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Black actresses set standard for excellence in Hollywood


Celebrating Women’s History Month

As we walk our way into March, we celebrate Women’s History Month in highlighting the contributions of women to positive events in history and contemporary society. A discussion of Black Actresses is essential and, while the percentage of prominent Black actresses remains relatively low in the industry, some women have helped to pave the way to future greatness. Among those are Cicely Tyson, Ruby Dee, Whoopi Goldberg, Halle Berry and Viola Davis. 

Cicely Tyson was born in the Bronx, NY on Dec. 19,1924, to Fredericka (Huggins) Tyson and William Augustine Tyson and was one of three children. She participated in church choir and attended prayer meetings during her youth. Tyson in time became one of the most prolific Black actresses and was very well-known for her positive portrayal of Black women in cinema. At the age of eighteen, Tyson married Kenneth Franklin, with whom she had a daughter. Their marriage was dissolved in 1956. Prior to her first first acting role, she was discovered by a photographer at Ebony magazine and eventually became a successful fashion model. Tyson’s first acting break came in 1956, for a film called “Carib Gold”. Over the next few years, Tyson had small roles in movies. In 1962, Tyson became the first African-American woman to wear an afro on television. 

Soon after, Tyson won the 1961-1962 Vernon Rice Award for her off-Broadway performance in “Moon on a Rainbow Shawl.” In 1972, she gained the role of Rebecca Morgan in the film “Sounder” of which she won the NSFC (National  Society of Film Critics) Best Actress and NBR (National Board of Review) Best Actress Awards for her role in “Sounder.” Some of Tyson’s most notable roles include “The Autobiography of Jane Pittman” (1974), the character Binta in the miniseries “Roots” (1977), and “Fried Green Tomatoes” in 1992. Tyson married Miles Davis in 1981, however they divorced in 1988. Tyson was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame as well as the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama in 2016. Tyson was the recipient of an Academy Honorary Award, three Emmy awards and a Tony Award. Tyson passed away at the age of 96, on January 28,2021. 

Ruby Dee was born on Oct. 27, 1922 in Cleveland, Ohio to Gladys Hightower and Marshall Edward Nathaniel Wallace. Dee’s mother left the family with her father remarrying, Emma Amelia Benson. Dee was raised in Harlem, New York and attended Hunter College with a degree in Romance languages. Dee worked as an apprentice for the American Negro Theatre, and worked with Sidney Portier, Harry Belafonte and Hilda Simms. Her broadway debut was in “South Pacific” in 1943. Her first onscreen role was in “That Man of Mine” in 1946. Dee married Frankie Dee Brown in 1941, later divorcing Brown in 1945. In 1948 she married Ossie Davis and had three children with him. Dee and Davis divorced in 2005. 

Some of Dee’s most notable roles include films such as “A Raisin in the Sun” (1959), “The Jackie Robinson Story” (1950), “Do the Right Thing” (1989) and “Jungle Fever” (1991). Dee won two Emmy Awards, a Grammy Award, an Obie Award and a Drama Desk Award for her roles in various television and film productions.  Dee was also a civil rights activist and a member of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the NAACP. Dee emceed the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963. She was also close friends with Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Dee was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Freedom Award. Dee died of natural causes on June 11, 2014  at the age of 91.  

Whoopi Goldberg (born Caryn Elaine Johnson) was born on Nov. 13,1955 in New York City to Emma Johnson and Robert James Johnson Jr. Goldberg grew up in the housing projects with her mother being the sole provider for her and her brother. Goldberg’s inspiration to become an actress came after seeing Nichelle Nichols in “Trekkies” (1997) amazed at the role being something other than a maid. Since then Goldberg has been a “Star Trek” fan. Shortly after, Goldberg moved to Berkeley working a variety of odd jobs. In 1982, Goldberg first appeared onscreen in “Citizen: I’m Not Losing My Mind, I’m Giving It Away”. She came to national prominence with her one-woman show “The Spook,” created by Goldberg and soon after her Broadway performance caught the eye of director Steven Spielberg. Speilberg then gave her the lead role in the film adaptation of Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple” which was released in 1985. 

