10 Unforgettable Breakthrough Movie Performances By Great Black Actors


Throughout Hollywood history, there has been a bias towards white audiences that has bled into the industry today. While there’s a concerted effort to make movies and TV better reflect the experiences of more people than ever before, there’s still a long way to go. In the spirit of being aware of the need for continued representation, let’s celebrate how the the most iconic black voices in cinema broke into the Hollywood mainstream.

From Whoopi Goldberg’s debut in the ’80s to Michael B. Jordan just under a decade ago, let’s talk about some of the unforgettable movie performances by black actors that really helped propel them to superstardom.

Whoopi Goldberg as Celie Harris in The Color Purple

(Image credit: Warner Bros.)

Whoopi Goldberg in the Color Purple (1985)

Whoopi Goldberg is currently a veteran artist who co-hosts View after becoming one of the few artists in history to receive an EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony wins). The actress made her stage debut where The graduation director Mike Nichols discovered her and helped with a transition to Broadway that led to Steven Spielberg learning from her and casting Goldberg in The purple color.

At the age of 30, Whoopi Goldberg found her breakthrough with the adaptation of Spielberg’s book which was commercially and critically successful and earned her an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress. Since then, Goldberg has continued to achieve success, also finding many memorable roles in Phantom, Star Trek: The Next Generation and sister act.

Kevin Kline and Denzel Washington in Cry Freedom

(Image credit: Universal)

Denzel Washington in Cry Freedom (1987)

Denzel Washington is one of the most respected and beloved actors in movie history today. The actor also made his acting debut after studying classical acting. Shortly after graduating, he landed a role in comedy carbon copy alongside George Segal before becoming part of the medical drama Saint Elsewhere. As for the actor’s breakthrough into the decorated actor he is now, it all started with his role in Richard Attenborough Cry out for freedom alongside Kevin Kline.

The 1987 film based on a true story saw Denzel Washington play Steve Biko, a South African anti-apartheid activist. The film that opened up a discussion about discrimination and political corruption led to Washington’s first Oscar nomination and a career full of challenging and important roles like Glory, Malcolm X, training day and much more.

Laurence Fishburne as Jason 'Furious' Styles Jr. in Boyz n the hood

(Image credit: Columbia Pictures)

Laurence Fishburne in Boyz n the Hood (1991)

Laurence Fishburne is another all-time great black actor who continues to star in amazing movies and TV shows today. including her role in the upcoming John Wick movie. Fishburne started in Hollywood at the age of 11, finding roles in ABC soap operas before becoming part of Revelation now during teenagehood. Throughout the 80s he found roles here and there, including a minor role in The purple color with Whoopi Goldberg. He starred in Spike Lee’s second film, Under-the-Radar School amazementbut 1991 Boyz in the hood really brought the actor to the fore.

John Singleton’s now modern classic Boyz in the hood starred Cuba Gooding Jr, Ice Cube, Nia Long, Regina King and Angela Bassett in a crime drama that launched their entire careers. At the time, Fishburne was recognizable by his nearly 20-year career, but Boyz in the hood was the first successful mainstream film that showcased Fishburne’s talent when he played father figure, Furious Styles (one of many performances for which he should have received an Oscar). Following this performance he began to gain acclaim for a number of roles and of course became Morpheus in The matrix.

Angela Bassett as Tina Turner in What's Love Got to Do With It

(Image credit: Buena Vista Pictures)

Angela Bassett in What’s Love Got to Do With It (1993)

Angela Bassett is an icon, period. Before the actress assumed that title, she graduated from Yale University with a degree in African American Studies and returned to study acting for her MFA. She then moved to Los Angeles and found the first key roles in Boyz in the hood and Malcolm X. She caught the eye for playing Malcolm X’s wife in the film, but that was in 1993 What’s love got to do with it which allowed her to break through and become the star she is today.

Bassett portrayed Tina Turner in the biopic, which became a highly rated film and led to Bassett receiving major attention, while also becoming the first black woman to win the Golden Globe for Best Actress. She went on to star in other major films, including strange days, wait to expire, How Stella got her groove back and tell the story of Rosa Parks in Ride to freedom.

