The Best Black Performances of All Time — all expert voters and votes

Find out how over 100 critics, writers and programmers voted in our poll identifying the best performances by black actors.

Updated:

Denzel Washington in Malcolm X (1992)

Denzel Washington in Malcolm X (1992)

Nelson Abbey, director

Denzel Washington in Malcolm X (1992)
He should have won the Oscar for this portrayal.

Larenz Tate in Menace II Society (1993)
Absolutely fantastic performance, showcasing an extremely versatile actor.

Chiwetel Ejiofor in Dirty Pretty Things (2002)
Breakout performance by one of Britain’s finest actors.

Sophie Okonedo in Hotel Rwanda (2004)
Breakthrough performance by a great British actor.

Ving Rhames in Baby Boy (2001)
Terence Howard in Hustle & Flow (2005)
Uber difficult role, carried off amazingly well.

Wesley Snipes in New Jack City (1991)
Mo’Nique in Precious (2009)
Depressing film but a career-defining performance. Took Mo’Nique from the stand-up comedy scene to a being a legit star.

Ice Cube in Boyz n the Hood (1991)
One of the best performances ever by a rapper in a film. Not bad for a debut.

Angela Bassett in What’s Love Got to Do with It (1993)
Should’ve won her an Oscar.

Laura Adams, Directors UK

Chiwetel Ejiofor in Kinky Boots (2005)
Partly because I grew up in Northampton, so the characters that Lola comes up against are all the funnier. Ejiofor expertly plays the role of drag queen Lola with flamboyancy, sensitivity and balancing the performance of masculinity and femininity. Plus he’s really good at walking in heels

Richard Pryor in See No Evil, Hear No Evil (1989)
Flagrantly questionable in terms of both characters’ portrayal of blind and deaf characters, nonetheless I seem to have watched this film a thousand times as a child, once with Swedish dubbing while on holiday. The slapstick exaggeration of Pryor’s performance is ideal

Whoopi Goldberg in Sister Act (1992)
The film’s poster is Whoopi Goldberg in a nun’s habit and heels. Need I say more? Mainstream in its reach, and successful enough to become a franchise, Goldberg’s direct approach, comedic expertise and focus on female characters makes this a favourite

Karidja Touré in Girlhood (2014)
I hope she’s a superstar in the making. A nuanced and powerful performance taking in vulnerability, celebration, grit and song and dance

Denzel Washington in American Gangster (2007)
This is Denzel Washington’s kingpin performance, covering decades and the epic changes to a man’s life

Viola Davis in How to Get Away with Murder (2014-)
Viola Davis is unmissable in this role. A powerful woman who is broken and mends herself. A particular scene when she takes apart the performance she plays everyday, removing her lashes, make-up, weave and regards her reflection is amazing

Wesley Snipes in Blade (1998)
Wesley Snipes runs a franchise more successful than many other DC/Marvel attempts, completely persuading audiences to follow his bombastic, sharp approach. No ridiculous masks or growling voices necessary

John Boyega in Attack the Block (2011)
As Moses, John Boyega conveys all the complications of a role based in a housing estate block – multi-facted, funny, survivalist, as well as holding a strong ethical code. The film makes it so enjoyable to watch him owning this role

Sanaa Lathan in Love & Basketball (2000)
I wasn’t introduced to this film until 2015, and was blown away by both the character. A feminist film viewer’s dream, as I love sports movies as much as romances when fronted by female characters. The epic storyline calls for a nuanced performance over decades, and Sanaa Lathan’s agility in this role is a stand-out.

Will Smith in Men in Black (1997)
Funny, leading, establishing himself as a super film star following Independence Day (1996)

Karen Alexander, film and moving image curator

Ethel Waters in Pinky (1949)
Al Freeman Jr in Dutchman (1967)
Laurence Fishburne in Deep Cover (1992)
Joe Morton in The Brother from Another Planet (1984)
Danny Glover in To Sleep with Anger (1991)
Dorothy Dandridge in Carmen Jones (1954)
Josephine Baker in Zouzou (1934)
Pam Grier in Jackie Brown (1997)
Canada Williams in One False Move (1992)
Howard Rollins Jr in Ragtime (1981)

Bisi Alimi, activist

Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave (2013)
Lupita Nyong’o in 12 Years a Slave (2013)
Gugu Mbatha-Raw in Belle (2013)
Danny Glover, Desreta Jackson, Margaret Avery, Oprah Winfrey in The Color Purple (1985)
Angela Bassett in Jumping the Broom (2011)
Cuba Gooding Jr, Beyoncé Knowles, Mike Epps in The Fighting Temptations (2003)

Geoff Andrew, freelance writer and programmer-at-Large, BFI Southbank

Forest Whitaker in Bird (1988)
All the best performances have an honesty about them. Whitaker’s take on Charlie Parker manages to convey the man’s genius – and his charm – while never avoiding showing us his shortcomings. It is very hard to play someone so well known, let alone so revered, but Whitaker gets it right.

Alfre Woodard in Passion Fish (1992)
A performance of great subtlety and integrity, terribly underrated.

Paul Robeson in Show Boat (1936)
Sheer magic, especially when he sings ‘Old Man River’.

Alex Descas in 35 Shots of Rum (2008)
A terrific actor who deserves to be far better known; this is perhaps his greatest performance.

Chiwetel Eijofor in 12 Years a Slave (2013)
Historical roles like this can be tricky to nail: Eijofor nails it, and the film never feels preachy as a result.

Abbey Lincoln in Nothing But a Man (1964)
Unfair, perhaps, to highlight Lincoln over her co-star Ivan Dixon, also excellent, but the understatement of her performance is truly impressive.

Youssouf Djaoro in A Screaming Man (2010)
Djaoro had also been very fine in Haroun’s earlier Daratt, but he is quite simply heartbreakingly good here.

Marianne Jean-Baptiste in Secrets & Lies (1997)
Utterly believable from start to finish: naturalistic acting looking effortless.

Dennis Haysbert in Suture (1993)
I was very tempted to name Haysbert’s wonderfully moving performance in Far from Heaven, but his work here is more challenging in many respects, simply because the film has such an intriguing take on the question of skin colour (it’s a somewhat experimental film about two brothers, but no one ever mentions the fact that one is black, the other white). Haysbert carries if off beautifully.

Will Smith in Ali (2001)
As I said about Whitaker and Charlie Parker, playing famous people well is terribly difficult. Everyone knew and loved Ali, but Smith pulls off the considerable challenge of convincing as a human individual while also succeeding in revealing Ali’s iconic/symbolic status.

I stand by these ten choices, particularly Whitaker’s performance of Bird. But they have to be seen in the wider context. There are so many great performances by black actors, and there are many regrettable omissions here: some obvious (by the likes of Angela Bassett, Lena Horne, Halle Berry, Cynda Williams, Isaakh de Bankole, Denzel Washington, Laurence Fishburne, Morgan Freeman, James Earl Jones, Joe Morton, Charles S Dutton, Michael Wright, Spike Lee’s Mookie etc), some less so. Particularly painful were three who almost made it into the top ten: David Gulpilil in Walkabout, Dexter Gordon in ’Round Midnight and the extraordinary Venus Seye in Ousmane Sembene’s neglected but superb Faat Kine. And I’m sure there are quite a few others that simply slipped my mind. Like – it’s just come to me now – Sean Nelson, who played the 12-year-old in Fresh. Oh well.

Corrina Antrobus, Bechdel Test Fest founder

Jada Pinkett Smith in Set It Off (1996)
Set It Off gleams with fire-cracking roles from a squadron of Hollywood’s finest 90s black actors, but Jada Pinkett-Smith as Lida ‘Stony’ Newsom is an almighty performance. Pinkett Smith gives a masterclass of love, hate and everything in-between in this black girl’s answer to the more textured and tragic Thelma and Louise.

Zelda Harris in Crooklyn (1994)
In a boisterous, male-dominated household 10 year-old Troy shines through the mayhem. With her perfect balance of youth and wisdom, Zelda slips between relationship councillor to her parents and mischievous scrappy sister to her brothers. A succulent coming of age movie for any girl who’s had to define an individual understanding of femininity, class, strength, responsibility and friendship.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw in Belle (2013)
Seeing Gugu, a girl of similar shade of almond to mine, playing a role that would help others understand the complexities of owning dual heritages made me tingle – something of a rarity despite my cinephile diet. It reminds me how infrequently mixed-race stories are paraded in film and I felt warm with pride when watching Gugu’s elegant performance while sat in the front row of a big screen.

Michael B Jordan in Creed (2015)
Jordan skillfully harmonises between tortured soul and bloody-nosed brute, while leaving room for a compassionate clown susceptible to love in the form of a bewitching relationship with Bianca (Tessa Thompson – another captivating performance and enticing new star).

Angela Bassett in Waiting to Exhale (1995)

As a teenager, I feverishly read Terry McMillan’s book Waiting To Exhale, allowing it to form my understanding of what mature relationships could be. Its unabridged starkness inspired both fantasies and warnings of the perils of love, but for the first time it careered down paths of aspiring black folk and was my first taste of adult fiction that allowed people of colour to fall carelessly in love

Seeing it on screen (a DVD nicked from a friend’s mum), and with such an accomplished sleek cast, was a joy. Whitney Houston (whose Bodyguard album wore thin with Walkman rewinds), the comedic brilliance of Loretta Devine and the sultry yet vulnerable Lela Rochon illuminated my imaginings of who McMillan’s eclectic characters could be, but it was the prowess of Angela Bassett in her feline, elegantly angry portal of Bernadine Harris who is the cream of this suave comedy melodrama, mainly due to her character’s cuts being the deepest. If anyone knows how to do scorn, Bassett is boss.

Ina Archer, artist filmmaker, archiving & preservation, NYU, Women’s Film Preservation fund

Louise Beavers, Delilah Johnson and Fredi Washington in Imitation of Life (1934)
The two actresses’ parts mirror their real life professional possibilities and roles as black actresses in the 1930s.

Bill Gunn in Losing Ground (1982)
Eartha Kitt in Anna Lucasta (1959)
Abbey Lincoln in For the Love of Ivy (1968)
She’s unforgettable in Nothing But a Man but I love this lighter role that displays some of same poignancy as in Michael Roemer’s film

Ne-Yo in The Wiz! (2015)
The Nicholas Brothers in Stormy Weather (1943)
Nina Mae McKinney in Hallelujah (1929)
Denzel Washington in Training Day (2001)
Richard Wright in Native Son (1951)

Grace Jones in Boomerang (1992)

Grace Jones in Boomerang (1992)

Samantha Asumadu, editor-in-chief, Media Diversified

Eddie Murphy in Boomerang (1992)
Grace Jones in Boomerang (1992)
Angela Bassett in Strange Days (1995)
Will Smith in Enemy of the State (1998)
Regina King in Enemy of the State (1998)
Eddie Murphy in Beverly Hills Cop (1984)
Pam Grier in Jackie Brown (1997)
Denzel Washington in Flight (2012)
Angela Bassett in Waiting to Exhale (1995)
Angela Bassett in What’s Love Got to Do with It (1993)

Jan Asante, film curator

Whoopi Goldberg in The Color Purple (1985)
Landmark debut feature film role for Whoopi Goldberg, then an emerging actress, who went on to become one of the most successful performers of her generation.

Denzel Washington in Mo’ Better Blues (1990)
Denzel Washington in Malcolm X (1992)
Samuel L Jackson in Jungle Fever (1991)
Diana Sands in A Raisin in the Sun (1961)

Sands outshines Sidney Poitier in her role as Beneatha Younger, the irrepressibly spirited, radical little sister determined to challenge the status quo of race politics in 1950s America. 

Diana Ross in Mahogany (1975)
Following her magnificent turn in Lady Sings the Blues (1972), Diana Ross truly cemented her screen star power in this charismatic, bold performance. 

Grace Jones in Boomerang (1992)
Jones in the inimitable role of eccentric and unapologetically outlandish muse Strangé is a comedic joy to behold. Roles like this for women, let alone women of colour, have seldom existed in the entire past century of American cinema.

Richard Pryor in Blue Collar (1978)
Arguably Richard Pryor’s finest dramatic performance, yet tragically his most underrated. 

Sidney Poitier in For Love of Ivy (1968)
An astoundingly charming and self-assured role for Sidney Poitier, stylistically reminiscent of Newman and Redford in The Sting. With Poitier serving as both writer (original story) and star of the film, it’s only a pity that more of his iconic star power wasn’t invested in screenwriting.

Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave (2013)
Electrifying performance, enhanced by the aesthetic splendour of director Steve McQueen. 

An honourable mention for actor Will Smith’s enigmatic turn as Paul, the troubled young man masquerading as the illegitimate son of actor Sidney Poitier in Six Degrees Of Separation (1993). The role marked a phenomenal turn in career direction for Smith, who also prevailed through the significant backlash aimed at the LGBT elements of the role.

Robin Baker, Head curator, BFI National Archive

Josephine Baker in Zouzou (1934)
Too little of Josephine Baker’s work exists on film, but every second she’s on screen demonstrates exactly why she was such a star. And as for the scene of her singing in a gilded cage..

Dorothy Dandridge in Carmen Jones (1954)
Robbed at the Oscars, Dandridge gave one of the greatest big screen performances of the 1950s. Or, indeed, any decade. Mesmerising.

Chiwetel Ejiofor in Dirty Pretty Things (2002)
Ejiofor’s quiet intensity is devastating in his role as an illegal immigrant in London

Pam Grier in Jackie Brown (1997)
Another Oscar-snub. Grier dazzles – channelling the Blaxploitation films that made her name – overwhelming the screen with the sheer force of her personality

Juanita Moore in Imitation of Life (1959)
If Juanita Moore’s subtle performance as a self-sacrificing mother doesn’t break your heart, there’s probably no hope for you.

David Oyelowo in Shoot the Messenger (2006)
A brilliantly complex, multi-dimensional performance in an important, controversial and too rarely seen TV drama. 

Diane Parish in EastEnders (2006-)
Perfectly negotiating the knife-edge of tragicomedy, Diane Parish’s ten years (to date) on the small screen as bolshy, vulnerable, funny Denise Fox have been a joy. More please!

Sidney Poitier in A Raisin in the Sun (1961)
Poitier had the luxury of playing a role he had already developed on Broadway. The power and richness of his performance is extraordinary.

Paul Robeson in Song of Freedom (1936)
It’s almost impossible to separate Robeson’s politics from his performances. Here his star-power shines, underlining the significance of watching a 1930s film about a British-born black man.

Ethel Waters in Cabin in the Sky (1943)
Few singers have conveyed such gentle charisma and humanity as Ethel Waters. The voice is glorious, but just watch her sing ‘Taking a Chance on Love’ and ‘Happiness is Just a Thing Called Joe’. 

Dorothy Dandridge as Carmen Jones stands right at the top of my list. No competition. This is one of cinema’s greatest ‘star’ performances. From the moment Dandridge swaggers onto screen singing ‘Dat’s Love’ you can’t keep her eyes off her in all her snarling, seductive, self-destructive glory. You feel as ready to be seduced as Harry Belafonte appears to be. Her performance makes me feel sad, too: it’s impossible not to imagine the films that she never got to make.

Upekha Bandaranayake, DVD and Blu-ray producer, BFI

James Earl Jones (voice) in the Star Wars Franchise (1977-83)
Tyler James William in Dear White People (2014)
CCH Pounder in Bagdad Cafe (1987)
Michael K Williams in The Wire (2002-8)
Taraji P Henson in Person of Interest (2011-16)
Idris Elba in Luther (2010-15)
Henry G. Sanders in Killer of Sheep (1978)
Karidja Touré in Girlhood (2014)
Yasiin Bey in Be Kind Rewind (2008)

Dorothy Dandridge in Carmen Jones (1954)

Dorothy Dandridge in Carmen Jones (1954)

Grace Barber-Plentie, writer, one-third of Reel Good Film Club

Don Cheadle in Boogie Nights (1997)
Buck Swope in Boogie Nights is one of those absolutely brilliant supporting characters, where the more you see in glimpses, the more you’re desperate for. Though surely only meant as comic relief, Cheadle’s awkward and lonely performance becomes an exploration of identity and black masculinity. 

Dorothy Dandridge in Carmen Jones (1954)
Taking the ‘Tragic Mulatto’ stereotype and turning it into something with more substance, Dandridge is astonishing in Carmen Jones, oozing sensuality whilst also displaying a romantic and wistful core. There are few performances in musical history that can live up to her (sadly dubbed) rendition of ‘Dat’s Love’.

Debbi Morgan in Eve’s Bayou (1997)
There is one particular monologue in Eve’s Bayou that makes Morgan’s performance worthy of inclusion – a scene in which she tells her niece Eve of the moment in which she was forced to choose between her husband and her lover. It’s a scene that’s entirely immersive and captivating, as you find yourself lost in Morgan’s eyes, listening to her recount the tragic tale

Juanita Moore in Imitation of Life (1959)
The weepiest of all weepies, Imitation Of Life is propped up by two performances – the histrionic Susan Kohner and reserved Juanita Moore. As Annie, Moore gives a subtle performance that reveals only a fraction of the pain bubbling away inside a character dealing with a daughter who passes for white. The final goodbye Moore gives her daughter is utterly devastating.

Kaycee Moore in Killer of Sheep (1978)

There’s something to be said about actors who can portray deep emotion without words, particularly those who can do this through the medium of dance. Making Charlotte Rampling’s trembling hand in 45 Years look like the most basic acting, Moore manages to say more through the way that she grips her husband’s back as they dance together in Killer of Sheep than most actors could through words. 

Jada Pinkett-Smith in Magic Mike XXL (2015)
Black male actors (Eddie Murphy, Will Smith et al) have always thrived in lighter comic performances, and it’s beyond gratifying to see a female performer do the same. As Rome, a role originally cast as male, Pinkett-Smith is clearly having the time of her life, encouraging women to give themselves in to self-love and pleasure in the surprisingly feminist hit of the summer of 2015. 

Denzel Washington in Mo’ Better Blues (1990)
The partnership of Spike Lee and Denzel Washington has been a match made in heaven, and while it feels a wrong not to choose Washington’s performance as Malcolm X (1992), it’s Mo’ Better Blues that lingers in my mind. Washington’s pitch perfect here, initially keeping the tone light as a slick womaniser, before carrying a devastating third act twist, and bringing the film to an emotionally nuanced finale. 

Charles Lane in Sidewalk Stories (1989)
There are only a few people (Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin are those that would spring to most people’s minds) that can pull off an entirely silent performance, and Charles Lane most definitely deserves to be added into that pantheon. In Sidewalk Stories, Lane’s naturally expressive face and carefully planned mannerisms help to imbue a story that deals with pretty weighty issues with some much-needed lightness and humour. 

The Nicholas Brothers in Stormy Weather (1943)
It takes a very special actor to steal a film in just a few short minutes, but with their jaw-dropping synchronised dance moves in Stormy Weather, the Nicholas Brothers definitely achieve this feat. It’s not every performer that can perform a sequence of perfectly choreographed splits in time to the music with a smile on their face, and yet that’s exactly what the duo do here. 

Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave (2013)
An obvious choice? Perhaps, but still one that is always worthy of mentioning. Whilst getting to deliver his fair share of emotional monologues in the film, the direction of Steve McQueen allow for quieter, more introspective moments, in which Ejiofor’s sheer talent is allowed to shine. A lingering, static shot in the film of Ejiofor’s face going through a series of emotions devastates me just thinking about it.

Henry Barnes, Digital editor, BFI

Michael K Williams in The Wire (2002-8)
Samuel L Jackson in Pulp Fiction (1994)
Viola Davis in Doubt (2008)
Marianne Jean-Baptiste in Secrets & Lies (1997)
Sophie Okonedo in Hotel Rwanda (2004)
Don Cheadle in Boogie Nights (1997)
Aisha Tyler in Archer (2009-)
Jamie Foxx in Collateral (2004)
Pam Grier in Jackie Brown (1997)
Harold Perrineau in Oz (1997-2003)

Rikki Beadle-Blair, writer, director, actor, producer

Mo’Nique in Precious (2010)
In a film filled with brave transformative perfomances, Mo’Nique’s courage, commitment, and sheer rawness is a like a humbling masterclass. She is quite simply jaw-dropping in this. Watching her climactic scene in this, she literally makes me hungry to act better. I bow down

Gabourey Sidibe in Precious (2010)
Gabourey Sidibe is a total Valley Girl in real life, college educated, sharp, funny, energetic, full of life. Her performance in Precious is the polar opposite. Sullen, whipped, lost, dazed, defeated. Incredible

Diana Ross in Lady Sings the Blues (1972)
Diana Ross surrenders herself entirely to this movie and this role. Utterly convincing, at a time when so few actors took these types of risks. And it’s her first film! Fantastic. 

Quvenzhané Wallis in Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)
How old was she in when she made this movie? Six? And she holds your attention for every riveting moment. Never tells a lie. Never hits a bum note. Every emotion from joy to wonder to gritty determination to terror and grief. Extraordinary

Viola Davis in Doubt (2008)
In ONE SCENE, Viola Davis comes in and rips the the screen up. Subtlety, passion, fear, shame, determination, pride, hope, desperation. Layers layers layers. It’s not easy to hold your own against Meryl Streep. Viola makes you forget anything else is going on in the world except what’s going on in those eyes and that aching heart. 

Forest Whitaker in The Last King of Scotland (2006)
Forest Whitaker shows the terrifyingly human face of the devil in this movie. Every twitch and bead of sweat tells a history. Literally awesome. 

Denzel Washington in Malcolm X (1992)
A mighty mighty performance. Utterly convincing. Utterly inspiring

Alfre Woodard in 12 Years a Slave (2013)
One deadly layered, extraordinary thought-provoking scene. I don’t think she even stands up. She embodies so much unspoken complexity I don’t really know where to start. Just masterly

Cecily Tyson in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1974)
One of the greatest actors who ever lived plays the whole life of a former slave up to 110 years old. Seeing this changed my life. As an actor. As an artist. As a man. As black person. As a human. 