Goldberg made seven films in just three short years. In 1973, Goldberg married Alvin Martin and they later divorced in 1979.  Goldberg had one daughter with Alvin Martin. Goldberg later married David Claessen in 1986, then divorced in 1988. Goldberg’s roles in movies have been versatile throughout her career.  She has played characters in drama and in comedy. Goldberg is a huge supporter of the LGBTQ+ and AIDS movement. Other notable roles include “Jumpin Jack Flash” (1986), “Ghost” (1990), “Sister Act” (1992), and “Made in America” (1993). Goldberg is a co-host of the television talk show “The View”. Goldberg has won multiple awards including; an Emmy, Grammy, and Tony Award, an Academy Award and the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. 

Halle Berry was born Maria Halle Berry on Aug. 14, 1966 to Judith Ann Hawkins and Jerome Jesse Berry in Cleveland, Ohio, but her mother changed her name at the age of five. Berry and her sister were raised by Berry’s mother. Berry participated in teen beauty pageants, was a model and began acting 1989. Berry won the Miss Teen All American and Miss Ohio USA, Miss World. Berry’s first role was in 1989, in the television series, “Living Dolls”. Her breakout film role was in a romantic comedy, “ Boomerang”. Berry gained notoriety for her roles in movies such as “X-Men”, “Swordfish,” and won an Academy Award for the 2001 film “Monster’s Ball.” Berry married baseball star David Justice in 1993 and divorced Justice in 1997. Berry married musician Eric Benet in 2001 and divorced him in 2005. Berry has gained notoriety for her physical appearance, being named “Sexiest Women Alive” and generally is recognized as one of the few Black Hollywood “sex symbols.”

Berry has two children, one with Gabriel Aubry in 2008 and one with her third husband, Oliver Martinez who she married in 2013. Martinez and Berry divorced in 2016. Some of Berry’s more notable roles include, “Monster’s Ball”, “Losing Isaiah”, “Die Another Day”, “Boomerang”, “Moonfall”, and “Bulworth”, to name a few. Berry has won a Primetime Emmy Award and a Golden Globe Award, Oscar for her roles in various films. Berry is also the first African-American woman to win the Academy Award for Best Actress. In 2023, Berry signed with Range Media Partners as director and producer. 

Viola Davis was born on Aug. 11,1965 to Mae Alice Davis and Dan Davis in St. Matthews, SC.  Davis was born on her grandmother’s farm, the Singleton Plantation and the youngest of six children. Davis had a difficult childhood and her mother was involved in the Civil Rights Movement.  She attended Julliard after graduating from college and soon after she had a career in stage acting in addition to on screen roles. In 1992, Davis starred in a Broadway production of Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” and the play “Fences.” Another appearance was made in 2002  in James Cameron’s remake of the film “Solaris.” Her breakout role in a film was in the film “Doubt.” Over the course of many years, she has shown herself to be a very versatile actor and has played various roles and strong Black female leads. Davis is married to Julius Tennon as of 2003 and they have one adopted daughter together. She has also had roles and made appearances in television series such as, “NYPD Blue”, “The Pentagon Wars,” and “New York Undercover.”   

Some of Davis’ most prominent roles include, “King Hedley II,” “The Help,” “Antwone Fisher,” “Kate & Leopold,” “How to Get Away with Murder,” and “Get On Up”. Davis is an activist and has previously done work with the Hunger Is campaign to help eliminate childhood hunger throughout America. Davis has a partnership with the Vaseline Healing Project to help heal the skin affected by poverty around the world. Davis has won an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar, and a Tony (EGOT) and also the Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Play for her role in “King Henley II,”  and Best Actress in a Play for “Fences” of which she also won the 2017 Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.