10 Iconic Black Characters and the Actors Who Bought Them to Life

A look back at 10 iconic Black characters in TV and movies from the last 20 years.

Every year, Black stories told on TV and movies get richer, more complex and entertaining. From the classic tales of our childhood to the relatable features that shape our adulthood, there's always a project or two that blossoms into a cult favorite or features characters so compelling that they stick in our minds and become grand fixtures in pop culture.  

Whether they're bursting onto the screen as the main character or standing out as a breakout star, from the way they dish out witty one-liners to their seminal sense of style, these characters transcend their stories and become icons of media that withstand the test of time and drive us to rewatch their scenes just to fall in love with them, over and over again.

Of course, there are the obvious titans of Black cinematic nostalgia, such as Star Trek's Uhura (Nichelle Nichols), Bring It On's Isis (Gabrielle Union), The Incredible's Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson), Jackie Brown's titular character (Pam Grier), Scary Movie's Brenda Meeks (Regina Hall) and the entire casts of Waiting to Exhale, The Fresh Prince of Bel-AirLiving SingleGirlfriends and The Best Man.

But in the last two decades of media, we've gotten a lot of Black characters who've quickly made their marks in entertainment history and cemented their places as icons. We can't go through all of them, but here are 10 Black characters in TV and film that will have a lasting impact for generations to come.


Chadwick Boseman as King T'Challa in Black Panther 

Boseman's T'Challa technically made his Marvel Cinematic Universe debut as a prince in Captain America: Civil War but it was the superhero's solo film that cinched his role in comic-book movie history and pop culture. T'Challa made his entrance as a fierce warrior hellbent on avenging his father's murder, and it isn't until his own film that fans learned the true weight of his grief and royal burdens.

Now a King, Boseman's T'Challa struggled to honor the legacy of his father's rule while evolving his ideas for the future of his kingdom.

Marvel Studios

Black Panther will forever reign as one of the most momentous films in Marvel history, garnering massive praise, including becoming the first superhero movie to receive an Oscar nomination in the coveted Best Picture category, scoring nods from the Critics Choice Awards, SAG, BAFTAs and a history-making Golden Globe nomination. Like the Oscars, it was similarly the first superhero movie to earn the Globes' Best Drama nomination.

And so, Boseman's gentle King, who wept for his enemies the same way he strove to protect his kingdom and make the right decision for, not only Wakanda but his fellow man, cemented his place in history with a swipe of his vibranium claws and a flash of that gap-toothed smile.

Director Ryan Coogler said in a heartfelt statement that Boseman, who died in August 2020 after a four-year battle with colon cancer, always had clear thoughts on how he wanted to portray the character.

"When preparing for the film, he would ponder every decision, every choice, not just for how it would reflect on himself, but how those choices could reverberate," Coogler shared. "'They not ready for this, what we are doing… This is Star Wars, this is Lord of the Rings, but for us… and bigger!' He would say this to me while we were struggling to finish a dramatic scene, stretching into double overtime. Or while he was covered in body paint, doing his own stunts. Or crashing into frigid water, and foam landing pads. I would nod and smile, but I didn't believe him. I had no idea if the film would work. I wasn't sure I knew what I was doing. But I look back and realize that Chad knew something we all didn't. He was playing the long game. All while putting in the work. And work he did."

And work he did. Fans were welcomed back to Wakanda with the film's sequel, Black Panther: Wakanda ForeverThe film opens with the death of King T'Challa offscreen, and his presence looms over the characters as Wakandans contend with their grief as they protect their home against a ruthless invader. The film ends with a new Black Panther rising and a promise of what's to come in the future

Anika Noni Rose as Princess Tiana in The Princess and the Frog 

Another history-maker! Princess Tiana may not have spent much of The Princess and the Frog in human form but she still made quite the impression. Disney’s first Black princess came onto the scene working hard to make her dream come true: opening a restaurant in 1920s New Orleans. But kissing a prince who was turned into a frog by an evil witch doctor drastically derails Tiana's plans when she becomes a frog herself and must find a way to turn back into a human before it's too late. 

