10 black actresses who left their trademark in film history

Stories of beauty, talent and overcoming: today Cine Suffragette highlights 10 black actresses who left their trademark in film history.


The first black star of scenic arts, Josephine Baker is also known as The Black Venus, The Black Pearl or Creole Goddess. Born in the U.S., she was discovered at the age of fifteen, while she was dancing on the corner of the street where she lived, in St. Louis. After a brief passage through vaudeville revue, she went to New York and made her debut on Broadway. Famous for the exoticism of her performances, which combined comedy and eroticism, she starred successful musicals in European cinema, like Siren of the Tropics (1927), Zouzou (1934) and Princesse Tam Tam (1935).


Noticeable for her talent for comedy, Hattie McDaniel eternized herself in the role of Mammy, Scarlett O’Hara’s maid in …Gone With the Wind (1939), which gave her the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress — being the first black actress to win an Academy award. Daughter of slaves from Kansas, McDaniel began her career as singer and composer, being also one of the first Afro-Americans to sing on radio.


Described by Orson Welles as “the most exciting woman in the universe”, Eartha Kitt began her career in 1943, on Broadway. As singer, she was recognized for her unique style and personality, and released the hits C’est si bon and Santa Baby. She starred 20th Century Fox and Paramount musicals, like New Faces (1952) and St. Louis Blues (1958). During the late 60’s, she became famous for playing Cat Woman in Batman series.


The “black Marilyn Monroe” became famous in 1954, in the title-role of Carmen Jones, Hollywood adaptation from Georges Bizet’s opera made only with black actors. Dandridge was the first black actress to be nominated for a Best Actress Oscar, but lost to Grace Kelly. She was also the first black woman to appear on a Life magazine cover. In 1960 she won the Golden Globe for the musical Porgy and Bess.


Ruth de Souza was the first black actress to go up on the stage of the Municipal Theater of Rio de Janeiro, with Eugene O’Neill’s play Emperor Jones. She studied in Harvard and, back to Brazil in 1948, debuted on the film Terra Violenta. In 1953 she starred Sinhá Moça, produced at Vera Cruz studios and leaded by actors Anselmo Duarte and Eliane Lage. Sinhá Moça gave to Ruth de Souza the nomination for Best Actress award at Venice Film Festival. This was the first time a Brazilian actress was nominated to an international award.


Diahann Carroll was the first Afro-American actress to win a Tony award (No Strings, 1962). In 1968 she debuted on her own TV series, Julia — for which she won the Golden Globe. She was nominated to Best Actress Oscar in 1974, for the dramatic comedy Claudine.


Considered one of the greatest sex symbols from 1970’s, Pam Grier became the face of ‘blaxpoitation’, a genre of action films made by and for black people. Her main successes were Coffy (1973) and Foxy Brown (1974). After 70’s the actress lived a period of obscurity, until being rescued by Quentin Tarantino, who invited her to lead Jackie Brown (1997) — for which she won the Golden Globe. According to Tarantino, Pam Grier is “the first female star of action films.”


Whoopi Goldberg came to stardom in 1985 in Steven Spielberg’s The Color Purple, for which she was nominated for Best Actress Oscar. She won the Best Supporting Actress award for her performance as the funny Oda Mae Brown in Ghost (1990).


Halle Berry played Dorothy Dandridge in the biopic Introducing Dorothy Dandridge (1999), conquering important awards like Emmy and Golden Globe. She entered to the history of cinema in 2002, being the first black woman to win the Academy Award for Best Actress, for her outstanding performance in Monster’s Ball. The movie also gave her the Silver Bear at Berlin Film Festival.


Viola Davis is the black actress with the most nominations for Oscar. She became known for Law & Order TV series (1999) and for the films Kate & Leopold (2001) and Far From Heaven (2002). She won Tony award for Best Supporting Actress (King Hedley II, 2001), and received her first Oscar nomination for Doubt (2008). She won the Academy statue for Best Supporting Actress in 2017 for Denzel Washington’s drama Fences, for which she also conquered the Golden Globe.