To commemorate MLK Jr. Day, and because it’s an excuse to write about beautiful women, I made a list of the 11 black actresses who make me sit up and take notice when they’re on screen. (Alas, none of them are openly gay, but I’ve tried not to hold that against them.) You may be surprised that some of the usual suspects — like Halle Berry and Jada Pinkett Smith — aren’t here. I’ve got nothing against them, and often enjoy their performances, they just aren’t among my favorites. Feel free to tell me why I’m crazy for leaving them or someone else off the list in the comments (and I know you will!).
11. Vivica Fox
Whether she’s playing a bank robber in Set It Off (1996), a woman on a mission in Independence Day (1996), the responsible older sister on Soul Food (1997) or an FBI agent role on two seasons of the poorly named Lifetime drama 1-800-Missing (2004-2006), Vivica leaves a strong impression. And she has a cool name.
We just won’t mention Booty Call (1997) or Boat Trip (2002).
10. Gabrielle Union
Gabrielle first caught my attention in Bring It On (2000) — no easy feat considering the strength of that cast overall (Eliza Dushku! Kirsten Dunst! Eliza Dushku!). Some of her roles since then have annoyed me (most notably, her star turn as a stereotypical controlling bitch in Deliver Us From Evie), but as a general rule, I pay attention when she’s on screen.
And I loved her guest appearance in Friends in 2001, where Ross and Joey fight over her so ridiculously that she finally shuns them both. She should have hooked up with Rachel instead.
9. Erica Hubbard
I love Lincoln Heights (2007) and Erica Hubbard is one of the reasons why (her and the excellent actress who plays her younger sister). Hubbard imbues budding artist Cassie with just the right amount of teen angst, longing, and confusion.
She was good in The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants (2005), too.
8. Alfre Woodard
What is there to say about Alfre that hasn’t already been said by practically every critic in America over the last 30 years? Her recent role on Desperate Housewives notwithstanding, she’s known for the high quality of her roles, and she brings a depth and gravitas to every part she plays.
Some of her standout roles for me were in the movies Passion Fish (1992), Crooklyn (1994), and Love and Basketball (2000).
7. Loretta Devine
I’ve been a fan of Loretta’s since her small role in A Different World (1987-88), but she really impressed me in Waiting to Exhale (1995), and her many seasons on the TV show Boston Public (2000-2005). Like Woodard, she adds depth to a character just by showing up.
Ace pretty much sums it up in The divine Miss Loretta Devine when she says, “take a moment to think about all the little moments of happiness that Loretta Devine has brought you over the years.”
6. Angela Bassett
Angela’s career has faltered a bit in the last several years, but I still remember how wowed I was with her acting (and her arms!) in What’s Love Got to Do With It (1993). She cemented her status as a woman to reckon with on How Stella Got Her Groove Back (1998) and made a lasting impression in-between in 1995’s Waiting to Exhale (who doesn’t remember the scene of her lighting her cheating husband’s car on fire?)
One of her most recent roles was in the award-winning film Akeelah and the Bee (2007). With roles in three movies currently in post-production, I’m hoping 2008 will be the year of Angela’s big comeback.
5. Queen Latifah
While I’m on the fence about the Queen’s comments about gay issues, I do enjoy watching her act. Whether she’s playing it fierce (1996’s Set It Off), fiery (2002’s Chicago), or fluffy (2006’s Last Holiday), you’re pretty much guaranteed a good time at a Queen Latifah movie.
And I still love that line from her rap days, “I don’t know you from a can of paint.”
4. Nia Long
From her break-out role in Boyz in the Hood (1991) to smaller roles in popular movies like Made in America (1993) and Friday (1995) to larger roles in ensemble dramas like Soul Food (1997) and The Best Man (1999), Nia has been on the cusp of being a leading lady for over a decade, but hasn’t quite made it (although she did co-star in 1997’s soulful but slow Love Jones, and the 1999 undercover drama In Too Deep). Which is too bad, because she’s a terrific actress with great range.
She continues to work steadily, though, most recently in the just-canceled 2007 ABC dramedy Big Shots, where she was pretty much the only good thing about that show.
Nia’s also one of the few black actresses who has played a lesbian on screen — twice — in The Broken Hearts Club (2000) and If These Walls Could Talk 2 (2000). As Linda Villarosa noted in her column last November, few black actresses are willing to play gay roles, so Nia gets extra points for this.
3. Zoe Saldena
Zoe first leapt off the screen in Center Stage (2002), was the best thing about Crossroads (2002), and was memorable but ultimately wasted in “the girlfriend” role in Drumline (2002). But her star has been on the rise in the last few years, no doubt helped by her supporting role in the massively successful Pirates of the Caribbean franchise
Zoe has roles in four new movies being released in the next two years, including the much-talked about role of a young Lt. Uhura in the Star Trek movie. Her Dominican ancestry and fluency in Spanish may give her even more options in terms of roles as Hollywood begins to aggresively court the Latino audience, and we start to see more black Latinas on screen.
2. Regina King
Regina King has been on my radar ever since I was a young girl watching 227 (I loved Brenda’s sarcasm). Whether she’s giving Jerry Maguire (1996) a piece of her mind, calling out her sister on How Stella Got Her Groove Back (1998), supporting her maybe-gay roommate when she was sexually assaulted on Higher Learning (1995), or dealing with a crisis on 24 (2007), nobody can express confidence, or dress you down, quite as effectively as Regina.
Next up for her: producing an all-black remake of The Big Chill. I’ll be shocked if it doesn’t include at least one or two of the women on this list in the cast.
1. Sanaa Lathan
Sanaa was wasted in The Best Man (1999), good in Brown Sugar (2002), a little creepy in Nip/Tuck (2006), and great in Something New (2007). But to me she’ll always be Monica Wright in Love and Basketball, one of my favorite movies because it combines women’s sports, an empowering message, and Sanaa Lathan.
Sanaa has a gift for conveying vulnerability and strength at the same time, and she’s beautiful. What’s not to love? If she’d been on my basketball team in high school, I doubt I would have paid much attention to the coach.
Okay, AfterEllen.com readers, now it’s your turn — who are your favorites?
And teen and college-aged AfterEllen.com readers — who are the young up-and-coming under-30 black actresses? I mean, besides Erica, Zoe, and that High School Musical chick? (And while you’re at it, please explain the popularity of that movie to me. I’ve seen High School Musical 1 and 2, and I just don’t get it.)