We stand on the shoulders of many giants. Our pride and humility must guide us. The best is yet to come

James Bell, Editor, BFI Black Star Compendium, & features editor, Sight & Sound

Denzel Washington in Malcolm X (1992)
Danny Glover in To Sleep with Anger (1991)
Josephine Baker in Zouzou (1934)
Forest Whitaker in Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999)
Tony Todd in Candyman (1992)
Ethel Waters in The Member of the Wedding (1952)
Morgan Freeman in Street Smart (1987)
Angela Bassett in Strange Days (1995)
Marianne Jean-Baptiste in Secrets & Lies (1997)
Earl Cameron in Pool of London (1950)

Baroness Floella Benjamin, actor

Richard Roundtree in Shaft (1971)
This was a really special pivotal moment because he was the first screen super hero. He was super cool and stylish. When me and my friends left the cinema we felt ten feet tall and we were all singing the theme

Sidney Poitier in In the Heat of the Night (1967)
Sidney Poitier’s performance made me cry. To me he is the finest black actor of our time and has been truly inspirational. The film had a profound effect on me and my family

Morgan Freeman in Invictus (2009)
Morgan Freeman was so good in this role that after a few minutes you forgot he was playing the part of Nelson Mandela. He just became the character. I think that is the sign of a great actor

Cicely Tyson in Roots
Roots was the first TV series to highlight the horror of slavery in America. When the book came out it shook society. Watching the TV series was a very emotional experience, but the performance that really effected me was Cicely Tyson’s portrayal of Kunta Kinte’s mother. Her acting was inspirational.

Norman Beaton in Black Joy
I played the part of Miriam opposite Norman in this film and some of our scenes were electrifying. Norman was a great all round actor who could turn his hand to Shakespeare or comedy with with great skill. He was one of our best British Black actors

Cathy Tyson in Mona Lisa
This film caused quite a stir when it was released. Cathy Tyson’s performance was groundbreaking and I think she paved the way for many black British actresses. I believe she was one of the first British black actresses to receive a film award

Whoopi Goldberg in The Color Purple (1985)
Whoopi Goldberg was absolutely brilliant in this great film. It really put her on the map as a versatile actress. Her performance in The Color Purple made me cry. 

Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave (2013)
Chewitel was a born actor and right from the start everyone knew he was destined for stardom. His performance in 12 Years a Slave was outstanding and totally convincing. It left me feeling emotionally drained for weeks after I saw it. 

Denzel Washington in Philadelphia (1993)
Denzel Washington is the consummate actor who is one of the handful of black box office leads. He is brilliant in all his roles but his performance as a lawyer in Philadelphia was outstanding and totally convincing. The film was released at a time when AIDS struck fear into society and it did much to promote understanding

Lena Horne in Cabin in the Sky
When I was a child my father insisted on taking me to see this film when it was shown at the local open air cinema in Trinidad. It was a magical experience which affected me deeply. Seeing a black woman on screen was a revelation and I remember my father telling me that one day I would grow up to be like her! Lena Horne was a real pioneer and groundbreaker who must have inspired many young women to achieve their dreams

John Berra, academic/freelance journalist

Sidney Poitier in In the Heat of the Night (1967)
Cool and confident as Philadelphia detective Virgil Tibbs opposite Rod Steiger’s casually racist Southern sheriff, Sidney Poitier expertly balances smooth professionalism with barely suppressed social frustration. This once topical thriller has dated somewhat in the intervening decades, but Poitier’s breakthrough performance remains the quintessential model of screen composure

Duane Jones in Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Cast in a role that had not been specifically written for a black actor, the defiant sense of purpose conveyed by Duane Jones made his resilient and intensely focussed de facto leader of a bickering group of zombie apocalypse survivors an iconic figure to the African American community at a critical time in America’s social-political fabric

Pam Grier in Coffy (1973)
Delivering a powerful performance that goes beyond the limited requirements of the Blaxploitation genre, making her America’s first black female action star, Pam Grier reigns in the film’s sensationalistic potential by always reminding the audience that her titular nurse-turned-vigilante is consciously going against her socially responsible instincts by using violence as last resort in a horrible situation

Eddie Murphy in 48 Hrs.
A rare instance where you can pinpoint the exact scene in which a performer becomes a movie star: pretending to be a cop, Eddie Murphy’s fast-talking criminal shakes down a racist redneck bar, announcing “There’s a new sheriff in town, and his name is Reggie Hammond!” Murphy’s attitude makes Hammond a quick-witted hustler who sees all the angles but whose endgame is as much about equality as a payday

Forest Whitaker in Bird (1988)
Lead actors in biopics often make a choice between studied imitation or free interpretation: Forest Whitaker’s graceful performance as Charlie Parker plays beautifully with both approaches, recreating the musical highs and suggesting the insecurities that led to the personal lows (particularly the saxophonist’s heroin addiction), thereby illustrating the intrinsic link between talent and pain that defined the jazz legend’s life

Alfre Woodard in Passion Fish (1992)
Equipped with a typically nuanced John Sayles script, Alfre Woodard takes the potentially clichéd role of the black nurse to a demanding white employer in the South and imbues Chantelle with a sense of determined professionalism while deftly suggest a set of unresolved issues in a manner that makes the audience want to learn more about this straight-talking yet emotionally guarded carer

Don Cheadle in Devil in a Blue Dress
It takes a lot of chutzpah to steal a film from a typically smooth Denzel Washington. Embracing his character’s live wire unpredictability, Cheadle undercuts Mouse’s trigger-happy temperament with an enthusiastic helpfulness and unquestioning loyalty that makes this genial sociopath one of the most thrillingly dangerous, not to mention troublingly likeable, best friends in American cinema

Denzel Washington in Training Day (2001)
A bravura example of big screen villainy, Denzel Washington’s performance as thoroughly corrupt cop Alonzo Harris exudes the kind of forceful charisma that makes the audience suspend disbelief at how an officer of the law can so blatantly abuse the power of his badge while barreling around downtown Los Angeles like an organised gangster

Chiwetel Ejiofor in Dirty Pretty Things (2002)
A quietly dignified performance that anchors a humane thriller concerning the illegal immigrants who toil away in London’s service industry, Chiwetel Ejiofor plays his former doctor as a spiritually exhausted individual whose sense of morality and immense capacity for compassion are still evident beneath the necessarily reserved surface

Rosario Dawson in Top Five
As with many terrific black actresses, Rosario Dawson has great presence and versatility yet rarely receives the star-making opportunities she richly deserves. Dawson she shines here by not just keeping up with a firing-on-all-cylinders Chris Rock but making her opinionated yet vulnerable journalist an unapologetically complicated woman who is much more than a mere romantic foil to his movie star in crisis

Duane Jones in Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Duane Jones in Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Anne Billson, writer

Juano Hernandez in The Breaking Point
Juanita Moore in Imitation of Life (1959)
James Edwards in The Sandpiper
Duane Jones in Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Yaphet Kotto in 5 Card Stud
Along with the better known Moore, Hernandez, Edwards and Kotto’s are all outstanding but lesser-known supporting performances that I would like to see recognised. 

William Marshall in Blacula
Austin Stoker in Assault on Precinct 13
Ken Foree in Dawn of the Dead
Low-budget horror movies, often passing below the radar of mainstream critics, have long been casting black actors as heroes or protagonists with minimal fuss, hence my selection of Jones and Foree, holding the fort for humanity in two of George Romero’s zombie films, Marshall as the Afro-American answer to Christopher Lee and Stoker the solid moral centre of John Carpenter’s urban siege movie. 

Jada Pinkett Smith in Tales from the Crypt: Demon Knight
Pinkett is unexpectedly great as the ex-jailbird drawing on hitherto undreamt of reserves of pluck and moral fibre in Ernest Dickerson’s madcap horror romp. 

Pam Grier in Jackie Brown (1997)
I could have chosen Pam Grier in several of her other leading roles, but finally plumped for Jackie Brown (1997), Tarantino’s most mature film, in which she is magnificent, flawed and courageous, providing the story with its backbone amid a riot of grandstanding supporting players, and by rights ought to have been nominated for an Academy Award. The acting nominees that year, needless to say, were all white

Jo Botting, Senior curator of fiction, BFI National Archive

Sidney Poitier in In the Heat of the Night (1967)
Spike Lee in Do the Right Thing (1989)
Whoopi Goldberg in The Color Purple (1985)

Paul Robeson in The Proud Valley (1940)
Paul Robeson is undoubtedly the most fascinating black actor, and one of the most important black figures, to emerge in the first half of the 20th century. The screen persona he was able to cultivate within the often stifling confines of 1930s British cinema was a powerful combination of physical strength, intelligence, gentleness and an overriding belief in justice. 

Forest Whitaker in The Last King of Scotland
Halle Berry in Monster’s Ball
Hattie McDaniel in Gone With The Wind (1939)
Don Warrington in Rising Damp
Earl Cameron in Pool of London (1950)
Paul Danquah in A Taste of Honey

Stephen Bourne, Black Britain historian, author of Black in the British Frame and Ethel Waters: Stormy Weather

Josephine Baker in Zouzou (1934)
Far away from Hollywood, in this entertaining French musical, Josephine Baker gave a memorable ‘star’ performance as a French laundress who is transformed into a glamorous queen of the Paris music halls. 

Paul Robeson in Song of Freedom (1936)
Only in Britain could the majestic Paul Robeson play interesting and engaging screen roles such as John Zinga,  London docker, who acknowledges Africa as his ancestral home. The docker becomes an internationally acclaimed opera singer but, in spite of its sentimentality, improbable plot, and ill-judged depiction of ‘Africa’, this is a splendid star vehicle for Robeson.

Canada Lee in Cry, the Beloved Country (1952)
Canada Lee gives quiet strength and sensitivity to the role of the ageing village priest who journeys to Johannesburg in search of his missing son. This is arguably one of the finest dramatic performances ever captured on film. 

Ethel Waters in The Member of the Wedding (1952)
In Fred Zinnemann’s screen adaptation of her Broadway stage triumph, Ethel Waters single handedly shattered the myth that African American actresses could only play ‘mammies’ as one-dimensional comedy caricatures. This performance is a landmark and turning point in American cinema: an emotionally draining, dramatic star turn.

Juanita Moore in Imitation of Life (1959)
Juanita Moore is the heart, soul and conscience of Douglas Sirk’s glossy, disturbing melodrama which powerfully comments on racism in post-war America. This is an understated performance which has subtle power and humanity. 

Sidney Poitier in A Raisin in the Sun (1961)
The film adaptation of Lorraine Hansberry’s Broadway drama provided Sidney Poitier with his greatest screen acting challenge. As Walter Lee Younger, the restless, unhappy chauffeur, Poitier is edgy and breathtaking. Whether battling his demons with a family that stifles him, or expressing his desires for a better life from his soul destroying job, Poitier gives an exciting performance.

Richard Roundtree in Shaft (1971)
Gun in hand, and ready for action, Richard Roundtree is unforgettable as John Shaft, the tough, renegade detective.

Cicely Tyson in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1973)
In an extraordinary tour de force, Cicely Tyson is magnificent as the 110 year old who recounts her life as a slave in the 1860s right up to the American civil rights movement of the 1960s.

Norman Beaton in Playing Away (1987)
The clever and charismatic Norman Beaton is wonderful as Brixton’s ‘Willie-Boy’ who is determined that his black cricket team will play a ‘friendly’ charity game in a rural, gentrified Suffolk village. It was a rare opportunity for Beaton to play an on-screen role written and directed by African Caribbeans (writer Caryl Phillips, director Horace Ové).

Marianne Jean-Baptiste in The Murder of Stephen Lawrence (1999)
In a dramatisation of the events leading up to the racist murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence in 1993, and the subsequent bungled investigation by the police, Marianne Jean-Baptiste is superb as the victim’s mother Doreen. Writer/director Paul Greengrass employed a semi-documentary style to powerful effect, but it couldn’t have worked without Jean-Baptiste’s extraordinary central performance.

Nick Bradshaw, web editor, Sight & Sound

Michael K Williams in The Wire (2002-8)
Jason Holliday in Portrait of Jason (1967)
Pam Grier in Jackie Brown (1997)
Angela Bassett in Strange Days (1995)
Samson L Jackson in Eve’s Bayou (1997)
Alfre Woodard in Passion Fish (1992)
Forest Whitaker in Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999)
Danny Glover in To Sleep with Anger (1991)
Rowan McNamara in Samson and Delilah (2009)
Deborah Mailman in The Sapphires (2012)

Stuart Brown, Head of programme and acquisitions, BFI

Pam Grier in Jackie Brown (1997)
Danny Glover in To Sleep with Anger (1991)
Denzel Washington in Malcolm X (1992)
Richard Pryor in Blue Collar (1978)
Wesley Snipes in Blade (1998)
Angela Bassett in What’s Love Got to Do with It (1993)
Michael B. Jordan in Creed (2015)
Eddie Murphy in Coming To America (1988)
Forest Whitaker in Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999)
Sidney Poitier in The Defiant Ones (1958)

On Danny Glover: Charles Burnett is a master at creating unusually realistic tension and drama, and in To Sleep with Anger (1991) he combines it to great effect with black comedy and magical realism. Not an easy cocktail of ingredients to blend, but he does so with real aplomb and to great effect and this has a lot to do with a really on form Danny Glover, who embraces a brilliantly conceived and written role with real bravura and a sense of mischief. I think it’s his best work. He also exec produced the film, using his influence as a mainstream film star to help get the film made

Karen Bryson, actor

Denzel Washington in Glory (1989)
There is a scene which will forever etched on my brain, where Private Trip (Denzel) is flogged. It’s a close-up of his face, with only a sound of the whip lashing his back. His eyes told a thousand stories. Incredible

Viola Davis in The Help (2011)
Her performance in this film is what brought an already exceptional actress onto the world’s stage. She gave a deeply honest, vulnerable yet strong, dignified performance. The detail in her character work is second to none, with a stillness that drew me in.

Octavia Spencer in The Help (2011)
Octavia’s performance added the much needed relief for such a moving film. Perfect comic timing, born out of honesty and a real connection to the character. 

Whoopi Goldberg in The Color Purple (1985)
Probably one of the most memorable performances on film from any actor. Whoopi’s incredibly detailed portrayal of Celie, spanning her life, was so committed. It’s an amazing film with wonderful writing but it would not have hit the notes without its central performance from the brilliant Whoopi and her exceptional work.

Kerry Washington in Scandal (2012-)
It took until 2012 to have a strong, well-educated black female to head up a TV drama! Thanks to the work of Shonda Rhimes we are given an alternative view of the black female. Kerry Washington stands up to this challenge and knocks it out of the ball park

Dorothy Dandridge in Carmen Jones (1954)
An incredible film adaptation of Bizet’s opera Carmen. This was one of the first times we saw an all-black cast on our screens. It was has a fantastic cast, but Dorothy’s performance was simply exquisite. A rare opportunity to show her talents on screen. I was obsessed with it as a child, as I never seen anything like it

Diana Ross in Lady Sings the Blues (1972)
Diana Ross gives the performance of her career in her portrayal of Billie Holiday. Her raw, honest performance truly shed light on the troubled singers life. A very moving performance.  

Gabourey Sidibe in Precious (2010)
Incredibly powerful performance from a relative newcomer. So natural on screen the nuances of her performance draws you in, leaving you heart broken and wondering, ‘What happens to her next?’.

Angela Bassett in Tina – What’s Love Got to Do with It (1993)
Amazing portrait of Tina Turner. Angela Bassett gave the performance of a lifetime. She beautiful illustrated Tina Turner’s struggles and triumph. A sterling performance from Angela, who delivers dignity, grace and power

Forest Whitaker in The Butler (2013)
Forest Whitaker has alway shown his talent  and commitment as an actor, whatever it is he does. But in this film Forest displays gravitas and subtlety, a hard combination to master

Looking back and doing this poll has really made me think. There has many important performances by black actors in my lifetime. I noticed the stories being told has been similar, often about oppression. I so wish it was different. But I have to say I think Whoopi Goldberg in The Color Purple is the one that means the most to me. Her range and commitment, her vulnerability and strength in her portrayal of Celie, is simply unforgettable

Viola Davis in How to Get Away with Murder (2014-)

Viola Davis in How to Get Away with Murder (2014-)

Dr Edson Burton, Come the Revolution programmer

Andre Braugher in Homicide: Life on the Street (1993-99)
Guilt-ridden, despairing, incisive and wily, the role of Baltimore homicide Detective Frank Pembleton was a gift for Andre Braugher. Pembleton remains one of the most nuanced and complex characters played by a black actor.

Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave (2013)
Chiwetel is a master of economical expression capable of conveying in one word, in one silent moment, a universe of conflicting emotions. In 12 Years a Slave this rare quality is at its brightest.

Viola Davis in How to Get Away with Murder (2014-)
Annalise Keating captures the societal cliché of the strong black woman, fearless, ruthless. But the mask slips, literally and metaphorically, to reveal a bottomless pit of insecurities. Professor, lawyer, faithful wife, no-holds-barred mistress, abused child, self-abusing woman – each portrayed with powerful authenticity. Viola is utterly compelling in every episode. I’ve rarely seen such a rich depiction of the conflict between private and public personas, in particular for black women, on screen.

Whoopi Goldberg in The Color Purple (1985)
A performance of rare poignancy and intelligence that took me across the bleak landscape of a woman silenced by multiple oppression before finding the light of Becoming.

David Oyelowo in Selma (2014)
Considering their physical differences I was initial sceptical but found I was bowled over by Oyelowo’s towering performance as Martin Luther King. The oratory successfully mirror’s King’s but it is the silences, the awkward moments as King’s infidelities are discovered, as he suffers a crisis of faith, that are most impactful.

Denzel Washington in The Hurricane (1999)
The most outstanding actor of a generation, I could pick from a range of his films for my top 10 but Hurricane is for me his finest moment to date. Denzel’s dignified charisma is perfectly suited to the role of the proud, stubborn boxing champion Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter, falsely imprisoned for triple homicide. Long periods of solitary confinement, frighteningly rendered, suggest something of what it is like to be broken. Spell-binding.

Nadine Marshall in Second Coming (2014)
Perhaps it’s due to the fact that black British life beyond the urban crime drama remains largely mysterious to a white mainstream that the outstanding performance by Nadine Marshall as a mother by miracle has not gathered the attention it deserves. Black British audiences will recognise her authentic portrait of a woman stoic to a fault, denying crisis as her world collapses. Not since Horace Ové’s seminal work have I come across such a pioneering Black British film. Writer-director Debbie Tucker Green and lead actor Nadine Marshall are a dream team.

Sidney Poitier in In the Heat of the Night (1967)
Sidney Poitier was celluloid soul food for black Britons of a certain age, brought up on a diet of rare and questionable on-screen morsels. Sidney is the epitome of cool in all his work – but perhaps we are less aware today of how much his perfected cool was negotiation of the super-human sobriety expected of African Americans in civil rights America. In In the Heat of the Night Poitier walks a tight rope where a fall into rage is just about subdued. The effort to keep cool becomes palpable. His moments of physical retaliation are striking and cathartic given the context of the film and the society it depicts.

Forest Whitaker in The Last King of Scotland (2006)
Forest Whitaker is truly terrifying in capturing that most deadly of capricious dictators: Idi Amin. The charm and nightmare of Whitaker’s Amin lingers long after the final credits. Remarkable.

Oprah Winfrey in Beloved (1998)
“Is that her?”, I asked on first viewing the adaptation of Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer’s prize-winning novel. Oprah was lost in this role. Bloodied, cracked, insane; she was unrecognisable in her portrait of escaped slave Sethe. The understatement in her role allowed the audience space to feel. Deeply moving.

Dylan Cave, fiction curator, BFI National Archive

Bessie Smith in St. Louis Blues (1925)
Sound came to cinema and Bessie Smith sang the blues so powerfully, it still resonates today

Paul Robeson in The Proud Valley (1940)
Paul Robeson’s best role is in Ealing’s pre-WWII drama The Proud Valley. As charismatic singer David Goliath, Robeson leads a Welsh Mining community towards better living and working conditions. 

Earl Cameron in Pool of London (1950)
Earl Cameron’s Johnny Lambert is wise, articulate and intelligent, leading the ensemble cast with his matinee idol looks. His subtle performance provides the moral and ethical heart to Ealing’s tale of city workers’ disparate lives struggling to come together. 

Sidney Poitier in In the Heat of the Night (1967)
Poitier, the defiant one, insists “They call me Mister Tibbs”, and Hollywood discovers the civil rights movement. Poitier heads a film with terrific performances and electrifying scenes that still engage today

Richard Pryor in Richard Pryor: Live in Concert (1979)
Live in Concert is rude and often offensive, but Richard Pryor’s soul-searched material and masterful control of California’s Terrace theatre audience, makes it one of the best live performances captured on film. So many aspects of modern stand-up can be traced back to this gig.

Pam Grier in Jackie Brown (1997)
Pam Grier completely owned Tarantino’s meandering third movie. A turning point for the star who, at that time, was completely under-appreciated.

Michael K Williams in The Wire (2002-8)
David Simon’s The Wire is one of the best ensemble pieces ever devised for television, and yet whenever Michael K Williams appeared as insightful Omar Little, the tension, humour and drama always seemed to intensify.  

Terrence Howard in Hustle & Flow (2005)
Terrence Howard turned rap-to-riches cliché into an Oscar nomination with his performance of DJay, a morally directionless and sometimes cruel Memphis pimp who tries to restart a long forgotten music career. The final section, when Djay has to hustle his demo recording to an overblown rap star, packs a surprisingly emotional punch.

Quvenzhané Wallis in Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)
Magic realism relies on engaging central performances to take us through the fantastic highs and sober lows. Here, 6-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis fully immersed herself in Hushpuppy, an emotionally raw kid struggling to understand the cruelties of life in the harsh yet beautiful Louisiana bayou. 

Lupita Nyong’o in 12 Years a Slave (2013)
In a film full of amazing performances, Lupita Nyong’o’s heart wrenching Patsey was incredibly moving

On Earl Cameron: In 1950, Pool of London was among a new cycle of British social problem films led by Ealing filmmakers Basil Dearden and Michael Relph during the 1950s and 1960s. The film is about the City of London as a place of transition, where the highs and lows of life jostle alongside each other. The ‘pool’ is a site of excitement but also transgression. Trust – particularly between friends – is the glue that holds its society together. The film’s plot involves a botched diamond heist, and most of the characters are involved in a betrayal of loyalty in one form or another, but throughout the drama, it is Johnny Lambert who retains the moral compass. Bermudian actor Earl Cameron brings an intellectual worldliness and emotional vulnerability to Johnny. It is through his performance that film finds its meaning, his sensitivity and courage central to the tale’s themes of trust, friendship and understanding. His remarkable debut marked the beginning of a 60 year film career that continued, most recently, with Christopher Nolan’s Inception

Elizabeth Chege, curator

Saul Williams in Tey (Aujourd’hui) (2012)
His character knows it is his last day on earth and takes us on a journey, ironically, of self discovery. I was moved to tears by the end.

