Octavia Spencer

Octavia Spencer, Closing General Session speaker" (Photo by ALA - The American Library Association, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/?)

From the early days of Hollywood, Black female actors have made an indelible mark in the entertainment industry. From iconic characters like Hattie McDaniel in “Gone with the Wind” to modern-day superstars like Viola Davis in “How to Get Away with Murder,” the best Black female actors of all time have pushed the boundaries of representation and created powerful performances throughout the decades. 

In her book, “Finding Me,” Esquire says Davis tells a personal tale of resilience and elegance, from her impoverished childhood to her Oscar and Tony Award-winning triumph — a feat not easily accomplished for women of color a few decades ago. “It took more than a decade for the first Black actress to win an Academy Award. The honor went to McDaniel for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Mammy in Gone with the Wind (1939),” said People.

Another iconic Black actress is Whoopi Goldberg, who has dominated the world of film and television since her first big film role in “The Color Purple” in 1985. A recent study reveals that Goldberg is the 4th highest-paid actor starring in Oscar-nominated films. Throughout her long legacy in the industry, it’s no surprise that she is paid accordingly.

Since the 1930s, Black actresses have made appearances in some of the earliest films. Many had a diverse range of talents in different types of entertainment long before the film business took off, including acting, singing, and dancing. From the 1920s to the 1950s, a number of legendary performers got their start, including Lena Horne, Josephine Baker, Ethel Waters, Dorothy Dandridge, Theresa Harris, Lillian Randolph, Mamie Smith, Ruby Dandridge, Ruby Dee, and Vivian Dandridge, all in the midst of racism and segregation. 

Their talent, creativity, and commitment to their craft have inspired generations of viewers and made them stars. Today, so many amazing women of color continue to break new ground with their work, showing the world that Black female actors are an integral part of the entertainment industry. And what better way to celebrate Women’s History Month than paying homage to some of the incredible Black women who paved the way for others?

We searched for the most beloved Black female actors in history, also considering the performances that made them stand out, the awards and recognition, and the impact they have had on the industry. Disclaimer: with so many greats to choose from, there is no way to fit them all in this list! StudyFinds consulted 10 expert sites and put together this list of the top five best Black female actors of all time, plus one honorable mention. Let us know if you think we missed one of the greats in the comments below!

Viola Davis at the 89th Annual Academy Awards - Press Room
Viola Davis at the 89th Annual Academy Awards – Press Room held at the Hollywood and Highland Center in Hollywood, USA on February 26, 2017. (Photo by Tinseltown on Shutterstock)

The List: Best Black Female Actors of All Time, Per Experts

1. Viola Davis

In addition to her book, “Finding Me,” Viola Davis is an award-winning actress who is widely considered to be one of the best Black female actors of all time. Her versatility has enabled her to take on roles from a Southern housewife in “The Help” to a fiery attorney in “How to Get Away with Murder.” Her powerful performances and inspiring story have earned her numerous accolades, including an Academy Award, a Tony Award, and two Emmy Awards. She is also the first African-American woman to win a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series

ENTOIN says, “Viola Davis has a total tally of 309 nominations and 139 awards.” While this is impressive for anyone, “she is one of the few Black actresses to have received such recognition,” adds Discover Walks.

In addition, Davis has been nominated for five Golden Globe Awards, five Screen Actors Guild Awards, and four BAFTA Awards. From Broadway performances to television to the big screen, her talents have even earned her a place in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, where she is one of the few Black female members. 

“She is not just a film and TV actress but does a lot of stage acting too,” says The Cinemaholic. “She is the only Black actress to win the coveted Triple Crown of Acting, which is an actor or actress winning an Academy award, Emmy Award and a Tony award in acting categories. She has been nominated twice for the best supporting actress Oscar, once for Doubt (2008) and second for Fences (2016) which she won. She also has a best actress nomination for 2011’s The Help. She also won the BAFTA and Golden Globe for her role in Fences. She has achieved critical acclaim for her role in How to get away with Murder for which she received an Emmy award.”

