10 Unforgettable Breakthrough Film Performances By Great Black Actors

Angela Bassett as Tina Turner in What's Love Got To Do With It
(Image credit: Touchstone Pictures)

Throughout Hollywood’s history, there’s been a bias toward white audiences that has bled into the industry today. While there is a concerted effort for movies and television to better reflect the experiences of more people than ever before these days, there’s much more progress to be made. In spirit of being perceptive to the need for continued representation, let us celebrate how the most iconic Black voices in film broke through into the Hollywood mainstream. 

From Whoopi Goldberg’s start in the ‘80s to Michael B. Jordan just under a decade ago, let’s talk about some of the unforgettable film performances by Black actors that helped really catapult them into super fame. 

Whoopi Goldberg as Celie Harris in The Color Purple

(Image credit: Warner Bros)

Whoopi Goldberg In The Color Purple (1985) 

Whoopi Goldberg is currently a seasoned performer who co-hosts The View following becoming one of the few entertainers in history to receive an EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony wins). The actress got her start on the stage where The Graduate director Mike Nichols discovered her and assisted in a transition to Broadway which led Steven Spielberg to learn of her and cast Goldberg in The Color Purple

At the age of 30, Whoopi Goldberg found her breakthrough with Spielberg’s book adaptation that became commercially and critically successful and earned her a Best Actress Oscar nomination. Since then, Goldberg has been continually successful, also finding many memorable roles in Ghost, Star Trek: The Next Generation and Sister Act

Kevin Kline and Denzel Washington in Cry Freedom

(Image credit: Universal)

Denzel Washington In Cry Freedom (1987) 

Denzel Washington is among the most respected and beloved actors in movie history today. The actor got his start in theater as well after studying acting classically. Shortly after graduating, he nabbed a role in the comedy Carbon Copy alongside George Segal before becoming part of the medical drama St. Elsewhere. In terms of the actor’s breakthrough into the decorated actor he is now, it all started with his role in Richard Attenborough’s Cry Freedom alongside Kevin Kline. 

The 1987 film based on a true story saw Denzel Washington playing Steve Biko, a South African anti-apartheid activist. The movie that opened up a discussion about discrimination and political corruption led to Washington’s first Oscar nomination and a career packed full of challenging and important roles like Glory, Malcolm X, Training Day and many more. 

Laurence Fishburne as Jason 'Furious' Styles Jr. in Boyz n the hood

(Image credit: Columbia Pictures)

Laurence Fishburne In Boyz n the Hood (1991)

Laurence Fishburne is another all-time great Black actor who continues to star in incredible movies and TV shows today including his role in the forthcoming John Wick movie. Fishburne got started in Hollywood at the age of 11, finding roles in ABC soaps before being part of Apocalypse Now as a teen. Throughout the ‘80s he found roles here and there, including a minor role in The Color Purple with Whoopi Goldberg. He starred in Spike Lee’s second film, the under-the-radar School Daze, but 1991’s Boyz n the Hood really brought the actor to the forefront. 

John Singleton’s now modern classic Boyz n the Hood starred Cuba Gooding Jr, Ice Cube, Nia Long, Regina King and Angela Bassett in a crime drama that kickstarted all their careers. At the time Fishburne was recognizable for his nearly 20 year career, but Boyz n the Hood was the first mainstream successful movie that showcased Fishburne’s talent when he played the father figure, Furious Styles (one of many performances he should have received an Oscar for).  Following that performance he started receiving acclaim for a number of roles and of course became Morpheus in The Matrix

Angela Bassett as Tina Turner in What's Love Got To Do With It

(Image credit: Buena Vista Pictures)

Angela Bassett In What’s Love Got To Do With It (1993) 

Angela Bassett is an icon, full stop. Before the actress assumed that title, she graduated from Yale University with a degree in African-American studies and went back to study acting for her MFA. She then moved to Los Angeles and found early key roles in Boyz n the Hood and Malcolm X. She received attention for playing Malcolm X’s wife in the film, but it was 1993’s What’s Love Got To Do With It that allowed her to breakthrough and become the star she is today. 

Bassett portrayed Tina Turner in the biopic, which became a well-loved film and led Bassett to receive major award attention, along with becoming the first Black woman to win the Golden Globe for Best Actress. She went on to star in other major films including Strange Days, Waiting To Exhale, How Stella Got Her Groove Back and tell Rosa Parks’ story in Ride To Freedom

Don Cheadle and Denzel Washington in Devil in a Blue Dress

(Image credit: Sony Pictures Releasing)

Don Cheadle In Devil In A Blue Dress (1995) 

Don Cheadle is one of the coolest and most interesting actors of our day along with him being notably part of the Marvel family as James Rhodes/War Machine as well. After graduating with a BFA in theater in 1986, he got his start in small roles in Hollywood. He found early roles in movies like Colors and an episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air alongside Will Smith. Things started really heating up for the actor when he starred in Devil in a Blue Dress with Denzel Washington. 