Larenz Tate in Love Jones (1997)
I’m not a big fan of romance films or even spoken word, but this film changed how I viewed the romance genre and provided a perspective rarely seen on the big screen. What an experience it was, to see two black ‘normal’ characters fall in love and face the complexities of relationships in a realistic manner. Tate exuded grace, charm and gave a wonderfully natural, convincing performance. 

Angela Bassett in What’s Love Got to Do with It (1993)
It was an incredible experience for my younger self to watch Angela Bassett portray an icon with such raw ferocity and fierceness.

Eddie Murphy in Coming To America (1988)
Having grown up in an African country myself, this was a strange, but telling perspective on misconceptions of the continent and how they were tackled. However, there is no denying the impact and comedic talent of Eddie Murphy and the cast of this film. I was shocked to later discover how many characters he performed. Truly one of the greatest actors that has graced the craft.

Denzel Washington in Antwone Fisher (2002)
Too many great performances from Denzel to choose from, but this one seems grossly overlooked. Washington plays Dr. Davenport with empathy, restraint and a vulnerability that really moved me. The character was imbued with careful, multi-dimensional aspects (including complexities in his love life) that is not often seen with black characters. As a person who struggles with mental health and trauma, it was life-changing for me to see a film that deals exclusively with this aspect from a black person’s perspective.

Whoopi Goldberg in Sarafina! (1992)
Goldberg’s role was small, but scene-stealing in this musical. Her fate was so deeply affecting for me, I could not stop thinking about it for days

Alfre Woodard in 12 Years a Slave (2013)
Woodard stood out for me because the challenge of her character in the plot was that she was new stand-alone character late in the film. A one-act play that was revealed to be extremely complex with only few spoken words. What a feat this was, and played with such grace

Will Smith in Seven Pounds (2008)
While this film can be overly sentimental, it is refreshing to witness Smith play a character totally in contrast to his previous characters. Again, a deeply affecting performance for me, but a true highlight for being a film with not just a diverse cast, but a story dealing with mental health and grief in a black character

Laurence Fishburne in The Matrix series (1999-2003)
Again, to see a black character set in the future completely blew my mind when I was younger, and opened up storytelling even further. That Morpheus is a hero, is wise, performs physical feats and survives to the end was a unique experience for me as a fan of the sci-fi genre. 

Naomie Harris in 28 Days Later (2002)
It was very cool to see a black woman in a sci-fi film who is tough, resourceful and intelligent enough to survive until the end of the film

Ashley Clark, film programmer and critic

Laurence Fishburne in Deep Cover (1992)
A mesmeric evocation of tortured treble consciousness.

Ivan Dixon in Nothing But a Man (1964)
Soul, resilience and sex appeal flourishing even under Jim Crow’s hard glare.

Cassie McFarlane in Burning An Illusion (1981)
Carries this important film with a performance of verve and endless versatility.

Denzel Washington in Malcolm X (1992)
A crime that Denzel was beaten to the Best Actor Oscar by Al Pacino’s Scent of a Woman frothin’ and hollerin’. Simply the greatest biopic incarnation there’s ever been.

Danny Glover in To Sleep with Anger (1991)
Glover’s blend of menace, magic and folksy charm leaves a mental mark long, long after the credits roll.

Wendell B Harris in Chameleon Street (1989)
Baritone-enchaned slyness on a baroque scale.

Evelyn Preer in Within Our Gates (1920)
Astonishing performance from the silent era, in a waking nightmare of pressure and racism, Preer conveys a sense of deep despair, as if haunted by the ghosts of history.

Richard Pryor in Blue Collar (1978)
A tragically rare dramatic role for Pryor; the tired, wired and inspired heart of the film.

Mbissine Thérèse Diop in Black Girl (1966)
Pain, poise, eyes. A non-professional actress delivers a shock to the system in the first feature from the father of African cinema.

Eddie Murphy in Coming To America (1988)
Murphy had a mile-long hot streak in the 80s, but the most searing of all – and perhaps most underrated – is his multi-part romp through this fish-out-of-water comedy. Technically brilliant, screamingly funny.

Kieron Corless, deputy editor, Sight & Sound

Ventura in Colossal Youth (2006)
Yaphet Kotto in Bone (1972)
Juanita Moore in Imitation of Life (1959)
Aïssa Maïga in Bamako (2007)
Laurence Fishburne in Always Outnumbered (1998)
Mbissine Thérèse Diop in Black Girl (1966)
Tracy Camilla Johns in She’s Gotta Have It (1986)
Mohamed Mahmoud Ould Mohamed in Waiting for Happiness (2003)
Magaye Niang in Touki Bouki (1973)
Mareme Niang in Touki Bouki (1973)

Mark Cousins, director

Elisa Andrade in Sambizanga (1972)
Andrade is totally convincing as the defiant, untiring, tender Maria, searching for her husband in Sarah Maldoror’s masterpiece.

Ali Bacha Barkaïm in Daratt (2006)
The driven, contained energy of the central performance gives this film great moral force and conviction.

Ami Diakhate in Hyenas (1992)
Diakhate plays an avenging angel, half made of gold, in this furnace of a film. Her sang froid is chilling, her face a mask. It’s a performance which is impossible to forget: mythic and archetypal.

Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave (2013)
A masterpiece of physical acting. Ejiofor’s body expresses the dejection, the suffering, the endlessness. 

Ossie Davis in everything
I can’t pick out one Ossie Davis performance. Seldom given big enough roles, he was one of the greatest actors in American cinema.

Issiaka Kane in Yeelen (1987)
Kane is like a Jedi Knight on a walkabout: inward, unstoppable, drawn to a mystical confrontation.  

Juanita Moore in Imitation of Life (1959)
One of the most moving performances on film, from an actor who was given disgracefully little to do in American film.  

Eddie Murphy in Bowfinger (1999)
Murphy’s comic tour de force, playing two characters, felt like he was playing both Laurel and Hardy. A joy.

Sidney Poitier in In the Heat of the Night (1967)
A landmark in the history of African American film acting, Poitier could have played this bigger but he knew that, surrounded by the snarling Rod Steiger, he needed to be the eye of the storm.  Beautifully judged and still very moving.  

Alfre Woodard in Passion Fish (1992)
Wow. You can’t take your eyes of Woodard’s eyes in this. She’s a looker, peeper, observer, and is the film’s moral centre.  

This was very difficult because there are so many great performances. I was tempted to choose only African films, but couldn’t leave out my favourite American actor, Alfre Woodard. To make the list manageable, I’ve chosen one particular theme in acting: minimalism. With a few exceptions (Eddie Murphy!), all the performances are contained, slow to anger and observant

Angela Bassett in Strange Days (1995)

Angela Bassett in Strange Days (1995)

Debbie D’Oyley, senior feature writer, The British Backlist

Samuel L Jackson in Coach Carter (2005)
This was a role which played to all Jackson’s strengths whilst avoiding the stereotypes of some of his other ‘great’ performances like those in Jungle Fever (1991) or Pulp Fiction (1994). It was a positive role and based on a true story where the poor multi-ethnic community helped itself and he gave a mesmerising charismatic performance. Truly inspirational, largely overlooked!

Denzel Washington in Man on Fire (2004)
Washington got the tone just right in this atypical story for a black actor – ruthless but not sadistic, tired, jaded and deeply flawed, but still able to recognise innocence and be driven to protect it. A man able to find himself again after being lost for so long. I was in floods of tears at the end. 

Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave (2013)
An obvious choice, for a slightly atypical slave story. Just beautifully executed. The horror, terror, desperation and incredulity is right there

David Oyelowo in Selma (2014)
I completely got this performance. Oyelowo’s voice was the aspect that really worked for me. He completely committed and I felt executed a cultural icon with respect and panache. Definitely a career high.

Richard Pryor in Lady Sings the Blues (1972)
This was the first dramatic role I ever saw Pryor in and I was blown away. Looking back, this character had interesting parallels with his own. Pryor showed a great range from the tender friendship with Holliday through to being pathetic and squalid as a junkie. Just fantastic.

James Earl Jones in The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings (1976)
Another screen giant. I loved Jones in this – fun, smart, menacing and very appealing. Another atypical story based on a true one. A FANTASTIC cast. Just brilliant.

Oprah Winfrey in The Color Purple (1985)
The entire central female ensemble could have been nominated, but Sofia was the character that made the deepest impression of me and Winfrey showed great range here. The defiant, fiercely proud Sofia and all that she bore and came through. Loved her. 

Viola Davis in The Help (2011)
Davis at her quiet and potent best, who incredibly hasn’t had many central roles in which to shine. She takes a stereotype and infuses her with the sincerity and fatigue of a reluctant leader. Brilliant. 

Angela Bassett in Strange Days (1995)
Always overlooked, I loved Bassett as the tough, loyal bodyguard/driver in an apocalyptic LA. This is just Bassett at her best.

Queen Latifah in Set It Off (1996)
A brilliant ensemble, all of whom could have been nominated. But Latifah was a revelation. Seething resentment as a hardened career criminal. Fantastic. Possibly her most truthful performance to date.

Alex Davidson, film programmer and freelance writer

Angela Bassett in What’s Love Got to Do with It (1993)
Juanita Moore in Imitation of Life (1959)
Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave (2013)
Samuel L Jackson in Django Unchained (2012)
Cora Lee Day in Daughters of the Dust (1991)
Whoopi Goldberg in Ghost (1990)
Eddie Murphy in The Nutty Professor (1996)
Jeffrey Wright in Angels in America (2003)
Paterson Joseph in Peep Show (2003-15)
Forest Whitaker & Jaye Davidson in The Crying Game (1992)

Rhidian Davis, Programme manager, BFI

Sidney Poitier in In the Heat of the Night (1967)
“THEY CALL ME MR TIBBS” – enough said

Angela Bassett in Strange Days (1995)
This is what happens when a terrifically talented female actor gets to play a kick-ass role in a genre usually dominated by male directors. Cool and powerful, Bassett’s memorable performance is as ‘right here, right now’ as ever, as the story, which is set against the background of race riots and LAPD corruption, eerily predicts the use of video clips in the Black Lives Matter era.

Jaye Davidson in The Crying Game (1992)
An exceptionally difficult role to cast, Dil was nonetheless played exceptionally well by the unknown, untrained actor Jaye Davidson, who became the first black British actor to receive an Academy Award nomination for his boundary-breaking performance at the age of 24.

Juanita Moore in Imitation of Life (1959)
One of the most heart-breaking roles in all of cinema, Annie is a single mother and indentured maid who must endure the rejection of her fair-skinned daughter, who grows up wanting to ‘pass’ for white. Juanita plays her with heart-rending conviction and pathos.

Samuel L Jackson in Pulp Fiction (1994)
Jackson’s suited, Jheri-curled performance has become one of cinema’s most iconic, channelling blaxploitation history, and reinventing it, to create a real comic masterpiece. 

Pam Grier in Jackie Brown (1997)
If not quite bringing Grier out of retirement, Tarantino definitely returned her to star-billing, but Grier’s performance is so much more than just a credit to Tarantino’s directorial taste. She lifts the film to another level with a real assurance that draws on the sass of Blaxploitation roles like Foxy Brown (1974) and Coffy (1973), but delivers a real maturity and depth. 

Paul Robeson in Body and Soul (1925)
It was in silent film that the singer and peerless polymath first burst onto the screen, in the racially ‘separate’ cinema of Oscar Micheaux. Here he plays two brothers, but it’s the dissembling ‘Reverend’ Isaiah, an ex-con who charms the good ladies of his congregation before having his way with their daughters and stealing their life savings that really shows off his unquenchable screen charisma.

Jamie Foxx in Ray (2004)
It’s not really possible to fault Foxx’s immaculate performance in this successful biopic of the ‘Father of Soul’.

Danny Glover in To Sleep with Anger (1991)
Laverne Cox in Orange is the New Black (2013-)

Helen Dewitt, Head of cinemas, BFI

Sidney Poitier in In the Heat of the Night (1967)
Poitier was an amazing man who garnered many honours, as much for his humanitarian work as his film roles. In this film, which won five Oscars, he created a character that not only inspired a couple of sequels and a TV series, but an iconic character in Virgil Tibbs, whose strong and noble stance against racism remains resonant today. 

Paul Robeson in Song of Freedom (1936)
Robeson was not only an actor but also an activist, musician and even footballer. Song of Freedom (1936) is an early film, and a rare British example, to give a true picture of the prejudice faced by black people, in this film portrayed as individuals rather than the more common and usually racist stock comedic characters. 

Dorothy Dandridge in Carmen Jones (1954)
Her scorching performance in the all African-American version of the Rodgers and Hammerstein the WWII musical made her hugely significant as the first African American sex symbol. 

Lena Horne in Stormy Weather (1943)
Musician, activist and actor Lena Horne’s performance makes this film one of the best musicals of the era, and show cases major African-American talents

Harry Belafonte in Island in the Sun (1957)
Robert Rosen’s underrated film uncovers crime, corruption and inter-racial relationships on a Caribbean island. Belafonte’s character is an honourable upcoming politician seeking to unite the island in the context of the post-colonial legacy. 

Danny Glover in To Sleep with Anger (1991)
Danny Glover is at home in this witty and enigmatic role that brings alive this independent hit from inspirational director, Charles Burnett, as he is in the popular Lethal Weapon series. No one else could could traverse both ends of the spectrum in this way. 

Pam Grier in Foxy Brown (1974)
The greatest female-focused blaxpoitation film. Pam Grier exudes power, energy, attitude and sexiness to kick-ass to wreak revenge on those who cross her. 

Denzel Washington in Malcolm X (1992)
No other actor could play such an iconic African American leader in all his complexity throughout his entire life. Washington seems to embody the very spirit of Malcolm. 

Samuel L Jackson in Pulp Fiction (1994)
Jackson is perfect as Tarantino’s hard talking and even harder shooting enforcer, and embodies the director’s reinvention of black characters and generic tropes

Earl Cameron in Pool of London (1950)
Earl Cameron was the first black actor to break through the racial exclusion in the British film industry in this. He plays a sensitive and morally concerned outsider, showing up the prejudice in British society. 

Bryony Dixon, curator, BFI National Archive

Derek Griffiths in Film Fun (1982-3)
Paul Robeson in Body and Soul (1925)
Michaela Coel in Chewing Gum (2015)
Idris Elba in The Wire (2002-8)
Morgan Freeman in The Shawshank Redemption (1997)
Don Cheadle in Out of Sight (1998)
Josephine Baker in Revue des Revues (1927)
Noel Clarke in Adulthood (2008)
Lena Horne in Cabin in the Sky (1943)
Allen Hoskins in Dogs of War (1923)

Catharine Des Forges, Director, Independent Cinema Office

Sidney Poitier in The Defiant Ones (1958)
Sidney Poitier is my favourite Black Star of all time. A great actor, with a fabulous voice a real charisma, forging a career when such a thing for a black actor was very difficult. He could always hold his own against anyone regardless of the size of the part. In this, he comes blistering onto the screen, making an entrance and proving more than a match for Tony Curtis. 

Sidney Poitier in In the Heat of the Night (1967)
The first appearance of Mr Tibbs, and from a later period when Poitier was established as a black star and subject to criticism for his perceived lack of resistance, personified by the New York Times article ‘Why does white America love Sidney Poiter so?’ The debates are still ongoing, but this is a masterful performance. Rod Steiger may have won an Oscar but it’s Poitier you remember.

Dorothy Dandridge in Carmen Jones (1954)
There’s no sexier pairing in the history of black cinema than Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte. She died tragically young but this performance sees her at her best – vivacious, talented, full of agency and power. 

Denzel Washington in Mississippi Masala (1991)
He’s had a lot more high-profile eye-catching roles but this is my favourite. A rare depiction of inter-racial romance, funny and sexy and tellingly made outside the studio system by an indie director. This shows all his promise, he’s charming and funny and has that quality where you can’t take your eyes off him. 

Paul Robeson in Showboat (1936)
I had to choose one version of Showboat – there’s not enough of Paul Robeson in this film but the theme is pertinent and his voice immaculate. 

Spike Lee in Do the Right Thing (1989)
Phenomenally accomplished and tuned to perfection – the heat sizzles off the screen in Lee’s incendiary film, as he builds layer upon layer of complexity to offer an ambitious and captivating portrait of a neighbourhood simmering both literally and figuratively. An amazing achievement for both direct and star.

Ethel Waters in Cabin in the Sky (1943)
Another all-black musical, with such an array of talent on display. Directed by Vincente Minnelli and Busby Berkeley, Ethel Waters rendering of ‘Taking a Chance on Love’ is sublime. 

Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave (2013)
A phenomenal actor who had appeared in many films but seemed born to play this role. His natural reserve suits Steve McQueen’s directorial distance, and he rises to the challenge of encompassing the horrors of slavery seemingly effortlessly, such his is talent.

Jennifer Hudson in Dreamgirls (2006)
She shakes off her talent show origins with aplomb and is not ever in danger of being eclipsed by much bigger (on paper) stars such as Jamie Foxx and Beyonce. She gets the best song and gives it her all while also turning in a performance of complexity. 

Eddie Murphy in Boomerang (1992)
There had to be an Eddie Murphy film in here and this choice is essential, because it deserves to be better-known. Its portrayal of a black middle-class milieu was relatively unusual at the time and demonstrates the range of gifts that Murphy has at his disposal, rather than just being a token (albeit very funny) clown. 

Hattie McDaniel in Gone with the Wind (1939)

Hattie McDaniel in Gone with the Wind (1939)

Kit De Waal, writer

Denzel Washington in Training Day (2001)
Outstanding, nuanced performance by a master of his craft. I’ve watched this film about three times and each time there is something more in this performance, a pathos I missed the first time around. The menace is there throughout but that is not to say that this is all there is.

Sidney Poitier in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967)
A fine performance by Poitier but I’m nominating this film more for the ground it broke than the performance. This came out the same year as In the Heat of the Night (1967) but I feel this film was a brave attempt exploring at what was outlawed in many states: inter-racial marriage

Sidney Poitier in Patch of Blue (1965)
Great performance, one of many tackling racial prejudice, white poverty and class.

Dorothy Dandridge in Carmen Jones (1954)
Nominated for an Oscar, well deserved, playing against type and her own character.

Viola Davis in The Help (2011)
A great performance of subtlety and strength. Outstanding.

Hattie McDaniel in Gone With The Wind (1939)
Played a maid 74 times, when she received her Oscar she was not allowed to sit with the other stars of the film but had to sit out of the way at a small side table.  She was disowned by the NAACP for playing stereotyped roles but never apologised, saying simply, “I’d rather play a maid than be a maid”. 

Mark Duguid, Senior curator, BFI National Archive

Paul Robeson in Song of Freedom (1936)
Robeson was a giant in every sense, but suffered with his film roles as he did in so much of his career. Song of Freedom is no masterpiece, and in most respects not a match for The Proud Valley, but it’s entirely Robeson’s film and he’s extraordinary. And while it’s not entirely ‘progressive’ by today’s standards, it’s a huge leap forward from the foul travesty of Sanders of the Rivers.

Earl Cameron in The Heart Within (1957)
Though never a star on the Robeson scale, Cameron developed a far more diverse and complex screen persona, stretching what was possible for black actors in British films.

Melvin Van Peebles in Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971)
Richard Roundtree’s Shaft might have been the more obvious choice, but Sweetback has the edge for me thanks to Van Peebles’ absolute control of both character and movie

Derek Griffiths & Floella Benjamin in Play Away (1971-84)
Absolutely not a flippant inclusion: different rules applied on kids’ TV in the 70s, meaning Griffiths and Benjamin could bypass adult stereotyping altogether and be anyone or anything. Genuinely inspirational.

Pam Grier in Foxy Brown (1974)
The personification of sass – peerless.

Norman Beaton in Black Joy (1977)
Probably Britain’s one and only ‘blaxploitation’ film, Black Joy is a bit of an oddball to say the least, but Beaton lights up the film as charismatic trickster Dave.

Andre Braugher in Homicide: Life on the Street (1993-99)
Homicide had a magnificent ensemble cast but Braugher alone would have made it appointment viewing. His mercurial, uncompromising detective Pembleton was perhaps the most complex black cop yet seen.

Naomie Harris in 28 Days Later (2002)
Cillian Murphy’s wide-eyed Jim might be the hero, but Harris’s machete-wielding warrior grabbed the attention. Smart, fearless and prickly, Selena gave the black screen heroine a 21st century reboot.

Chiwetel Ejiofor in Dirty Pretty Things (2002)
Ejiofor will get more nominations for 12 Years a Slave (2013), but Frears’ film gives him a more complex task in a shifting, morally nuanced narrative. An astonishingly skilful, compassionate performance.

Idris Elba in The Wire (2002-8)
In a series of extraordinary characters and performances, Elba edges it (over Michael K Williams’ Omar) as the cultured, thoughtful, magnetic, sophisticated and ultimately terrifying drug-dealing mastermind Stringer Bell

Presented (roughly) in date order – although it seems right that Robeson should come at the top. There are an awful lot of bubbling unders…

Destiny Ekaragha, writer and director

Denzel Washington in Malcolm X (1992)
This is simply one of the best performances of all time by any actor.

Whoopi Goldberg in Ghost (1990)
There was once a time when I could quote every one of her lines in this movie. A true scene-stealer, a comedian with heart and skill

Whoopi Goldberg in The Color Purple (1985)
This was Whoopi’s breakout role. It was a major role for even the most experienced of actors and yet Whoopi managed to make it look easy. A beautiful performance that will live with most of us forever.

Angela Bassett in What’s Love Got to Do with It (1993)
It’s a crime that Angela didn’t get an Oscar for this film. Her performance was a tour-de-force.

Queen Latifah in Set It Off (1996)
A heist movie to end all heist movies. I love this film! Queen Latifah was both likeable and menacing. It’s one of the most underrated performances around.

David Oyelowo in Selma (2014)
A masterful performance. There’s nothing more to say. I thought that I was looking at the real Martin Luther King Jr.

