10 Need-to-Know Black Artists from Screen and Stage
These talented performers made the world their stage — and inspired generations of dancers, actors, singers, and producers!
You know all their classic lines, and bust out with all their iconic dance moves – when nobody’s watching, of course. These are the Black producers, performers, directors, and activists whose work blazed on Broadway, shook up Hollywood, and broke new ground for representation on stage and screen.
After three decades of breaking the film-making mold, “Spike Lee Joints” are renowned for their style, in-your-face tone, and sweeping camera angles that make the viewer feel like part of the action. Lee uses his lens to focus on the Black experience, and topics like urban crime, poverty, and racial division are common themes in his work.
Born in Atlanta in 1957, Lee is the son of a Black literature and art professor and a jazz musician. Shortly after his birth, his family settled in Brooklyn, New York — a setting that would become a background character for Lee’s early film career.
Lee’s production company, 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks, has produced over 35 films since 1983. His accomplishments have garnered him two Emmys, two Peabody Awards, and four of his movies — including Malcolm X, his revered collaboration with Denzel Washington — have been selected by the Library of Congress for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” Ya dig?
Few actors have impacted our culture like Chadwick Boseman, perhaps best known for his powerful portrayal of King T’Challa in Black Panther. Born in 1976 in South Carolina, Boseman studied acting at Howard University before continuing his education at the British American Drama Academy in Oxford, England.
Boseman’s early success on stage led to many roles on television, before his breakout role as the legendary, barrier-breaking baseball player Jackie Robinson in the film 42. Boseman had a knack for crafting larger-than-life, deeply compelling characters, and King T'Challa, who becomes the mighty Black Panther, is one of his finest. The film obliterated box office records and went on to earn an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture. More importantly, the film inspired a generation of young Black filmmakers, actors, and artists to use their art to tell their story.
Boseman passed away from colon cancer on August 28, 2020, having just completed what would be his final works, Da 5 Bloods, directed by Spike Lee, and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, which was released on Netflix after the actor’s death. Critics hail these performances as Boseman’s finest, his final parting gift to the world, though he’ll always be king. Wakanda forever!
Dazzling audiences with her impeccable performances in Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty, Misty Copeland is the first African American woman to grace the American Ballet Theater’s stage as a principal dancer in the organization’s 75-year history.
Copeland got her start at a local Boys and Girls Club, where she took free weekly lessons. Her instructor recognized Copeland’s talent early and invited her to dance at her studio. Soon, she was training almost full-time while going to school and had landed a position with the renowned ballet company before she even graduated.
Dance helped Misty Copeland thrive, and recently she’s been using dance to help others succeed through the Swans for Relief campaign, helping to raise Covid-19 relief funds for artists.
Writer, showrunner, and executive producer of her namesake company, Shondaland, Shonda Rhimes has a knack for crafting thrilling narratives, relatable characters, and ultimately ripping out the hearts of her adoring fans.
Sarah Burns / Camp
As a teenager, Rhimes served as a hospital volunteer, an experience that would shape her powerhouse drama, Grey’s Anatomy, and its spin-off series, Private Practice. But before her time writing about life in the ER, Rhimes wrote the box-office success Crossroads for Britney Spears and several sequels for Disney, including the Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement.
Rhimes’ critically acclaimed work has won her two Golden Globes, three Emmy nominations, and two Writers Guild Of America Awards. Most recently, Rhimes has been developing titles for Netflix. Her show Bridgerton quickly became the most-watched show on Netflix when it was released in December 2020.
For more Shondaland content, check out the Shondaland Audio Podcasts, featuring fiercely funny women, thought-provoking discussions, and real talk about parenting.
Josephine Baker was an iconic performer, civil rights activist, and agent of the French Resistance during World War II. Born in 1906 in St. Louis, Missouri, Freda Josephine McDonald grew up in poverty. In her early teens she joined a street performing group that managed to break through on the vaudeville circuit in New York City.
Baker would go on to grace the stages of Broadway, but was quickly frustrated by typecasting, and the lack of diversity in the roles available to her. Baker sailed to Paris at the age of 19, where for the next 50 years she won over audiences throughout Europe.
During World War II, Baker used her fame as a cover, and became a covert operative for the French Resistance, transporting sensitive documents to friendly territories — sometimes using invisible ink on sheet music. She remained mostly in Europe throughout her lifetime, refusing to play for segregated audiences, and was banned from many American clubs, hotels, and bars. Despite these restrictions, she used her fame to fight racism in her home country, working through organizations like the NAACP.
