African American Actors and Actresses Redefining the Industry

By Meta J. Mereday


Following the hue and cry about the lack of diversity in the Oscar nominations for 2011, we can still recognize African American actors who are forging paths in the industry and poised for a host of recognitions in the near future. 

And taking it one more step, these African American actors have generated enough roles of prominence and distinction that we can look to our own to honor them.

While the origin regarding the naming of the Oscar itself is still up for debate, we bring you our own award – The Isaac – named in honor of Academy Award winning composer Isaac Hayes. Hayes, whose untimely death in 2008, denied many their exposure to his creative genius and humanitarian heart in a career that included composing, singing and acting.  

In addition to winning the Oscar in 1972 for the Best Original Song for the “Theme from Shaft” he also won Grammy Awards and nominations for his diverse musical and performance portfolio here and abroad. 

Hayes was also an international humanitarian and was recognized by the African nation of Ghana for his extensive charitable efforts there. 

Hayes encompassed the well rounded performer and community advocate who reflects the diversity of spirit and outstanding talent that African Americans should celebrate in those who represent us in the entertainment industry. 

While Hayes was not a stand out as an actor, his involvement in any project enhanced the overall project itself. His rich, distinctive voice and timing added greatly to his performances and his music. 

In looking at the actors under consideration for “The Isaac,” we are highlighting the actors and actresses who bring their own “Hayesian” quality to the mix in their growing body of work and whose names are not household fixtures – yet!

In the actor category, we have the following: Anthony Mackie, an up and coming performer with extensive range, gave a break out performance in the Academy Award winning film The Hurt Locker and followed that feat with a solid performance as one of Matt Damon’s guardian angels in The Adjustment Bureau.  Mackie also advocates for more diverse roles for Black actors. 

Hill Harper whose success in film, television and on the stage in addition to his successful book tours motivating young African American males emphasizes the multi-talents of today’s African American actor. Currently, he appears on “CSI: New York.”

Chiwetel Eijofor is a consummate professional who receives rave reviews for his range of performances including his breakout role in 2002’s Dirty Pretty Things to grittier roles in films such as Children of Men and American Gangster.

Jeffrey Wright is a premiere character actor who becomes immersed in the roles that he portrays whether his performance is the lead or supporting character. 

He owns the performance whether it is a real life person such as his role as Muddy Waters in Cadillac Records or his current role as a doctor in the thriller Source Code.

And finally, Idris Elba, whose most recent film Thor showcases his acting abilities and his physique, brings a natural depth to his roles and has discriminating taste in his project choices. He highlights the understanding that diversity is vital to longevity in the film business and knowing the business from all sides is key.

Playing opposite these great leading men of color in many cases are an emerging group of talented African American actresses who also represent the future of the industry. 

Our female candidates for the Isaac Award are:  Zoe Saldana, whose acting range includes portraying painted creatures in Avatar to appearing in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. She may look delicate but she has no problem playing an assassin and her talents are still emerging.  

Kimberly Elise, who played Denzel Washington’s wife to great acclaim in John Q has broadened her range with her unique presence since her feature film debut in Set It Off.  She is currently in Ghana filming Ties That Bind

Gabrielle Union, whose great casting in Daddy’s Little Girls showcased the maturity of her talent that was evident in her break out hit Bring It On, has the makings of a great comedic actress if the right script came along for this actress, model and advocate. 

Jurnee Smollet-Bell, who was once named one of the five Hollywood stars to watch by Interview Magazine, earned critical acclaim in her film debut as the title character in Eve’s Bayou and delivered the goods in The Great Debaters.  Currently, she appears on television in “The Defenders,” but the big screen has not seen the last of her.   

Rounding out our actress list is the NAACP Image Award winning actress Regina King, a child star who successfully made the transition to adult acclaim.  King’s movie performances range from Jerry Maguire and Ray to playing Sandra Bullock’s uptight FBI sidekick in the Miss Congeniality franchise. Currently, she is taking no prisoners on television in “Southland” with movie offers in her sites.

Those are our selections for The Isaac Awards and we know it is just a tip of the iceberg of the talented and emerging pool of African American actors and actresses, but it is a start and the more that audiences supports these actors, actresses and their colleagues, the more recognition and roles they receive. 

And who knows what other awards may adorn their shelves.   It all starts with you! 

Mereday is a contributing writer for Regal Black Men’s Magazine, a publication dedicated to the African American community.

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