Michael B Jordan in Creed (2015)
I never thought that a film in the Rocky universe could ever come back, let alone come back and be good. This film was excellent and that’s largely due to Michael B Jordan’s honest and nuanced performance as the reluctant spawn of Apollo Creed.

Dorothy Daindridge in Carmen Jones (1954)
I remember seeing this film as a kid wondering who this fiery, bold and beautiful was. Her performance blew me away.

Idris Elba in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (2013)
One of Idris Elba’s finest performances. Outstanding.

Naomie Harris in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (2013)
This film showed the world just what Naomie Harris is capable of. She was a revelation in this film.

Lee Fairweather, Freelance film critic

Denzel Washington in Malcolm X (1992)
A masterclass performance where Denzel Washington expertly captures the spirit of Malcolm X rather than relying solely on imitating familiar mannerisms. Spike Lee’s flawless direction thankfully focuses on Washington’s journey of a man following through on his father’s beliefs and goes through many life changing forms of manhood from a criminal to a controversial leader of black liberation. Yet his most divisive belief was one he found after leaving the Nation of Islam and arguably led to his tragic death: the belief that peace for all of us

Janet Hubert in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (1990-96)
Professor, dancer and no-nonsense mother Vivian Banks was a breath of fresh air on TV in a time when black female characters were reduced to token sidekicks.

Jasmine Guy in A Different World (1987-93)
Gilbert starts off as a snobby brat but turns into an art buyer and dorm director helping other young black woman with womanhood and black pride along the way.

Kadeem Hardison in A Different World (1987-93)
Goofy mathematics major Dwayne Wayne made it cool and acceptable to be a black geek on TV while going through the hardships of being an educated black male in America in the 90s.

Norman Beaton in Desmond’s (1988-94)
Whatever Desmond lacked in barber skills he made up for with charm, musicianship and being a great father just trying his best to retire and return to his home Guyana but not without leaving something for his dear family in Peckham.

Pam Grier in Jackie Brown (1997)
Whereas most female characters stand and watch as things happen in crime movies, Pam Grier in Jackie Brown makes things happen. A 70s blaxploitation action star archetype, Grier shows she still has what it takes to not only compete but beat the best at their own game.

Angela Bassett in Strange Days (1995)
Angela Bassett’s Lonette ‘Mace’ Mason character made an impact by being a strong black female character that was the moral centre of Strange Days (1995) and portraying physical dominance, even rescuing her white male counterpart in some scenes.

Don Cheadle in Devil in a Blue Dress (1995)
One of the few times Denzel Washington has been out-shined on screen, Don Cheadle as Mouse Alexander is the very personification of the 1940s time period Devil in a Blue Dress is set in; intense, temperamental, malicious and violent.

Idris Elba in Luther (2010-15)
Meticulous Detective Chief Inspector John Luther will stop at nothing to solve a case, and seeing just how far he will go is the driving force behind the Luther TV series, with Elba excelling in each episode as a man treading a thin line between an astute detective and sociopath.

Michael Wright in The Five Heartbeats (1991)
There is arguably not one human emotion that Michael Wright doesn’t display as tortured soul Eddie King Jr. Going through trial and tribulations at breakneck speed, Wright delivers a heartbreaking performance of a man just trying to do the right thing but only knowing the wrong way to it

Dick Fiddy, TV programmer, BFI

Godfrey Cambridge in Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970)
The film that kick-started the Blaxpoloitation genre and demonstrated that black-themed films (this was made by a black director with a largely black crew) could have cross-over appeal. Based on a Chester Himes story, this crime film has a rich vein of humour running through it and features a great performance from stand-up comic Godfrey Cambridge (also great in Melvin van Peebles’ Watermelon Man released the same year).

Earl Cameron in Pool of London (1950)
A wonderful performance by Cameron invigorates this Ealing Studios heist thriller that featured an unusual (for the time) racial element. So impressed by Cameron was director Basil Dearden that he turned to him again some years later when making another meditation on racial tension, Sapphire (1959).

Robert Townsend in Hollywood Shuffle (1987)
A fast-paced, episodic satire detailing the trials and tribulations of being a black actor in American films and TV in the 1980s. The dream sequence section – with Bobby dreaming of the roles he’d like to play, rather than the ones he is offered – still has resonance today

Richard Roundtree in Shaft (1971)
Breakout Blaxploitation blockbuster that heralded a genre of gritty, urban black action crime dramas. Its massive box office success virtually single-handedly rescued MGM from the threat of bankruptcy.

Denzel Washington in Devil in a Blue Dress (1995)
Noir-ish thriller – set in 80s LA – based on the Walter Mosely novel and elegantly directed by Carl Franklin. Washington plays Easy Rawlins, an army vet who is asked to track down a girl but is soon drawn into a murderous intrigue. A classy film, easy on the eye, with great performances throughout.

Paul Robeson in Song of Freedom (1936)
Robeson is mesmerising in this tale of a London dockworker with a terrific baritone voice who is tipped for stardom. However when he discovers his African heritage he is drawn to search out his roots and realise his true destiny. A landmark British film.

Josephine Baker in Siren of the Tropics (1927)
Zouzou may be a more significant film but Siren of the Tropics is really responsible for bringing Baker to the attention of the French movie-going public and turning her from a Parisian cabaret star to a national (later international) icon.

Pam Grier in Coffy (1973)
OTT vigilante revenge Blaxploitation movie that underlined the unique style that the genre was bringing to the mainstream. Violent, noisy, sexy with a stand-out performance from Grier in the title role.

Cicely Tyson in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1974)
Originally made for CBS Television, this telemovie has huge significance as the first US TV production to deal with African American characters with real seriousness and depth. Multi-award winning (nine EMMYS), it predates Roots by three years.

Michelle Gayle, actor and writer

Denzel Washington in Training Day (2001)
Established and not having to prove himself anymore yet, Denzel threw down on Training Day (2001). A stunning performance. Risking being unlikable is something star actors tend to wrestle with. It’s a performance I have watched again and again

Angela Bassett in What’s Love Got to Do with It (1993)
I believed her! She was Tina Turner. And as for that fight scene in the car… A truly awesome and I think, underrated, performance.

Laurence Fishburne in What’s Love Got to Do with It (1993)
Laurence Fishburne dared to be violent and uncompromising Ike Turner with no filter. Such a brave and accomplished performance.

Jimmy Cliff in The Harder They Come (1972)
A much loved classic in Jamaica. Jimmy Cliff was loved by my family so Jimmy Cliff in a movie was a no-brainer – but what a great movie!

Viola Davis in Doubt (2008)
Viola Davis had one scene and she made it count! A performance that left me crying and, of course, she has never looked back

Viola Davis in The Help (2011)
I believed every word, every look, even her silence. Viola Davis is such a great actress and finally we all got to see it.

Michael B Jordan in Creed (2015)
The training he must have done for this movie! He moves and fights like a boxer and gives such an authentic, naturalistic performance.

Lupita Nyong’o in 12 Years a Slave (2013)
Sophie Okonedo in Hotel Rwanda (2004)
Terence Howard in Hustle & Flow (2005)
What a performance. Flawless from start to finish.

Viola Davis for me has set the bar. She has bided her time, played the long game and proved that the cream always rises to the top. She is a talented, class act.

Samuel L Jackson in Jungle Fever (1991)

Samuel L Jackson in Jungle Fever (1991)

Nelson George, author and filmmaker

Samuel L. Jackson in Jungle Fever (1991)
Equally parts villain and victim, bully and charmer, Jackson brings great rage and humour to the kind of crackhead character that became a cliché in the hands of lesser actors. Also gets props for pushing Halle Berry to the most unhinged performance of her career.

Eddie Murphy in The Nutty Professor (1996)
The duality of the nerdy professor and his cool alter ego would have been enough to justify my choice. But the scene where he plays his entire, dysfunctional, hilarious and foul family is one of the great comic turns in movie history.

Denzel Washington in He Got Game (1998)
This was the role where Denzel threw off his righteousness for a trip to the dark side. This is the role that establishes that Denzel had range and sets up his work in Training Day and Flight.

Queen Latifah in Set It Off (1996)
Already a presence as an MC and in a few previous roles Queen Latifah was a reckless, fearless force in this melodrama about black female bank robbers. Yet below the surface bravado, there is a damaged woman looking validation in a world that disrespects her.

Chris Tucker in Friday (1995)
Chris Tucker was an a black everyman with few prospects and little ambition in Friday. But he was a live wire, aware of life’s absurdities and willing to embrace every silly moment. It’s a comic performance in which his mouth moves fast and his body seems to speeding, especially when he’s sitting down.

Wesley Snipes in New Jack City (1991)
A star is born. Charismatic, vicious, cunning, charming and sexy, Wesley performs in the tradition of Cagney, Bogart and Edward G. Robinson. The classic Warner Bros. gangster ‘new jacked’ for the crack era.

Sidney Poitier in In the Heat of the Night (1967)
Though his co-star won the Oscar for best actor, I thought this was one of Sidney’s more nuanced performances. A smart, accomplished black man deep below the Mason/Dixon line, Mr Tibbs embodied the civil rights era fight for progress with every smart observation and pride-filled comment.

Pam Grier in Coffy (1973)
There has never been another black screen heroine (and precious few white ones) who has captured the imagination of the cinema world like Pam Grier. Her beauty and physicality made Grier one of the most enduring stars of the blaxploitation era.

Jim Kelly in Enter the Dragon (1973)
Though admittedly not much of a thespian, Kelly was the dominant black star of the kung fu era, bringing fast hands, quick feet and one of the best Afros in the game to screens across the globe. If one of the definitions of screen stardom is creating iconic moments, his first scene in this film is as good as it gets.

Della Reese in Harlem Nights (1989)
In a film full of comic geniuses, from Murphy to Pryor to Foxx, Reece steals the show with nasty, unbridled, consistently funny ad libs that make her big name co-stars her comic foil. A versatile talent who was often ‘the magic Negro’ in Hollywood films gets to unleash her id in scene after scene. Smart of director Eddie Murphy to let Della be Della.

I tried not to just look at ‘positive’ characters in the list but to embrace the wild, the comic and intense. Movie moments happen when actors are allowed to unlock the deepest parts of their characters. Too often comic performers are seen as surface actors when, in fact, they dig for the parts of their experience that express rage as well as joy. We laugh at what is often the most uncomfortable parts of them and ourselves. The same is true of action stars who use their body to express our rage yearning for release. In movie terms fluid movement is as important as a long monologue.

Jane Giles, Head of content, BFI

Juanita Moore in Imitation of Life (1959)
Juanita Moore raises the Oscar she should have won in her fist while Mahalia Jackson belts out Trouble of the World at Annie Johnson’s funeral. The mourners pay tribute to the broken-hearted Annie’s goodness and estranged daughter Sarah Jane throws herself on the coffin. The audience leaves in pieces, inspired, politicised

Diana Ross in Lady Sings the Blues (1972)
Whether writhing in the throes of jailhouse junk withdrawal, picking glass out of her eyes after a KKK attack or killing it with her extraordinary voice, the wonderful Diana Ross bares all as jazz singer Billie Holiday in this lost biopic

Richard Roundtree in Shaft (1971)
Who’s the black private dick
That’s a sex machine to all the chicks?
Who is the man
That would risk his neck for his brother man?
Who’s the cat that won’t cop out
When there’s danger all about?
He’s a complicated man
But no one understands him but his woman (John Shaft)
Lyrics by Isaac Hayes, the first black action hero in a film by Gordon Parks.

Jimmy Cliff in The Harder They Come (1972)
Reggae star Jimmy Cliff excels in this portrait of a young dude battling corruption, crime and drugs en route to stardom in Jamaica. Just fabulous.

Sidney Poitier in To Sir with Love (1967)
Sidney Poitier’s delivery of the line “They call me MR Tibbs” (in In the Heat of the Night) is one of cinema’s all-time greatest moments, but it is his performance as an American engineer who takes a job as a teacher in a troubled East London school that I’m nominating for the way that it deeply affected me as a child.

Jaye Davidson in The Crying Game (1992)
Evoking Cathy Tyson’s performance in Mona Lisa, reluctant star Jaye Davidson is impossibly right as Dil, mourning the death of her soldier boyfriend (Forest Whitaker) when seduced by Fergus. Neil Jordan’s interracial love triangle broke every rule in the book, and it’s impossible now to imagine how the film would work without Davidson’s performance.

Gabourey Sidibe in Precious (2010)
Lee Daniel’s transgressive casting of 350lb newcomer Gabourey Sidibe as an illiterate, abused teenager created cultural shock waves. Daniels himself later stated, “What I learned from doing the film is that, even though I’m black, I’m prejudiced… I’ll never look at a fat girl walking down the street in the same way again”. Sidibe later appeared in Daniels’ music industry TV series, Empire.

John Boyega in Attack the Block (2011)
Late into this brilliant film, Sam the nurse sides with Moses (John Boyega), the hard-faced hoodie thug whose gang mugged her at the beginning of the story. Seeing the trappings of a child’s bedroom, Sam asks Moses his age. Boyega’s delivery of a single word – ‘Fourteen’ – changes everything

Idris Elba as James Bond in TBC
“I just don’t want to be the black James Bond,” Idris Elba has said. “Sean Connery wasn’t the Scottish James Bond and Daniel Craig wasn’t the blue-eyed James Bond so if I played him I don’t want to be called the black James Bond.” Well, quite. But we want Idris.

Pam Grier in Jackie Brown (1997)
As much as I love Pam Grier in Blaxploitation movies Foxy Brown, Coffy and Sheba Baby, it’s the middle-aged star’s performance in Jackie Brown that moves me the most

Michael P Gillespie, Associate Professor of Film in the Department of Media and Communication Arts and the Black Studies Program, City College of New York

Danny Glover in To Sleep with Anger (1991)
Wendell Harris in Chameleon Street (1989)
Larry Fishburne in Deep Cover (1992)
Yaphet Kotto in Bone (1972)
Duane Jones in Ganja & Hess (1973)
Yolonda Ross in Stranger Inside (2001)
Paul Robeson in Body and Soul (1925)
Denzel Washington in He Got Game (1998)
Forest Whitaker in Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999)
Charles Lane in Sidewalk Stories (1989)

Gaylene Gould, writer/presenter

Harry Belafonte in Carmen Jones (1954)
It’s hard to be a star without sex appeal. Thankfully a young Mr Belafonte has sex appeal for days. As Joe in Preminger’s sumptuous musical screen adaptation, he walked the fine line between nonchalance and intensity with that spectacular swivel in his hips.

James Earl Jones in Claudine (1974)
James Earl Jones is a big star. He fills the screen with a sharp grace. Here, he plays Roop, Claudine’s garbage man lover. He’s hopelessly soppy yet tough enough to take on a single parent and her six rag-tag kids. As a star, Jones has it all – smarts, versatility and power.

Dennis Haysbert in 24 (2001-6)
There are plenty of star moments in Haysbert’s career but his time playing the first black President of the United States in the TV series 24 has to get a mention. It’s quite possible that Haysbert’s dignified, strong and calm portrayal paved the way for Obama.

Ashley Walters in Storm Damage (2000)
There are those TV-watching moments when you realise you’re witnessing a star being born. Ashley Walter’s performance in the Lennie James scripted drama Storm Damage was one of those moments. Tough, sexy, vulnerable with a real on-screen ease, Walters has continued to be my British star favourite.

Anika Noni Rose in Half A Yellow Sun (2013)
Often, a star impacts you physically. You stop breathing when they appear on the screen. You tense a little. That’s how I felt waiting for Noni Rose’s scenes in Half A Yellow Sun. When she shows up, she shows up. An incredibly present actor with big things to come, I’m sure.

Regina King in Boyz n the Hood (1991)
King is a black star who has enjoyed a rich character acting career. She stood out as ghetto girl Shalika in Singleton’s cult film and has graduated to directing prime time TV drama. Her role as grieving mother Erika Murphy in the HBO drama The Leftovers was a recent screen highlight.

Juanita Moore in Imitation of Life (1959)
Few films have explored the heartbreak of growing up in a racially divided society like Imitation of Life. Few actors have encapsulated that quiet grief like Juanita Moore who played the shunned mother of a daughter who passes as white. For her efforts, Moore was the fifth African American to be Oscar-nominated.

Diahann Carroll in Dynasty (1984-7)
Caroll was black glamour beamed right into your living room. The 80s were all about big, bold, shoulder-padded dramas. So when Dominique Devereaux sashayed onto the Dynasty set claiming to be part of the powerful Carrington family, armchairs were nudged closer to the TV screen. In her wide ranging body of roles, Caroll could expertly balance the tough and the fragile.

Josette Simon in Blake’s 7 (1978-81)
Move over Uhuru. Here comes Dayna. Tall, lithe, a weapons expert and romantic lead, Josette Simon had the chance to flex in a rare meaty role for a black actress in science-fiction. Yet another coup, Simon even hails from my hometown, Leicester. In Blake’s 7 she was gorgeous, smart, kick-ass and fabulously dressed. She continues to act but, unfortunately, in nothing as daring as this role.

Titus Burgess in The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (2015-)
The term star is not big enough for Titus Andromedon. He is an off-way-off Broadway actor who shares an apartment with a woman after she’s released from a cult. Tina Fey’s Netflix show is meant as a vehicle for actress Ellie Kemper but, in true Andromedon style, Burgess shoulder’s his way to the front, showering this camp comedy with true wit. A hugely talented comic with perfect flouncy timing.

Carmen Gray, freelance film critic

Angela Bassett in What’s Love Got to Do with It (1993)
Sonia Braga in Aquarius (2016)
Ivan Dixon in Nothing But a Man (1964)
Pam Grier in Foxy Brown (1974)
Marianne Jean-Baptiste in Secrets & Lies (1997)
Sidney Poitier in In the Heat of the Night (1967)
Prince in Purple Rain (1984)
Mya Taylor in Tangerine (2015)
Ventura in Colossal Youth (2006)
Denzel Washington in Malcolm X (1992)

Natalie Gumede, actor

Josephine Baker in Zouzou (1934) and Princesse Tam-Tam (1935)
For her comedic timing, and her freedom of expression at a time such a thing was considered scandalous for a black woman. I watched her dance performances in both the above films as research for dancing the Charleston on Strictly Come Dancing and her performances are joyous, wild and athletic. I only wish I’d discovered her sooner, as she is a great influence – indeed you can see that influence in certain dance styles today.

The Nicholas Brothers in Stormy Weather (1943)
I can’t mention dance and athleticism without including these guys – they were often included as a speciality act within Hollywood Films and their finesse, charm and gymnastic ability defies comprehension. I don’t think anyone could recreate this magic. Watch ‘Jumping Jive’ from the film and smile :)

Cathy Tyson in Mona Lisa (1986)
I love the relationship between her and Bob Hoskins – the best parts of the film and the scenes where we’re just watching the two of them, and she is the essence of quiet dignity.

Angela Bassett in What’s Love Got to Do with It (1993)
A towering, heartbreaking, and inspiring performance. I saw this film at a very impressionable age and it gave me a real understanding of female strength.

The cast in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (1990-96)
May seem like an obvious choice, but it was one of the few examples I experienced growing up of positive black role models on television. It was one of the first times I remember watching black actors being allowed to ‘be’ rather than playing a stereotype. And at that young age, it was FUNNY!

Morgan Freeman in The Shawshank Redemption (1997)
Just. Perfection.

Denzel Washington in American Gangster (2007)
Although he was the villain of the piece, there was never a moment where I didn’t want the bad guy to WIN! A magnetic screen presence.

Kerry Washington in Scandal (2012-)
Her performance and character is something I and the next generation can aspire to – strong, complex, leading figure in a primetime show, allowed to be beautiful and messy and difficult. I think we owe writer and producer Shonda Rhimes so much for changing the landscape of television

Diana Ross in Lady Sings the Blues (1972)

Diana Ross in Lady Sings the Blues (1972)

Akua Gyamfi, editor and journalist

Whoopi Goldberg in The Color Purple (1985)
Whoopi’s first major role is forever iconic, memorable, relatable. She captured the emotion of a woman in that position, with a quiet dignity and almost silent power. The script gave her memorable quotes. But her delivery of those words forever resonates. This character has so many levels of black female history embedded in her, that it takes a very special someone to bring it to life. Whoopi’s journey in this film as Celie is so heartbreakingly inspiring. Her importance of being a dark-skinned woman forever told she is ugly and worthless, yet winning…  she’s the prayer and miracle

Danai Gurira in Mother of George (2013)
Gurira carries the film with stoic regality. She shines in this script-light, emotive film.

Diana Ross in Lady Sings the Blues (1972)
Although not necessarily accurate in casting in regards to looks and sound, Ross is captivating as the legendary Jazz singer.

Ice Cube in Boyz n the Hood (1991)
The fact that Ice Cube manages to have you feeling emotionally connected, protective and full of empathy for Doughboy, a character we’re not supposed to like.

Tupac Shakur in Juice (1992)
Who knew that Tupac was going to display such acting ability on a par with his stellar rap skills? His portrayal of Bishop may have not been a far stretch from his rap persona, but was still an important moment in film history where calm menace can be equally as scary as someone being aggressive and loud.

Denzel Washington in Malcolm X (1992)
Really not too much to say which hasn’t already been said. An iconic portrayal of a historical and important figure so often maligned and misunderstood in modern history. Denzel in top form.

Adepero Oduye in Pariah (2011)
Adepero’s role as Alike has been criminally under-celebrated. Such an important story, Adepero captures perfectly the turmoil of a young girl experiencing such life-changing emotions with her believable portrayal.

Quvenzhané Wallis in Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)
Quvenzhané was superb in this role. Un-trained, and just 9 years old at the time, this was a beautiful performance.

Grace Jones in Boomerang (1992)
She makes brief appearances but they are all memorable, quotable, funny and classic.

Sean Nelson in The Wood (1999)
One of the best coming-of-age films, period. Sean Nelson’s Mike was every boy we ever knew in high school. It’s not often black boys are allowed to be vulnerable, funny and endearing.

Melanie Hoyes, UK filmography researcher, Unlocking Film Heritage, BFI

Margaret Avery in The Color Purple (1985)
Margaret Avery’s character in this film stands out as the catalyst of change in this narrative. Strong, confident in her sexuality but ultimately flawed, Shug was the first black woman I can recall who takes charge of her future, her body and self. Despite her not occupying a great amount of screen time, the performance is dynamic and memorable in a film full of dynamic and memorable performances

Eddie Murphy in Coming To America (1988)
Coming To America showcases Murphy’s multifaceted, comedic talent with him playing several characters in the film. It’s a tour-de-force performance, questioning what it is to be an alien in America on so many levels and in a hilarious fashion. Probably the first time I remember seeing a black actor have so much influence and star power in film.

