5 of the Best Biographical Performances of Black Icons in Film

by Jordan Simon | Shadow and Act

For any actor or actress, assuming the role of a real-life historical figure is a heavy undertaking. Akin to assuming someone’s skin, you are tasked with mimicking said person’s style of dress, vocal patterns and body language. As the canon of Black cinema is filled with a litany of great biographical performances, here are just a few of the best ones to-date.

1 Angela Bassett as Tina Turner

Any list that doesn’t have Angela Bassett’s breakout turn as the Queen of Rock and Roll on their list of best biographical movies and performances should be immediately done away with. Bassett earned a Best Actress Oscar nomination in 1993 for the performance, but it was grossly overlooked.

2 Denzel Washington as Malcolm X

In 1992, Denzel Washington assumed the role of the civil rights icon in one of Spike Lee’s many classics. Released in 1992, Malcolm X went on to gross over $55 million at the box office. Like Bassett, he was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar.

3 Taraji P. Henson as Katherine Johnson

In 2016, Taraji P. Henson took on the role of Katherine Johnson, a mathematician who cracked the code to send the first American men in space in Hidden Figures. Depicted as one of the first Black women to work at NASA as a scientist, the film showcases the racial prejudice Johnson endured, which is encapsulated in the scene above.

4 Will Smith as Muhammad Ali

Any naysayers who counted Will Smith out for not being a serious actor outside of his TV sitcom status were proved wrong when he took on the role of boxing legend Muhammad Ali. Smith, who earned a Best Actor Oscar nod for his role, masters Ali’s vocal patterns in the scene below.

5 Halle Berry as Dorothy Dandridge

 

Before Berry’s historic Oscar win, the prolific actress stepped in the shoes of cinema icon Dorothy Dandridge in the HBO film, Introducing Dorothy Dandridge. Bearing an uncanny resemblance to Dandridge, Berry nails the actress’ propensity for musical showmanship in the scene below. Ironically, Dandridge was also the first Black woman to be nominated for the Best Actress Oscar.

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