As part of Black Star, our blockbuster season celebrating the range, versatility and power of black actors, we asked over 100 industry insiders, including critics, film programmers, directors, actors and cultural experts to name their favourite performances by black actors.
While this is by no means an exhaustive list of standout performances, it is a pertinent reminder of the rich history of great performances by black actors, and the impact of black actors in telling memorable stories that connect with global audiences through their creation and portrayal of unforgettable characters.
The final results vary hugely in their diverse subject matter and characters, exploring racism, sexuality, violence, blaxploitation, civil rights, music, poverty, love and politics.
Alongside the critics poll, we opened the question up to the public, naming their performances in a separate poll.
“Topping the critics’ poll is Angela Bassett,” reveals BFI Black Star season programmer Ashley Clark, “who, as Tina Turner in the searing biopic What’s Love Got to Do with It, gave a performance for the ages – vigorous, vulnerable and vivacious.”
The top 20
1. Angela Bassett in What’s Love Got to Do with It (1993)
This film 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.
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.
Angela Bassett is such a force of nature in this film. An incredible actress who should have received many more plaudits.
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.
It was an incredible experience for my younger self to watch Angela Bassett portray an icon with such raw ferocity and fierceness.
2. Pam Grier in Jackie Brown (1997)
Grier, the kiss-ass darling from 1970s blaxploitation films, gives one of her finest performances in this adaptation of Elmore Lenard’s novel Rum Punch. Grier, in her first leading role for years, showed she still possessed the star power displayed in productions such as Coffy (1973) and Foxy Brown (1974).
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 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.
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 Hit Man (1972), Scream Blacula Scream (1973), and Foxy Brown (1974) saw the same vivacious and charming qualities over two decades later.
3. Sidney Poitier in In the Heat of the Night (1967)
The film had a profound effect on me and my family. Sidney Poitier’s performance made me cry. To me he is the finest black actor of our time and has been truly inspirational.
—Baroness Floella Benjamin
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 is the first film I saw of a black man playing a black man, not just a caricature of a black man. The strength of his performance inspired a generation to see themselves as other than as ‘black’ and confined to the limited opportunities that were available under that label.
4. 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.
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 being a criminal to a controversial leader of black liberation. Yet his most divisive belief was one he found after leaving the Nation of Islam, which arguably led to his tragic death – belief was peace for all of us.
This is simply one of the best performances of all time by any actor.
5. 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 her position with a quiet dignity and almost silent power. This character has so many levels of black female history embedded in her, that it takes a very special actor to bring it to life.
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.
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.
6. Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave
While getting to deliver his fair share of emotional monologues in the film, the direction of Steve McQueen allows 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.
One of the more arresting performances of the brutality of slavery in the United States, rendered powerfully with brilliant emotion by Ejiofor.
7. 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 that has subtle power and humanity.
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.
8. 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.
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.
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.
—Catharine Des Forges
9. Marianne Jean-Baptiste in Secrets & Lies (1996)
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.
Utterly believable from start to finish: naturalistic acting looking effortless.
10. Danny Glover in To Sleep with Anger (1990)
Glover’s blend of menace, magic and folksy charm leaves a mental mark long, long after the credits roll.
11. 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 film’s narrative.
—Adam Hussam Murray
12=. Forest Whitaker in Ghost Dog: 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, 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.
—Adam Hussam Murray
12=. Michael K. Williams in The Wire (2002-08)
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.
14. Earl Cameron in Pool of London (1951)
Bermudian actor 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. 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 (2010).
15=. 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.
The training he must have done for this movie! He moves and fights like a boxer and gives such an authentic, naturalistic performance.
15=. Spike Lee in Do the Right Thing (1989)
While the fashions look out of date, unfortunately the conflicts and issues it probes are still very relevant. 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.
—Arthur L Knight
17=. 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.
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.
17=. Richard Pryor in Blue Collar (1978)
A tragically rare dramatic role for Pryor; the tired, wired and inspired heart of the film.
17=. 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.
17=. 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 the role of Hushpuppy, an emotionally raw kid struggling to understand the cruelties of life in the harsh yet beautiful Louisiana bayou.
17=. Lupita Nyong’o in 12 Years a Slave (2013)
Nyong’o gives an extraordinary, complex performance in her first feature film role. She gives Patsey, a brutally abused slave, great dignity and intelligence. Her final scene with Chiwetel Ejiofor is unbearably moving.
17=. Denzel Washington in Training Day (2001)
Established as a great actor and not having to prove himself anymore yet, Denzel threw down on Training Day. A stunning performance. Risking seeming unlikable is something ‘star’ actors tend to wrestle with. It’s a performance I have watched again and again.
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