Sheryl Lee Ralph: What To Watch If You Like The Abbott Elementary Star

Barbara (Sheryl Lee Ralph) on Abbott Elementary
(Image credit: ABC)

Abbott Elementary’s Sheryl Lee Ralph stole the show at the Emmys with her powerful acceptance speech, which began with a rendition of “Endangered Species.” After becoming the first black woman in 35 years to win Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy series, the actor belted out the Dianne Reeves song and commanded the respect of everyone in the room.

No one would expect Barbara Howard, the reserved, even-keeled elementary school teacher Ralph plays on Abbott Elementary, to command the room like she did at the Emmys—but that’s just a testament to her ability to embody the roles she plays.

Her career did not start with Abbott Elementary—she already has a Tony award for her role in DreamGirls on Broadway, and even played Madame Morrible in Wicked. But, for those who love her and want more, here’s a list of some of her best film and TV performances (as well as where you can watch each of them).

Moesha (Brandy) and Dee (Sheryl Lee Ralph) on Moesha

(Image credit: UPN)

Moesha (1996-2001)

Prior to her current hit sitcom, Sheryl Lee Ralph was probably best known for her role alongside Brandy Norwood on the UPN comedy, Moesha. For five years, Ralph portrayed Dee Mitchell, Moesha’s step-mother. The show portrayed real issues blended families go through, while also touching on the experience of being a Black teen.

Funnily enough, Ralph also played an educator in Moesha—Dee Mitchell was a principal. (Moesha’s own principal, actually.)

Stream Moesha on Hulu.

Sheryl Lee Ralph as Beverly in Mistress

(Image credit: Rainbow Releasing)

Mistress (1992)

One of her early film roles was in Mistress, a comedy/drama starring Robert De Niro, Laurie Metcalf, and Christopher Walken, among many others. The plot revolves around a resurrected film script and three businessmen who agree to fund the movie—the only catch is that all three of the men insist that their mistresses must be cast in the movie.

Ralph played Beverly, the only one of the three mistresses with actual acting chops, but one of the less talented mistresses was played by fellow 2022 Emmy winner Jean Smart. With a killer cast and an intriguing plot, Mistress is a must-see for Ralph’s fans.

Rent/buy Mistress on Amazon. 

Sheryl Lee Ralph in Instant Mom

(Image credit: Nickelodeon)

Instant Mom (2013-2015)

Sheryl Lee Ralph acted opposite Tia Mowry-Hardrict in this Nick at Nite/NickMom sitcom. The show stars Mowry-Hardrict, as she becomes a step-mom to her new husband’s three children.

Ralph portrayed Mowry-Hardrict’s mother in the series, depicting a mother-daughter relationship where mother always knows best. The show was canceled after three seasons, but actually received decent reviews.

Stream Instant Mom on Paramount+.
Buy Instant Mom on Amazon.

Jan Hooks and Sheryl Lee Ralph in a Gone With the Wind-inspired scene from Designing Women

(Image credit: CBS)

Designing Women (1992)

The actress also held an important guest role in Season 7 of the CBS sitcom, Designing Women, a show about the women who work at an Atlanta interior design firm.

Ralph played Etienne Toussaint Bouvier, a showgirl and singer who marries one of the main characters, Anthony, in Vegas. It’s a mess at first, as most Vegas marriages are, but the pair eventually fall in love for real. Etienne is a memorable guest character thanks to Sheryl Lee Ralph’s charm.

Stream Designing Women on Hulu.

A tense scene in To Sleep With Anger

(Image credit: The Samuel Goldwyn Company)

To Sleep With Anger (1990)

This black comedy from Charles Burnett stars Danny Glover as a charming yet mysterious man, Harry, who visits his friend Gideon after years of not seeing each other.

When Gideon gets sick, Harry steps in to “take his place” as the man of the house. Ralph portrays Linda, one of the family members whose life is turned upside down by Harry’s arrival. It’s a smaller role for Ralph, but the movie is so culturally significant it’s worth a watch whether you’re a fan of the actress or not.

Rent/buy To Sleep With Anger on Amazon.

Sheryl Lee Ralph as Lola in The Mighty Quinn

(Image credit: Metro Goldwyn-Mayer)

The Mighty Quinn (1989)

She ventured outside the world of comedy yet again for the thriller The Mighty Quinn. The movie stars Denzel Washington as Xavier Quinn, chief of police in Jamaica. Ralph portrays his estranged wife, Lola. When a murder occurs at a luxury resort, Quinn’s best friend Maubee is singled out as the main suspect. His quest to clear his friend’s name leads him to uncover secrets he didn’t even know he was looking for.

Ralph is perfect in The Mighty Quinn as the wife who's extremely over her husband's BS. Xavier is committed to a fault to clearing his friend's name, but can't even make time to spend with his wife and son? I'm on her side. 

Stream The Mighty Quinn on HBO Max.
Buy The Mighty Quinn on Amazon.

Sheryl Lee Ralph in The Distinguished Gentleman

(Image credit: Hollywood Pictures)

The Distinguished Gentleman (1992)

This political comedy follows con man, Thomas Jefferson “Jeff” Johnson (played by Eddie Murphy), as he swindles his way into the United States Congress. While the original plan is to scheme money from lobbyists, Jeff begins to realize how deep corruption runs in Congress, making The Distinguished Gentleman a very self-aware political commentary.

Ralph portrays Loretta Hicks, a staffer in his office, and it's fun to watch her get in on the trickery. The Scandinavian phone sex operation is particularly hilarious.

Buy The Distinguished Gentleman DVD on Amazon.

Sheryl Lee Ralph as Florence in Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit

(Image credit: Touchstone Pictures)

Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit (1993)

A sequel to the 1992 film Sister Act, Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit is a musical comedy starring Whoopi Goldberg as an undercover nun. The plot of the sequel revolves around saving a school from being shut down by using the power of music. Ralph portrays Florence, the mother of talented singer, Rita (played by R&B legend Lauryn Hill). 

Florence is a no-nonsense mom who discourages her daughter’s musical aspirations, but ultimately gains a better understanding of her daughter’s ambition. Like the first film, Sister Act 2 is full of gospel and R&B renditions. Now that I’ve heard Sheryl Lee Ralph sing, it's no wonder she was cast in the film.

Stream Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit on Disney+.
Rent/buy Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit on Amazon.

The President (Kevin Pollak) addresses the nation in Deterrence

(Image credit: Paramount Vantage)

Deterrence (1999)

One of her few un-funny roles is in the much more serious film, Deterrence, a political thriller about the threat of nuclear destruction. She plays Gayle Redford, the National Security Advisor for the United States under fictional president, Walter Emerson.

This film is a great example of Sheryl Lee Ralph’s range—whether it’s a light-hearted comedy or an intense, thoughtful drama, she always understands the assignment.

Rent/buy Deterrence on Amazon.

With a Tony and an Emmy under her belt, I’m feeling an EGOT brewing for Ms. Ralph.

Season 2 of Abbott Elementary premieres September 21 on ABC, but in the meantime you can stream the first season of the Emmy-winning show with a Hulu subscription.

Emily Marek

She/her. Lover of female-led comedies, Saturday Night Live, and THAT scene in Fleabag. Will probably get up halfway through the movie to add more butter to the popcorn.