Baker is the first woman to be buried in France with military honors. Beloved by the nation, on the day of Baker's funeral the streets of Paris were flooded with over 20,000 mourners.
Born at the height of the Great Depression, world-renowned dancer and choreographer Alvin Ailey grew up traveling with his mother from town to town in search of work. In 1942, they moved to Los Angeles, where he attended his first dance performance, the legendary African American performer and choreographer Katherine Dunham. Seeing someone like himself on stage had a profound effect on him, and a few years later he began training as a dancer, studying different styles of dance with teacher Lester Horton in one of the first integrated schools in the United States.
Ailey and Maya Angelou started a nightclub act called “Al and Rita”, before Ailey officially joined Horton’s dance company in 1953. When Horton died later in the year, Ailey stepped up to hold the organization together, dancing, networking, and preparing to open his own company.
The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater opened in 1958. The performances were powerful and spiritual, with moving choreography, and sold-out shows. Ailey choreographed over a hundred ballets with his dance company, and his work has earned many awards including Kennedy Center Honors and a Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama. His spirit and choreography live on today through his dance company in NYC.
One of the most sought-after choreographers in the world, Fatima Robinson has an extensive, star-studded client list that includes Chanel, Prince, the NFL Halftime Show, and Michael Jackson.
Fatima Robinson was born in 1971 in Little Rock, Arkansas, but moved with her family to Los Angeles at the age of four. Robinson graduated high school at age 16 and earned her cosmetologist certification to begin working in her mother’s salon.
She loved dance films like Flashdance, and taught herself all the moves as she dreamed of becoming a professional dancer. Robinson began signing up for dance competitions, and soon went on to perform in music videos. She made the transition from dancer to choreographer with ease, quickly becoming known for her unique ability to blend hip-hop and classical dance moves.
In 1997, she was hired to choreograph Michael Jackson’s Do You Remember the Time video, which featured Eddie Murphy, Michael Jackson, and a host of other celebrities. The video solidified her place among the biggest names in the biz, and Robinson has been a powerhouse of moves ever since.
The first African American actor to win an Academy Award, Sidney Poitier was also a visionary director and diplomat. He spent most of his childhood in the Bahamas, but moved to Miami at 15, and later to New York City, where he was introduced to motion pictures.
Poitier worked throughout his career to challenge racist treatment of Black people in film, on stage, and in the arts. His performances changed the way Black people were represented on film. His characters were far more than the caricatures encouraged by popular movies — they were real, dynamic personalities, and he played each one with grace, subtlety, and fiery passion bubbling just beneath the surface.
The lights of Broadway dimmed with his passing on January 6th, 2022. Poitier embodied memorable, powerful figures, and won many awards for his work, including a Grammy Award, two Golden Globe Awards, and a British Academy Film Award — but his greatest contribution was laying the roadwork for more diverse roles for Black people on stage and screen.
American dancer, stage and film actress, and civil rights activist Fredi Washington is an icon of the Harlem Renaissance movement. A brilliant performer, she used her platform to speak out against racism and oppression, and took action to help others.
Washington was born in 1903 in Savannah, Georgia. Her mother died young, and she raised her siblings with her grandmother, until she was sent away to school in a town near Philadelphia. The family moved to Harlem, and when Washington graduated, she began her acting career as a chorus dancer on Broadway.
She is best remembered for her role in the 1934 movie Imitation of Life, for which she was nominated for an Academy Award. But Washington quit her film career at its peak, and moved back to New York to perform on Broadway and fight for the rights of Black artists. She co-founded a professional organization for Black performers whose mission included speaking out against stereotyping and calling for a more diverse range of roles.
Singer, actress, and civil rights activist Lena Horne used her talent and fame to break down barriers for all Black performers. Born in Bedford–Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, Horne got her start on stage as part of the chorus line at the famous Cotton Club in Harlem. A talented performer, she began getting small parts in films — and those small parts grew into leading roles.
In 1941, Horne sang at Café Society, New York City's first integrated performance venue. She also toured and sang for U.S. troops with the USO throughout World War II. When the Army refused to allow an integrated audience, Horne staged her show to perform directly for the Black servicemen who were forced to sit in the back rows. Horne quit the USO in 1945, but continued to financially support USO tours herself.
Horne’s work and activist efforts earned her many awards, including four Grammys, an NAACP Image award, and a Kennedy Center Honors. When she passed in 2010, the funeral attendees included A-list celebrities from the past half century. Horne’s legacy has been commemorated by a postage stamp as part of the United States Postal Service Black Heritage series, and by the Lena Horne Bandshell in Prospect Park in her home borough of Brooklyn.