These Black Hollywood Stars Embodied Excellence — And We Should Honor Them

With the Oscars just around the corner, BLACK ENTERPRISE celebrates Black History Month with special recognition of historical Black figures and Hollywood stars for their outstanding achievements.

This collection presents Black Hollywood storytellers, filmmakers, actors, and actresses who have pushed boundaries and diversified industries on big and small screens.

Oscar Micheaux

The bold and fearless Oscar Micheaux was born in rural Illinois when movies hardly existed. But by 1919, he made his first film, “The Homesteader” (1919). Micheaux dealt with sensitive issues that other directors were afraid to confront. Micheaux was not just the first major Black filmmaker, but he was also the first to have a film shown in a theater with a white audience. Micheaux had several “firsts” in his life. The first Black filmmaker, successful homesteader, and best-selling author created 44 films between 1919 and 1948, such as “Within Our Gates” (1920), an unapologetic confrontation of racial violence.

Some uphold Micheaux as paving the road for Black-centered storytelling in the film industry. Micheaux used his filmmaking to expose the racial injustices African Americans faced at the beginning of the 20th century. He was one of the few Black independent filmmakers using a multiracial cast. In addition to empowering African Americans and breaking stereotypes, Micheaux’s work also influenced other filmmakers. Film pioneers such as Spike Lee, John Singleton and Melvin Van Peebles, have often credited Micheaux as one of their most significant influences. Black history month cannot be celebrated without mentioning his name.

Hattie McDaniel

Hattie McDaniel blazed a trail for African Americans as the first to win an Oscar Award. She won Best Supporting Actress in 1940 for her role as Mammy in “Gone with the Wind.” Living and working during the height of Jim Crow, McDaniel was segregated from the rest of the cast during the award ceremony and wasn’t even allowed to watch the film premiere. She struggled to break out of “Mammy” roles that reinforced Black stereotypes throughout her career. Although she acted in over 300 films, she was only credited for 83.

McDaniel’s legacy is better recognized today despite these overt obstacles to her success. She has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and became part of the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame in 1975. She is also recognized as the first Black woman singer/songwriter to have performed on the radio. The child of formerly enslaved parents, her continued participation in film and radio marked a radical shift in racial inclusion in the American film industry.

Sidney Poitier

From rejections to rejecting several projects he found demeaning, actor, director and activist Sidney Poitier portrayed Black men with the dignity that exists beyond the screen. Having struggled with the injustices of Jim Crow, he was a founding member of the Committee for the Negro in the Arts while he began his acting career with the American Negro Theater. In 1964, he became the first Black person to win an Oscar for Best Actor for his stunning portrayal of Homer Smith in “Lilies of the Field. Despite the political landscape of the time, he broke down barriers to demand his voice be heard as an actor, director, and author. Most importantly, Poitier refused to play roles he found demeaning despite the limitations that would put on his career. In 2009, Poitier received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from former President Barack Obama, who lauded the actor’s steady bearing and said he “entertained, but he also brought people together.”

Spike Lee

A director, producer, screenwriter, actor and professor, Spike Lee, is well recognized for his work in film. Lee was born Shelton Jackson Lee in Atlanta, Georgia, on Mar. 20, 1957, but raised in Brooklyn, New York. He attended Morehouse College for his undergraduate degree and later graduated from New York University Film School in 1982. In 1986, Lee gained recognition for “She’s Gotta Have It.” Despite shooting it in two weeks and spending $175,000, the film grossed over $7 million at the box office, making it one of the most profitable films of 1986. Since 1979, Lee’s 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks has produced more than 35 films.

He is considered one of the most prominent Black filmmakers in American history. His films challenge the status quo, confront racism and contest the ideas of racial equality. Thirty years after he starred in “Do the Right Thing,” Lee finally won his first Oscar in 2019.

