10 Best Movies With Black Actors

Monday, March 21 by Alan Rankin

The 10 best movies with black actors in starring roles reveal the progression of racial attitudes in Hollywood and the culture at large over the last century. In the early days of film, black actors were rarely cast. In fact, sometimes white actors were put in makeup to play black roles. Over the decades, pioneering black actors like Dorothy Dandridge, Hattie McDaniel and Sidney Poitier won acclaim and overcame attitudes of the time. By the 1950s, African-Americans began appearing in starring roles.

  1. “In the Heat of the Night” John Ball’s detective novel was a clever mystery with a unique twist: The hero, Virgil Tibbs, is a black detective stranded in a small Southern town. The 1967 movie version made the investigation a metaphor for racial tensions of the time, winning the Oscar for Best Film and providing one of the best roles for star Sidney Poitier. Tibbs returned in numerous written and filmed sequels, as well as a long-running TV series.
  2. “The Emperor Jones” Musician and acto Paul Robeson was a leading stage talent of his era, but legal harassment over political and racial issues prevented him from transferring that success to the big screen. He appeared in a few acclaimed movie roles, including his starring role in this 1933 Eugene O'Neill drama, but most moviegoers remember only his heartfelt performance of “Ol’ Man River” in 1936’s “Showboat.”
  3. “Carmen Jones.” In the 1930s and ‘40s, leading roles for black actors were rare, although Hattie McDaniel did win a Supporting Actress Oscar for playing a slave in “Gone With the Wind.” In 1954, director Otto Preminger filmed the famed opera “Carmen” with an all-black cast. Dorothy Dandridge in the title role received the first Oscar nomination for an African-American performer in a starring role.
  4. “Glory” Denzel Washington received his first Best Actor Oscar for this Civil War drama based on the true story of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, an all-black Union regiment. Other acclaimed black actors in the all-star cast included Morgan Freeman, Andre Braugher and Raymond St. Jacques.
  5. “Malcolm X” Director Spike Lee’s early films introduced a distinctive new voice to filmmaking. They also introduced a bevy of future TV and movie stars, including Giancarlo Esposito, Laurence Fishburne, Tisha Campbell, Samuel L. Jackson, John Turturro, Jasmine Guy and Denzel Washington. Washington received an Oscar nomination for this film that's considered Lee’s masterpiece.
  6. “The Shawshank Redemption” Before he played generals, presidents and God, Morgan Freeman was lifelong convict Red in this 1994 Stephen King prison drama. As the friend and confidant of Andy Dufresne, only Red knows the whole story of Andy’s miraculous escape from a living hell. The role cemented Freeman as a star, even though it was originally written as a white character.
  7. “Monster’s Ball” Halle Berry silenced critics of her acting ability with this 2001 prison drama. The same year Denzel Washington received his second acting Oscar, Halle became the first black woman to be voted Best Actress. Her graphic lovemaking scene with Billy Bob Thornton won her a different kind of acclaim.
  8. “Ray” Most actors who start in comedy face a struggle to succeed in serious roles. Jamie Foxx crossed that bar with his 2004 portrayal of rhythm and blues legend Ray Charles. It won him a Best Actor Oscar, numerous other awards and nominations, and the respect of his colleagues.
  9. “Hustle & Flow” Terence Howard became an overnight star with this story of a pimp trying to leave the lifestyle and become a hip-hop DJ. The song “It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp” received a 2005 Oscar. He went on to star in hits like “Iron Man.”
  10. “The Last King of Scotland” Biographical roles were gold for the best black actors of the 2000s. After Will Smith played Muhammad Ali and Foxx played Ray Charles, both were nominated for Best Actor Oscars. In 2006, Forest Whitaker played mad Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, winning the Best Actor Oscar for his chilling portrayal of a modern-day monster.