Rose's soulful voice perfectly brings young Tiana to life, from giving just the right amount of disdain while bantering with the future entrepreneur's roguish love interest Prince Naveen (voiced by Bruno Campos) to giving it all during a beautiful rendition of the instant classic "Almost There."

Tiana's journey was fantastical, as all Disney love stories are, but her significance as the first Black (and first American) princess is very real, especially to her fans. Her debut was the first time many Disney lovers saw someone who looks like them have her own story, with relatable dreams, fears, and struggles and finding love so powerful it can break a magical curse! She became more than a princess, she's an icon.  

And the film is just the beginning! In June 2020, Disneyland Resort announced that Splash Mountain will soon be "completely reimagined" with Princess Tiana at its center. The flume ride will now become a Louisiana bayou adventure following Princess Tiana and Louis (Michael-Leon Wooley) as they prepare for a Mardi Gras performance.

Later that same year, Disney Animation Studios announced that Princess Tiana would return in her very own long-form musical-comedy series as she adventures beyond New Orleans and steps into her role as princess of the kingdom of Maldonia. 

Mahershala Ali as Juan in Moonlight 

Ali's Juan is only featured in the first chapter of the 2016 film, but his masterful handling of the character's complexity leaves a strong impression on any viewer. A drug dealer in Liberty City, Miami, Juan finds a young child named Chiron -- played by Alex Hibbert in the first chapter and later by Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes -- who is hiding from bullies while with his mother, Paula (Naomie Harris), in a crackhouse. Juan quickly takes to Chiron, becoming pseudo-father-figure and mentor to the withdrawn child who regularly struggles with bullies who attack him for "the way he walks." 

The relationship between Juan and Chiron is complicated for one reason; although the older man serves as a haven for the child, as a drug dealer during the height of the crack epidemic, he directly has a hand in Chiron's mother's addiction. Even as Juan compassionately provides Chiron with a defender and protector, he is culpable in the neglect the child suffers because of his mother's hopeless addiction. It's a demonstration of how more complex identity can be, especially when it comes to the portrayal of Black men.

"My task is to make these people human," Ali told ET of digging deeper into the role of Juan. "Often the characters in my acting experience were there to help push the story along, so I'm always fighting to find the shaft of light where I can wedge an opening and make the character real. That's a muscle a lot of people of color have to work to be successful in this industry, so people can say, 'Oh, this brother’s got it.'"

Daniel Kaluuya as Chris Washington in Get Out

It's safe to say that Jordan Peele's Get Out will go down as one of the most widely-discussed films of modern cinema. Whether you loved it or hated it, the horror film's meditation on race and racism stands the test of time, especially when it comes to relevant conversations constantly being had in the world we're living in now. It's for those exact reasons, Peele told ET he once "literally thought this was an unproduceable movie because people seem to be afraid to take race on."

But luckily, he made it, and Kaluuya's portrayal of the unlucky Chris Washington is a large part of the winning formula. Chris, a young photographer journeying to meet his girlfriend Rose's (Allison Williams) family, is forced to fight for his survival when the meeting turns sinister. 

Universal Pictures

Already haunted by the death of his mother in his childhood, Chris tries not to let his paranoia overwhelm him as he begins to sense the wrongness amid Rose's family. The family's awkward jokes about the interracial coupling, try-hard liberal comments and repeated racial microaggressions soon lead to the truth -- that Chris has fallen into a trap and is to be used as a meat puppet for a rich white "buyer." 

The film is a meditation on race and racism, born in the days following the election of President Barack Obama -- a time that Peele called a “post-racial lie.”

"This film deals with how much Black men and women internalize what's happened with them and don't share it," Kaluuya told ET. "It comes out in such a visceral way that looks like rage, that looks unexplainable, that looks like it's coming out of nowhere. But [your race] is a constant signpost throughout your whole life where you're told you're different, you're different, you're different. It's really hard to cope with that, and that's why it's really important to explore that."

