Here at That Sister we’re supported by you, our sisters. If you buy via a link on this site, we may earn an affiliate commission. This doesn’t cost you anything & it doesn’t influence the products we talk about.
Some of the most memorable characters in film and television history have been performed by powerful Black female leads. From superheroes to con artists, maids to nuns, pop singers to abusive mothers, they’ve played them all.
Here’s some talented Black female leads we love. We also include some of the movies & TV shows you can catch them in.
There could have been only one person to play Jackie Brown: Pam Grier.
Grier was the original badass blaxploitation queen, one of the first women to be cast as a strong female lead. In her first film, she starred as Coffy, a woman who was a nurse by day and sought vengeance at night on a drug dealer who got her little sister hooked.
The following year Grier was cast as the lead in Foxy Brown. In true blaxploitation style, Grier worked as a prostitute while hunting down bad guys at night.
Twenty-three years later (23!) Grier showed that she still has swag. In Quentin Tarantino’s homage to Foxy Brown, Jackie Brown is a tough, sexy Black woman who outsmarts both the cops and the crooks.
What do you do when your mom is an 80’s sitcom icon and your father is a rock star?
You hold your own.
Zoë Kravitz, daughter of Lisa Bonet and Lenny Kravitz, has shown that she has acting chops in her own right. From her superhero breakout role in X-Men: First Class, to a lead role in the romantic comedy series High Fidelity, to the lead villain Catwoman in The Batman, Zoë Kravitz has some range.
She is currently the lead in Channing Tatum’s love life.
Born in Mexico and raised in Kenya, Lupita Nyong’o came to Hollywood the long way.
But arrive she did. Nyong’o’s very first film appearance in the critically acclaimed 12 Years a Slave earned her an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.
She would join the Marvel Cinematic Universe in Black Panther and its sequel, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, both of which shattered box office records.
Nyong’o cemented herself as a bonafide leading lady with depth by starring in Jordan Peele’s horror, Us.
Viola Davis is nothing short of a Hollywood heavyweight. Star of stage and screen, she has numerous awards and has inspired many young Black women who have come after her.
Many of her critically acclaimed performances came as the lead actor. She channeled her mother and grandmother for her role as a maid in The Help. She alsostarred alongside Chad Bosewick in his last role in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.
But it was her lead role as a criminal defense attorney and professor in How to Get Away with Murder that made Davis get a PrimeTime Emmy Award. This award was for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama series, and she was the first Asfrican American women to get it.
Halle Berry burst onto the Hollywood scene like a storm.
Berry played the Marvel superhero Storm in all four X-Men movies where she played alongside soon-to-be-household names such as Hugh Jackman. She also showed her chops in the action-thriller Swordfish.
However, it was Berry’s performance as the wife of a murderer in Monster’s Ball that earned her the Academy Award for Best Actress. She became the first African-American woman to achieve the feat.
Berry makes regular appearances on “Sexiest Women in the World” lists and has done so for what seems like decades.
Angela Bassett’s acting resumé is as long as it is impressive. Her list of awards and accomplishments are too many to mention.
Bassett gained international stardom for her portrayal of Tina Turner in the biopic, What’s Love Got to Do with It. The role garnered a Golden Globe and an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress.
Bassett starred in films like How Stella Got Her Groove Back and Waiting to Exhale alongside Whitney Houston. She truly is a queen of the big screen, starring as Queen Ramonda in the Black Panther movies as well as Avengers: Endgame.
Alfre Woodard has enjoyed a career in Hollywood that has spanned 50 years.
Woodward’s performances always seem to be of strong black female characters, or maybe she just makes them that way.
She plays a mom dying of cancer in Spike Lee’s Crooklyn; a prison warden in Clemency; and has had success on the small screen and is one of the most prominent black female leads on tv with starring roles on hit shows like Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere, and L.A. Law.
The range Woodard embodies has earned her the deepest respect from her colleagues. Numerous Emmy Awards, Golden Globes, and Screen Actors Guild Awards can attest to that.
One of the best series to hit the small screen in years is Abbott Elementary. It stars Quinta Brunson, who created, wrote, and executive produces the show.
