To mark the official launch of Black Star, our celebration of the range, versatility and power of black screen actors on film and TV, we asked you to help us identify the greatest performance by a black actor in the history of cinema and TV.
Alongside the public poll, we asked over 100 film critics, film programmers, filmmakers, actors and cultural experts to name their performances in a separate poll.
Sidney Poitier’s critically acclaimed performance as Detective Virgil Tibbs in In the Heat of the Night (1967) topped the public poll, followed by Pam Grier for her terrific turn as the titular character in Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown (1997) – a homage to the 1970s era of blaxploitation films in America. Michael K. Williams rounded out the top three with his unforgettable portrayal of the legendary Omar Little, the openly gay stick-up man with a strict moral code, feared by drug dealers across the city of Baltimore, in the socially and politically charged hit television series The Wire (2002-08).
Baroness Floella Benjamin OBE, known and loved for her breadth of work and great contribution to British film, television, literature, theatre and politics, said of Sidney Poitier’s performance: “To me, he is the finest black actor of our time and has been truly inspirational.”
The Best Black Performances of All Time – as voted by you
1. Sidney Poitier in In the Heat of the Night (1967)
Sidney Poitier excels as a detective who faces racism while working on a murder case.
2. Pam Grier in Jackie Brown (1997)
Grier’s exudes indelible allure as the stewardess who supplements her income by smuggling money in Quentin Tarantino’s unique twist on 1970s blaxploitation movies.
3. Michael K. Williams in The Wire (2002-08)
Williams gives an unforgettable portrayal of the legendary Omar Little, the openly gay stick-up man with a strict moral code.
4. Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave (2013)
Chiwetel Ejiofor is outstanding in Steve McQueen’s film about a man who was abducted and sold into slavery.
5. Morgan Freeman in The Shawshank Redemption (1997)
Freeman was Oscar-nominated for his moving portrayal of an inmate serving a life sentence in this classic adaptation of a Stephen King novella.
6. Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction (1994)
Samuel L. Jackson gives a career-defining turn as postmodern badass Jules Winnfield, a low-level criminal with a dare-you-to-laugh hairstyle, a fiery temper and a taste for baroquely Biblical language.
7. Denzel Washington in Malcolm X (1992)
In one of the great screen performances of the 1990s, an Oscar-nominated Denzel Washington brings to life the eponymous activist and orator, creating a three-dimensional portrait for the ages.
8.Whoopi Goldberg in The Color Purple (1985)
Whoopi Goldberg gives a brilliant debut film performance in Alice Walker’s tale of female friendship and the power of love to overcome oppression.
9. Angela Bassett in What’s Love Got to Do with It (1993)
Bassett topped the filmmakers & critics Black Star poll for her powerful performance as Tina Turner.
10. Sidney Poitier in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967)
Poitier stars as the black fiancé of a white woman in what was, in 1967, a very rare positive representation of interracial marriage.