Fiction is full of black characters on-screen and off. At their best, they are complex people portrayed with depth and humanity.
Here are some of the most memorable black and African-American characters in fiction and television.
Carlton Banks From The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air
Carlton Banks of Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was a bright, scholarship student with eclectic interests. They ranged from violin to chess. While not the protagonist, Banks is ‘Bel-Air’s’ narrative foil to the protagonist.
His unlikely combination of opinions and hobbies gave Banks a then-atypical three-dimensionality that made him relatable to the young, black audience watching the show.
Luke Cage From Marvel’s Luke Cage
Marvel’s bulletproof man began as a comic book character in the 1970s. He’s come a long way since his debut and was recently portrayed by actor Mike Colter in Netflix’s adaptation of the series.
Cage gets his powers after an in-prison experiment of dubious ethics. Despite this, he uses these superpowers to protect his beloved Harlem and often teams up with a friend and fellow superhero Danny Rand as detective duo “Heroes for Hire.”
Raven From That’s So Raven
Actress Raven Symoné plays the titular Raven on the 1990s hit show, That’s So Raven.
It’s a show replete with black characters, but also with the usual dramas of high school. For many, what’s remarkable about the show is it is unapologetically about African-Americans, allowing the complexity and nuance not guaranteed on network TV at the time when it aired.
Storm From The X-Men
Storm is another black character on this list with a superhero identity. She first appeared in Giant-Sized X-Men in 1975.
Since then, there have been several on-screen depictions of the character, including performances by:
- Cree Suther
- Jill Scott
- Danielle Nicolet
Notably, Storm is the first superhero of African-American lineage to appear in Marvel’s comics art. Misty Knight predates her, but only since she gets mentioned by other characters. Storm appears with artwork and superpowers, and the result is unforgettable.
Annalise Keating From How to Get Away with Murder
Annalise Keating, played by Viola Davis, has the distinction of being one of TV’s bisexual characters and one of the more memorable black female characters on screen.
Keating is an adept lawyer who spends much of How to Get Away With Murder covering up a string of murders while trying to elude suspicion and capture.
Davis’ compelling performance of Keating earned her a Primetime Emmy for Best Actress.
Misty Knight From Marvel’s Luke Cage
Misty Knight starts as a relatively mundane Harlem detective. She first appeared in the comic series Marvel Premier in 1975, where she got a name but no illustration.
That changed as the character evolved, and it wasn’t long before Misty Knight was a superhero in her own right. She routinely fights evil alongside:
- Colleen Wing
- Luke Cage
- Danny Rand
On the small screen, Knight is played by Simone Missick. Depending on the source material, Knight acquires a bionic arm from Tony Stark or Danny Rand. Throughout several Netflix series, the show plays with variations on how and when Knight loses the arm, reimagining the incident to keep comic-savvy viewers engaged.
Both comics and show agree that superhero abilities aside, Knight is an intelligent, capable detective who villains underestimate to their detriment.
Detective Spencer Jordan From Waking the Dead
Spencer Jordan, called Spence by colleagues and long-time viewers, was a fictional detective on the British mystery series Waking the Dead. Alongside Superintendent Peter Boyd and profiler Grace Foley, Spence helped investigate cold cases.
While predominantly an ensemble show, Spence’s past comes back to haunt him in the season five finale, “Cold Fusion,” when it emerges a former friend and hero betrayed him and the job while working a gruesome case in the 1980s.
Spence often acts as a foil to Trevor Eve’s Boyd but has tremendous affection for Grace Foley, played by Dame Sue Johnson.
Wallace Fennel From Veronica Mars
Played by Percy Daggs III, Wallace Fennel enters Veronica Mars inauspiciously. He starts his time at Neptune tied to a flagpole. But between his athleticism and academic brilliance, things soon improve.
He forms a fast friendship with the eponymous heroine Veronica, and together the two solve noir-style mysteries in and around the town of Neptune.
He briefly leaves town to spend time with his biological father, but when things go wrong, it’s Veronica he asks for help.
Olivia Pope From Scandal
Kerry Washington’s depiction of Olivia Pope on Scandal brought her to critical acclaim. The character was independent-minded, suffered no fools, and had the courage of her convictions.
Hers was a character people everywhere could identify with, seeing Pope as more than a composite of stereotypes. Pope was outspoken at a time when women were redefining their voice in the world. Pope’s no-nonsense competence played an integral part in finding that voice.
Charles Gun From Angel
Charles Gunn, as played by J. August Richards, makes his first appearance on Angel the Series late in season one. In an episode titled “War Zone,” we meet Gunn and sister Alonna.
