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Black History Month: Most Influential People in Hollywood History that represent Black History in Hollywood

Black History Month is a time to reflect on and celebrate the contributions of Black people in American history. Throughout Hollywood history, Black actors, directors, writers, and producers have made significant contributions to the film industry. In this article, we will highlight some of the most influential Black people in modern Hollywood history and their vast array of contributions on and off the screen.

Dorothy Dandridge

Dorothy Dandridge was the first Black woman to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance in the 1954 film Carmen Jones. She was known for her beauty and multi-disciplined talent as a performer, singer and dancer. Dandridge broke barriers as the first Black woman to star in a leading role in a Hollywood film, and a career that spanned over 30 years.

Sidney Poitier

Sidney Poitier backstage at the 2002 Academy Awards
Sidney Poitier

Sidney Poitier was an actor and director who also made Hollywood history as the first Black actor and Bahamian to win an Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance in the 1963 film Lilies of the Field. He was known for his powerful performances and trailblazing work in films like The Defiant Ones, Porgy and Bess, A Raisin in the Sun, In the Heat of the Night, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.

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“Poitier was the first actor to star in mainstream Hollywood movies that depicted a Black man in a non-stereotypical fashion, and his influence, especially during the 1950s and ’60s as role model and image-maker, was immeasurable,” wrote Duane Byrge and Mike Barnes in Poitier’s obituary in the Hollywood Reporter. “His deliberate and lilting voice contained grace and his mesmeric manner made him one of the most beloved stars in Hollywood history.”

Harry Belafonte

Harry Belafonte is a singer, actor, and civil rights activist. As a singer he was a key figure in the folk music scene of the 1950s, popularizing calypso to wider audiences and critical acclaim. In the 1960s Belafonte became the first African American television producer and also starred in films such as Carmen Jones and Island in the Sun.

Belafonte was a close friend of Martin Luther King, Jr. during the civil rights movement and has been active in African humanitarian efforts throughout his career, becoming a UNICEF goodwill ambassador in 1987. He received the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award from the Academy in 2014 and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2022.

Spike Lee

Spike Lee is a filmmaker, writer, and actor known for his powerful, unflinching, and thought-provoking films. He made his feature directorial debut with 1986’s She’s Gotta Have It, and along with Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X, and 4 Little Girls, was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for their cultural significance.

Lee received an Honorary Academy Award in 2016 as well as the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay in 2019 for BlacKkKlansman. 

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Oprah Winfrey

Oprah Winfrey is a media mogul and philanthropist known for her talk show, “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” 20 years of publishing O, The Oprah Magazine, as well as her own network, the Oprah Winfrey Network. As an actress, she has also starred in films such as The Color Purple, Beloved, and most recently, A Wrinkle in Time. She has been a powerful force in Hollywood and has used her platform to advocate for Black representation and equality.

Will Smith

Ali, Will Smith
Columbia Pictures via Everett Collection

Will Smith is an actor, producer and rapper, known for his blockbuster roles in films such as Men in Black and The Pursuit of Happiness. He’s arguably one of the most significant pop culture figures of the last 25 years, first as the star of the television series The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air before embarking on a wildly successful career as a leading man. As of 2023, his films have grossed over $9.3 billion globally.

Smith won the Academy Award, BAFTA Award, Golden Globe, and Screen Actors Guild Award for Best Actor in 2022 for his portrayal of Richard Williams in the biographical sports film King Richard. His most recent film is Antoine Fuqua’s Emancipation. 

Denzel Washington

Denzel Washington, Ethan Hawke, Training Day, Warner Bros, 022516

Denzel Washington is an actor and filmmaker who has won two Academy Awards for his performances in Glory and Training Day. A versatile performer, Washington has starred in everything from blockbuster thrillers, Shakespeare adaptations, and historical dramas, and has consistently worked in live theater outside of his film career, winning a Tony Award in 2010 for his performance as Troy Maxon in August Wilson’s Fences (which Washington would later direct and star in the film adaptation of).

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The New York Times named Washington the greatest actor of the 21st century in 2020, and he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Joe Biden in 2022.

Ryan Coogler

Ryan Coogler is a filmmaker and writer, considered one of the most influential Hollywood figures currently working. He made his feature directorial debut in 2013 with the critically acclaimed Fruitvale Station and ushered in a new era for Marvel films with 2018’s Black Panther, breaking numerous box office records while becoming the highest-grossing film of all time by a Black director.

Coogler co-wrote and directed the Rocky series spinoff, Creed, executive producing its subsequent sequels before returning to Marvel in 2022 to direct Black Panther: Wakanda Forever

 

Ava DuVernay

Ava DuVernay, Selma
Director/Executive Producer Ava DuVernay (center) on the set of ‘Selma.’ // PHOTO CREDIT: Paramount Pictures via Everett Collection

Ava DuVernay is a filmmaker and activist known for her work exploring themes of race, family and society in America. She directed the 2014 Martin Luther King Jr. biopic, Selma, and became the first Black woman to be nominated for a Golden Globe Award for Best Director and the Academy Award for Best Picture. DuVernay’s 2016 documentary 13th, which explores the intersection of race, justice, and mass incarceration in America, was also nominated for an Academy Award.

As the director of Disney’s A Wrinkle in Time, DuVernay became the first Black woman to direct a film with a budget of $100 million. In 2020, she was elected to the directors branch of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences board of governors.

Jordan Peele

Jordan Peele is a filmmaker, comedian, and writer. While much of his career was spent in sketch comedy (most notably Mad TV and the Emmy and Peabody Award-winning Key & Peele), Peele has since emerged as a critically acclaimed writer-director in the horror genre. He won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for his 2017 directorial debut, Get Out.

Peele notably blends classic horror and thriller genre elements and structure in his films while simultaneously exploring themes of race, identity, politics, and society. His most recent feature-length works include Us and