Denzel Washington

His mother prayed, and God answered. Denzel Washington received a prophecy from an anonymous customer at his mother’s beauty salon: “You will speak to millions. You will do great things.” Today, we know this to be true. Washington is celebrated as the most Oscar-nominated Black actor globally. He has received nine nominations since 1988, including a win for Best Actor and a win for Best Supporting Actor for his roles as Alonzo Harris in “Training Day” and as Private Trip in “Glory.” Many people may not know that the award-winning actor and director has been actively involved in philanthropic work throughout his distinguished career, donating to several organizations and raising millions for the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture.

Halle Berry

Halle Berry’s career went from runway model to role model. In the 1980s, she won the Miss Teen America and Miss Ohio USA pageants and was runner-up in Miss USA. She then became the first Black woman to enter Miss World, demanding that Black beauty be given equal representation on the global stage. From modeling, Berry went into acting, working hard to create a stellar career in a wide range of blockbuster movies. Her perseverance shot her into the position of the highest-paid actress in Hollywood in the 2000s.

Berry became the first woman to receive an Oscar for Best Actress in 2002 for her role as Leticia Musgrove in “Monster’s Ball.” She has used her status and platform to fuel her activism, fighting for many issues like Obama’s presidential campaign and women’s rights. To this day, she is the only Black woman to have received the Oscar for Best Actress, a reminder of the barriers that Black women continue to face in the industry.

Shonda Rhimes

Shonda Rhimes had always been a storyteller — and a good one at that, earning her B.A. from Dartmouth and graduating with an M.A. from USC at the top of her class. After working on films with stars such as Halle Berry, Rhimes took her talents to television. She was the first African American woman to create and produce a Top 10 network series. Since the 2000s, her shows have dominated television, including widely popular hits such as “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Scandal,” “How to Get Away with Murder,” and “Bridgerton.” She has been praised for her strong female characters and her racially diverse casts, championing the representation of Black and other people of color. Today, she is considered one of the most influential people in television, giving a massive platform to the diversity she successfully brings to the screen.

Tyler Perry

Tyler Perry boasts a prolific career as a director, producer, actor, screenwriter, playwright, author and more. He stops at nothing to make sure his voice is heard. But he doesn’t just fight for his voice to be heard; he consistently works to uplift his Black peers. For example, he collaborated with Oprah Winfrey to promote “Precious,” making sure that the film was widely acknowledged for the crucial story it told. In 2015, he solidified his commitment to Black Hollywood by becoming the first African American to own a major film production studio: the Tyler Perry Studios in Georgia. He uses his resources to prioritize creations that speak directly to Black audiences.

Geoffrey Fletcher

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP/REX/Shutterstock (9313111hz)
Geoffrey Fletcher attends the National Board of Review Awards Gala at Cipriani 42nd Street, in New York
2018 National Board of Review Awards Gala, New York, USA – 09 Jan 2018Geoffrey Fletcher started his career armed with a simple video camera, shooting his first films as a child at home. He attended Harvard and NYU’s Tisch Graduate Film Program, earning apprenticeships with such film legends as Spike Lee and Martin Scorsese. In 2010, he became the first African American to win an Academy Award for Best Screenplay for “Precious.” This adaptation of the novel “Push” confronted the severe challenges at the intersection of race, gender, poverty and abuse. Although such stories are unfortunately a reality, Fletcher’s story was unique for the attention it received. It is rare for films to effectively humanize a Black, poor, obese and abused female protagonist. Today, Fletcher continues to give back to society through his films and as a professor at Columbia University.

Steve McQueen

VENICE, ITALY – SEPTEMBER 04: Director Steve McQueen attends the “Shame” premiere during the 68th Venice Film Festival at Palazzo del Cinema on September 4, 2011 in Venice, Italy. (Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images)

Growing up in the UK as a dyslexic adolescent with a lazy eye, Steve Rodney McQueen’s teachers expected little of his intellectual and creative abilities. He was placed on a track for manual laborers, but that didn’t deter him from pursuing a highly acclaimed career in the arts. Besides creating many unique and politically charged art installations, he was interested in film and attended NYU’s film school. In 2013, McQueen became the first Black director and producer to win Best Picture for “12 Years A Slave.” His film is considered a rebuttal to the romanticized version of history depicted in “Gone with the Wind.” McQueen insisted the slave period be recognized for the massacre that it was. His film depicts many of the horrific realities of the era, centering on the experiences of Black people. It received 315 nominations and 145 wins across award shows, demanding greater visibility for this all-too-often neglected part of American history.

