25 Best Roles for Black Actresses

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.

1 of 25 ABC

Kerry Washington

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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.

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A gun-wielding, tough-talking Black woman who takes no prisoners. Years later, Foxy Brown is still the epitome of girl power.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Beautiful, confident, talented, and surrounded by supportive sister-friends, Joan Clayton was the quintessential fun-loving career girl many of us hoped to become.

9 of 25 Gene Page/ AMC.com

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. 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Alice Walker’s 1982 novel The Color Purple won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1983 (Walker was the first Black woman to win), and then went on to become the iconic film starring Whoopi Goldberg as Celie in her breakthrough role.

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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.

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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). 

17 of 25 Trimark Pictures, Inc.

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.

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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.

19 of 25 New Line Productions, Inc.

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.

20 of 25 Courtesy of '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.

21 of 25 Getty Images

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).