Despite the COVID crisis, Black Hollywood continues to stand up, speak up, and make a difference on- and off-screen. From John Boyega’s passionate Black Lives Matter speech in London to Skai Jackson and her dedication to exposing “as many racists as she can,” this rising class of leading young men and women are the change many fought to make a way for and they are loud and proud.

Hollywood’s pesky habit of ignoring characters of color from the blockbuster charts is quickly eroding into a new wave. Studios such as MACRO (Charles D. King), ARRAY (Ava DuVernay), JuVee Productions (Viola Davis), and Outlier Society (Michael B. Jordan) are engaging international audiences and telling unforgettable stories that speak to a healthy surge of creativity happening in the game.

And thanks to these talented stars on ESSENCE’s Young Black Hollywood list, it hasn’t been hard to miss just how impactful 2021 and beyond will be with these names headlining marquees here and abroad. In case you’ve been slipping on your Black Inspiration trivia, here are this year’s must-watch stars to add to your respective queues.

1. Ryan Destiny

Ryan Destiny | Photo by FOX Image Collection via Getty Images

In no ranking order, we begin with Ryan Destiny, the former Love Dollhouse girl-group member and current star on Freeform’s grown*ish. While most may recognize her from the FOX TV musical drama, Star, Destiny’s IMDB is infused with a wide range of upcoming art, culture, and film projects. From topping the bill as boxing phenom Claressa Shields in Barry Jenkins’ Flint Strong to starring in pgLang’s first partnership with Calvin Klein, Destiny’s destiny is looking like pure melanated magic.

2. Tone Bell

Tone Bell | Photo by Dan Steinberg/REX/Shutterstock

The past few years have ben quite fortuitous for Tone Bell, the Decatur, Georgia-born comedian and actor. Despite the panny, he has created his own stimulus package with roles on CBS (Fam), Netflix (Bojack Horseman), BET (American Soul), and the digitized-big-screen (Amazon Prime’s Sylvie’s Love). Ever the hard worker, Bell’s stock will rise to new heights, especially when audiences see him as John Levy in the Andra Day-led The United States vs. Billie Holiday.

3. Quinta Brunson

Quinta Brunson | Photo by Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for Entertainment Weekly

Quinta is now the one “who got money” after her viral Instagram series about “The Girl Who’s Never Been on a Nice Date” led to numerous opportunities. The writer, director, actor, and all-around fly human being has made history with A Black Lady Sketch Show and created the impressively-titled Quinta Vs. Everything for Facebook Watch. Always developing a way to let her talents flourish, Brunson is embiggening her bag to include more star-leaning work (Lazor Wulf, Big Mouth) and made fans go “gah-gah” with her casting as Alex in the new late-night TZGZ-animated comedy series, Magical Girl Friendship Squad, which is airing now on SyFy.

4. Eli Goree

Eli Goree | Photo by Katie Yu/Freeform via Getty Images

Ever get those moments where you say to yourself, “I’ve seen this actor somewhere before,” and realize they just have that classic Black Hollywood appeal? Halifax, Canada’s own Eli Goree is exactly that mix of Bellafonte-Poitier charm with a gravitas that shows in projects such as Race and ‘Da Kink in My Hair. And with his head-turning performance as Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali in Regina King’s One Night in Miami, Goree shines amongst a cavalcade of talent the likes of Aldis Hodges, Leslie Odom Jr., and Kingsley Ben-Adir in what’s easily one of this year’s best movies — hands down!

5. Dominique Fishback

Dominique Fishback | Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

It may be conceited to write that it is “just Dominique’s time and we’re living in it,” but the truth is hard to deny. The Pace University performer has racked up hit after hit after hit, leading her to the top of the must-call list for projects such as Project Power and as Jay-Z’s mother, Gloria Carter, in the music video for “Smile.” Dominique Fishback’s chameleon-like skill of absorbing herself into a role has been her M.O. since we saw her in The Hate U Give. It was even more emboldened when she transformed into Darlene, a savvy sex worker in HBO’s The Deuce.

Next up, the in-demand actor plays Deborah Johnson, an activist and love of Black Panther deputy chairman Fred Hampton in Judas and the Black Messiah.

6. Damson Idris

Damson Idris | Photo by Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images

Let the record show that Damson Idris has been a star since Farming. No shots to the return of Snowfall, but after last season’s cliffhanger, be prepared for everyone to swear they were a fan of the South East London boy whose done well on-screen. His ambitions to follow in the path of the “great Denzel Washington” seem more than possible since Idris has stepped into leading man action hero status with roles in Outside the Wire with Anthony Mackie and as Marcus Corell in the space-centered video game, Squadron 42.