When Alonna becomes a vampire, Gunn must kill her or join her. It’s an impossible choice, but he buries his sister and joins forces with Angel and his fellow investigators to keep fighting the good fight.
Later in the show’s run, Gunn is “upgraded” from resident strong-man to lawyer. The show’s portrayal of race, and Gunn’s relationship with it especially, can be complicated, but Richards ensures the performance is always engaging.
Dr. Eric Foreman From House M.D.
When Omar Epps started on House, it was as one of the titular doctor’s put-upon team members.
But Epps’ depiction of Foreman was of a compassionate man and skillful doctor who soon found himself tasked with reigning in House’s more fantastical treatment ideas.
He briefly tried working elsewhere, but four years with Dr. House had left its mark. He was too innovative to manage another department, and he was soon back at House’s fictive diagnostics division.
Phillip Broyles From Fringe
Lance Redick’s Agent Phillip Broyles is one of TV’s less obviously memorable black characters. But he’s fondly remembered by devotees of the TV series Fringe.
Initially intimidating but always charismatic, Broyles heads the unlikely Fringe division as it tackles improbable crimes. As the series evolves, he shifts from antagonism towards Anna Torv’s Agent Olivia Dunham to one of her most vocal defenders.
Because of the nature of the show, Redick has a chance to depict several versions of this African-American character across multiple universes. Whatever the world or dystopian future, the root of Phillip Broyles remains unchanged. He is and always will be a man of integrity.
Burton ‘Gus’ Guster From Psych
Played by Dulé Hill, Gus is the good-hearted, conscientious best friend of psychic detective Shawn Spencer.
As a pharmaceutical sales representative, Gus is perpetually trying and failing to curb his best friend’s flights of professional fancy. He’s seldom successful, and Gus, who dislikes blood, corpses, and the trappings of the police procedural, spends an inordinate amount of time dealing with all these things.
But affection for friends outweighs fear, and there are few things Gus won’t do for friends who acknowledge his value and dedication to them.
Chidi Anagonye From The Good Place
Chidi Anagonye, played by William Jackson Harper, is another of TV’s striking black characters.
Anagonye is an acutely ethical character, something that works to his detriment in the world of The Good Place. His perpetual indecision and moral rigidity can be agonizing for loved ones, and when the show starts, he finds himself not in the titular Good Place but in The Bad Place.
It’s a damning place to start, but leaves Chidi in a position to move forward with more confidence and less guilt as the show evolves.
Randall Pearson From This Is Us
Played by Sterling K Brown, Randall Pearson of This is Us is the adoptive black child of white parents.
Consequently, Pearson feels perpetually pulled between two worlds as he struggles to integrate into his adoptive inheritance and preserve his sense of black identity.
It’s a struggle that resonated with viewers everywhere and makes Pearson a sympathetic black character.
Madi From Black Sails
Zethu Dlomo plays Madi on Starz’s popular series Black Sails.
She’s the pragmatic daughter of the Maroon Queen, one of television’s most formidable black female characters.
She plays a vital part in allying with her people and Captain Flint. She sails with The Walrus crew and eventually becomes romantically involved with John Silver.
But she is the inheritor of her mother’s leadership, and that position comes foremost, even as she tries to tether Silver to a more practical and less romantic worldview.
Peter Grant From Rivers of London
Detective Peter Grant is that rare thing, a black character in fantasy writing. While the number of black characters in fantasy and sci-fi continues to rise, it owes no small part to wisecracking, architecture devotee Peter Grant.
Grant is an ordinary policeman until the evening he finds himself taking a witness statement from a ghost in London’s Trafalgar Square. So starts his career as one of the lead investigators of the Metropolitan Police’s magical police.
As the series progresses, Grant brokers deals with river gods, fights for vampiric civil rights, and goes toe to toe with aggressive unicorns.
Alphonso ‘Mack’ Mackenzie From Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
Henry Simmons’s Alphonso Mackenzie, ‘Mack’ to fellow agents, enters the TV show Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. in its second season.
On the surface, he’s an engineer brought in to do what an injured colleague no longer can and keep the airplanes fighting fit.
But Mack soon emerges as a double agent. He’s not all bad, though; he and fellow undercover agent Bobbie Morse are working to shape a better future for S.H.I.E.L.D.
Mack’s ability to see the greater good ultimately leads to his position as director of S.H.I.E.L.D., where he leads friends and colleagues on several missions to keep the world as we know it safe.
