Honoring Our Trailblazers: Black Actors and Actresses who Paved the Way

In today’s landscape, black actors have access to roles in any genre of film or television. However, that wasn’t always the case. If it weren’t for actors like Sidney Poitier and Ruby Dee fighting for roles they wouldn’t normally be afforded and excelling at them, there would be no Denzel Washington or Angela Bassett today.

Here at BlackEnterprise we decided to take a look back and give just due to those who paved the way for any black person in entertainment to feel like they could be great.

James Earl Jones

The voice of James Earl Jones is just as widely known as the man’s acting abilities. Known for popular characters like Mufasa in “The Lion King” and Darth Vader in the “Star Wars” franchise, Jones proved he could outshine any actor without appearing on screen.

Debuting in theater in Michigan in 1953, Jones rose from a stage carpenter position to actor and stage manager in a few short years. James Earl Jones’ stage work earned him a Tony Award in 1969 for his work in “The Great White Hope.” He later won a second Tony in 1987 for his work in “Fences.”

Not only has he been lauded for his work on the stage, James Earl Jones also received an Oscar nomination for his role in the film adaptation of “The Great White Hope” in 1974. He was the second black man nominated for an Academy Award, following only Sidney Poitier. Jones also received critical acclaim for his work in the 1974 film “Claudine” with Diahann Carroll. The film was about a garbage man who decided to date a woman who was raising six kids by herself.

James Earl Jones has continued to act in different mediums for the past thirty years.  Most recently, he was awarded an honorary Oscar in 2011 for his contribution to the motion picture arts.

Cicely Tyson

Now known for her roles in Tyler Perry films, Cicely Tyson’s career started long before Tyler Perry was a dirty thought in his parents’ mind.

Discovered by an Ebony Magazine photographer, Tyson got into acting through becoming an Ebony fashion model. Her first credited film part came in 1956’s “Carib Gold.” Following her role in the film, Tyson took parts on television which were unheard of at that time for a black.

Tyson’s biggest year’s came in the early 70s. In 1972, she was nominated for an Oscar against Diana Ross in the category for Best Actress for “Sounder.” Two years later, she won two Emmy Awards for her role in “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.”

Cicely Tyson has become a legend in the game because she has dealt with some of the most racist incidents and still kept her grace and poise. Many young actors seek Tyson’s wisdom on a personal level, as well as a professional one. Oprah Winfrey honored Tyson for her commitment to the arts and helping the youth, at her Legend’s Ball in 2005.

Although Tyson now limits her acting to a role or two a year, she continues to support the arts in underprivileged communities in New Jersey with her Cicely Tyson School of the Arts located in East Orange.

Sidney Poitier

For his work in “Lillies of the Field,” Sidney Poitier made history and opened the doors for every black actor in the process, becoming the first black man to win the Oscar for Best Actor.

Sidney Poitier made white audiences take notice of black talent due to the strong and uncompromising characters. How can one forget Poitier’s role in “In the Heat of the Night” where he delivered the famous line, “They call me Mister Tibbs!” Poitier dealt with a lot of racism in the movie industry, but remained steadfast in his dreams because his parents validated him as a young man early in his life.

Though many expected Poitier to fade away after his Academy Award win, he didn’t; he remained a social activist and made his way into directing films.

If “Uptown Saturday Night” isn’t one of your favorite films, it’s most likely a favorite of one of your older family members’. Another film Poitier directed was the hit Richard Pryor-Gene Wilder comedy “Stir Crazy.” The film was so well received it was the highest grossing movie ever directed by an African-American for a long time.

From 1998 to 2003, Poitier served on the Board of Directors at The Walt Disney Company. He doesn’t act as much, he still takes time out to mentor actors like Jamie Foxx.