Viola Davis

Viola Davis
Viola Davis (Image: Brian Bowen Smith)

Viola Davis would not let anything prevent her from claiming her title as one of the country’s most talented actors. The New York Times certainly agrees, ranking her the 9th best actor in the 21st century. But her journey was not easy. Davis’ early life was marked by extreme poverty and hardship. Having experienced oppression firsthand, Davis was involved in civil rights activism from an early age. She persevered in school and was soon recognized for her exceptional talent and the hard work she invested in cultivating it. Her early success in the theater gave her access to Julliard and an extraordinary career as an actress and producer.

Today, Davis claims the highest number of Academy Award nominations among Black actresses. She successfully won the award for Best Supporting Actress in 2016 for her role as Rose Maxson in the film “Fences.” Outside of the Oscars, she has a whopping 309 nominations and 139 awards for her impressive career. Her many accolades confirm to young Black women that there is a place for them on the big screen.

Cheryl Boone Isaacs

Starting in publicity in the 1970s, it wasn’t long before Cheryl Boone Isaacs worked her way into leadership roles. She thrived in executive positions in many of Hollywood’s major production studios, such as Columbia Pictures, Paramount Pictures and New Line Cinema. Her expertise and experience helped her become the first African American to serve as president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. She was elected for two, two-year terms in 2013 and 2015. In such an influential leadership role, Isaacs was praised for her ongoing work to improve racial and gender diversity during her tenure at the Academy. For example, she made significant improvements to the Academy’s mentorship and student programs and its scientific and technical council. In 2015, she launched A2020: an ambitious five-year plan to make the industry more equitable so that everyone’s voice can be heard on the big screen.

Barry Jenkins

In 2017, Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight transformed the Academy Awards. From a family torn apart by death, abandonment and drug addiction, Jenkins overcame the most challenging circumstances to pursue his passion for film. His career is marked by his commitment to his values, rejecting Hollywood’s sugarcoating tendencies in favor of centering on society’s most neglected communities. He became the first African American nominated for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Screenplay for his outstanding work. He successfully won the award for Best Screenplay, while the film went on to win seven additional Academy Awards and dozens more nominations and wins from other award shows. Many consider “Moonlight a profound and intimate reflection on identity at the intersection of race, poverty and sexual orientation.

Ruth Carter

Ruth Carter shows us there are myriad ways to tell a story — going above and beyond to tell a story through her costumes, integrating cultural motifs, functionality and beauty to convey characters’ identities and history. She is the creator of the beautiful, unique and meaningful costumes of the blockbuster “Black Panther,” incorporating Maasai and Ndebele dress elements into the Afro-futurist superhero story through intensive research and traveling to various African countries. She became the first African American to win an Academy Award for Best Costume Design for this work, although she is responsible for the stunning wardrobes of over 40 other films. She was also nominated for Spike Lee’s “Malcolm Xand Stephen Spielberg’s “Amistad.”

Charles D. King

Charles King, a former partner/agent with William Morris Endeavor, has a knack for recognizing talent and a vision to empower and support people of color and diverse storytellers.

“I wanted to tell stories about and from people of color, so I built my own media company called MACRO,” he says. King was part of the all-Black producing team for “Judas and the Black Messiah,” starring LaKeith Stanfield and Daniel Kaluuya, about the murder of Fred Hampton, the head of the Chicago chapter of the Black Panther Party. He worked on developing the script, worked on the set and was instrumental in the film’s release and marketing. At Lionsgate, King helped Tyler Perry secure a deal for his award-winning debut film, “Diary of a Mad Black Woman.”

He says “the goal is not just to build a brand that will last for generations. It’s about creating opportunities, too, as well as enhancing culture. It makes our world a better place.” MACRO has produced and/or financed 13 feature films and earned 15 Academy Award nominations with three wins.