Throughout cinematic history, Black artists have left incredible marks on the film industry, and continue to create some of the most important art in the modern age. This includes cinematic legends, extraordinary comedians, and showrunners of popular programs. In celebration of Black History Month, here is a list of eight influential Black artists in film.
Jordan Peele is an actor, comedian, and filmmaker best known for his comedy and horror work. His comedy material includes Comedy Central sketch series “Key & Peele” with longtime collaborator Keegan-Michael Key, action-comedy film “Keanu,” and 2008 Emmy awarded parody song “Sad Fitty Cent.” Peele’s directorial debut came in 2017 with the horror film “Get Out,” a commentary on complicity’s role in upholding racism. The film was met with critical acclaim and won a multitude of accolades, with Peele becoming the third person in history to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, Director, and Original Screenplay for a debut, as well as the first Black writer to win the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. Peele has quickly become one of the most prominent Black filmmakers in the industry, often confronting racism in his work—his recent project, “Lovecraft Country,” being a prime example.
One of the most prominent figures in American cinema, Spike Lee, is a filmmaker, director, screenwriter, and professor whose work often explores racism and race-related topics. Known for his unique and character-focused style, Lee has won numerous accolades for his work, including an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay and Cannes Grand Prix for “Black KkKlansman,” two British Academy Film and Television Awards, two Emmy Awards, two Peabody Awards, and five Golden Globe Award nominations. Four of his films, “Do the Right Thing,” “Malcolm X,” “4 Little Girls,” and “She’s Gotta Have It,” have been preserved by the Library of Congress in the National Film Registry. His works consistently evoke social conversations surrounding race, and he is one of the most influential Black filmmakers in cinema.
The showrunner of some of television’s titan programs, Shonda Rhimes is an accomplished television producer, screenwriter, and showrunner. She is known for high-drama network shows, such as “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Scandal,” and “How to Get Away with Murder.” Her most popular show, “Grey’s Anatomy,” is American Broadcasting Company’s longest-running television show and is one of pop culture’s most influential television series. Rhimes’ most recently worked as an executive producer on the show “Bridgerton,” which is Netflix’s fifth most-viewed original series as of February 2021 and is one of, if not the most well-known, productions with color-blind casting to date.
Known best for his role as T’Challa/Black Panther in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the late Chadwick Boseman was an actor, playwright, and director. Beginning his career in New York City performing theatre, Boseman first gained recognition around 2002 for his theater work, winning a Drama League Directing Fellowship and an Audience Development Committee award. In 2013, Boseman broke out in film as Jackie Robinson in “42.” His most well-known role came in 2018 when he starred as T’Challa in “Black Panther,” which is one of the highest-grossing films of all time and the highest-grossing film by a Black director and a majority Black cast. Boseman received tremendous acclaim for the role, and the film’s cultural impact was monumental—not only for Black representation in film, but also in setting a precedent for future big-budget Black-centric films.
An actress, producer, and advocate for Hollywood diversity, Viola Davis is both the first Black artist and youngest actress to win a “Triple Crown of Acting” (an Academy Award, Primetime Emmy Award, and Tony Award). Davis is best known for her role as Annalise Keating on the popular television show “How to Get Away With Murder,” her film and theater work as Rose Maxson in August Wilson’s play “Fences,” and has recently garnered widespread acclaim for her portrayal of the titular character, Ma Rainey, in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” As one of the most prominent Black actresses in the film industry, Davis has broken multiple records and, according to “The New York Times,” ranks ninth amongst the 25 greatest actors of the 21st century.
A groundbreaking figure in classic Hollywood, Sidney Poitier is a retired actor, director, and ambassador. Poitier was the first Black actor to win an Academy Award for Best Actor and has numerous other awards, including a British Academy Film and Television Award, a Golden Globe Award for Best Actor, Grammy Award, and various other lifetime achievement awards. By the 1960s, Poitier became one of cinema’s most well-known stars. During that time, as Hollywood’s only major Black film actor, Poitier actively challenged racial stereotypes in American cinema through his leading roles and often considered himself responsible for setting a precedent for the image of Black figures in film portrayals. Poitier has established himself as one of cinema’s greats throughout his career, and his impact as a Black actor in classic Hollywood has been immense.
Octavia Spencer is an actress, producer, and author. She is known for her portrayal of Dorothy Vaughan in “Hidden Figures,” as well her roles in “The Shape of Water,” “Snowpiercer,” and “The Help.” Spencer has won a Golden Globe Award, Oscar, British Academy Film and Television Award, Screen Actors Guild Award, and has been nominated for numerous others. She is the only Black actor to have received two Academy Award nominations in consecutive years, and is one of two women of color to have been nominated for three Academy Awards. Spencer is one of the most decorated Black actresses in cinema and continues to be one of the most prominent Black women in the film industry.
A cinematic titan, Denzel Washington is an actor, director, and producer who has had a tremendous impact on the film industry. Critically acclaimed, internationally renowned, and often lauded as the greatest actor in modern cinema, Washington has left an almost unparalleled mark on the American film industry. He has won two Academy Awards, two Golden Globe Awards, a Golden Globe Cecil B. DeMille Award, 17 National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Image Awards—an overall of 39 various awards—and has been nominated for a remarkable 96. Washington’s acting style has been described as graceful, grounded, strong, and dignified, and he has been credited with reimagining the image of classic film stardom.