icons like Harry Belafonte, Ossie Davis, and Sidney Poitier, who heroically raised their voices in the battle for Civil Rights. It also praises the new superstars like Idris Elba, Donald Glover, and Michael B. Jordan, who are redefining the image of the Hollywood leading man.
I couldn’t be more thrilled to contribute these lists of my favorite things to a magazine as historic as ESSENCE. As a child, I read my mother’s ESSENCE magazines from cover to cover, breathing in the beauty and wonder of the Black experience. I found inspiration in the pages of ESSENCE. I hope these galleries do that for a new generation of readers.
Billy Dee Williams gave us Lando Calrissian in Star Wars, Louis McKay in Lady Sings the Blues and Brian Walker in Mahogany. Face it. Billy Dee Williams is the prototype for the suave, Black leading man. Without Billy, there would be no Chadwick Boseman, Terrence Howard, or Idris Elba.
During his short stellar career, Chadwick Boseman left an indelible mark upon Hollywood and movie fans alike. Who else could have so elegantly portrayed Jackie Robinson in 42, James Brown in Get on Up, and T’Challa in Black Panther. Before his death in 2020, Chadwick gave movie fans of all races what we were looking for, a hero.
From the early eighties until 2001, few actors of any race were as successful as Danny Glover. A movie star in the truest sense, Glover moved seamlessly from dramas like his movie debut in the Oscar-nominated Places in the Heart and The Color Purple to blockbuster action films like Lethal Weapon, which spawned three sequels.
Young icon Donald Glover is a two-time Emmy and Golden Globe-winning actor, director, producer, and writer. He rose to fame on NBC’s Community. But FX’s Atlanta, which he created, stars in, and often directs, made him a star. And let’s not forget that career as Childish Gambino, so add Grammy-winning rapper and singer of the number one single, This is America.
Journeyman actor Ernie Hudson began his career as the resident playwright at Detroit’s Concept East, the oldest black theatre in the US. Since his debut in the 1976 film Leadbelly, Ernie Hudson has appeared in over one hundred television shows and almost one hundred films.
Gregory Hines, one of the greatest tap dancers ever, is an Emmy and Tony-winning Broadway legend. One of the few performers to successfully transition from the stage to screen, Hines beautifully merged dance and acting in the films The Cotton Club and White Nights. And let’s not forget Mr. Hines as Loretta Devine’s love interest in Waiting to Exhale.
In the 1950s, Grammy and Tony award-winning actor, singer, and activist Harry Belafonte introduced American audiences to calypso. Belafonte is the first solo artist in history to have a million-selling album. A friend and contemporary of Sidney Poitier, Belafonte made his screen debut in Bright Road with co-star Dorothy Dandridge.
An actor with incredible range and intensity British export Idris Elba has emerged as one of cinema’s sexiest stars. Name another actor who could play both Luther’s DCI John Luther and Heimdall in The Avengers? Next up for the actor? Bloodsport in The Suicide Squad.
PEOPLE magazine’s 2020 “Sexiest Man Alive,” Michael B. Jordan joins Denzel Washington, Idris Elba, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, and John Legend as one of only five Black men to appear on the magazine’s coveted list. We knew Michael was sexy as far back as Fruitvale Station. Portraying Erik Killmonger in Black Panther just confirmed it.
Since his breakout role as Ricky Nash in the hit films Barbershop and the sequel Barbershop 2: Back in Business, with his mix of good looks and charm, Michael Ealy has made his mark in Hollywood, starring in the hit films Seven Pounds, Think Like a Man, and About Last Night.
Boyz n the Hood, The Best Man, The Brothers, Two Can Play That Game, Think Like a Man, and The Perfect Guy. Need we say more? Morris Chestnut has cornered the market on Hollywood rom-coms.
Actor, director, playwright, and civil rights activist Ossie Davis enjoyed a career spanning over five decades. As one of the most awarded artists of his time, Davis has an Emmy, a Grammy, several NAACP Image Awards, and shares a National Medal of Arts with his partner in life and often on the stage and screen Ruby Dee.
Let’s be clear—Paul Robeson is the blueprint. If there were no Paul Robeson, there would be no Sidney Poitier, Richard Roundtree, Denzel Washington, Idris Elba, or Chadwick Boseman. Robeson was an All-American football player in college recruited to the NFL, who still graduated from law school. The stage and screen’s talented superstar was also a recording artist and one of the first Black stars to turn fame into social activism.
Who is cooler than SHAFT? With one iconic performance, former male model Richard Roundtree turned the blaxploitation genre of the 1970s on its head and gave us the hero we needed. Since then, Roundtree has become on constant presence in films and on television.
If one actor on this list has made it by the sheer volume of roles he’s played, it’s Samuel L. Jackson. Jackson has starred in over one-hundred-fifty films, which have earned an estimated twenty-seven billion dollars, making him the highest-grossing actor of all time. And he still has time to make those annoying Capital One commercials.
In 1958, Sidney Poitier became the first African-American actor to receive the Best Actor Academy Award nomination for The Defiant Ones. Six years later, he became the first to win the Oscar for Lillies of the Field. In the late 1960s, at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, he starred in three iconic films, which each dealt with race relations: Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, In the Heat of the Night, and To Sir, with Love.
Taye Diggs has made quite a name for himself on Broadway and in Hollywood. Diggs originated the role of Benny in the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical Rent, which he later reprised in the film adaptation. Transitioning from stage to screen, Diggs made his film debut as the love interest in How Stella Got Her Groove Back, followed by starring roles in The Wood and The Best Man.
If one role could grant an actor icon status, it’s Terrence Howard’s performance as Lucious Lyon in the hit television series Empire. Though he earned a Best Actor Academy Award nomination for Hustle and Flow, Howard hasn’t gained full movie star status. In interviews, Howard claims he’s retired. We certainly hope not.
Two-time Academy Award nominee Will Smith is one of the most successful actors in Hollywood’s history. Smith starred in seven films, which earned over five hundred million dollars at the box office. The versatile actor has turned in Oscar-nominated performances in Ali and The Pursuit of Happyness and helmed blockbusters like Independence Day and Suicide Squad.