To mark the official launch of Black Star, our celebration of the range, versatility and power of black screen actors on film and TV, we polled both industry experts and the public to help us identify the greatest performance by a black actor in the history of cinema and TV. American actors scored highly and dominated our published polls, but a huge number of votes also went to black British actors. So now we unveil the top 10 highest voted black British performers across both polls.
Both Chiwetel Ejiofor and Idris Elba were nominated many times for other roles – Ejiofor for his performance in Dirty Pretty Things (2002), Elba for his roles in Beasts of No Nation (2015) and TV series Luther (2010-15) – but the lion’s share went to their performances in the top 10 below. Although movie performances received a huge majority of the votes, two actors made the top 10 for TV roles.
Films and series from recent years figured strongly in the top 10 – six were made since 2000, and just one performance before the 1980s made the final 10. This reflects the depressingly few roles open to black performers before the last 30 or so years, although the prevalence of recent performances at least shows how things are slowly improving.
The top 10
1. Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave (2013)
Chiwetel 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.
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.
—Dr Edson Burton
One of the more arresting performances of the brutality of slavery in the United States, rendered powerfully with brilliant emotion by Ejiofor.
Electrifying performance, enhanced by the aesthetic splendour of director Steve McQueen.
A masterpiece of physical acting. Ejiofor’s body expresses the dejection, the suffering, the endlessness.
Chiwetel Ejiofor also received a high number of votes for his role in Dirty Pretty Things (2002).
2. 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.
This series allowed these two dynamic, gifted actors – Idris Elba and Michael K Williams – to show incredible depth and range as Stringer and Omar. In a show bursting with great performances, they shine.
Elba also received a high number of votes for his roles in Beasts of No Nation (2015) and TV series Luther (2010-15).
3. Marianne Jean-Baptiste in Secrets & Lies (1996)
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.
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.
Utterly believable from start to finish: naturalistic acting looking effortless.
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!
4. 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.
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.
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.
Watch Earl Cameron in conversation at BFI Southbank
5. David Oyelowo in Selma (2014)
A masterful performance. I thought that I was looking at the real Martin Luther King Jr.
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.
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.
6. 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.
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.
7. Sophie Okonedo in Hotel Rwanda (2004)
Breakthrough performance by a great British actor.
In Hotel Rwanda Sophie Okonedo’s performance – scared and strong, determined and desperate – brought the everyday terror of the Rwandan genocide home.
8. Norman Beaton in Desmond’s (1989-94)
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.
I’d like to flag up the entire cast of Desmond’s. Completely seminal, religiously watched.
9. Jaye Davidson in The Crying Game (1992)
An exceptionally difficult role to cast, Dil was nonetheless played exceptionally well by the unknown, untrained Jaye Davidson, who became the first black British actor to receive an Academy Award nomination for their boundary-breaking performance at the age of 24.
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.
10. 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.
I adore this film. The prophetically named Moses leads his council estate against an alien attack. A schlocky monster movie but it also works persuasively as an allegory for the daily onslaughts many young people have to navigate.