Leading in to Oscars weekend, BlackEnterprise.com recognized 10 Black actors who have succeeded at the box office in films not originally written for a person of color. The article was a welcome reminder of how our star’s talent can triumph in Hollywood without falling into stereotypical characters. The only thing is all the examples were men. With March being Women’s History Month and having just wrapped our 6th Annual Women of Power Summit, BlackEnterprise.com decided to salute a few female thespians that have broken color and gender barriers on the silver screen.
GRACE JONES AS “ZULA” IN CONAN THE DESTROYER (1984)
Based on the comic book series created by Robert E. Howard, Conan the Destroyer was the sequel to 1982’s Conan the Barbarian, both starring Arnold Schwarzenegger as the brutish warrior. On his quest to resurrect his true love, Conan pulls together a ragtag crew to join him on his journey that includes Zula (played by Jones), who, in the comics, was originally a warrior prince that first appeared in Conan the Barbarian issue #84 (March, 1978). Jones’ gender-defying portrayal as Zula helped usher the film into celluloid success, commanding over $31 million domestically in the box office.
QUEEN LATIFAH AS “MATRON ‘MAMA’ MORTON” IN CHICAGO (2002)
Although she had already received some critical acclaim for her acting, Latifah gained mainstream success after her turn as Matron “Mama” Morton in the Oscar-winning film adaptation of the musical, Chicago. Based on a 1926 play of the same name, the original Broadway production opened in June 1975 with actress Mary McCarty playing the jailhouse matron role. With Latifah at the fore, the 2002 theatrical remake won six Academy Awards—including Best Picture—and garnered a Best Supporting Actress nomination for the rapper-turned-actress.
THANDIE NEWTON AS “REGINA LAMBERT” IN THE TRUTH ABOUT CHARLIE (2002)
Based the 1963 film Charade, The Truth About Charlie was rewritten and directed by Academy Award-winner Jonathan Demme. With Mark Wahlberg and Newton reprising the roles originally played by Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn, the romantic caper tells the story of an unhappy wife that discovers her murdered husband is not who she thought he was. Although the film received a lukewarm reception at the box office, Newton’s career forged full steam ahead with standout performances in Crash (2004) and The Pursuit of Happyness (2006).
HALLE BERRY AS “CATWOMAN” IN CATWOMAN (2004)
In the Batman comic books, his feline nemesis Catwoman was always depicted as a White protagonist. While veteran performer Eartha Kitt donned the patented cat suit and claws on the Batman TV series (1967-68), Berry was the first Black Catwoman on the silver screen. While the theatrical release garnered over $82 million worldwide, it’s still regarded as a blemish on Berry’s resume. In fact, she won the 2005 Razzie Award for worst actress in a film and accepted the prize in person with her Monster’s Ball Oscar in tow.
ZOE SALDANA AS “THERESA JONES” IN GUESS WHO (2005)
In 1967 Academy Award-winner Sidney Poitier tackled interracial dating in the controversial Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, about a Black man trying to gain approval from the family of the White woman he falls in love with. For the 2005 remake, the tables were turned as Ashton Kutcher tries to get accepted by the father (Bernie Mac) of his girlfriend (Saldana). The No. 1 comedy went on to generate $100 million worldwide.
GABRIELLE UNION AS “ALICE CRAMDEN” THE HONEYMOONERS (2005)
Starring Jackie Gleason and Audrey Meadows as Ralph and Alice Cramden, The Honeymooners may have only aired for one year (1955-56) but the half-hour series is regarded as a television classic. In 2005, Paramount Pictures and CBS, which owns the rights to the sitcom, released a re-envisioned version of the show as a full-length movie, with Cedric the Entertainer and Union playing the lead roles. Despite only grossing $13 million worldwide, the film garnered Union a nomination for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Theatrical Film at the 2005 BET Comedy Awards.
KERRY WASHINGTON AS “ALICIA MASTERS” IN FANTASTIC FOUR SERIES (2005 & 2007)
Created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, Alicia Masters is a character in the Marvel Comics universe that first appeared in issue No. 4 of The Fantastic Four comic book in 1962. She was depicted on page as a blind blonde that was often linked as a romantic interest of The Thing. Washington landed the role of Masters in 2005’s Fantastic Four, which grossed over $330 million worldwide. The following year, an animated series based off the film, Fantastic Four: World’s Greatest Heroes, debuted that also portrayed Masters as an African American character. Washington kept the trend going by reprising the role in the 2007 sequel, Rise of the Silver Surfer, which generated over $289 million.
QUEEN LATIFAH AS “GEORGIA BYRD” IN LAST HOLIDAY (2006)
In the 1950 original film, Last Holiday told the story of a shy and unassuming man named George Bird (played by Alec Guinness). Screenwriters Jeffrey Price and Peter S. Seaman updated the story for John Candy, but the project was shelved after the actor’s death in 1994. Years later, Latifah’s agent read their script and suggested they revise it for her. The film debuted at No. 2 in the box office its opening weekend with $12 million in ticket sales and eventually grossed $43 million worldwide.
JADA PINKETT SMITH AS “ALEX FISHER” IN THE WOMEN (2008)
Based on a 1936 play by Clare Boothe Luce, The Women originally came to the big screen in 1939, starring Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell and Paulette Goddard as a quartet of Manhattan socialites whose primary interest was idle gossip. In 2008, Pinkett Smith joined Meg Ryan, Bette Midler, Eva Mendes and Annette Bening in a remake of the ensemble production, playing an openly lesbian character named Alex Fisher. Pinkett Smith’s turn as one of the five leading ladies assisted in its success of grossing over $50 million worldwide.
ROSARIO DAWSON AS “PERSEPHONE” IN PERCY JACKSON AND THE OLYMPIANS (2010)
According to ancient Greek mythology, Persephone was the beautiful goddess of the underworld alongside Hades. While most (if not all) depictions of the Greek gods are White, Fox’s 2010 release, Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief, took a multicultural spin, casting Brandon T. Jackson as a guardian satyr (half goat, half man) as a Dawson as the hell bound queen, Persephone. Since its release last year, the film has grossed over $226 million worldwide.