7. Zolee Griggs

Zolee Griggs | Photo by Gary Gershoff/Getty Images

Zolee Griggs, the 23-year-old actress and activist, was having an impeccable 2019 until COVID-19 put the kibosh on how one lived their everyday life. Seeing productions come to a screeching halt, Griggs redirected her energies into helping others with necessities like food and clothing. In addition to opening her Inglewood Grab + Go in Los Angeles amid the pandemic, her roles in BET’s Boomerang and the superhero mystery-thriller film Archenemy showcases her desire for challenging roles. And as her commitment to community grows, too, cinephiles should be excited to see what the Wu-Tang: An American Saga actress does next.

8. Aaron Pierre

Aaron Pierre | Photo by Broadway Pictures/Getty Images

To the untrained eye, English actor Aaron Pierre may look like a fresh-faced actor getting his first “must-see” write-up. Not true. Pierre, a theater-trained professional, has been a thorn in TV blerds’ side for years as Dev-Em from Krypton, a 2019 SyFy show about Superman’s grandfather. Some 2.6 million viewers tuned in to see Pierre’s military minded character do battle on the famed comic book planet, but it is his upcoming role in M. Night Shyamalan’s thriller that has longtime fans excited. Old, which is out this July, also stars Gael Garcia Bernal, and with plot details under wraps, the curtain is finally being pulled back to reveal Aaron Pierre’s talent.

9. Nomzamo Mbatha

Nomzamo Mbatha | Photo by Emma McIntyre/Getty Images

Nomzamo Mbatha knows no bounds or limitations. While filming Isibaya, she spent time touring Kenyan refugee camps in her role as an UNHCR Ambassador. It is that level of care and commitment that has made her a sought after star in projects likeTell Me Sweet Something and The Jakes Are Missing. In 2015, she became the first South African to represent Neutrogena and signed a talent management deal with CAA (Creative Artists Agency). Up next, Mbatha will be starring with Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall in Coming 2 America in a role that’s described as being “kept under lock and key”.

10. Micheal Ward

Micheal Ward | Photo by David M. Benett/Dave Benett/Getty Images

The fact that Micheal Ward was awarded the BAFTA Rising Star Award at the 2020 ceremony isn’t surprising, as the Jamaican-English actor has been putting in heavy duty work the past few years. His roles on The Old Guard and The A List pale in comparison to his star-turn as the methodically cool “Jamie” on Netflix’s Top Boy. Season 3 of the Drake-backed crime-drama series was given almost universal acclaim by critics with Ward’s performance equally lauded. He continues to fulfill that BAFTA-backed promise with stirring roles in Steve McQueen’s film pentalogy Small Axe: Lovers Rock and Lena Waithe’s Beauty.

11. Laura Harrier

Laura Harrier | Photo by Charley Gallay/Getty Images for Netflix

Like the rest of us, Laura Harrier has been stuck at home throughout this panic-inducing pandemic. But unlike the rest of us, the breakout star in Marvel’s Spider-Man: Homecoming has Hollywood on speed dial to past the time. It hasn’t just been Ryan Murphy blowing up her line, brands such Louis Vuitton, Urban Outfitters, and Steve Madden love the outspoken actress for their campaigns. With a stocked 2021 on the calendar, Harrier can be found using her social media to raise awareness about issues relating to civil rights and equality. This year she’ll feature alongside Melissa McCarthy in Netflix’s The Starling.

12. Marcus Scribner

Marcus Scribner | Photo by Joe Scarnici/Getty Images for Frito-Lay North America

Marcus Scribner is a passionate performer whose work has earned him the distinction of being a two-time NAACP Image Award winner. Black-ish’s favorite son blossomed in the role of Andre Johnson Jr., but hasn’t let the family sitcom peg him into a typecast role. He recently wrapped the fifth and final season of Netflix’s She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, gave back to his community via Defend Our Future, a project he is an ambassador for with the Environmental Defense Fund, and features in the Ekwa Msangi-directed film, Farewell Amor. Not bad for a 21-year-old, eh?!

13. Lovie Simone

Lovie Simone | Photo by C Flanigan/FilmMagic

Many of us fell in love with Lovie Simone in Greenleaf on Oprah’s network and rave about her future prosperity. The Bronx-born acting prodigy has stepped out in a major way with roles in Selah and the Spades, Monster, and her bewitching recent role, The Craft: Legacy. The acting dynamo and self-proclaimed “modern weirdo” will continue to spellbound audiences this summer when she joins the cast of Power Book III: Raising Kanan with 50 Cent.