Davis has received four Academy Award nominations, making her the most nominated Black actress ever. “She is the third African-American to get an Academy Award for acting and the first Black woman to win an Emmy and a Tony Award,” says Hood MWR. “In addition to her acting career, Davis is the founder and CEO of JuVee Productions and former president of the Screen Actors Guild.”

2. Halle Berry

Halle Berry is an iconic actor with an incredible career. With an Academy Award and a Golden Globe, she is the first and only Black woman to win the Best Actress Oscar. Her performances in films such as “Monster’s Ball,” “X-Men,” and “Catwoman” have been praised by critics and audiences alike and she has earned numerous awards and nominations. 

According to The Cinemaholic, “Halle Berry is one of the most recognizable faces in the industry and a heartthrob for many. She has played some famous roles including being a Bond girl Jinx in 2002’s Die Another Day opposite Pierce Brosnan, Storm in the X-Men films, several roles in films like Cloud Atlas. She has been a part of films like The Flintstones (1994), Swordfish (2001), Kingsman: The Golden Circle (2017) and Monster’s Ball (2001),” which she received an Academy award for best actress.

She’s also made strides in the television industry, making guest appearances in shows such as “The Simpsons and “Robot Chicken” and earning a nomination for Outstanding Actress in a Television Movie or Limited Series for her performance in “Introducing Dorothy Dandridge.”

Halle Berry’s talent, range, and versatility have made her one of the most respected and admired Black female actors. The A&T Register says, “Beginning her career in the early ’90s, Berry became known for her ability to transform into any role. She soon began to gain recognition and has starred in over 45 movies.”

“Her hard work, passion, and willingness to learn have made her one of Hollywood’s best actresses of color,” adds Legit. “She became known as an artist who puts her heart and soul into whatever she does. Her hard work and devotion helped her reach superstardom, a status that had evaded female actors of African American origin,” concludes TFP.

3. Angela Bassett

Angela Bassett’s lengthy career has seen her star in a number of iconic films, including “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” “Waiting to Exhale,” and “Black Panther.” Her ability to emote a wide range of emotion, her powerful presence and her undeniable talent have made her one of the most respected and celebrated actors of her generation. 

Bassett decided she wanted to act at an early age and began acting in theater. “She has worked on a variety of projects in her illustrious career spanning over three decades. After performing in a dance group as a child, she discovered her love for acting during a field trip to Washington D.C. in her 11th grade where she watched actor James Earl Jones perform in a ‘Kennedy Center’ production of the play Of Mice and Men,” says TFP. “Before getting into acting, she briefly worked as a receptionist at a beauty salon and as a photo researcher for ‘U.S. News & World Report’ magazine. She then proved her acting prowess as a theater actor and went on to feature in a number of movies and television shows.”

“Angela Bassett is known for playing critically acclaimed biographical roles in her career,” says The Cinemaholic. “She has portrayed Tina Turner in the movie What’s Love Got to Do with It (1993). She won a Golden globe for the role and was also nominated for the academy award. She has also portrayed Betty Shabazz in both Malcolm X (1992) and Panther (1995), Katherine Jackson in The Jacksons: An American Dream (1992), Rosa Parks in The Rosa Parks Story (2002), Voletta Wallace in Notorious (2009) and Coretta Scott King in Betty & Coretta (2013).”

Her inspiring performances have earned her numerous awards and accolades, including an Academy Award nomination, a Golden Globe, multiple NAACP Image Awards and a Screen Actors Guild Award. “Angela Bassett’s work has been felt in theaters and television screens worldwide,” adds Legit. “The actress started her career in 1975 and has featured in over 100 films, videos, and television shows. The Oscar award winner is also a producer and director.”

Bassett is a consummate professional, and her passion and dedication to her craft have made her one of the most beloved Black female actors of all-time.

4. Cicely Tyson

Cicely Tyson is a name that can never be forgotten. The late, great actress was a trailblazer in every sense of the word. She was one of the first Black women to be nominated for an Academy Award, and she won three Emmy Awards before her death in 2021. 