Michael B Jordan in Creed (2015)
Breathing life into the long-running Rocky franchise, Michael B Jordan’s performance as Apollo Creed’s son is nuanced and demands empathy. The film itself invokes the black culture and experience in a rounded and subtle way. It’s an absolute travesty that Jordan did not receive an Oscar nod for this performance

Denzel Washington in Cry Freedom (1987)
The slow fall of apartheid dominated much of the news whilst I was growing up and this film captured much of the racism and injustice still present in the world not too long ago. As usual, Washington infuses this role with strength, dignity and grace in the face of deep inhumanity.

Cush Jumbo in The Good Wife (2015-16)
The first black starring role in this outstanding TV series was long overdue and went to British actress, Cush Jumbo. She slotted right in as fast talking, no nonsense Lucca Quinn and will be reprising the role in the new spin-off.

Whoopi Goldberg in Jumpin’ Jack Flash (1986)
A far cry from her role in The Color Purple, this role showcases Whoopi at her comedic best in an under par film. Probably my first experience of a funny black woman in a leading role, many of Whoopi’s lines in this film have entered my everyday vocabulary.

Idris Elba in Luther (2010-15)
Idris Elba’s performance in this series arguably kickstarted his Hollywood career and made him a household name. Broody, troubled genius DCI John Luther is notable as his race is never questioned or discussed. A worthy example of colour blind casting that should be the rule, not the exception.

Earl Cameron in Pool of London (1950)
I remember being amazed to see a black actor in a black and white British film, let alone one who plays an honest character amongst a group of dodgy gangsters. Its portrayal of interracial relationships is a fine example of showing multi-racial London in all her glory.

Marianne Jean-Baptiste in Secrets & Lies (1997)
This performance has particular resonance with my own experience as the black sheep in my family. Jean-Baptiste is dignified and measured in her performance to counter Brenda Blethyn’s emotional wreck of a mother. A shame that despite her success in this role, Jean-Baptiste felt the need to go to the US to further her career.

Angela Bassett in What’s Love Got to Do with It? (1993)
Angela Bassett makes sure not to turn her performance as Tina Turner into parody. Tina’s transformation from victim to star over a long period of time and through various haircuts and costumes is beautifully portrayed by Bassett.

Iyare Igiehon, freelancer/co-Founder, S.O.U.L. (Screening Our Unseen Lives)

Ice Cube in Friday (1995)
Jamie Foxx in Ray (2004)
Kid & Play in House Party (1990)
Denzel Washington in Mo’ Better Blues (1990)
Chris Rock in Top Five (2014)
Richard Rowntree in Shaft (1971)
Denzel Washington in Training Day (2001)
Pam Grier in Jackie Brown (1997)
Ashley Walters in Bullet Boy (2004)
Wesley Snipes in Blade (1998)
It’s easy to downplay but Wesley Snipes’ first outing as Blade was a performance that changed movies and arguably kickstarted the current dominance of mainstream cinema by comic book movies. Blade was a serious comic book movie when comic book movies were resolutely silly and pointed to a different way of interpreting this material. If ever a single actor’s performance carried a movie, the dark brooding physicality of Snipes’ Blade is it. In the late 90s this was a performance that opened my eyes to new possibilities. Snipes pulls off the classic “Some motherf**er’s always trying ice skate uphill” line. One of the great tough guy lines up there with “I’ll be back” and “Do you feel lucky punk?”. I liked Shaft but he was my Dad’s hero, Blade was my Dirty Harry, my Man With No Name. Blade was the kick-ass hero who looked like me and I loved him for it.

Priscilla Igwe, managing director, The New Black Film Collective

Halle Berry in Monster’s Ball (2001)
Well-deserved Oscar for her performance. She was completely raw and laid it all out there for her craft. I usually don’t approve of female nudity in a film. It usually feels like titillation by a male director but Halle Berry’s bravery and the dedication to her craft is clear to see. This role could have ruined her, it could have made her a laughing stock, as she is known for her body, but she owned the role. Her grief was laid bare for all to see and you could not help but be moved. All the other scenes are subtly but profoundly performed. She is able to carry Sean Combs and more than match the acting pedigree of the heavyweights in the film. She is every woman who struggles to keep a family together and fights tooth and nail to survive and stay a survivor. She delivers in all her roles, whether the film is good or bad, and seems to bring a parity between the sexes. Keep keepin’ it real sista!

Angela Bassett in What’s Love Got to Do with It (1993)
She embodies the powerful black woman in all her films but in this one and similarly Waiting to Exhale, she comes up against a man who does her wrong and she fights for her rights in court. In What’s Love Got to Do with It (1993), the judge tells her that she is leaving with nothing and she says, “except my name”.

Whoopi Goldberg in Jumpin’ Jack Flash (1986)
The obvious thing would have been to nominate Whoopi for The Color Purple but she is such an incredible comedy actress as well, as we know from Sister Act and Ghost, but I feel that this film is a forgotten classic. There should be a retrospective on Whoopi!

Tessa Thompson in Dear White People (2014)
The key scene is where Sam White tears down the Kurt Fletcher character in the canteen and drives him out. I have never really seen a black female character do that to a white man. But within seconds, she ruins it by attacking Lionel, juxtaposing her fallibility and complexity beautifully.

Viola Davis in Doubt (2008)
For her to outshine Meryl Streep takes a lot of doing but in this short scene, she packs an incredible punch and her emotions are raw and visceral. Her Oscar is overdue. Also want to note her performance in How To Get Away With Murder, where she pull off her wig to reveal her afro. That scene is iconic for black women and advocates our natural beauty.

Hattie McDaniel in Gone With The Wind (1939)
I am still haunted by her performance in the film, especially when she recounts events that are not shown on screen. It is a far more powerful device and so clever by the director. There is a sense of dignity and fire about her that makes her own the screen. A quick nod to the terrific performance by Butterly McQueen as Prissy – you are not forgotten!

Thandie Newton in Beloved (1998)
Tour de force but overlooked performance by Thandie Newton, which elevated her to a true artist in my mind. Another great acting role by Oprah, especially when she refers to the crooked tree on her back from the whipping she got from her slave masters.

Gabourey Sidibe in Precious (2010)
Top-drawer acting by the whole cast but especially the first-timer lead actress. Scenes from that film still haunt me today, as well as the shock of Mariah Carey’s ability to act really well.

Gina Torres in Suits (2011-16)
Powerful, take-no-prisoners Afro-latina actress and in this role she is the BOSS. And wickedly funny, with the best outfits ever!!

Uzo Aduba in Orange is the New Black (2013-)
Outstanding. Beyond convincing. Fantastic diverse cast. Shout out to Cookie in Empire as well.

Nazmia Jamal, film programmer

Adelaide Norris in Born in Flames (1983)
“Adelaide Norris, 24. She seems to be the leader of the women’s army.”
“Homosexual?”
“Yes”
What a dreamboat.
Adepero Oduye in Pariah (2011)
Alike’s character is a wonderful example of a black female character finding her own way and resisting all the stereotypes on offer to her – she pushes against the options on offer to her and offers a fierce and graceful alternative archetype for queer women of colour everywhere

Letitia Wright in My Brother the Devil (2012)
Wright’s brief turn as the serious and smart hijabi friend of the main character is one of the high points of this excellent film. I was torn between this role and Wright’s equally luminous characterisation of Scotty in Cucumber and Banana in 2015.

Llewella Gideon in The Real McCoy (1991-96)
My family would crowd around the television every Friday to watch The Real McCoy, drawn by the rare sighting of a brown person on the telly (Meera Syal’s Auntyji), but my favourite will always be Gideon and Syal as Indian Ragga Girls bemoaning how “Asian or black, our men are all the same”.

Michael Kenneth Williams in The Wire (2002-8)
Omar Little was the best thing about The Wire, which is really saying something. I nearly went with Snoop but the audience got to know Omar better. And who doesn’t love a gay gangster who takes his grandma to church?

Oprah Winfrey in The Color Purple (1985)
I can’t imagine anyone doing a better job in this role – Sophia has one of the hardest journeys in Walker’s story and Winfrey plays her so that it hurts to look at her when her fortunes change

Brinsley Forde in Babylon (1980)
Blue could be around now – Brixton might have changed beyond recognition but the realities of life as a young black man really don’t seem to have changed at all. Babylon is a difficult film full of joy, nostalgia and ultimately rage that we seem to have found ourselves right back in Thatcher’s Britain.

Taraji P. Henson in Empire (2015-)
Cookie Lyon gets all the best lines, including “Just cause I asked Jesus to forgive you don’t mean I do…” She is a fiercely loyal, pragmatic and talented woman with the best wardrobe on telly.

Katrina Phillips in But I’m a Cheerleader (1999)
Alright, so Jan is a minor character who barely says anything but her awkward butch softball loving negotiation of the pink horrors of True Directions are one of the best things about this film.

Indigo in Buffy the Vampire Slayer (2003)
Yes, I’m really going for the minor characters now… but given that there are less than a dozen POC in the seven seasons of Buffy I will confess to feeling deeply enthusiastic about this overall-wearing (admittedly quite whiny) potential who appears in season 7 for the giant slayer sleepover before the apocalypse

I’m cheating I know but I’d like to flag up the entire cast of Desmond’s. Completely seminal, religiously watched and impossible to pick a favourite from.

Nick James, Editor, Sight & Sound

Michael K. Williams in The Wire (2002-8)
Just my favourite character in the greatest ever television series. Williams subverted the cliché of the ruthless, heartless killer, with his take on sexuality and fatalism. One of the great eye actors.

Alex Descas in 35 Shots of Rum (2008)
A lot of smouldering subtlety managed by Descas here as a train driver who reaches retirement age just as the daughter he raised alone is beginning to spread her wings. Fierce and loveable.

Angela Bassett in Tina – What’s Love Got to Do with It? (1993)
I was torn between this portrayal of the rock-soul genius and Bassett’s tough and glamorous fixer ‘Mace’ in Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days, but this was a kind of miracle to be so convincing as Tina Turner, a role I would have thought impossible. Yet she made it heartbreaking yet celebratory despite it all and set the standard for biopics to come.

Cab Calloway in Hi-De-Ho (1934)
I confess this a kind of nascent music video chosen at random from his huge oeuvre but Cab Calloway looms hugely in my life as the ultimate showman, and original hepcat. He was an astonishing self-creation, the 1980s in the 1920s. I still find him mesmerising.

Pam Grier in Jackie Brown (1997)
Pam Grier wins over Samuel L. Jackson as my Tarantino performance choice because so much of what she did was interior, which is astonishing for an actress made famous by Blaxploitation movies.

Paul Robeson in Song of Freedom (1936)
Some of the early scenes in England with Robeson as a dockworker with a great baritone voice have tremendous power to move, but this choice stands for all of Robeson’s performances, his tremendous sincerity and controlled force of character.

Morgan Freeman in Se7en (1995)
I know many find Freeman’s ‘voice of god’ routines irksome but in this magnificently gruesome film his unmatched vocal conviction is perfectly suited to the mansplaining role he’s given as a kind of Virgil to Brad Pitt’s Dante as they enter the hell of a serial killer investigation. Freeman’s sorrow at the inheritance of policemanship he’s passing on is so palpable.

Cynda Williams in One False Move (1992)
This chilling and unjustly neglected thriller was the first film I ever wrote about for Sight & Sound and I’ll never forget Williams’s performance as the relatively still centre of a psychopathic storm

David Oyelowo in Selma (2014)
I had, of course, seen David Oyelowo in dozens of things before Selma, but this performance was like he’d come out of the blue, an absolute tour-de-force. It was not about mimicry of the real man but about getting to the emotional core of his beliefs and matching King’s exalting conviction and golden rhetoric with his own.

Diana Ross in Lady Sings the Blues (1972)
I was a teenager when this came out, already fascinated by Billie Holiday. Knowing the scandal about Diana Ross not being the best singer in the Supremes, I didn’t expect much, but Ross was very good. She didn’t worry too much about not looking like Billie but all the right emotion in the right places. And she gets ‘Good Morning Heartache’ down.

Never having been inclined to separate out a performer according to their race, I found it impossible to do the ranking here. My choices have been based on performances that have proved vivid to me, and all ten are all equal to me. I suppose I have ducked some of the obvious choices, simply because I couldn’t zone in one of many great roles from the same actor. If I think of the term Black Star, for instance, I see Denzel Washington straight away, but I have not picked him here. I can’t say why none of the performances in Spike Lee’s magnificent films have made it to my list either. Rather than amplify an existing choice here, then, I’m going to mention two small gemlike roles in Michael Mann films: Dennis Haysbert’s tiny part in Heat as an ex-con hash slinger who signs up for the big heist on the spur of a bad moment, and Jamie Foxx’s bigger role as the taxi driver who has the bad luck to get assassin Tom Cruise as his passenger. Both are magnificent.

Danny Glover in To Sleep with Anger (1991)

Danny Glover in To Sleep with Anger (1991)

Curtis Caesar John, film programmer, executive director of The Luminal Theater

Sidney Poitier in A Raisin in the Sun (1961)
Imagine a young and unrestrained Sidney Poitier, reciting to his movie wife Ruth the following lines that question his manhood as he struggles to define himself and uplift his family, and you’re set to witness the highest perfection in performance, bar none:

“That’s it. There you are. Man say to his woman: I got me a dream. His woman say: Eat your eggs. Man say: I got to take hold of this here world, baby! And a woman will say: Eat your eggs and go to work. Man say: I got to change my life, I’m choking to death, baby! And his woman say – Your eggs is getting cold!”

The strength to which Poitier enhanced playwright Lorraine Hansberry’s lines, with the heftiness of a man mainstream society is bringing down harder every day, a grown man still trying to prove his manhood, still sticks with me as I, too, often feel those pressures. Even the amazing Danny Glover, so good in the role over 20 years later, could not surpass Sidney’s performance. For me, this performance is why Sidney Poitier IS Sidney Poitier.

Eddie Murphy & Robin Givens in Boomerang (1992)
It’s difficult to separate these two performances as Murphy’s womanising Marcus gets beat at his own game by Givens’ Jacqueline, in what are arguably these two actors’ best performances ever. This isn’t a cheat, its black performance as team sport – funny, wry, sexy, and unforgiving – at its pinnacle, even more so than Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne in What’s Love Got to Do With It.”

Samuel L Jackson in Jungle Fever
While playing a crack addict isn’t exactly uplifting to the race, this star-turning role for Samuel L Jackson remains one of the most equally tragic, humorous, and compelling performances I’ve seen from any actor in this era. Jackson as Gator transcends any Shakespearean role for me, especially in 1991, when we all wanted to deny truths about loved ones buried under the influence of hardcore drugs.

Andre Braugher in Homicide: Life on the Street (1993-99)
People were already paying attention to Braugher before this role, but really, it was as the smartest and craftiest (and most intense!) person in the room that made people take notice. Set this against his contemporary police captain role in the comedy Brooklyn Nine-Nine and you have in Pembleton an even more solid performance, and one of the top television characters of all time.

Dorothy Dandridge in Carmen Jones (1954)
While in some ways this is an obvious pick, it’s not because the movie does not hold up well. Yet in the role that made her a star, Dandridge broke out of her usual homespun demeanour to deliver a woman on the edge, liable to do anything to get off it, and mirroring the eventual tragic end of the actress herself.

Phylicia Rashad in The Cosby Show (1984-92). Intelligent, clever, talented, and so sexy, Rashad set the bar high for TV mothers in the 1980s. As good as the titular star made The Cosby Show, it would never have lasted, or be as eternal, without Rashad as Claire.

Danny Glover in To Sleep with Anger (1991)
Here Glover is more conniving than Mister, older than Murtaugh, and is mostly subtle but unfettered in this somewhat forgotten Charles Burnett masterpiece that, when I originally watched (and re-watched, repeatedly) it, changed how I interpreted what a black film can be. Here, he perfected for the future use how to be evil without being over-the-top.

Diahann Carroll in Claudine (1974)
I first saw Claudine as a child, then as a young teen and totally didn’t buy this welfare mother tale. Re-watching it two years ago as a man, I am awed and respect the nuance that Carroll built into this character that brims with a maturity that allows her to make mistakes, wipe herself off, and do better for her and her kids the next time around.

Lenny Henry in Chef (1993-96)
He’s the best in his profession and knows it, which is what makes the arrogant insult-flying Gareth the prototype for the bad boy chefs the world now knows and (mostly) loves. Lenny Henry is comedy gold here.

Anika Noni Rose in No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency (2008-9)
While the show itself was often broad, Rose’s performance as the nerdy and tightly-wound secretary/assistant Grace was anything but. Quirky and confident, she displayed comedic drama skills that should be studied at acting schools internationally, and set the stage for Black nerd girls everywhere.

Dorett Jones, curator and film programmer

Marianne Jean-Baptiste in Secrets & Lies (1997)
Her amazing performance has sadly been relegated to the shadows. However, this established a new pathway for new emerging black British female actors. When discussing British female leads she is rarely mentioned or recognised as a British star, which she is!

Sidney Poitier in In The Heat of the Night (1967)
Seminal performance as Poitier embodied a character which solidified his charisma and presence on screen and set the tone for his unwavering defiance and refusal to succumb to oppression, both on and off screen. When Virgil slaps back Endicott, this set a tone for blacks globally about racism, equality, class, masculinity and power. This performance, reinforcing social and political change, remains memorable.

Angela Bassett in What’s Love Got to Do with It (1993)
She totally embodies Tina Turner’s life, music and the nuances of family, love and the complexities of domestic violence. Bassett delivers a phenomenal performance.

Norman Beaton in Black Joy (1977)
To cross over from Guyana as an actor and attain a level of success in Britain was no small feat for many Caribbean actors in the 60s and 70s. Actors such as Rudolph Walker, Carmen Munroe… Norman Beaton was no exception and his performance in this film was both comedic, sad and dramatic. Caribbean actors also hold star status!

Sophie Okonedo in Skin (2008)
This actor is simply a pleasure to watch on screen. Her portrayal was moving and held so much depth that was not conveyed through dialogue. Her most recent performance in the TV series Undercover was also absolutely brilliant and once again she solidified why she should be a Star!

Chiwetel Ejiofor in Dirty Pretty Things (2002)
My first view of this actor was in this film, and what a fantastic performance! He completely blew me away, and I knew at the time that I was watching someone very special who was making a mark in British cinema. And I was so right!

Naomie Harris in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006) and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (2007)
Too often there is a lack of authenticity when trying to portray Caribbean characters and Naomie Harris did not disappoint when she played the Caribbean sorceress, authentic accent and all! No doubt due to her heritage. Although she was not on screen for a long period, when she was, she dazzled. Complete star status for this British actor.

Pam Grier in Foxy Brown (1974)
Blaxploitation remains an established film movement and the women of its genres conveyed multiple messages, including demanding justice, no-nonsense and kick-ass tough. Pam Grier’s performances have stood the test of time and show her as a great actor, star and trailblazer.

Ossie Davis in The Hill (1965)
Civil Rights activist and brilliant actor. Davis’s performance in this British film highlights racism in the British military and how Empire treated its Caribbean ‘subjects’. Powerful film with a range of well-known British male actors.

Pearl Bailey in All the Fine Young Cannibals (1960)
Pearl Bailey was an amazing actor and artist. In this film, she captures the tragedy of a performer on a downward spiral of heartbreak and alcohol. Her performance evokes the time and one of many contexts for black performers and musicians, dealing with disappointment and limitations. Star in every sense of the word.

Matimba Kabalika, talent coordinator and content editor, BFI NET.WORK

Eddie Murphy in Coming To America (1988)

Angela Bassett in What’s Love Got to Do with It (1993)
Angela Bassett is such a force of nature in this film. An incredible actress who should have – over the course of her career – received many more plaudits

Will Smith in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (1990-96)
This one is more about what the show represented to me. A young black man whose star power was defined by this show, and has gone on to be one of the most successful black stars of a generation

Sidney Poitier in In the Heat of the Night (1967)
Whoopi Goldberg in The Color Purple (1985)
I love that Whoopi came from the world of stand-up, delivered a career defining performance as Celie, and then goes on to have the most varied career. She really is the definition of a black star

Sanaa Lathan and Omar Epps in Love & Basketball (2000)
This film and the lead roles both made my top ten because Gina Prince-Bythewood, (writer and director) delivered something I’d not seen before; young, black love, unburdened by racial stereotypes, but anchored by two strong central characters.

David Oyelowo in Selma (2014)
David Oyelowo consistently delivers such strong performances. With Selma (2014) he was catapulted to great heights and international stardom, something that was long overdue.

Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave (2013)
Denzel Washington in Philadelphia (1993)

Lisa Kerrigan, TV curator, BFI National Archive

Eartha Kitt in Mrs Patterson (1956)
Nichelle Nichols in Star Trek (1966-69)
Lenny Henry in The Lenny Henry Show (1984-88)
Norman Beaton in Desmond’s (1988-94)
Paterson Joseph in Neverwhere (1996)
Will Smith in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (1990-96)
Idris Elba in Luther (2010-15)
Keegan-Michael Key & Jordan Peele in Key and Peele (2012-15)
Angela Bassett in American Horror Story (2013)
Viola Davis in How to Get Away with Murder (2014-)

A list shaped by personal TV favourites. Totally iconic in any galaxy, my favourite performance is by Nichelle Nichols as Lt Uhura.

Arthur L Knight, associate professor, American Studies & English, The College of William & Mary

The Nicholas Brothers in Stormy Weather (1943)
You can never go wrong with the Nicholas Brothers, but their appearance in the penultimate number of Stormy Weather is extra-astounding. They leap and spin across small cabaret table tops, tapping sublimely whenever their feet (briefly) touch down. But then they top that by acrobatically climbing a set of outsized steps and then combing down by jumping impossibly high, over one one another, landing in splits! Pure joy.

Denzel Washington in Malcolm X (1992)
You hear the voice first, over a burning US flag, and are immediately drawn into its potent, insistent dignity – a fusion of X’s words, intellect, and charisma with Washington’s rich, rich talent. When we hear and see the actual Malcolm X in documentary footage at the end of the film, it’s like seeing a fabulous figure-ground illusion – two things-in-one, Malcolm-Denzel. He should have won the Oscar for this film!