14. Skylan Brooks

Skylan Brooks | Photo by Ben Gabbe/Getty Images for Xbox & Gears Of War 4

Skylan Brooks won moviegoers’ hearts as Mister in George Tillman, Jr.’s The Inevitable Defeat of Mister & Pete, but don’t try to lock him down to just one archetype. Brooks never disappoints in his unique takes on interesting characters, which explains why he’s seriously a shot for DC’s early-in-development Static Shock film. Currently, he explores the dark side of the superhero genre as Hamster, the sidekick of Max Fist, in Adam Egypt Mortimer’s Archenemy, and has three more projects in the works. Brooks is making cool look easy for a very busy new year.

15. Saniyya Sidney

Saniyya Sidney | Photo by Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images

For fans of FOX’s The Passage, Saniyya Sidney was gravely robbed. The season/series finale of the post-apocalyptic vampire drama had more life in the veins than it was given time for. Sidney’s star power wasn’t to be held back. She was praised for her performance in Fast Color and already put up numbers in feature films Fences and Hidden Figures. Up next, the 15-year-old will join Will Smith and Demi Singleton as Venus William in Reinaldo Marcus Green’s King Richard, which hits theaters this fall.

16. Thuso Mbedu

Thuso Mbedu | Photo by noa grayevsky/Getty Images for RSL Management

Emmy-nominated Thuso Mbedu is one of the most compelling new faces on television. Her road to perdition began during her teenage years on drama series like Snake Park and Scandal. The sky’s the limit for the early-20-year-old and Mbedu’s reaching for higher heights. She’s set to make her international debut in Barry Jenkins’ The Underground Railroad, which is based on the Colson Whitehead novel of the same name. There’s no doubt that this young phenom will be a force to headline marquee posters in the near future.

17. Meagan Tandy

Meagan Tandy | Photo by Oliver Walker/FilmMagic

Not overlooking the Miss USA status. Not dismissing the time on the teen medical dramedy Red Band Society. But Meagan Tandy is going to expand her IMDB, thanks to her time as Sophie Moore on The CW’s Batwoman. The introduction of Javicia Leslie’s iteration of the crimson Caped Crusader has infused a second charge in Tandy’s character, whose recent Season 2 discovery already has blerds talking. Whether playing the mean girl or the badass, Meagan Tandy is eager to take on challenging roles.

18. Jahi Winston

Jahi Di’Allo Winston | Photo by Emma McIntyre/Getty Images

Teen sensation Jahi Di’Allo Winston has been on Hollywood’s radar since dropping jaws (and the law) in Lena Waithe’s Queen & Slim film. Equipped with a nuclear-powered confidence, the 16-year-old earned rave reviews in his performance as “Mouse” in HBO’s Charm City Kings, an adaptation of Lotfy Nathan’s 12 O’Clock Boys documentary. From the short-lived crime drama Feed the Beast to 2019’s zombie satire The Dead Don’t Die, Winston’s availability is being snatched up fast. The young actor is next slated to join Mary J. Blige and Lukas Haas in Kerem Sanga’s The Violent Heart.

19. Chloe x Halle

Chloe Bailey (L) and Halle Bailey (R) | Photo by Jeffrey Mayer/WireImage

As Chloe x Halle, the sisters have created one of the craziest and chicest music videos with 2020’s “Forgive Me.” The Mableton, Georgia duo have stepped into their own limelight as actors with their popularity growing with their roles on Freeform’s grown-ish. In the new year, Chloe and Halle Bailey are embracing their big screen ambitions. Big sis Chloe will play Blake Holloway in The Georgetown Project, while Halle has everyone circling Nov. 19, 2021 for her debut in Disney’s The Little Mermaid.

20. Kelvin Harrison Jr.

Kelvin Harrison Jr. | Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival

An MVP of a rare caliber, Kelvin Harrison Jr. has taken small roles in films such as Ender’s Game and It Comes at Night, and smashed the game wide open with work in Luce and Waves. Nominated for Best Male Lead at the Independent Spirit Awards, Rising Star, and British Academy Film Awards, Harrison is jolting Hollywood awake with complicated, yet compassionate characters. And with impressive turns in The Photograph, The High Note, plus his addition to Euphoria Season 2 — this won’t be the last time we’ll be talking about how his star is primed to rise even higher. 

Kevin L. Clark is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer and curates ESSENCE’s The Playlist. Follow him @KevitoClark.

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