African-American actors have come a long way from the early days in the entertainment industry. In Hollywood's Golden Age, most of them were little more than caricatures on the screen. If they weren't singing and dancing in movies, they were relegated to servant roles or buffoon characters next to their white lead actors. African Americans would have to wait until the late 50s and early 60s to have a leading man to call their own. If it wasn't for Sidney Poitier and his decision not to play certain roles in movies, we would not have such famous African-American actors as Denzel Washington, or Will Smith.
Sidney Poitier was the first African American leading man and the first to win an Academy Award as Lead Actor. He won this award in 1963 for his role as Homer Smith in "Lilies of the Field." In the 1960s, he did not shy away from controversial roles like "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" or "A Patch of Blue," some of which alienated him from the black community. While most actors of his era faded away in the 1970's, he paired with Bill Cosby in comedies that counteracted the popular Blaxploitation films of the time. He went on to become a director and continued to work on television and even documentaries. In 2002, he was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Academy.
African Americans would have to wait until the 1980s for a new leading man. Denzel Washington came just in time. Although he started acting in the late 1970s, he gained name recognition for his role as Dr. Chandler on the television drama "St. Elsewhere." His movie career began to take off with his role in the Oscar nominated film "A Soldier's Story" (1984). During the 80s, he worked in television and film concurrently, which was uncommon for actors at that time. In 1989, Washington won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for the movie "Glory." He went on to win another award for best actor in 2002 for "Training Day," the first African-American man to earn this award since Sidney Poitier. Incidentally, Washington has been nominated for five Oscars, something rare for actors of any race.
Will Smith proved again this summer that he can, in fact, open a summer movie with the release of "Hancock." Who would have thought that a teen rapper would rise to superstardom? His rise to fame has been steady and meticulous. As part of the rap duo DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, he won the first ever Grammy for Best Rap Performance for the song "Parents Just Don't Understand." He followed with a successful television series, "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air." His movie career has been varied, from serious drama to action to comedy. For his dramatic work, he has been nominated two times for the Academy Award. Ironically, he and Denzel Washington were both nominees in 2002, which Washington won.
There are other African-American actors that could be mentioned on this list. But, these three men have proven themselves among some of the industries toughest critics. They have also not allowed themselves to be pigeonholed into stereotypical roles but kept redefining their acting careers.