Spike Lee in Do the Right Thing (1989)
While the fashions look out of date, unfortunately the conflicts and issues it probes are as relevant as ever. To get audiences to stick with such painful and complex problems, the film needed to provide a guide, and Lee’s Mookie plays that role, but absolutely unsentimentally, drawing us through but not in, an impressive performance accomplishment.

Evelyn Preer in Within Our Gates (1920)
Preer’s sensitive eyes and expressive face put her in company of widely recognised silent giants like Lillian Gish, but Preer wasn’t given nearly as many chances to display and develop her skills and she had to use her talents to make the urgent (and sadly necessary) argument for black humanity rather than the horrible status quo of white supremacy.

Louise Beavers in Imitation of Life (1934)
Beavers, along with Hattie McDaniel, the quintessential ‘mammy’ of Hollywood, takes the stereotypical role available to her and burrows out from within it to (pace scholar Miriam Petty) steal the show.

Juanita Moore in Imitation of Life (1959)
Moore’s only major role in a long career of bit parts cannily updates Louise Beaver’s proud and overwhelmed mother of a daughter who passes for white. The moment in which she pretends to be her daughter’s ‘mammy’ so as not to out her is searingly, bottomlessly ironic (the word seems much too small for what Moore coveys).

Sidney Poitier in No Way Out (1950)
Poitier’s first Hollywood role is, in some ways, his best, giving him his usual task of performing black worth and worthiness to whites, but also giving him a context in a family and a community which reflects the emotional toll – and the anger and rage – of constantly being considered unequal, even unhuman.

Ivan Dixon in Nothing But a Man (1964)
Dixon plays the role of an individual man unmoored and beset by racism and life circumstance with uncommon fortitude. He conveys the challenge of trying to live a decent life decently, for himself and those he comes to love, in a world that is at once changing rapidly in terms of labor and gender relations and seemingly not changing at all in terms of race and class.

Abbey Lincoln in Nothing But a Man (1964)
Lincoln, a great singer (though she doesn’t sing here), in her first of just a small handful of acting roles, matches Ivan Dixon in enacting the complex bewilderment of a person pulled by historical forces they can feel but cannot articulate or control and can only influence through uncertain individual choices.

Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave (2013)
The final images in this film, with Ejiofor portraying Northup’s reunion with his family and grown children, are a mix of joy and bottomless pain and isolation, all of which Ejiofor conveys masterfully with his eyes.

Georgia Korossi, Freelance writer and independent curator of cinema and arts

Josephine Baker in Princesse Tam-Tam (1935)
Bedouin girl Alwina (Josephine Baker) is the inspiration for Max (Albert Préjean). Baker performs ‘Dream Ship’ and ‘Neath the Tropical Blue Skies’ as well as dancing to ‘Under the African Sky’ in her unique style.

Mbissine Thérèse Diop in Black Girl (1966)
Ousmane Sembène’s debut feature Black Girl put Africa on the world cinema map. It follows young Senegalese woman Diouana (Mbissine Thérèse Diop) who takes a job as a nanny and struggles when she is brought to France. Throughout her journey and use of close-ups we experience the natural beauty of Dakar against the lethargy of the French bourgeoisie.

Sidney Poitier in In the Heat of the Night (1967)

They call me Mr. Tibbs.

Diana Ross in Lady Sings the Blues (1972)
Diana Ross reaching the emotional highs and lows of one of the most dramatic public lives of one of the most gorgeous singers of our times.

Herbert Norville in Pressure (1975)
The film centres around the attempts of one black teenager trying to find work in the white-dominated British society. Tony, beautifully played by Herbert Norville, is open to exploring the challenges, but the corruption of the British system is pushing him towards alienation.

Whoopi Goldberg in The Color Purple (1985)
Celie, played by Whoopi Goldberg, is the one perfect thing at the heart of this deeply moving film.

Samuel L Jackson in Pulp Fiction (1994)
Samuel L Jackson and John Travolta discuss what they call Quarter Pounders in France. Ace moment!

Lupita Nyong’o in 12 Years a Slave (2013)
Lupita Nyong’o and Chiwetel Ejiofor give award-winning performances while reflecting man’s cruel nature and loss of conscience.

Guslagie Malanga in My Friend Victoria (2014)
Adapted from a story by Doris Lessing, Jean-Paul Civeyrac’s drama My Friend Victoria is a bold, fresh take on racial identity in contemporary France. Superbly acted by Guslagie Malanga, Victoria gazes a privilege and blind liberal racism in our society. The character’s complexity and newcomer Malanga’s talent make it a true achievement.

David Oyelowo in A United Kingdom (2016)
A powerful, passionate performance that will resonate for years and hopefully inspire future political campaigns and romances.

Rachael Langford, Professor of French and Francophone Studies

Josephine Baker in La folie du jour (1927)
Ami Diakhate in Hyenas (1992)
Mareme Niang in Touki Bouki (1973)
Adele Ado in Les Saignantes (2005)
Rex Ingram in Sahara (1943)
Oumar Makena Diop in O Herói (2004)

Forest Whitaker in Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999)

Forest Whitaker in Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999)

Oliver Lunn, freelance writer

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999)
If you blindly reach a hand into Forest Whitaker’s bag of performances you’ll likely grab a jewel – even if the film itself stinks. But if I had to choose one, I’d go with his turn in Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai. As the laconic street samurai, Whitaker conveys so much with so little, like Steve McQueen in Bullitt. With his piercing eyes and gentle way, he deftly captures the enigma and fierce focus of his character. He’s also a dab hand with a samurai sword.

Mekhi Phifer in Clockers (1995)
Mekhi Phifer hit a career high when he played Strike in Spike Lee’s Clockers. Astonishingly it was his first-ever role in a movie. Playing a drug pusher in a Brooklyn housing project, Phifer’s performance is by turns fearless and mesmerising, utterly convincing as a teen wedged between a drug lord and a detective.

Giancarlo Esposito in Night on Earth (1991)
I first saw Giancarlo Esposito in Do the Right Thing as Buggin’ Out, “a struggling black man trying to keep my dick hard in a cruel and harsh world”. But it was in Night on Earth, as another fast-talking Brooklynite, where he really shined. His rapid-fire delivery of dialogue, his comic timing, that infectious laugh – it’s all cooked to perfection in Jarmusch’s late-night classic

Harold Hunter in Kids (1995)
Plucked off the street by Larry Clark, Harold Hunter’s natural screen presence in Kids stood out from the get-go. Sure, he was playing a version of himself – a charismatic, thrill-seeking skater – but he channeled it so well that you suspect he forgot the camera was even there. RIP Harold.

Delroy Lindo in Clockers (1995)
Lindo is a criminally underrated actor. For me, his turn as drug lord Rodney Little in Spike Lee’s hard-hitting Clockers is his best. It’s nuanced to such a degree that you never know when the cool and composed character will switch to 100% menacing. It’s as if the actor can flick a switch somewhere inside and, with ease, utterly embody the terror of his character. A true talent

Ice Cube in Boys n the Hood
Not just a rapper who can hold his own when shoulder to shoulder with A-list actors, Ice Cube is a natural on screen. And he’s never been better than as Doughboy in Boys n the Hood. You feel the intense emotions that simmer under the surface – his aggression, his pain, his love. 10 minutes into the film, you’ve forgotten this is the guy from NWA.

Don Cheadle in Boogie Nights (1997)
Cheadle’s been getting due credit recently with his outstanding performance as Miles Davis in Miles Ahead. But Buck from Boogie Nights deserves a moment in the spotlight, too. Cheadle dazzles as the high-fi salesman with a crazy cowboy getup and toothy grin. It’s an assured performance that, after repeat viewings, surfaces in a pool of talent that would intimidate even the most experienced and gifted actors.

Marlon Wayans in Don’t Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood (1996)
Marlon Wayans had me in fits when I first saw Don’t Be a Menace… as a teenager. His facial contortions worthy of Jim Carey, his deft delivery of the lines he co-wrote. He’s versatile, too — as his serious turn in Requiem for a Dream showed us. But, for me, Loc Dog will always be the jewel in the crown of his career.

Danny Glover in Lethal Weapon
Glover’s ‘too old for this shit’ shtick has been parodied to death but it shouldn’t deter from this, his greatest role. It’s the casualness with which he banters with Mel Gibson’s Riggs, the ‘are you out of your goddamned mind?!’ looks he shoots him. I can think of no other actor better to capture that tired shrug, the humour and the pathos of Roger Murtaugh.

Wesley Snipes in Jungle Fever (1991)
Snipes’ role as a bespectacled architect from Harlem who has an affair with a white woman eclipses his famed action movies in one fell swoop. His character is vividly drawn and free of stereotypes, and Snipes plays him with such an intensity that it’s as if he bends the offbeat romance into a character study.

Ben Luxford, Head of UK Audiences, BFI

Whoopi Goldberg in Jumpin’ Jack Flash (1986)
Pam Grier in Jackie Brown (1997)
Denzel Washington in Devil in a Blue Dress (1995)
Forest Whitaker in Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999)
Eddie Murphy in Beverly Hills Cop (1984)
Ice Cube in Boyz n the Hood (1991)
Ashley Walters in Bullet Boy (2004)
Wesley Snipes in Demolition Man (1993)
Michael B Jordan in Creed (2015)
Will Smith in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (1990-96)

Simon McCallum, curator, BFI National Archive

Pam Grier in Jackie Brown (1997)
Elisabeth Welch in The Tempest (1979)
Mya Taylor in Tangerine (2015)
Paul Robeson in The Proud Valley (1940)
Idris Elba in Beasts of No Nation (2015)
Tameka Empson in Beautiful Thing (1996)
Michael K. Williams in The Wire (2002-8)
Lloyd Reckord in Hot Summer Night (1958)
Morgan Freeman in Se7en (1995)
Jaye Davidson in The Crying Game (1992)

Several of my choices are for supporting rather than lead roles, performers who have inhabited a character with such vitality they become almost more memorable than the star turn. But my ultimate star performance has got to be Pam Grier in Jackie Brown – truly a leading role to relish. Tarantino often gets the credit for ‘resurrecting’ her career, a fan-boy homage to Foxy Brown et al, but this would do a disservice to Grier, who can take the credit for making Jackie Brown his best film to date. She pulls off the considerable feat of bypassing mere ‘acting’ and becoming Jackie – whip-smart, world-weary, vain, independent, wary, dissatisfied with a hum-drum life – her charisma driving the film forward and putting Robert de Niro, Samuel L. Jackson and Bridget Fonda (fabulous though their supporting turns are) firmly in their place. For an older black woman to command such a high-profile role and pull it off with such panache could and should have given Hollywood a much-needed kick up the backside. We’re almost two decades on, so thank goodness the lack of serious progress is being challenged with renewed vigour.

Syreeta McFadden, columnist and writer

James Earl Jones in The Great White Hope (1970)
Jones’ performance as the embattled boxer, Jack Jefferson, in this film adaptation of the 1967 play, is mesmerising, rich, layered and nuanced in its rendering of Jefferson’s struggles as a successful black American boxer in the early 20th century. Jones is electric as Jefferson and it burns right through the screen.

Denzel Washington in Glory (1989)
Washington’s canon of films have more than its share of exceptional performances, but one that has stayed with me for forever is his performance as Private Trip in the American Civil War drama Glory. The irreverence and anger of the former slave turned soldier could only be fully felt by the dazzling Washington.

Angela Bassett in What’s Love Got to Do with It (1993)
From Anna Mae Bullock to Tina Turner, Angela Bassett as the rock star Tina Turner really stretched the biopic genre to stratospheric heights. Bassett’s Turner is unforgettable, humanising the singer’s harsh origins and her path to self-healing and recovery, earning the actress an Oscar nomination.

Michael B Jordan in Creed (2015)
Jordan is so young, but his performance Adonis, the son of fictional boxing hero Apollo Creed will be canonical. Jordan was able to embody nuance and complexity of a rough kid, turned model adoptive son, to exquisite athlete with fluidity and flare. Stallone’s much touted performance in the role he created would not have been fully rendered were it not opposite Jordan.

Whoopi Goldberg in The Color Purple (1985)
Oprah Winfrey in The Color Purple (1985)
Sidney Poitier in In The Heat of the Night (1967)
Diana Ross in Mahogany (1975)
Ruby Dee in Do the Right Thing (1989)
While it was modest, character driven role, Ruby Dee’s exquisite performance as Mother Sister, the old woman who watched over the happenings on one Brooklyn city block on the hottest day of the summer, is raw and memorable.

Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave (2013)
One of the more arresting performances of the brutality of slavery in the United States, rendered with powerfully with brilliant emotion by Ejiofor.

On the performances in The Color Purple: To be honest, the ensemble cast of The Color Purple should be considered for one of the great performances on film. Goldberg’s Celie, a woman just a generation or two from slavery and the harsh life and abuse she endures in a loveless marriage, as well as the separation from her beloved sister, breaks the heart upon every viewing. The Color Purple is a far more influential film than most in the African American community. Released in 1985, cinemas had sold out viewings, standing room only in some, because it was so rare that black centred American drama had been produced and given wide release. Families quote famous lines and re-enact scenes at gatherings. Celie’s triumph in wresting independence from Mister (Danny Glover) to her final scene, reuniting with her beloved sister Nellie, still satisfies and delights.

Pearl Mackie, actor

Angela Bassett in What’s Love got to Do with It (1993)
I don’t know if it is that I watched this film at a young age (probably too young, with a babysitter when my mum was out!) but it remains vividly etched in my memory. The violence that Anna- Mae suffers at the hands of her husband Ike is brutal and humiliating, but what really struck me is the gnawing inner turmoil Bassett depicts so beautifully – that this monster attacking her is the man she desperately loves. The scene at the hotel reception will stay with me forever. You can barely make out any features on her face, it is so badly beaten, but Bassett manages to imbue that moment with desperation and courage and fear and thrill and truth and, above all, dignity.

Halle Berry in Monster’s Ball (2001)
How Halle Berry manages to carry herself with such grace while depicting a character who has lost everything is beyond me. The scene where she gets drunk with Billy Bob Thornton after her son has just died, and is talking about red curtains and laughing about how much candy he used to eat, and then crying over his death and then the sex, it’s all so raw. She is so vulnerable you just want to cradle her; she’s like a Phoenix rising from the ashes of her life, but always with grace.

Dorothy Dandridge in Carmen Jones (1954)
I love Dorothy Dandridge in this film. I love how cold and callous she can be. I love that she is wild and reckless and sexy! The way she stands, barefoot, head thrown back and hands on hips says, “I am woman hear me roar”.

Leandro Firmino in City of God (2002)
I think Firmino is phenomenal in this film. There is a deranged, almost feral nature about him that is utterly terrifying. What chills me is that you have no idea what he will do next, and the relief you feel when he laughs instead of shooting someone is immense. What is also great about this performance is that through all of this thirst for blood you see a scared little boy who is terrified of being alone.

Whoopi Goldberg in The Color Purple (1985)
Whoopi kills it in this film. Her performance has such delicacy and lightness of touch. She never overplays any of Celie’s story; though she keeps getting knocked down, she keeps getting back up and gets on with things. I don’t think I have ever seen anything more beautiful than the scene where Shug teaches her not to hide her smile. She literally brings to life a character who is experiencing love for the first time, for a character that is so bereft of love and kindness in her life, the soaring happiness she experiences with Shug touches my soul. She is also able, though, to turn on a knife edge (pardon the pun), and in the scene in which she is about to shave Mister with a razor blade, you just know she is going to kill him. This is mirrored when she finally stands up to him – she doesn’t go crazy and shout and scream, it is all done in a quiet and dignified way. Even though she is wielding a knife and has to be dragged away from him, the subtlety is captivating. She brings true meaning to the phrase “still waters run deep”.

Cuba Gooding Jr in Boyz n the Hood (1991)
I’d actually like to nominate everyone in this film. Laurence Fishburne as the passionate articulate ‘Furious’ styles who was clearly an angry man but doesn’t want his son to follow in his footsteps. Ice Cube’s ‘Doughboy’, who, in his rash desire to avenge his brother’s death becomes emblematic of the dangers of gang warfare and manages to offer a socio-political commentary on the state of affairs at the time and question why the hell no one intervened to stop the endless bloodshed. Morris Chestnut’s golden boy Ricky, whom everybody loved but even his college scholarship couldn’t save him from bullets. Nia Long’s Brandi, who is fierce and sassy and desperate to save the man she loves. And even Angela Bassett’s headstrong Reva Styles, who is not in the film for long enough. Perhaps it is John Singleton’s film itself that I feel deserves accolade in this list. For me, though, the best moment is Cuba Gooding Jr’s breakdown at Brandi’s house after being pulled over by the police. He is fighting with an imaginary something, and I think that encapsulates the anger and injustice the film is all about.

Marianne Jean-Baptiste in Secrets & Lies (1997)
I love how normal Marianne’s Hortense manages to be throughout the tumultuous family situation she is thrust into. Though she is less screwed-up than everyone else, she clearly has issues that are incredibly deep rooted. She is not overtly warm or saccharine in any way, yet manages to save the family from crumbling and bring them together.

David Oyelowo in Selma (2014)
Oyelowo brings Martin Luther King Jr to life with such incredible gravitas and charisma. King inspired a nation, and not for one second do you not think Oyelowo as King is capable of that. But what I love about his performance are the cracks that begin to show, the stresses of his personal life, his flaws that made him human and made him vulnerable. Oyelowo brought life to the legend that was Martin Luther King Jr, and for that he deserves recognition.

Mia Mask, Professor of film

Paul Robeson in The Proud Valley (1940)
Paul Robeson was an extraordinary man who rarely played roles that challenged him. But this role and the history behind the film are fascinating and rich beyond belief. Ties in to the history of Welsh coal miners and labor protest. And Robeson sings in this film. A landmark film and performance. For more information, see the documentary Paul Robeson, Here I Stand.

Sidney Poitier in In the Heat of the Night (1967)
This is the most important film among the three he starred in that year. Great script, performances and politics, and it marked his attempts to begin to take more control of his roles.

Dorothy Dandridge in Carmen Jones (1954)
She is stunning in this film and delivers a great performance, even if the voices are dubbed with real opera singers (see Jeff Smith’s article). Also, this film enabled her to put black women’s performances on the national radar screen. She was nominated for an Academy Award.

Cuba Gooding, Jr in Boyz n the Hood (1991)
This is one of three seminal films that marked the beginning of New Black Realism. The other films were New Jack City and Menace II Society. Gooding gives a fantastic performance here. I’m torn because Larry Fishburn is excellent, too.

Denzel Washington in Malcolm X (1992)
As much as I like Denzel, I never thought he could pull off incarnating Malcolm X (1992). But he did it! I am still impressed by his performance. Malcolm Little is not an easy person to impersonate. I could also have nominated him for Hurricane.

Angela Bassett in What’s Love Got to Do with It (1993)
Amazing impersonation of Tina Turner. And, Bassett demonstrates so much range. The character really evolves over the course of the film.

Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave (2013)
An outstanding film in every capacity. Outstanding performances all around. Ejiofor was also wonderful. He was also great in Kasi Lemmons’ Talk to Me. He’s a great actor.

Pam Grier in Jackie Brown (1997)
A wonderful homage to herself. A great example of cinematic reflexivity.

Laurence Fishburne in Apocalypse Now (1979)
A masterpiece. The beginning of a great career. I could also have listed The Matrix or What’s Love Got to Do with It. He has delivered so many great performances.

Kerry Washington in Ray (2004)
Or, Last King of Scotland. Or, Night Catches Us. She’s always strong. She always delivers great performances.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw in Belle (2013)

Gugu Mbatha-Raw in Belle (2013)

Sophie Mayer, writer

Paul Robeson in Borderline (1930)
This Swiss-shot silent curio was Robeson’s second feature film, acting opposite his wife Eslanda. While the film offers a complicitous critique of racial essentialism, Robeson’s performance as the film’s tragic hero is astonishing, challenging the primitivism of the European avant-garde as well as the racist exclusion he left behind in America.

Talley Beatty in Study in Choreography for the Camera (1945)
Beatty trained with African American choreographer Katherine Dunham, who was filmmaker Maya Deren’s first employer. A decade later, choreographer and dancer Beatty co-created this still-astonishing dance film with Deren, bringing together ‘across the cut’ the innovations of African American concert dance and the American cinematic avant-garde.

Marpessa Dawn in Black Orpheus (1959)
Marcel Camus’ Palme d’Or winning film could equally be called Black Eurydice for Dawn’s centrality to the swoon of the film. Although she carried on acting until 1995, Eurydice was Dawn’s defining role, and this celebration of an American-born, British-raised woman of African descent playing a Brazilian in a film directed by a Frenchman speaks to an Afropolitan history of cinema.

Colette Laffont in The Gold Diggers (1983)
In 1979, Laffont became the first black female lead in a British fiction film, in Sally Potter’s Thriller; she returned for Potter’s glorious madcap Marxist feminist musical, as the beautiful butch who rides in on a white horse and liberates Julie Christie, while pursuing her own quest to understand the secret of capital. As she says, she is “changing what is there.”

Angela Bassett in Strange Days (1995)
Mace is part of a very short line of African American female blockbuster/action genre heroines (along with Halle Berry as Storm and Leslie Jones as Patty), and she’s by far the most badass, taking point in Kathryn Bigelow’s hauntingly prophetic film about racist police violence – and recordings thereof – in the US. A single mother and bodyguard, Mace is Bassett’s finest, toughest hour.

Cheryl Dunye in The Watermelon Woman (1996)
Writer, director, editor and star of her first feature, Dunye not only foregrounds herself as an all-too-rare black lesbian performer, but tells the story of another, Hollywood bit-part player Fae ‘The Watermelon Woman’ Richards, inventing a genealogy for herself. Dunye makes revolutionising film history look easy, sexy and necessary in her loose and loving performance.

Mati Diop in 35 Shots of Rum (2008)
Claire Denis offers a tender father-daughter relationship here, between Joséphine and protagonist Lionel (Alex Descas), but it’s Diop – also a writer and director – who steals the film in her first screen role, as a passionate student awakening politically and romantically, and gently disentangling herself from her loving, staid single father.