Brunson plays an upbeat second-grade teacher at a Black public school in Philadelphia. She has won numerous awards and accolades for her work on the series, including an Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series.
Brunson has also flexed her comedy chops, having starred in the very funny A Black Lady Sketch Show. She was also voted Time 100 Most Influential People.
Kerry Washington was born in New York City but made her mark in Washington, D.C.
Washington starred as Olivia Pope in the highly successful series, Scandal, in which she ran her own crisis management firm and worked for the President of the United States. Her performance earned her an Emmy Award nomination for Outstanding Actress in a Drama Series.
Washington has been flexing her creative muscle ever since. She has directed several projects, executive produced others, and even provided the voice for a recurring character on The Simpsons.
Hollywood legend Whoopi Goldberg is in the EGOT club, having won an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar, and Tony award. She is one of the most recognizable faces in Hollywood with cameo appearances in Family Guy and Seasame Street.
Goldberg began her career in comedy, starring in her one-woman show on Broadway. She quickly leapt to prominence on the big screen in the critically-acclaimed, The Color Purple.
Although not the lead actress, Goldberg was outstanding as the comedy foil in the fantasy film, Ghost. From there she became a leading lady in her own right in the very successful Sister Act movies.
Goldberg found a home in television as well, replacing Rosie O’Donnell on The View. She has been dishing out her unique and sometimes controversial opinions since 2007.
Danai Gurira has starred as a superhero more than once. She has been a Marvel Cinematic Universe mainstay as Okoye, appearing in both the Black Panther and Avengers franchises.
When Gurira is not Okoye, she can usually be found killing zombies. She starred in the hit series The Walking Dead for eight seasons.
Gurira was born in Iowa but grew up in Zimbabwe. She returned to the United States after high school to study psychology and acting. Her ability to kill zombies comes naturally.
Octavia Spencer acted on film and television for more than fifteen years before nailing her most memorable role.
Spencer played maid Minny Jackson in The Help, winning an Academy Award for her performance. The film is set during the Civil Rights Movement in Jackson, Mississippi in 1963.
Shifting gears entirely, Spencer is the lead in Ma, a psychological horror in which she befriends then terrorizes a group of local teens.
The Cosby Show, ran for eight seasons from 1984-1992, and it was very popular. It focused on the lives of an upper-class Black American family.
Phylicia Rashad starred as Clair Huxtable, a successful lawyer married to her obstetrician husband, played by Bill Cosby. They were the loving parents of three daughters and a son.
Rashad is not just a television actor. She has graced the stage in a number of theater productions, winning a Tony Award for Lead Actress in Raisin in the Sun.
Gabourey Sidibe is Precious.
Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry combined forces to produce the heartfelt movie that sees Sidibe’s Precious suffering from poverty and abuse from her mother. At the tender age of 16, she already has two children as a result of sexual abuse from her own father.
Her breakout role earned her both Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations.
Monique Angela Hicks
Perhaps even more of a powerful performance from the movie Precious comes from the abusive mother herself, played by Mo’nique.
Mo’nique is primarily known as a stand-up comedian, having performed as one of the Queens of Comedy. But she also showed she can act in a dramatic role. And then some.
Mo’nique received critical acclaim for her performance in Precious, including an Academy Award. She’s really nothing like the cruel character that she plays.
Lisa Bonet appeared on one of the most popular sitcoms in television history, The Cosby Show. She then became a lead of her own on the spin-off series, A Different World.
The two series ran concurrently. The latter followed Bonet’s character as she went off to Hillman College. The show was also very successful.
Bonet is the mother of another name on this list– Zoë Kravitz– with former husband, rock star Lenny Kravitz.
Orange is the New Black launched the careers of many Black female actors.
Born in Mobile, Alabama, Laverne Cox was one of those who earned praise for her role as Sophia Burset on the prison series.
She became the first transgender person to be up for an Emmy Award nomination. She is an inspiration and a trailblazer in the LGBTQ community.
Sheryl Lee Ralph
Sheryl Lee Ralph has had a long and illustrious career in film, television, and on stage. She’s been at it for over forty years and still going strong.
Ralph was nominated for a Tony Award for her role in the Broadway play, Dreamgirls, in 1981. She had a successful run on the television show Moesha for six seasons.
