As US and Canada have fun Black Historical past Month, we take a look at how films have portrayed African-American actors all these years


February is celebrated as Black History Month (also known as African-American History Month) since the American Civil Rights Movement in the mid-1950s, an offshoot of what started as Negro History Week in 1926 by American historian Carter G. Woodson. And, The Black Family: Representation, Identity and Diversity is the theme for 2021. We take a look at the ‘black’ actors in Hollywood…

Black Panther’s no more
Chadwick Boseman
Chadwick Boseman received four nominations for his work in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (his last film, released posthumously). Detected with colon cancer in 2016, Chadwick kept his condition private and continued to act until his death in August 20. The long-held dream of African-Americans to have a ‘black’ superhero film was answered when Chadwick essayed the character of Black Panther in a movie by the same name.

The prince
Will Smith
Will Smith started as the MC of DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince, dropping the single, Girls Ain’t Nothing but Trouble, but his popularity grew with NBC television series, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, which ran for six season (till 1996) and in the meantime he went on to star in movies — Six Degrees of Separation (1993) and Bad Boys (1995). Will as the Black agent (Agent J) of Men In Black, also made quite a mark.

Dark knight, indeed
Morgan Freeman
He has appeared in films such as Driving Miss Daisy, Glory, The Shawshank Redemption and The Dark Knight Trilogy, and enjoys both critical and popular acclaim. One of the Hollywood’s most respected actors, Morgan’s turning point from serving in the military to becoming an actor was boosted by a big break he got in all African-American Broadway production, Hello, Dolly! Playing a God comes naturally to him and hence the comedy movies, Bruce Almighty and its sequel Evan Almighty, were all about his vigorous voice and stellar screen presence.

Big blow
Cicely Tyson
Cicely Tyson’s demise on January 28, 2021, had left Hollywood mourning. A pioneering ‘black’ actress, Cicely won the Tony Award in 2013 at the age of 88. In her memoir, posted a week after her death, she writes, “My art had to both mirror the times and propel them forward… I was determined to do all I could to alter the narrative about black people.”

Influential enough
Viola Davis
She wears the triple crown of acting — having won an Academy Award, a Primetime Emmy Award and two Tony Awards; the first African-American to do so. The strong, bold and unapologetic Annalise Keating of How To Get Away with Murder, Amanda Waller in Suicide Squad, she was nominated for Golden Globes 2021 for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Motion Picture for the movie Black Bottom. And who can forget American period drama, Fences, which revolves around opportunities missed because of racism, which won her the Oscar for Best Supporting actress!

Pure genius
Angela Bassett
Despite never having won an Academy Award, though being nominated, Angela Bassett is known for her biographical roles. She has shone on screen, be it as the civil rights activist in The Rosa Park Story or the matriarch in The Jackson Family: An American Dream or the agent in Mission: Impossible Fallout. Part of Panther (1995), she also starred in Black Panther (2018).

They have made a mark indeed…

The list is in no way exhaustive; some other notable names include:

  • Denzel Washington: An actor, director and producer, he is credited for reconfiguring ‘the concept of classic movie stardom’. He is the recipient of three Golden Globe Awards, one Tony and two Academy Awards. Historical drama Glory and crime thriller Training Day are few of his top works.
  • Eddie Murphy: The satire genius, who rose to fame with his comedy show, Saturday Night Live, has talked about African-American culture through his work — be it through comedy or his movies.
  • Halle Berry: She began her career as a model and then made a Hollywood debut with the romantic comedy Boomerang, opposite Eddie Murphy. She won Academy award for Best Actress for her performance in the romantic drama film Monster Ball (2001)
  • Zendaya: Known for taking up gender inequality issues, she has been a part of The Greatest Showman (2017) and the superhero film Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) and its sequel, Spider-Man: Far from Home (2019).

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