Don Cheadle and Denzel Washington in The Devil in a Blue Dress

(Image credit: Sony Pictures Releasing)

Don Cheadle in The Devil in a Blue Dress (1995)

Don Cheadle is one of the coolest and most interesting actors of our time, including being part of the Marvel Family as James Rhodes / War Machine. After earning a BFA in theater in 1986, he made his debut in small roles in Hollywood. He found leading roles in films like Colors and an episode of The prince of Bel-Air alongside Will Smith. Things really started to heat up for the actor when he starred in Devil in blue dress with Denzel Washington.

The 1995 neo-noir film based on Walter Mosley’s novel instantly had people talking about how Cheadle stole the show as Mouse. The role led Cheadle to rise in Hollywood, leading to roles in boogie nights, Out of sight and the oceans films leading to a still illustrious career.

Gabrielle Union as Isis in a cheerleader costume in Bring It On

(Image credit: Universal Pictures)

Gabrielle Union in Bring It On (2000)

The groundbreaking performances we’ve talked about so far are mostly dramatic performances, which makes Gabrielle Union’s big moment standout for shining a light. The actress got her start on television, finding roles in series such as Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, sister, sister, 7th Sky and Friends before finding small roles in teen movies She is all that and 10 things i hate about you. Union became a big name when she starred as Isis in the 2000s Bring it on alongside Kirsten Dunst.

The cult classic about rival cheerleading teams caught Hollywood’s attention and led to the actress being cast in the CBS medical drama City of Angels and find more leading roles, like in the 2003s Deliver us from Eva and bad boys II. More than twenty years later, she remains a top name that never lacks for a new role.

Viola Davis as Sybil in Far From Heaven

(Image credit: Focus Features)

Viola Davis in Far From Heaven (2002)

Viola Davis is a prolific actress with a number of great performance we love it. How did she get here? Davis was a Juilliard graduate and made her stage debut, finding her first Broadway role at age 31 in a play by August Wilson, which went on to be a notable part of her career. His first roles were brief in big movies like Ocean’s Eleven, Kate and Leopold and Anthony Fisher. Her breakthrough role was in 2002 far from paradise as Sybil, the housekeeper and confidante of Julianne Moore’s main character.

A few years later, Davis’s prominence grew with his role in Doubt and other movies like Ugly and suicide squad. These days, when a Viola Davis movie comes out, you sit down and pay attention.

Jamie Foxx as Max Durocher in Collateral

(Image credit: Dreamworks)

Jamie Foxx in Collateral (2004)

Jamie Foxx got his start telling jokes at an open-mic night at a comedy club in 1989 thanks to a dare from a girlfriend. Later, he is part of the cast of In living color before landing his own sitcom titled The Jamie Foxx Show. As we know in the 90s, TV and movies were a different game. Foxx burst into cinema in 1999 with Any Sunday but the movie that really cemented his continued popularity was 2001 Collateral.

He starred alongside Tom Cruise in an action thriller that earned him his first Oscar nomination. A few months later, his portrayal of Ray Charles led to the actor also landing a Best Actor nomination that same year and winning.

Taraji P. Henson and Terrence Howard as Shug and Djay in Hustle and Flow

(Image credit: Paramount Pictures)

Taraji P. Henson in Hustle & Flow (2005)

Taraji P. Henson studied acting at Howard University before starting as a background performer in the early 90s. After finding a starring film role in 1991 baby boyher breakthrough role was in 2005 Bustle and flow, alongside Terrence Howard, Anthony Anderson and Ludacris. The independent film about a hustler and pimp who becomes a rapper was a huge hit at the time, putting Henson on the map.

Henson then received buzz for starring in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button in addition to starring in major films, including I can hurt alone and The Karate Kid redo. She then found her Bustle and flow star of the hit Fox series, Empire alongside an extensive career in Hollywood.

Michael B. Jordan as Oscar Grant in Fruitvale Station

(Image credit: The Weinstein Company)

Michael B. Jordan in Fruitvale Station (2013)

A more recent performance by a black actor that turned an actor into a major star is that of Michael B. Jordan in Fruitvale Station. Ryan Coogler’s film premiered at Sundance in 2013 to smash success before mark Hollywood differently. Thanks to the great success of the film, Coogler and Jordan teamed up again to make Creed alongside Sylvester Stallone then for the years 2018 Black Panther.

There are plenty more amazing breakthrough performances that we’ve certainly missed, but it’s interesting to see how some of Hollywood’s biggest black stars got their start. Here’s to celebrating other great players in the years to come. You never know where the next major star will appear first in upcoming movies.


Comments are closed.