However, new audiences would recognize Ralph from the hit series, Abbott Elementary. She plays teacher Barbara Howard on the mockumentary sitcom.
Zendaya Maree Stoermer Coleman
Zendaya started at an early age modeling before breaking into television.
She soon became a Disney sensation, landing the role of Rocky Blue on Shake It Up. She hit the big screen in the Spiderman franchise, first in Homecoming before landing the starring role of MJ in No Way Home.
If that was not enough, Zendaya released her debut studio album in 2013.
Gabrielle Union made her film debut in She’s All That before playing Shawnee opposite Omar Epps in Love & Basketball. She hit the mainstream as a cheerleader in Bring It On.
Union has also shown her prowess with a pen, having written four books including two children’s books, Welcome to the Party and Shady Baby.
Union is married to former NBA great, Dwyane Wade.
Esther Rolle will always be remembered as Florida Evans in Good Times.
She played the character on the sitcom Maude for two seasons before spinning off into her own starring role. She played a no-nonsense mom and a loyal wife in a family just trying to get by.
Rolle comes by her character’s name honestly: she was born in Pompano Beach, Florida.
Hailing from New York City, Nia Long was destined for show business. She moved with her mother to Los Angeles at the age of seven.
Long starred in The Best Man movies as well as Big Momma’s House and Big Momma’s House 2 with Martin Lawrence.
Long had success on the small screen as well. She starred in the crime drama series Third Watch and the critically-acclaimed drama Empire.
Whitney Houston will forever be remembered as “The Voice”.
However, Houston showed that in addition to being a musical sensation, she can act. She starred in The Bodyguard opposite Hollywood heavyweight Kevin Costner. The soundtrack to the album won a Grammy Award.
Houston followed that performance with a starring role in Waiting to Exhale with Angela Bassett.
Despite her wealth of talent, Houston had a tumultuous personal life. She was married to singer Bobby Brown before her singing and acting career was cut short way too soon.
When you study acting at Juilliard, you have great ambitions to be a movie or television star.
Such was the case with Nicole Beharie. Her film debut was a starring role in American Violet, the victim of harsh police tactics.
She would also star opposite the late great Chadwick Boseman, playing the wife of Jackie Robinson in the baseball film, 42.
Many actors and comedians see hosting Saturday Night Live as the pinnacle of their careers. However, few win an Emmy while doing it.
Tiffany Haddish won the award in 2017 when she hosted SNL. She earned the hosting job after her breakout role that year when she starred as Dina in Girls Trip.
Her comedy also earned her a Grammy Award for Best Comedy Album, the only other Black woman to win it since Whoopee Goldberg.
Tessa Thompson is an accomplished actress with leading roles in films like the comedy-drama Dear White People, the historical drama Selma, Tyler Perry’s For Colored Girls, and the Creed franchise of movies. She was also the lead in Sylvie’s Love.
However, newer audiences may know her best as the superhero Valkyrie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Her badass character appears in Avengers: Endgame and Thor: Ragnorak. Thompson was also fantastic in the sci-fi series, Westworld.
You can see Thompson up close and personal at a Comic-Con near you.
Regina King broke into acting on both the big and small screens. She made a cameo in the cult classic Boyz in the Hood and in the television series, 227.
Her role as Marcee Tidwell in the blockbuster Jerry Maguire opened the floodgates to a career still going strong. She was nominated for several awards for her performance in the Ray Charles biopic, Ray.
King has won an Academy Award for If Beale Street Could Talk and an Emmy Award for the hit television series, Scandal.
King also has an eye for behind the camera as well. She has taken her years of experience in the business to become a well-respected director. Her directorial debut was One Night in Miami…, about the night Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, Jim Brown, and Sam Cooke got together.
Black Female Leads, Final Thoughts
The list of great Black female leads is too big to narrow down to just a few. There are many more that deserve mention.
Every time a Black woman walks on a stage to accept an award, she opens up the door to other young Black women waiting in the wings. Great acting can be truly inspirational.
For many of these Black female leads, they have rewritten film and television history and continue to leave their mark in Hollywood and across mainstream culture.