There was a time, not so long ago, when Black actors were relegated to very limited roles in film, often depicting cruel stereotypes. What a long way Black film has come, from that improbable moment in 1940 when Hattie McDaniel became the first Black person to win an Academy Award to Spike Lee’s indie film breakouts in the 80s to the modern era where powerful works like Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” shook things up.
These days, Black representation is flourishing, and one type of film is a telling milestone: the Black biopic. Making movies that tell the true- stories of historical figures brings the Black experience to the front rows of popular culture.
Up next is Andra Day in Lee Daniels’ THE UNITED STATES vs. BILLIE HOLIDAY slated for a February 26 release on Hulu.
Here’s a salute to some of the very best Black biopic performances.
Jackie Robinson, The Jackie Robinson Story (1950)
Quite possibly the first Black biopic, The Jackie Robinson Story is remarkable, not only for its trailblazing courage but also for the fact that Jackie Robinson stars in it as himself. As the first Black man to play baseball in the Major Leagues, his on-screen performance reflects what the slugger went through in real life. While today’s viewers may find it corny, it’s worth watching for Jackie’s performance. Scenes where white crowds boo him feature powerful emotional close-ups you won’t forget, which is pretty impressive considering Robinson wasn’t even a trained actor. A recent colorized version of the film was made available by the Jackie Robinson Foundation.
Diana Ross, Lady Sings the Blues (1972)
Marking the first time Hollywood assembled a mainstream A-list cast for a Black biopic, Lady Sings the Blues features superstar Diana Ross as Billie Holiday, the virtuoso jazz singer who challenged white supremacy with her haunting song “Strange Fruit” while breaking barriers for Black entertainers. Ross’s depiction of the troubled singer was a standout performance, filled with the emotion and poise that Billie’s lovely soul deserved to see expressed. Diana got a Best Actress nomination at the Academy Awards for her work, with enthusiastic critical praise across the board. Director Lee Daniels will release an updated biopic for Ms. Holliday in 2021.
Morgan Freeman, Lean on Me (1989)
These days, Morgan Freeman is a household name. The man has been in everything! But before his hard-hitting performance in Lean on Me, _he struggled mostly in smaller roles and even kids’ programs like _The Electric Company. His no-holds-barred depiction of controversial Principal Joe Louis Clark (who passed away in 2020) and his efforts to clean up a troubled high school really put Freeman on the map. Wielding a bat and fearlessly taking on everyone from the PTA to the mayor, this powerhouse performance garnered the actor an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Motion Picture.
Denzel Washington, Malcolm X (1992)
Ah, Denzel. So many incredible performances to choose from, even in the biopic category. We’re going to pass over Antwone Fisher and The Hurricane _for Mr. Washington’s portrayal of the titular civil rights warrior in _Malcolm X. _Arguably the most important role of his career, Denzel knocked it out of the park in director Spike Lee’s true story opus. His evolution from street hustler to fearless voice for social change is a sight to behold on screen. And while Washington was robbed of his Best Actor Academy Award for _Malcolm X, he would pick it up later for Training Day.
Angela Bassett, What’s Love Got to Do with It (1993)
And speaking of way too many outstanding performances to even count, can we hear it for Angela Bassett? Since 1986, she has graced the screen in everything from bit roles to a good number of biopic roles. Hot on the heels of co-starring with Denzel in Malcolm X as Betty Shabazz, Angela burned up the screen, playing singer Tina Turner in What’s Love Got to Do with It. Her emotional turn as the rocking Turner won her a Golden Globe Award for Best Actress in a Motion Picture Musical or Comedy, making her the first African American to land that honor.
Jamie Foxx, Ray (2003)
Who could have guessed way back when Jamie Foxx made America laugh with his antics on In Living Color that he would turn out to be such an outstanding dramatic actor? The man is a triple threat if ever there was one, and his turn playing R&B legend Ray Charles in _Ray _is living proof. Depicting the incredible highs and terrible lows of such a storied career would be easy to flop, but Foxx hit every note in this dynamite movie. His Best Actor win at the Academy Awards came as no surprise to anyone.
Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave (2013)
If you’re looking for the most harrowing true tale on this list, 12 Years a Slave would probably take top billing. The story of Solomon Northrup, a free man kidnapped in Washington D.C. and sold into slavery in the South, evokes everything from tears to anger to inspiration. And while the material is powerful enough on its own, it’s Chiwetel Ejiofor’s devastating performance that really delivered the goods on screen. Brutal and brilliant, Ejiofor went on to win a coveted British Academy Film Award for Best Actor as well as an Oscar nomination.
Queen Latifah, Bessie (2015)
All hail the Queen! We gotta say, after all these years as a stellar actress, it’s almost easy to forget that Queen Latifah started as a rapper back in the 80s. In the HBO biopic Bessie, she got the chance to combine her acting chops with her musical experience, portraying blues legend Bessie Smith. Recreating the adversity Smith faced in her life – she had to chase off a KKK attack at one of her shows! – was handled deftly by the seasoned Latifah. Her emotional depiction earned her a Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Miniseries or Television Movie.
Viola Davis, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020)
Whenever we think of what a terrible year 2020 was, it’s good to remember some of the gems it gave us too. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is one such standout, largely thanks to Viola Davis’ role, which depicted a turbulent time in the “Mother of the Blues” career when she started working with white producers. The conflicts she faced with her bandmates gave the film tremendous energy, especially when acting against Chadwick Boseman. In the late actor’s final role, his turn as Rainey’s trumpeter Levee Green provided the perfect counterbalance to feed Davis’ rousing performance.
Miguel Cima: Miguel is an Argentine New Yorker who spent part of his career in Los Angeles working in film, television, music, and comic books, including directing Dig Comics, winner Best Documentary at the San Diego Comic-Con. As a copywriter, he has focused on entertainment pieces providing hundreds of reviews, interviews, and articles for Screen Rant, Taste of Cinema, and Films Gone Wild, covering film festivals including Sundance, Slamdance, and Tribeca. He’s also focused on travel, real estate, and food and drink articles, writing hundreds of pieces for Grey Door Publications’ premier magazines Concierge and The Open Door.