The 1995 neo-noir movie based on the Walter Mosley novel instantly got people talking about how Cheadle stole the show in the role of Mouse. The role led Cheadle to level up in Hollywood, leading to roles in Boogie Nights, Out Of Sight and the Ocean’s films leading to a continually illustrious career. 

Gabrielle Union in Bring It On

(Image credit: Universal Pictures)

Gabrielle Union In Bring It On (2000) 

The breakthrough performances we’ve talked about thus far are mainly dramatic performances, making Gabrielle Union’s big moment notable to shed light on. The actress started on TV, finding roles in series such as Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Sister, Sister, 7th Heaven and Friends before finding small roles in teen movies She’s All That and 10 Things I Hate About You. Union became a big name when she starred as Isis in 2000’s Bring It On alongside Kirsten Dunst. 

The cult classic about rival cheerleading teams caught the attention of Hollywood and led the actress to be cast in CBS medical drama City of Angels and find more leading roles, such as in 2003’s Deliver Us From Eva and Bad Boys II. Over twenty years later, she remains a prominent name who is never short of a new role. 

Viola Davis as Sybil in Far From Heaven

(Image credit: Focus Features)

Viola Davis In Far From Heaven (2002) 

Viola Davis is a prolific actress with a number of great performances we love. How did she get here? Davis was a graduate of Juilliard and got her start on the stage, finding her first Broadway role at 31 for an August Wilson play, which has continued to be a notable part of her career. Her early roles were brief in big movies like Ocean’s Eleven, Kate & Leopold and Antwone Fisher. Her breakthrough role was in 2002’s Far From Heaven as Sybil, the housekeeper and confidant to Julianne Moore’s lead character. 

A few years later, Davis’ prominence grew with her role in Doubt and other movies like The Help and Suicide Squad. Nowadays, when a Viola Davis movie comes out, we sit up and pay attention. 

Jamie Foxx as Max Durocher in Collateral

(Image credit: Dreamworks)

Jamie Foxx In Collateral (2004)

Jamie Foxx got his start telling jokes at a comedy club’s open mic night in 1989 thanks to a girlfriend’s dare. Later, he became part of the cast of In Living Color before nabbing a sitcom of his own called The Jamie Foxx Show. As we know in the '90s, TV and movies were a different game. Foxx broke out into the movie business in 1999 with Any Given Sunday but the movie that really cemented his continued popularity is 2001’s Collateral

He starred alongside Tom Cruise in an action thriller that earned him his first Oscar nomination. Just a few months later, his portrayal of Ray Charles led the actor to also nab a Best Actor nomination in the same year and win. 

Taraji P. Henson as Cookie on Empire

(Image credit: Imagine Television)

Taraji P. Henson In Hustle & Flow (2005)

Taraji P. Henson studied drama at Howard University before starting off as a background performer in the early '90s. After finding a first movie role in 1991’s Baby Boy, her breakthrough role was in 2005’s Hustle & Flow, alongside Terrence Howard, Anthony Anderson and Ludacris. The independent film about a hustler and pimp who becomes a rapper was a huge success at the time, putting Henson on the map. 

Henson then received buzz for starring in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button along with starring in big movies including I Can Do Bad All By Myself and The Karate Kid remake. She later reunited with her Hustle & Flow star for the Fox hit series, Empire alongside a vast career in Hollywood. 

Michael B. Jordan as Oscar Grant in Fruitvale Station

(Image credit: The Weinstein Company)

Michael B. Jordan in Fruitvale Station (2013) 

One more recent performance by a Black actor that has turned an actor into a big star is Michael B. Jordan’s in Fruitvale Station. The Ryan Coogler film premiered at Sundance in 2013 to high acclaim before making a mark on Hollywood in other ways. Thanks to the movie’s big splash, Coogler and Jordan partnered up again to make Creed alongside Sylvester Stallone and then for 2018’s Black Panther

There’s a lot more incredible breakthrough performances we certainly missed, but it’s interesting to see how some of Hollywood’s biggest Black stars got their start. Here’s to celebrating more great actors in the years to come. You never know where the next major star will pop up first in upcoming movies

Sarah El-Mahmoud
Staff Writer

Sarah El-Mahmoud has been with CinemaBlend since 2018 after graduating from Cal State Fullerton with a degree in Journalism. In college, she was the Managing Editor of the award-winning college paper, The Daily Titan, where she specialized in writing/editing long-form features, profiles and arts & entertainment coverage, including her first run-in with movie reporting, with a phone interview with Guillermo del Toro for Best Picture winner, The Shape of Water. Now she's into covering YA television and movies, and plenty of horror. Word webslinger. All her writing should be read in Sarah Connor’s Terminator 2 voice over.