Five Black Actors You Should Know

(Plus, local talent you should work with)

While Hollywood & pop criticism lack representation & amplification of Black actors, Black creators have been utilizing the form brilliantly since almost the medium's beginning. A simple list of five is insufficient, so in addition to checking out these five Black actors, we encourage you to explore the work of many more!

Hattie McDaniel

Hattie McDaniel

As with our Black Directors feature, we thought it was important to do some time traveling and begin our list near the origins of cinema. As it is true in most American art forms, Black artists are the bedrock. Hattie McDaniel was the first Black artist to win an Academy Award for Gone With the Wind (1939). Her work in the film has been the source of many conversations of representation over the last 100 years. Most recently in 2020 when HBOMax abruptly took the film down from their streaming platform, only to re-add with supplemental materials for context. The role, though, is quite emblematic of the parts McDaniel was often relegated.

Originally a Chicago recording artist with Paramount & Okeh Records, McDaniel found herself making the voyage out to Los Angeles after the stock market crash in 1929. She utilized her skills as a performer to transition to film. However, she was continuously cast in marginal roles. Her undeniable voice & screen presence couldn’t be dampened, though. She got her big break in John Ford’s Judge Priest (1934). From here, she continued to trail-blaze but at the same time experiencing great racism & segregation. Even with the aforementioned Oscar, she was only admitted to the actual ceremony “as a favor.” She was forced to sit alone at a segregated table at the side of the room due to the venue, the Ambassador Hotel, being a whites-only theater.

It’s definite that McDaniel paved the way for many other Black performers, but one cannot ignore her success without acknowledging the resistance she was met with, both on and off the screen, in both Black & white communities. In this, Hattie McDaniel’s lived complexities personify the struggle many Black artists continue to come up against.

Notable works:
Judas Priest (1934)
Show Boat (1936)
Gone With the Wind (1939)
The Great Lie (1941)

Duane Jones

Bridging our list to contemporary performers would be unfit without acknowledging the performers who rose out of the Blaxploitation and independent film movements. New York actor & theatre director, Duane Jones, represents the layered & subversive work being done at the time. Jones is perhaps most well known for his performance in the horror classic Night of the Living Dead (1968).

His casting was somewhat controversial as the character was originally written for a white performer. George Romero, the film’s director & Godfather of Zombie cinema, pithily explained to critics, “Duane simply gave the best audition.” Jones’ work on the film brought forward racial undertones & commentary that wasn’t in the original text, making it an important marker in Black film history. Though his life was tragically cut short due to cardiac arrest in 1988, Jones gave another seminal performance in Bill Gun’s Ganja & Hess (1973). Half experimental film, half horror, the film has become a cult classic after screening at Cannes, with fans worldwide citing it for its ingenuity. If you aren’t familiar with this film, you may be familiar with one of its greatest champions, Spike Lee, who did the 2014 remake, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus.

Notable works:
Night of the Living Dead 
Ganja & Hess (1973)
Duane Jones
Sandra Caldwell

Sandra Caldwell

Many readers in their 20s & 30s may recognize Sandra’s face from her work in the Disney Channel original masterpiece, The Cheetah Girls (2003). Few have given her the celebration and recognition that her four-decade career warrants. With over 50 film credits to go along with her copious stage work, Caldwell has routinely contributed to some amazing Black creators and the industry as a whole. Her most distinguished credit comes in Maya Angelou’s only directing effort Down in the Delta (1998).

Over the last 4 years, Sandra has also opened up about her identity and in the New York Times, came out publicly as trans. She has continued to talk about her experiences as well as being an advocate for other up-and-coming performers; she spoke candidly, contributing to Sam Feder’s Netflix documentary, Disclosure (2020), and expressed beautiful excitement for what the future holds.

Notable works:
Down in the Delta 
The Cheetah Girls (2003)
The Book of Negroes 

Ego Nwodim

In her third year on SNL, Ego Nwodim is stealing most sketches– let alone most shows. Her journey to performing wasn’t a straight and narrow path, though. Originally from Baltimore, she made her way out to LA for college to study Biology. In an interview with Seth Meyers, she explained that the only way her mom would let her move to “where the acting was” is if she promised to be pre-med. Consigned to performing outside of school, she began performing at UCB Los Angeles, making waves with her one-woman show, Great Black Women...and Then There's Me.

Ego’s ability to play the straight man or fish out of water helps keep SNL above water while it navigates, attempting a comedy show amid a pandemic. If you have a duly reasonable aversion to SNL, check out her writing jokes on Twitter or hear her improvising on the podcast of all comedy podcasts, Comedy Bang Bang.

Notable work:
SNL (2018-current)

Ego Nwodim
Ramona Edith Williams

Ramona Edith Williams

To segue our list into our hometown shout-outs, we thought it was fitting to feature the up-and-coming star, Ramona Edith Williams. What she lacks in age, Ramona makes up with screen presence. She most notably co-starred alongside Kelly O’Sullivan in Chicago’s own Saint Frances (2019). Ramona’s precocious charm helped catapult the feature to national relevance and the 2019 Audience & Jury Awards at SXSW. Vanity Fair’s Richard Lawson closed his recent Oscar piece, pleading with the Academy to catch-up with the film. Lawson likened Alex Thompson's gentle film to “a bleary-eyed hug, offer[ing] in the truest sense of communion.” Additionally, Ramona recently paid her Dick Wolf dues while appearing in Chicago PD as Makayla Ward. As her IMDb bio points out, Ramona also has aspirations to be an Olympic ice skater. So whether it’s on the big screen or the podium, we’re excited for Chicago’s future with Ramona on our team.

Notable works:
Saint Frances (2020)
Chicago PD (2021)


Looking to work with Black Actors in Chicago?
Here are some we recommend checking out:
(in no particular order)

Melissa Duprey
Daniel Kyri
Kiayla Ryann
Jalyn Greene
Terry Guest
Charles Andrew Gardner
McKenzie Chinn
Jalen Gilbert
Chimika Rudy

Keisha Champagne

Check out Black in Film for even more great talent!