Clarke Peters in Treme (2010-13)
Peters also played Lester Freamon in The Wire – and Treme includes amazing performances from Khandi Alexander, Wendell Pierce, and Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine among others. But Peters’ uncompromising New Orleans community leader, carnival performer, artist, carpenter, father, and activist is the heart of the show and role of a lifetime, and of our moment. As he says to the cops: “Won’t bow, don’t know how.”

Gugu Mbatha-Raw in Belle (2013)
A star-making turn from Mbatha-Raw in Amma Asante’s hands, transporting her from British serial TV to Hollywood A-list. Combining poise, passion and vulnerability, Mbatha-Raw brings history to life, never trapped by her voluminous gowns and 18th century etiquette as she traverses London for love and justice. Together, she and Asante rewrite the British heritage drama wholesale.

Fatoumata Diawara in Timbuktu (2014)
Sometimes a star cameo makes a film: never more urgently than with Fatoumata Diawara’s performance in Abderrahmane Sissako’s Timbuktu, as a woman whose voice is more powerful than the Islamist militia, whether raised privately in song or publicly in pain and rage, in the film’s most devastating scene. Her song from the film’s soundtrack, Timbuktu Fasso, took the sound of Malian resistance far and wide.

Neil Mitchell, freelance writer, editor, critic

Sidney Poitier in In the Heat of the Night (1967)
Virgil Tibbs was steely, intelligent and sophisticated – and Poitier was the perfect actor to bring him to life. Gravitas, talent and charisma by the bucketload.

Pam Grier in Jackie Brown (1997)
The Queen of Blaxploitation, brilliantly cast by Tarantino.

Earl Cameron in Pool of London (1950)
Not only Earl Cameron’s first film but the first time a black actor had been cast in a leading role in a British film.

Duane Jones in Night of the Living Dead (1968)
An assured performance and an important one – an early heroic role for a black actor.

Marianne Jean-Baptiste in Secrets & Lies (1997)
Jean-Baptiste more than holds her own opposite the great Brenda Blethyn in this emotionally gripping drama.

Ruby Dee in A Raisin in the Sun (1961)
A well-judged, graceful and composed performance in contrast to Sidney Poitier’s restless central protagonist.

Alex Descas in 35 Shots of Rum (2008)
A measured and engaging performance in one of this century’s finest films.

Rachel Mwanza in War Witch (2012)
An extraordinary performance by a former street kid cast as a child soldier.

Paul Robeson in The Proud Valley (1940)
A commanding performance from Robeson as a miner who makes the ultimate sacrifice for his co-workers.

Richard Pryor in Blue Collar (1978)
A rare straight role for the iconic funnyman, and Pryor excels as a factory worker caught up in underhand business

Yemisi Mokuolu, producer

Angela Bassett in Waiting to Exhale (1995)
Best moment on film for me of a multi-dimensional depiction of a black women. And that speech was an inspiration.

Juanita Moore in Imitation of Life (1959)
Juanita Moore steals the show for me, even though Lana Turner is the main character. Juanita’s portrayal is so honest, so true, so believable and so authentic that the impact of her performance still stays with me.

Sidney Poitier in In the Heat of the Night (1967)
This is the first film I saw of a black man playing a man, not just a caricature of a black man. The strength of his performance inspired a generation to see themselves other than as ‘black’ and confined to the limited opportunities that were available under that label.

Adam Hussam Murray, film programmer, Come The Revolution Collective / Film Hub SWWM / Watershed

Jeffrey Wright in Basquiat (1996)
Jeffrey Wright is quirky, meticulous and charming in every role and character that he crafts on both the large screen and small, his recent turn in HBO’s Boardwalk Empire as Valantin Narcisse is absolutely compelling and chilling in equal measure. However it’s in Julian Schnabel’s 1996 biopic Basquiat that Wright excels as the complex, troubled and visionary artist.

Giancarlo Esposito in Do the Right Thing (1989)
The incredibly versatile and eloquent Giancarlo Esposito. Recently on the small screen a memorable performance as one of the best TV villains of recent years, Gustavo Fring in AMC’s Breaking Bad. Buggin’ Out is the quintessential New York B-Boy sporting Fresh Jordan’s a slick fade and a militant mindset. An iconic screen character brought to life by Esposito and adorning the front of many a T-shirt the world over.

Sophie Okonedo in Young Soul Rebels (1991)
Sophie Okenedo’s breakout role in Young Soul Rebels as Tracy is one which she makes her own, a versatile actress at home on the stage at the RSC or on the small screen, recently in the BBC’s Undercover or The Hollow Crown, Okonedo always brings sincerity and a sense of authenticity to all that she does.

Richard Pryor in Blue Collar (1978)
Even though the set was fraught with rumoured fights and tension, Richard Pryor still delivered an intense, sophisticated and gritty realist performance.

Forest Whitaker in Ghost Dog: The Way Of the Samurai (1999)
Jim Jarmusch’s adaptation of Hagakure: The Book Of the Samurai is brought to life by Forest Whitaker’s profound and touching performance and exploration of loss, meaning and alienation as Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, a modern day hitman. Profound, strange, haunting and laugh out loud funny at times, Whitaker injects the film with just the right amount of eccentricity and gravitas.

Denzel Washington in Mo’ Better Blues (1990)
Denzel Washington’s performance as Jazz trumpeter Bleek Gilliam is a moment in film history where we get the opportunity to see a great actor really enjoy exploring their range as a performer, taking risks and really getting to grips with their craft.

Angela Bassett in Strange Days (1995)
A sophisticated dystopian, neo-noir. Strange Days in hindsight challenges a lot of themes which feel unnervingly relevant today, for one the lack of strong sophisticated black female roles. Also some of the imagery surrounding the gaze, gender/race politics… Black Lives Matter springs to mind whilst revisiting this film. Angela Bassett is the real star here, her character Mace is the real moral and ethical anchor of the films narrative.

Sidney Poitier in The Defiant Ones (1958)
Out of a life time of incredible performances, Sidney Poitier’s Noah Cullen is one that lingers in the imagination long after seeing the film. A dynamic and powerful performance filled with rage, dignity and compassion. Timeless and legendary.

Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave (2013)
Steve McQueens 12 Years a Slave is timely, haunting and powerful. And also showcases the major talent that is Chiwetel Ejiofor at the peak of his career.

Laurence Fishburne in Boyz n the Hood (1991)
Laurence Fishburne’s Furious Styles, the father-figure to a generation of fatherless children. Charismatic, measured, eloquent and passionate.

Terence Nance, artist

Denzel Washington in Malcolm X (1992)
Quvenzhané Wallis in Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)
Jamie Foxx in Ray (2004)
Adepero Oduye in Pariah (2011)
Sophie Okenodo in Dirty Pretty Things (2002)
Lupita Nyong’o in 12 Years a Slave (2013)
Whoopi Goldberg in The Color Purple (1985)
Ivan Dixon in Nothing But a Man (1964)
Sidney Poitier in The Defiant Ones (1958)
Sidney Poitier in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967)

Christina Newland, film journalist

Zelda Harris in Crooklyn (1994)
Denzel Washington in Malcolm X (1992)
Whoopi Goldberg in The Color Purple (1985)
Pam Grier in Jackie Brown (1997)
Sidney Poitier in A Raisin in the Sun (1961)
James Earl Jones in The Great White Hope (1970)
Henry G. Sanders in Killer of Sheep (1978)
Angela Bassett in What’s Love Got to Do with It (1993)
Eddie Murphy & Martin Lawrence in Life (1999)
Cuba Gooding Jr in Boyz n the Hood (1991)

Paul O’Callaghan, film editor, Exberliner magazine

Pam Grier in Jackie Brown (1997)
Sidney Poitier in In the Heat of the Night (1967)
Mya Taylor in Tangerine (2015)
Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave (2013)
Joe Morton in The Brother from Another Planet (1984)
Samuel L Jackson in Pulp Fiction (1994)
Quvenzhané Wallis in Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)
Michael Kenneth Williams in The Wire (2002-8)
Forest Whitaker in The Crying Game (1992)
Danny Aiello in Do the Right Thing (1989)

Nichelle Nichols in Star Trek (1966-69)

Nichelle Nichols in Star Trek (1966-69)

Wale Ojo, actor

Robert Hooks in Trouble Man (1972)
An iconic film which stood out during an era of blaxploitation movies. A highly charged and electric performance from its lead actor. Robert Hooks plays the ultimate Mr Cool in this fast-paced all-action film. His depiction of a brave African American private detective got audiences cheering in their seats when it was first shown in the early 1970s.

Nichelle Nichols in Star Trek (1966-69)
An absolutely groundbreaking actress whose cinematic beauty and sizzling sexuality on screen held fans of the Star Trek series spellbound. She created a platform where her craft was taken seriously and respected. Martin Luther King Jr once pleaded with her not to leave the series as she was a torch of pure brightness for aspiring young actresses everywhere.

Pam Grier in Jackie Brown (1997)
The iconic and hugely talented Pam Grier stands out in this action-packed movie. She holds her own amongst a galaxy of male stars and proves that her fiery beauty and sexuality still remains as strong as ever. Fans who watched her in films like Scream Blacula Scream, Hit Man and Foxy Brown saw the same vivacious and charming qualities over two decades later

Keith David in Platoon (1986)
Keith David is an exemplary actor who has a commanding presence on screen. His performance in this film gained him a lot of popular acclaim and set him on the path to become one of Hollywood’s greatest actors.

Mothusi Magano in Of Good Report (2013)
My favourite performance has to be Mothusi Magano in Jahmil XT Qubeka’s Of Good Report. This classic noir thriller has the feel of a classic cult movie that deserves to be watched and applauded by audiences worldwide. The central performance of Mothusi is exemplary in its quiet and eerie simplicity. He exudes pure evil, but only after drawing us into a web of calm acceptance of his character before spitting us out in a gushing fountain of a deliciously sinister character. He does all this by hardly uttering a word throughout the entire film. There is no doubt that his performance is made more brilliant by the vision and clarity of the director, but he is so well cast that we are with the character from the very start. He commands the screen from the get go and unravels his character putting our nerves on edge and heightening the bizarre, surreal and almost otherworldly nature of the film. It is a brilliant achievement in characterisation without depending on the one thing actors love: words.

Hubert Ogunde in Aiye (1980)
A rare gem in the world of early Nigerian cinema. Ogunde starred and directed in this film and in many of his movies. As the leading producer of celluloid films in Nigeria he set a blazing path for others to follow. Today it is difficult to find someone that matches his sheer majesty and charisma on screen.

Kerry Washington in Scandal (2012-)
Kerry Washington simply stands out in this ABC-commissioned series in which she plays the part of a powerful communications director that makes problems go away. She is commanding and alluring and exemplifies authority.

Marianne Jean-Baptiste in Secrets & Lies (1997)
An amazing actress who holds her own in this groundbreaking film. She stands out in such a way that carved a career in the US for her in future years. An incredible performance.

Sophie Okonedo in Mrs Mandela (2010)
A very powerful actress who put in a stellar performance in this portrayal of Winnie Mandela. Her interpretation of the character is passionate and heart-felt and she goads the audience into re-thinking all of the negatives they ever heard of the infamous Winnie Mandela, mother of the anti-apartheid movement.
Wale Ojo in Phone Swap

Tega Okiti, Black Star project coordinator

Chris Tucker in Friday (1995)
Harry Belafonte in The World, the Flesh and the Devil (1959)
Queen Latifah in Set It Off (1996)
Tupac Shakur in Juice (1992)
Angela Bassett in What’s Love Got to Do with It (1993)
Whoopi Goldberg in Jumpin’ Jack Flash (1986)
Denzel Washington in Malcolm X (1992)
Pam Grier in Foxy Brown (1974)
Isaach De Bankolè in Chocolat (1988)
Paul Robeson in Emperor Jones (1933)

Special Mentions:
Ozone and Turbo, the dynamic duo in Breakin’ (1984)
The indomitable Strangé à la Boomerang (1992)

Kunle Olulode, Director at Voice4Change and Creative director at Rebop Productions

Adolph Ceasar in A Soldier’s Story (1984)
One of the greatest performances by an actor dealing with issues of race and culture. Playing the role of racist self-hater Sgt Vernon Water, Ceasar is simply electric and totally believable. His murder comes as no shock. Not surprisingly Ceasar received an Oscar nomination for his contribution to this almost forgotten classic. Incidentally it’s also the film that introduces a very young Denzel Washington.

Fredi Washington in Imitation of Life (1934)
A film that raised important questions about American society race relations, Fredi’s portrayal of the complex character Peola, a black woman who could and did pass for white, was a tour de force that has stood the test of time

Idris Elba in Sometimes in April (2005)
Great performance from Idris who plays a Rwandan army officer and husband caught up in the brutal turmoil of the civil war.

Thandie Newton in For Colored Girls (2010)
In a star-studded cast, Newton gives her best ever performance in a film that was not widely seen when it came out. She plays Tangie, whose permissive behaviour around men is matched by a complete emotional detachment, driven by low self-esteem.

Samuel L Jackson in Jungle Fever (1991)
Samuel L Jackson is totally compelling in Spike Lee’s drama as drug addict Gator Purify. So good is the performance that many people thought he was a crack addict for real. Its also the performance that kick-started his emergence as a mainstream superstar.

Laurence Fishbourne in Deep Cover (1992)
Super cool and totally commanding on screen, Laurence delivers big time. The story of an undercover drugs officer who goes so deep he becomes the person who he sets out criminalise is riddled with moral ambiguity. The tension of the film rarely drops, driven by the lead performance.

Sophie Okonedo in Skin (2008)
Based on a true story of white South African classified as black, Skin raises a lot of good questions about race and skin colour. Okendo is perfect for the part and pulls out a big performance that matches the gravity of the issues at stake as the subject at the centre of the controversy.

Richard Pryor in Lady Sings the Blues (1972)
As Piano Man, Pryor shows he can do serious as well as comedy, in a role that that was probably not that far away from some of his real life experiences growing up in a brothel. His character’s own drug addiction mirrors that of Billie Holliday. The performance is sensitive, funny and heartbreaking.

Hattie McDaniel in Gone With The Wind (1939)
Great performance in the biggest film of the interwar years. She may have been playing a slave, but by sheer force of personality she elevated the role. Her Oscar, the first for any black actor, was well deserved. Disrespected she may have been by black cultural critics, but she was one of the best of her generation.

Denzel Washington in Training Day (2001)
Landmark performance from Mr Goody-two-shoes. An impressive performance that won the Oscar for best actor.

David Parkinson, film critic and historian

Dorothy Dandridge in Carmen Jones (1954)
Sidney Poitier in The Defiant Ones (1958)
Jason Holliday in Portrait of Jason (1967)
This maybe an avant-garde documentary, but gay hustler Jason Holliday gives the performance of his lifetime as he flirts with Shirley Clarke and her camera during a 12-hour stint at the Chelsea Hotel. Encapsulating the African-American experience in the pre-Civil Rights era, his flintily florid anecdotes expose bigotry and brutality with a disarming wit that never quite masks his pain and fury.

Cicely Tyson in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1974)
Thierno Leye in Xala (1975)
Henry Gayle Sanders in Killer of Sheep (1978)
Robert Townsend in Hollywood Shuffle (1987)
Robert Townsend deserves enormous credit for funding, producing, directing and co-writing (with Keenen Ivory Wayans) this bitingly hilarious satire on Hollywood’s attitude to black talent. But he also gives a superb performance, both as the character actor struggling to find worthwhile roles and in the movie pastiches that offer a knowing alternative history of American cinema

Spike Lee in Do the Right Thing (1989)
Cheryl Dunye in The Watermelon Woman (1996)
Michael Clarke Duncan in The Green Mile (1999)

Adah Parris, consultant

Louise Beavers in Imitation of Life (1934)
This film always makes me cry for the way it deals with the issue of race and the nature of relationship between mother and daughter.

Seu Jorge in City of God (2002)
Raw talent.

Djimon Hounsou in Blood Diamond (2006)
Idris Elba in Beasts of No Nation (2015)
Thandie Newton in Beloved (1998)

Michael Pattison, critic

Ventura in Horse Money (2015)
Chiwetel Ejiofor in Redbelt (2008)
Jamie Hector in The Wire (2002-8)
Issaka Sawadogo in Diego Star (2013)
Frank McRae in Paradise Alley (1978)
Forest Whitaker in Ghost Way of the Samurai (1999)
Lynne Thigpen in The Warriors (1979)
Jennifer Beals in Devil in a Blue Dress (1995)
Sean Patrick Thomas in Save the Last Dance (2001)
CCH Pounder in The Shield (2002-08)
Rosie Perez’s dance, which opens Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, is probably the most electric screen performance that I can think of across all races and ethnicities. It’s physically fierce, fearlessly unapologetic, confrontationally precise, and demonstrates an agency and energy that for me remain enthrallingly and beguilingly untouchable. The body as vanguard: fight the power indeed.

Gina Prince-Bythewood, filmmaker

Sophie Okonedo in Hotel Rwanda (2004)
Sanaa Lathan in Love & Basketball (2000)
Gugu Mbatha-Raw in Beyond the Lights (2014)
Viola Davis in Doubt (2008)
Sidney Poitier in In the Heat of the Night (1967)
Diahann Carroll in Claudine (1974)
Denzel Washington in Glory (1989)
Don Cheadle in Devil in a Blue Dress (1995)
Morgan Freeman in Million Dollar Baby (2004)
Lupita Nyong’o in 12 Years a Slave (2013)

Dean Ricketts, managing director, The Watch-Men Agency

Sidney Poitier in In The Heat of the Night (1967)
Sun Ra in Space is The Place (1974)
Danny Glover in To Sleep with Anger (1991)
Cora Lee Day in Daughters of the Dust (1991)
Wendell B Harris Jr in Chameleon Street (1989)
Spike Lee in Do the Right Thing (1989)
Cuba Gooding Jr in Boyz in the Hood (1991)
Denzel Washington in Man on Fire (2004)
Morgan Freeman in The Shawshank Redemption (1997)
Whoopi Goldberg in The Color Purple (1985)

Ben Roberts, Director, BFI Film Fund

Debbie Allen in Fame (1980)
Angela Bassett in What’s Love Got to Do with It (1993)
John Boyega in Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)
Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave (2013)
Marianne Jean-Baptiste in Secrets & Lies (1997)
James Earl Jones in Star Wars (1977)
Eddie Murphy in Coming To America (1988)
Mo Sesay in Young Soul Rebels (1991)
Billy Dee Williams in The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
Alex Hibbert/Ashton Sanders/Trevante Rhodes in Moonlight (2016)

Ten (OK 12) performances which made an indelible impression upon me for one reason or another – and I’m interested how many of them come from a very mainstream place, and my youth. A special mention for the absolute brilliance of the three central performances in Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, in which each performance echoes the other in quite miraculous ways. I just can’t stop thinking about the film and these performances.

Selina Robertson, co-founder, Club Des Femmes

Mati Diop in 35 Shots of Rum (2008)
Mati Diop, a stunningly subtle performance as a 20-something Parisian daughter who comes of age within a complex circle of family and kinship. The Commodores ‘Night Shift’ cafe scene is classic Claire Denis – a beautifully choreographed moment around Josephine – her family, their love, the longing, confused desire and intense erotics

Louis Gossett Jr in An Officer and a Gentleman (1981)
Winner of the Best Actor in Supporting Role Oscar in 1983. Gossett Jr was the only second African American man to win an Oscar (after Sidney Poitier, 1963) and the first African American to win in that category. Gossett Jr. deliver a blistering performance as the pencil-thin mean machine drill Sergeant Foley whose job it was to break, humiliate and spit venom, yet underneath we saw a soldier who only wanted the best for his new recruits.

Cassie McFarlane in Burning an Illusion (1981)
McFarlane delivers a groundbreaking portrait of a young Black working class woman’s political and personal radicalisation against the backdrop of Thatcher’s London, racism, riots and the controversial sus law. McFarlane’s cultural transformation is brilliantly illustrated by her evolving wardrobe, hair, books and music tastes. The final scene in the bus where Pat sings a political song with her black sisters is inspirational.

Collette Lafont in The Gold Diggers (1983)
Sally Potter already cast Lafont in her feminist re-vision Thriller and returned to cast her again with Julie Christie as Celeste an inquisitive bank clerk who cooly and clinically investigates capitalism and patriarchy. Pioneering in her role as a young Black radical feminist who is fearless in her confrontation of heteropatriarchy and capitalism’s corruption.

Sidney Poitier in In the Heat of the Night (1967)
Poitier is devastating as sharp suited Philly cop Virgil Tibbs. The famous face slapping scene between Poitier and Larry Gates in the plantation orchid greenhouse is unforgettable for its signification within the narrative and more importantly what it represented culturally and politically that for the first time African American actor reacted on screen to racist taunts in a major motion picture. The scene still has the power to shock today.

Angela Bassett in Strange Days (1995)
Bigelow was moved to develop Bassett’s character after the LA race riots in 1992, making the link between women’s victimisation and racial oppression. Bassett delivers a powerhouse but nuanced performance opposite Ralph Fiennes, a suited warrior woman chauffeur who will stop at nothing to protect her man. Fiennes and Bassett final cop-out kiss was disappointing for queer audiences who took delight in Bassett’s butch identity.

Mya Taylor in Tangerine (2015)
In her first major screen acting role, trans actress Taylor hit the jackpot with Sundance slammer Tangerine. Taylor plays BFF Alexandra, a quieter, more internal character who, like everybody in Hollywood, dreams of success and stardom. The scene where she sings her torch song to BFF Sin-Dee and an empty bar says so much about desire and dreams, loneliness, fragility, Hollywood – the dream machine and, ultimately, friendship.

Cheryl Dunye in The Watermelon Woman (1996)
Dunye plays Cheryl, a 20-something struggling filmmaker who sets out to perform, reconstruct and investigate her own cultural and (erasure from ) cinematic history. Dunye’s radical act as a Black lesbian filmmaker was to be the subject not object, to revision her history through her self styled ‘Dunyementary’. The film is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year and continues to be inspirational and politically relevant.

Florynce Kennedy in The Year of the Woman (1972)
Black feminist lawyer and civil rights activist Flo Kennedy plays herself in Sandra Hochman’s documentary The Year of the Woman. We watch gasping as Kennedy holds court on a beach, chastises the male press and tears into delegates at the 1972 Democratic Convention. With lines like “If men could get pregnant, abortion would be sacrament”, Kennedy’s appearance shows her absolute ferocity and a great sense of humour.