Susie Carmichael From Rugrats
Susie is another of TV’s memorable animated black characters. One of the most recognizable things about Susie is her hair. It’s as unapologetically black a hairstyle as Susie is unequivocally herself.
And that’s no bad thing. Angelica’s name might be a misnomer, but Susie is kind, optimistic, and forgiving.
She features not only in Rugrats but its spin-off, All Grown Up.
X From The X-Files
Steven Williams’ depiction of X might be one of television’s most enigmatic African-American characters.
X, who never gets a proper name, is the inheritor of Deep Throat. For several seasons, X acts as Special Agent Mulder’s informant, keeping him apprised of covert government operations and conspiracies.
But he isn’t happy about it. X is perpetually grumpy, and always has one eye looking over his shoulder for safety’s sake. His morality is flexible, and he isn’t afraid of the occasional lie.
Because it’s The X-Files, X returns twice after dying in the season four premiere. He reappears in a flashback episode in season five and again in the show’s final episode.
Sethe From Beloved
Sethe is the tormented protagonist of Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved. Memorably, Sethe kills her infant daughter to prevent her re-enslavement.
The novel takes inspiration from the story of Margaret Garner. In Morrison’s hands, it’s a complex narrative of parental love, freedom, and guilt.
When the book went to film in 1998, Oprah Winfrey played Sethe.
Irvin Irving From Bosch
Irvin Irving is the second African-American character on this list played by Lance Redick.
He’s the superior officer to Titus Welliver’s windmill-tilting Detective Bosch. Much like Redick’s earlier role unlike Broyles, Irving is more morally ambiguous and unapologetically climbs into bed with politicians as necessary.
He’s doomed to perpetually clash with the eponymous Bosch, as he hares off in the name of justice, leaving Irving to pick up the pieces as best he can.
Darius Epps From Atlanta
Darius Epps, depicted by LaKeith Lee Stanfield in Atlanta is a Nigerian-American. Stanfield depicts him as a visionary who is comfortable with himself and the world.
Crucially, he can also be funny. He’s quick to laugh and even faster to make others laugh with him.
While his philosophies can border on quirky, Epps is also a compassionate character. It’s a combination that leaves an impression, making Epps arguably one of the most memorable black characters on TV.
Jerry ‘J.’ Edgar From Bosch
Jerry ‘J.’ Edgar is one of several black characters to feature in the TV series Bosch. He is Bosch’s police partner.
Initially, Edgar does his best to ground Bosch’s chivalric sense of honor. But as the series progresses, Edgar acquires several subplots of his own.
The most memorable involves Edgar’s Haitian ancestry. It’s a tribute to actor Jamie Hector’s origins, but it also gives Edgar’s character a chance to weigh pursuing vengeance against justice.
The character briefly appears in the Bosch spin-off, Bosch: Legacy, however, it is not a recurring character.
Erica Sinclair From Stranger Things
Priah Ferguson’s Erica Sinclair is bright, precocious, and sometimes abrasive. She brings a startling breath of air to Stranger Things’ third season, where she starts by getting on the nerves of all and sundry but quickly proves integral to the characters’ ongoing investigation.
Despite Erica’s latent horror at all things connected to her brother, she soon becomes enmeshed in the show’s ongoing mysteries, where her math skills prove a valuable asset.
Cornelius Fillmore From Fillmore
Cornelius Filmore is the main character in Disney’s animated show Fillmore!
Voiced by Orlando Brown, Filmore is a student at X Middle School. He is one of several African-American characters with a troubled past. But in keeping with the tone of the show, Filmore’s misdemeanors have an absurdist feel and include, among other things:
- Milk counterfeiting
He joins the Safety Patrol for a chance at redemption, and from there onwards, it’s the story of Fillmore’s efforts to solve cases at all costs.
Ned ‘Nick’ Nickerson From Nancy Drew
The Ned Nickerson originally envisaged by 1930s Nancy Drew writers is hard to recognize in the CW’s 2019 adaptation. Played by Tunji Kasim and called ‘Nick,’ Nickerson is one of network TV’s more recent African-American characters.
He’s noticeably more interesting than his literary counterpart. Not only that, but the dissolution of his romance with eponymous heroine Nancy saw Kasim’s Nick romantically entangled with George.
It’s a clever, charismatic reimagining of the character that isn’t afraid to explore what it means to be African-American in modern America.
Best Black Characters, Final Thoughts
It’s rare to get two black characters portrayed the same way. Nothing is perfect, but media depictions of African American characters and black characters have evolved to give them the nuance and humanity they deserve.
This list is the tip of that iceberg. Hopefully, we managed to include your favorite or introduce you to a character you haven’t met.