“A career spanning from the 1960s to the time of her death, Cicely Tyson has been honored and awarded for her work over the multitude of six decades,” says Kulture Vulturez. “Her creation of characters in films and miniseries like Fried Green Tomatoes, The Help, Hoodlum, The River Niger, Sounder, Diary of a Mad Black Woman, Roots, and King has given her the platform of longevity and a legacy unmatched. From the stage to the television to the big screen, Cicely Tyson is one of the very few actors in Hollywood that has had the talent to remain in show business for an extended period of time.”

“Tyson started off her career as a model with minor roles here and there but soon gathered the limelight with her roles in movies like Sounder which got her nominated for not only an Academy Award but also a Golden Globe award for best actress,” adds Edu Dwar. “She is well-known for her portrayal of iconic African-American women like her role in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, which got her two Emmy Awards and also a nomination for a BAFTA award for best actress in a leading role.”

Tyson was passionate about every role she played which made her stand out from the rest. “Unlike other actresses who accepted whatever roles came their way, Tyson was extremely choosy about her work,” adds TFP. “More than often, she flatly refused to do films, or take parts solely for the paycheck. She was extremely selective about the roles she chose as she wanted to perform only those characters that had depth and meaning.”

She was an incredibly talented and inspiring figure who embodied the strength and resilience of Black women. Her performances in films like “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman” and “Sounder” will never be forgotten, nor will her work in television shows like “How to Get Away With Murder” and “The Trip to Bountiful.” Cicely Tyson will always be remembered as one of the greatest Black female actors of all-time.

5. Octavia Spencer

Octavia Spencer’s impressive body of work includes Academy Award-winning performances in “The Help” and “Hidden Figures,” as well as critically acclaimed roles in “The Shape of Water” and “Fruitvale Station.” She has also been nominated for numerous awards and accolades, including Golden Globe, BAFTA, and SAG awards. 

“Octavia Spencer is the only Black actress to have back-to-back Oscar nominations in two years,” says ENTOIN. “She was nominated for three Academy Awards, including a win. She also won a BAFTA Award, a Golden Globe Award, three Screen Actors Guild Awards, three National Board of Review Awards, two Satellite Awards, and two Critics’ Choice Movie Awards.”

She is an example of how hard work and dedication can lead to greatness. “In 2020, Spencer also took the lead role on the Netflix miniseries Self Made: Inspired By The Life Of Madam C.J. Walker, based on the life of Black hair care pioneer Madam CJ Walker,” adds Screen Rant. “Though the series received mixed reviews, Spencer’s performance was praised and eventually led to her first Emmy Nomination.”

Octavia Spencer’s career is a testament to the fact that anything is possible, and she is a strong role model for aspiring actors of all backgrounds. Kulture Vulturez adds: “Years of minor roles in multiple notable films, Octavia Spencer would break through the barriers of Hollywood with 2011’s The Help, but not before featuring in almost 50 films from 1996 to 2010. With iconic roles in films like The Help and Hidden Figures, Octavia Spencer is one of Hollywood’s most underrated and underappreciated actresses.”

Honorable Mention: Lupita Nyong’o

Though there are many amazing women we could mention, we chose the talented actress and bestselling author, Lupita Nyong’o. Not only has she starred in films such as “Black Panther” and “12 Years a Slave,” but she has also won numerous awards including an Academy Award, a British Academy Film Award, and a Screen Actors Guild Award. Nyong’o has also starred in the critically acclaimed short film “The Jungle Book,” as well as a powerful PSA for the United Nations. 

“After her breakthrough performance in the 2014 Best Picture Winner 12 Years A Slave, Lupita Nyong’o would continue to take Hollywood by storm,” adds Screen Rant. “Just a few years after winning the Best Actress award, Nyong’o would take the lead role in Marvel’s Black Panther as Nakia and Red in Jordan Peele’s Us. Lupita Nyong’o’s performances in both those films were well received amongst fans and critics making her one of Hollywood’s most sought-out actresses.”

In addition to having a great deal of acting ability, Lupita also published a novel called “Sulwe“, which ended up becoming a New York Times bestseller.

Her versatility as an actor is unmatched, and her performances have consistently earned her high praise and recognition, as well as a spot on our list of all-time best Black actresses. Nyong’o continues to break ground in the entertainment industry, and her work will no doubt be remembered for generations to come.

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