Angela Bassett in What’s Love Got to Do with It (1993)
Bassett again, this time embodying Tina Turner, in what must be one of the most harrowing and uncompromising showbiz performances based on a living person. Bassett becomes Turner in body, mind and soul and we stay rooting for her through the abuse, infidelity and exploitation. Turner sings on the film’s soundtrack but it is Bassett’s film all the way. Her rendition of ‘Proud Mary’ is phenomenal.

On Angela Bassett: As a Black female star working in Hollywood she delivers intensity, intelligence, a sensual physicality and a wider discourse that signifies Black and feminist activism. Interestingly, she also stared in films about key Black female activists – Betty Shabazz, Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King. It seems that Bigelow was far more interested in her character in Strange Days (1995) than of her co-star Fiennes and her performance of Tina Turner’s biography, despite the troubling gendered subjectivity of the film, leaves me wanting more Bassett on screen, please.

James Rocarols, Head of online programme, BFI

Lupita Nyong’o in 12 Years a Slave (2013)
Courtney B. Vance in People v O.J. Simpson (2016)
Yaphet Kotto in Bone (1972)
Joe Morton in Brother from Another Planet (1984)
David Gulpilil in Charlie’s Country (2013)
Chiwetel Ejiofor in Dirty Pretty Things (2002)
Denzel Washington in Flight (2012)
Forest Whitaker in Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai (1999)
Rachel Mwanza in War Witch (2012)
Marianne Jean-Baptiste in Secrets & Lies (1997)

Elhum Shakerifar, producer, programmer, BFI London Film Festival

Seret Scott in Losing Ground (1982)
Both the film and Scott’s performance in it were a revelation, proving how rare and refreshing it was to see a complex female character on screen – smart, sexy, complicated all at once.

Denzel Washington in Malcolm X (1992)
Powerful performance on a par with the epic scale of the film.

Dorothy Dandridge in Carmen Jones (1954)
A classic diva with some killer lines – I could watch this again and again.
“If you listen then you’ll get taught and here’s your lesson for today
If I chase you then you’ll get caught
And once I got you, I go my way”

Michael B. Jordan in Creed (2015)
Powerful, amazing performance.

Emayatzy Corinealdi in Middle of Nowhere (2012)
Middle of Nowhere didn’t get the release of recognition is should have in the UK but it was an incredible film. Corinealdi portrays a sense of limbo and hope with excruciating honesty.

Quvenzhané Wallis in Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)
A performance of power, poetry, magic.

Whoopi Goldberg in Sister Act (1992)
I watched this film endlessly growing up and would recognise Whoopi Goldberg’s voice anywhere. Her wit, charm, humour… there’s no actor like her.

Sidney Poitier in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967)
I could have chosen any one of Sidney Poitier’s films to reference his charisma and charm. This is one of my favourites.

Angela Bassett in everything
This is cheating but my vote for anything with Angela Basset in it, for her captivating screen presence.

Sheila Dabney in She Must Be Seeing Things
The perfect jealous girlfriend.

Jasper Sharp, writer, curator and filmmaker

Juanita Moore in Imitation of Life (1959)
Juanita Moore’s restrained performance anchors the melodrama in one of the finest American movies about race ever made – indeed, one of the finest American films full stop.

Duane Jones in Night of the Living Dead (1968)
What I love most about Romero’s inspired and groundbreaking piece of casting is that the main character’s colour, while obvious to the viewer, is never explicitly drawn attention to in an apocalyptic scenario where racial and social tensions are all but redundant in the face of the inexplicable zombie uprising.

Pam Grier in Jackie Brown (1997)
A wonderful career comeback for Grier as the sassy, sophisticated and powerful heroine of Tarantino’s most mature work.

Hubert Koundé in The Constant Gardener (2005)
For me, one of the best films of the 21st century so far. It offers a vivid and complex depiction of Kenya and the global pharmaceutical industry’s not entirely beneficial involvement in aid work on the African continent, with Koundé’s doctor colleague of Rachel Weisz one of the most rounded and unpatronising portrayals of an African character in Hollywood cinema.

Calvin Lockhart in The Beast Must Die (1974)
I love the film and I love the performances in Amicus’ offbeat 70s cult werewolf whodunnit. It’s as simple as that.

Brinsley Forde in Babylon (1980)
Wonderful, overlooked piece of British cinema providing a vibrant portrait of the Afro-Caribbean communities of South London just prior to the riots. One of the best British films of the era.

Zakes Mokae in Dust Devil (1992)
Another great piece of casting with Mokae’s world-weary police detective adding a whole new historical, cultural and emotional dimension to a film which already has a lot going on beneath its eccentric surface and which counts as one of the most interesting genre pieces of the 90s.

Herbert Norville in Pressure (1975)
Norville never really appeared in anything else after playing the British-born 15-year-old Tony in Horace Ové’s groundbreaking feature debut, but his guileless and unaffected performance definitely lends charm to this wonderful coming-of-age tale. His struggle to reconcile birthplace and cultural identity in a world where the odds are clearly stacked against him presents an interesting portent to Babylon’s treatment of the same generation five years later.

Marlene Clark in Ganja & Hess (1973)
Marlene Clark has a real presence in films such as For the Love of Ivy and The Beast Must Die, but I’d single her out for this film, with its offbeat arthouse approach to what might otherwise have been a generic blaxploitation take on the vampire genre, because it is such an oddity.

Marianne Jean-Baptiste in Secrets & Lies (1997)
Jean-Baptiste’s performance stands out among the more exaggerated nervous tics from the rest of the cast that prove such a sticking point with Leigh’s detractors, making this one of my favourites of his films.

It is rather shocking to realise just how difficult it was to come up with this list; whether to focus on films that explicitly deal with the black experience or single out those rare instances of colourblind casting from films I like. What did strike me is how few good leading roles there are for non-white performers in this latter category; in Britain better opportunities seem to lie on TV or in theatre – Sophie Okonedo, Thandie Newton and Lenora Crichlow are three wonderful actresses I’d love to have included, but I can’t think of any big screen appearances from any of them that I’d have chosen as personal favourites (although Okonedo’s performance in Hotel Rwanda was certainly considered). My choices were motivated less about reinforcing or challenging canons than selecting the films, performers and performances that immediately sprang to mind as having made an impact on me, and I know that over the coming weeks there’ll be plenty of others that I’ll curse myself for missing. That said, I’d wholeheartedly stick with my first choice here of Juanita Moore’s performance in Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life, which never fails to bring a tear to my eye

Keith Shiri, programme advisor, BFI London Film Festival

Whoopi Goldberg in The Color Purple (1985)
This was Whoopi Goldberg’s first major performance. She deserved her Oscar nomination and should have won.

Laurence Fishburne in What’s Love Got to Do with It (1993)
American musician Ike Turner was known to have been violence to his then wife, singer Tina Turner, to control her during their short married life. Laurence Fishburne’s performance as Ike Turner is deeply impressive.

Sidney Poitier in The Defiant Ones (1958)
This is the film that perhaps established Sidney Poitier as a star.

Forest Whitaker in Bird (1988)
A remarkable portrayal of one of American jazz greats by Forest Whitaker. His performances alone holds together what could have been yet another mediocre biopic by Clint Eastwood.

Louis Gossett Jr in An Officer and a Gentleman (1981)
At the heart of this film is a memorable performances by Louis Gossett Jr, who plays an uncompromising drill sergeant set in a Naval Training Centre in the USA.

Chiwetel Ejiofor in Dirty Pretty Things (2002)
Chiwetel Ejiofor gives a subtle performance of depth and authority in this Stephen Frears feature film

Morgan Freeman in The Shawshank Redemption (1997)
This is one of the films that you want to watch over and over again. This is Morgan Freeman’s career-defining performance

Samuel L Jackson in Pulp Fiction (1994)
This film that draws its energy from Jackson’s performance as Jules in his story about the lives of two mob hit-men.

Denzel Washington in Malcolm X (1992)
This is simply Denzel Washington’s most accomplished performance.

Jamie Foxx in Ray (2004)
Jamie Foxx’s performance as Ray Charles is a stirring tribute to one of America’s greatest singer-songwriters.

Leigh Singer, film journalist, programmer, BFI London Film Festival

Denzel Washington in Malcolm X (1992)
Obvious but unavoidable. One of the greatest performances in cinema history.

Angela Bassett in What’s Love Got to Do with It? (1993)
Kimberly Elise in Beloved (1998)
Morgan Freeman in Street Smart (1987)
Samuel L. Jackson in Jungle Fever (1991)
Eddie Murphy in 48 Hrs. (1982)
Juanita Moore in Imitation of Life (1959)
Sean Nelson in Fresh (1994)
Sidney Poitier in In the Heat of the Night (1967)
Michael Jai White in Black Dynamite (2009)

Ivan Dixon in Nothing but a Man (1964)

Ivan Dixon in Nothing but a Man (1964)

David Somerset, education programmer, BFI

Ivan Dixon in Nothing But a Man (1964)
Ivan Dixon’s first starring role is an austere yet strikingly beautiful depiction of life in a racially divided US.

Brinsley Forde in Babylon (1980)
Brinsley Ford convincingly captures the plight as well as the defiance of a young, black South Londoner living under Maggie’s rule.

Herbert Norville in Pressure (1975)
All the cast including Herbert Norville are exceptional in an artistically ambitious film by and about the Windrush generation and their kin.

Norman Beaton in Playing Away (1987)
Beaton for his heart-aching attempts to keep his team together in the face of little England.

Earl Cameron in Pool of London (1950)
Cameron experiences the bitter taste of rejection by racist 50s London.

Paul Robeson in Song of Freedom (1936)
Despite appearing in a B movie horror film, Robeson brings style and the potential for deep insight into the New World African experience.

Tony Hippolyte in Absolute Beginners (1986)
Hippolyte as Mr Cool injects authenticity into this butchered musical extravaganza.

Lawrence Cook in The Spook Who Sat by the Door (1973)
Lawrence Cook stars in a film which itself defied US government suppression to exist today.

Wale Ojo in Phone Swap (2012)
Wale Ojo as Akin Pole in his first starring role, the first acclaimed Nigerian movie to truly break out of the local idiom yet still retain its local character

Floella Benjamin in Black Joy (1977)

Isabel Stevens, production editor, Sight & Sound

Angela Bassett in Strange Days (1995)
Idris Elba in The Wire (2002-8)
Danny Glover in To Sleep with Anger (1991)
Whoopi Goldberg in Sister Act (1992)
Pam Grier in Jackie Brown (1997)
Duane Jones in Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Sanaa Lathan in Love & Basketball (2000)
Spike Lee in Do the Right Thing (1989)
Denzel Washington in Training Day (2001)
Forest Whitaker in Last King of Scotland (2006)

Garry Stewart, director

Sidney Poitier in In the Heat of the Night (1967)
Sidney Poitier is an outstanding talent on screen and still electrifies today.

Chris Tucker and Ice Cube in Friday (1995)
The film that a generation could relate too, in the era of 90s r’n’b and the rise of the black population.

Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman in Glory (1989)
A film that set the history books straight.

David Oyelowo in Small Island (2009)
A great story explaining how Caribbeans came to serve in The RAF while based in the UK during WWII. Not only does it explore the part they played in the war, but it also gives us a chance to see their personal challenges in fighting a war for the allies while experiencing racism.

Sophie Okonedo in Hotel Rwanda (2004)
Gugu Mbatha-Raw in Belle (2013)
Extraordinary story.

The cast of The Real McCoy (1991-96)
The Real McCoy is still relevant today.

Djimon Hounsou in Amistad (1997)
Brindsley Forde in Babylon (1980)
A defining film with a great soundtrack.

Chardine Taylor-Stone, cultural producer

Cassie McFarlane in Burning an Illusion (1981)
I watched this film in the BFI Mediatheque and saw the journey of Pat towards community activism reflected in my own experience. Shabazz’s film is an important historical document of black British culture in the early 80s.

Sophie Okonedo in Young Soul Rebels (1991)
This film has everything that I love. Great music subculture, a queer love story. Some wicked dancing. Issac Julian is a genius with camera.

Will Smith in I am Legend (2007)
This film left me in silence after I watched it the first time. I often feel because of his charming everyday personality and his role in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (itself an iconic show), Smith’s acting ability is often not realised.

Angela Bassett in Waiting to Exhale (1995)
I chose Waiting to Exhale because it is film that is referenced by a lot by black women and I have personally watched Bassett burn that car which such style and grace many a time. Every black women’s revenge fantasy realised.

Brinsley Forde in Babylon (1980)
Music and film star. Aswad frontman Brinsley is brilliant in his role. A class black British film!

Norman Beaton in Desmond’s (1989-94)
There hasn’t been a black sitcom that is loved universally as much as this show.

Ethel Waters in Cabin in the Sky (1943)
Waters in the first all Black musical is a joy!

Oprah Winfrey in The Color Purple (1985)
Yes, Oprah. The queen of daytime TV in a role that still resonates.

Lou Thomas, writer, BFI

Earl Cameron in Pool of London (1950)
Norman Beaton in Black Joy (1977)
Richard Pryor in Blue Collar (1978)
Eddie Murphy in Coming To America (1988)
Denzel Washington in Malcolm X (1992)
Angela Bassett in What’s Love Got to Do with It? (1993)
Pam Grier in Jackie Brown (1997)
Forest Whitaker in Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai (1999)
Michael K Williams in The Wire (2002-8)
Danny Glover in Honeydripper (2007)

Charles Thompson, producer

Danny Glover in To Sleep with Anger (1991)
Joe Morton in The Brother from Another Planet (1984)
Isaach de Bankolé in Otomo (1999)
Forest Whitaker in The Last King of Scotland (2006)
Samuel L Jackson in Jungle Fever (1991)
Angela Bassett in What’s Love Got to Do with It (1993)
Ossie Davis in The Hill (1965)
Woody Strode in Spartacus (1960), The Professionals (1966), Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) (or any film in his career, he was great!)
Whoopi Goldberg & Oprah Winfrey in The Color Purple (1985)
Denzel Washington in Crimson Tide (1995)

Steven Thrasher, writer-at-large, Guardian US

Marlon Riggs in Tongues Untied (1989)
Tongues Untied is likely the first example of black gay men portraying black gay men on film. Marlon Riggs’ performance is part essay, part dance, part poetry, part documentary, part dream. But it is a stunningly honest performance, quite at odds with heterosexual performers (usually white) portraying homosexually as caricature.

Paul Robeson in Showboat (1936)
Spike Lee in Do the Right Thing (1989)
Whoopi Goldberg in The Color Purple (1985)
Denzel Washington in Malcolm X (1992)
Angela Bassett in What’s Love Got to Do with It (1993)
Djimon Hounsou in Amistad (1997)
Despite being a problematic film, Hounsou gives a breakout performance, including a masterful turn portraying the rare slave rebellion onscreen.

Brock Peters in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
Peters portrays Tom Robinson, a man who knows he is going to be lynched, almost entirely with his face. He works with little screen time and the limitations of a silent film star, but his face is as expressive as Catherine Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928).

Samuel L Jackson in Pulp Fiction (1994)
Alfre Woodard in Crooklyn (1994)

Matthew Thrift, critic

Wesley Snipes in One Night Stand (1997)
Prince in Sign o’ the Times (1987)
Sidney Poitier in Lilies of the Field (1963)
Whoopi Goldberg in The Color Purple (1985)
David Gulpilil in Walkabout (1971)
Woody Strode in Black Jesus (1968)
Angela Bassett in Strange Days (1995)
Pam Grier in Jackie Brown (1997)
Cicely Tyson in Sounder (1972)
Eddie Murphy in The Nutty Professor (1996)

Prince in Purple Rain (1984)

Prince in Purple Rain (1984)

Tricia Tuttle, Deputy Head of Festivals, BFI

Whoopi Goldberg in The Color Purple (1985)
Whoopi gave an astonishing debut performance as Celie, bright-hearted and steadfast. She powered the film. How rare to see a film with a black female protagonist, and one with an LGBT love story.

Sidney Poitier in To Sir with Love (1967)
Poitier was excellent as the teacher with the steely determination to match his students and the patience to win their trust. He has several films which could make the top 10 but I love this.

Marianne Jean-Baptiste in Secrets & Lies (1997)
I love how this film plays takes 90s assumptions about race and class and uses them to build a beautifully observed story about family, community and humanity. Marianne Jean-Baptiste is brilliant as Hortense, a successful middle class black woman who is dismayed to find her birth mother is a working class white woman.

Michael K Williams & Idris Elba in The Wire (2002-8)
I’m cheating but has the get this one in. The long form series allowed these two dynamic, gifted actors to show incredible depth and range as Omar and Stringer. In a show bursting with great performances, they shine.

Pam Grier in Foxy Brown (1974)
Her turn in Jackie Brown is arguably more dynamic, but I wanted to go back the role that showed her potent star quality. It is impossible to watch anyone else when Grier is on screen.

Juanita Moore in Imitation of Life (1959)
Juanita Moore gives an understated but powerful performance in this female four-hander. Sirk and Moore offered a rare complex character for a black actress at the time.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw in Belle (2013)
Two stars rose with this fine British period drama, that of director Amma Asante and mesmerising lead actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw.

Prince in Purple Rain (1984)
For sheer star wattage and charisma, I would pick Prince in Purple Rain.

Quvenzhané Wallis in Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)
This must rank as one of the best EVER performances from a child under 8 (Quvenzhané auditioned at 5 and was Oscar-nominated for this role at 9). She is mind-bogglingly great as Hushpuppy: wise, wily, and heart-breaking.

Forest Whitaker in The Last King of Scotland (2006)
It was hard to choose between this and Whitaker’s excellent turn in Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game. That film edges it for me as a truly ground-breaking original, but his role as Idi Amin in Kevin Macdonald’s film is hugely dynamic and shows his great range as an actor.

My list is heavily weighted towards post-80s performances but this is of course reflective of the richer roles offered to black actors.

Thirza Wakefield, freelance film critic

Richard Pryor in Blue Collar (1978)
Jaye Davidson in The Crying Game (1992)
Gene Anthony Ray in Fame (1980)
Pam Grier in Jackie Brown (1997)
Denzel Washington in Malcolm X (1992)
Diana Sands in A Raisin in the Sun (1961)
Nadine Marshall in Second Coming (2014)
Marianne Jean-Baptiste in Secrets & Lies (1997)
Angela Bassett in What’s Love Got to Do with It? (1993)
Ossie Davis in The Hill (1965)

In Sidney Lumet’s The Hill, Ossie Davis is Jacko King, a soldier sentenced, with four other offenders, to brutal correction in a military prison. Lumet’s film needed team-players, and the five actors he cast are just that. Alfred Lynch, Roy Kinnear, Jack Watson, Sean Connery and Davis work exceedingly well as a unit.

As good as this ensemble is, Davis stands apart. The rage of which King is capable is impossible to tell at the film’s beginning, but when he gives it (ostentatious) expression toward the end, it is wholly consistent with the King of earlier scenes, who appeared impervious to provocation and whose means of dealing with pervasive racism we thought we had understood. King’s climactic acting-up before the commandant – his throwing off his uniform, bounding about the room, taking up fistfuls of cigarettes; his derisively fulfilling the foul stereotypes pressed on him by superiors and equals alike – sets the heart racing. We enjoy his revolt and laugh at the staff’s stupefaction; we are frightened by the suffering that has driven him to it; and we are alarmed, because what awaits him once this show of defiance is ended is still more ill-use in the stockade.

Zoe Whitley, research curator, Tate Modern

Juanita Moore in Imitation of Life (1959)
Moore’s Annie Johnson is deeply affecting. She plays a black mother persevering in the face of lifelong rejection by her daughter, who can ‘pass’ for white. Juanita Moore was nominated for both a Golden Globe Award and an Academy Award for her role. Mahalia Jackson’s performance of ‘Trouble of the World’ in the film’s funeral scene will move anyone to tears.

Paul Robeson in Show Boat (1936)
I can still hear Robeson’s voice singing the musical numbers. Robeson was one of the victims of the Hollywood blacklist, so the film effectively disappeared from public circulation from the 1950s until the late 70s, by which time Robeson was dead.

Tracey Heggins in Medicine for Melancholy (2008)
As an ardent film-watcher who grew up loving indie queen Parker Posey’s quirky, aloof and beautifully individual roles in the 90s, I always wished there were similar roles for young black actors. Jo is a wonderfully complex character: flawed and uncertain, with unconventional passions and a refreshing point of view.

Dorothy Dandridge in Carmen Jones (1954)
Harry Belafonte in Carmen Jones (1954)
When I think of Hollywood glamour and charisma, Harry Belafonte and Dorothy Dandridge immediately come to mind. They starred opposite one another in this film and I love watching it for the beautiful – if star-crossed – couple they make on screen. Though both were talented vocalists, their voices were dubbed by opera singers for the musical numbers.

Karidja Touré in Girlhood (2014)
Overused words like ‘hard-hitting’ feel apt for this jewel of a film about chosen families, intimate friendships and finding sisterhood in difficult times. The scene where Vic, Lady, Filly and Adiatou sing Rihanna’s ‘Diamonds’ is an all-time fave.

Lena Horne in Stormy Weather (1943) & The Wiz (1978)
I’m cheating with this two-for-one but the key is that Lena Horne’s light shines so brightly

John Boyega in Attack the Block (2011)
I adore this film. The prophetically named Moses leads his council estate against an alien attack. Special mention for the girls who help direct Moses to a turning point in self-perception. A schlocky monster movie but it also works persuasively as an allegory for the daily onslaughts many young people have to navigate.

Mbissine Thérèse Diop in Black Girl (1966)
This stunning film about alienation, dashed hopes and the effects of colonialism is an absolute classic. Diop is brilliant.

Sophie Okonedo in Dirty Pretty Things (2002)
I was blown away by Okonedo in this Stephen Frears film

Sam Wigley, News and Features Editor, BFI

Dorothy Dandridge in Carmen Jones (1954)
Abbey Lincoln in Nothing But a Man (1964)
Mbissine Thérèse Diop in Black Girl (1966)
Jimmy Cliff in The Harder They Come (1972)
Otis Young in The Last Detail (1973)
Eddie Murphy in Beverly Hills Cop (1984)
Spike Lee in Do the Right Thing (1989)
Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction (1994)
Ventura in Colossal Youth (2006)
Tashiana Washington in Gimme the Loot (2012)

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