John Boyega as Finn / FN-2187 in Star Wars: The Force Awakens 

When Boyega's Finn popped up on the screen of the first teaser for The Force Awakens, time stopped. Not only were Star Wars fans seeing a stormtrooper without his helmet, but he was Black!  

Finn quickly became a fan-favorite as his story unfolded in the first film: although he was conditioned to live by the First Order's rules and trained to be a fierce fighter, the moment Finn (formerly known as FN-2187) witnessed his first battle, he knew it was wrong. He saw a fellow stormtrooper, one he regarded as a friend, killed in front of him and witnessed innocent lives being taken at the massacre of Tuanul. Disillusioned, he escapes with the help of the best Resistance pilot there is, Commander Poe Dameron, and the rest is cinema history.


Finn's righteous, caring and devoted nature instantly endeared him to fans, and his drive to figure out his path made him an interesting character to delve into. A former Stormtrooper who defects, joins the Resistance and learns that he's Force-sensitive? A character that forced fans to think about the people beneath the helmet and wonder what there could be -- especially when fans got a peek at what could have been? There was so much potential in Finn's existence and Boyega's charm made us all want to dig all the deeper.  

However you feel about his ending, there's no denying that Boyega's Finn has made his mark in Star Wars history. 


Javicia Leslie as Ryan Wilder on Batwoman 

Leslie not only made history when she donned her black spandex for the second season of The CW's Batwoman, but she also changed the game. The God Friended Me alum is the first Black actress to play Batwoman in a live-action TV series or film, with her character Ryan Wilder taking over the mantle from Ruby Rose's Kate Kane as Gotham's protector after Rose departed the series in season one. 

"I wanted to be a Black superhero. You don't get to see that that often. And then a month later, I become the first Black Batwoman, so I think that that's [fate]," she marveled during September 2020's Batwoman panel at DC FanDome. "It really hits the nail on the head when it's like, speak your dreams, speak your affirmations and truly just know that whatever you truly want to do, and you go towards it, it can happen."

The CW

Leslie reflected on the initial response to her casting, saying that "it feels like an honor" to play a Black Batwoman who is bisexual. 

"I was scrolling through all the followers and I saw all the rainbows in the bios," she said. "I felt like exactly what I wanted to be, which was a role model. I feel honored. I feel excited. I feel like there are so many little Javicias that don't have voices; little Black girls that didn't have a voice; little bisexual, bicurious, lesbian, gay, everything that just didn't have voices. And I feel honored to be able to be a voice for my community -- and the entirety of my community." 

"To play a character that represents my community in the same way, that's not a common thing as an actress -- to also be a part of a community and play a character of a community. It feels really powerful," Leslie continued. "With everything that's going on right now, this is what we need. We need to see representation."

Although Ryan was created specifically for the live-action series, she's officially made her jump into the world of DC Comics, first appearing in a brief sequence in Batgirl #50, and then in a cameo in Batman: Urban Legends #5. She also makes her first costumed comic debut in Earth-Prime, a tie-in comic series centered around Batwoman and other DC TV shows.

Zendaya as Rue on Euphoria 

Zendaya's role as teenage drug addict Rue is still relatively new, but it is not without depth. If the fact that the Euphoria star made history with her Emmy win as the youngest actress to ever win in the Best Actress in a Drama Series category for her performance doesn't clue you in on that fact, nothing will. 

She is also only the second Black actress ever to take home the honor, the first being How to Get Away With Murder's Viola Davis when she broke Emmy barriers in 2015.

Zendaya's critically acclaimed portrayal of Rue is a haunting one. Traumatized by her father's death, the suburban teen finds solace and gratification in the nothingness of oblivion. Her addiction to drugs both grants her a release from reality that temporarily allows her to escape the crushing weight of depression and lands her in the rehab center she's leaving when the show begins.

As viewers follow Rue through a tumultuous road they hope leads to recovery, Zendaya's ability to underscore the teen's cracking facade of a foul-mouthed, ill-tempered and deceiving nature with an underlying vulnerability and fragility that makes us want to root for her. That feeling grows in season two, as Rue slowly spirals out of control after relapsing and getting her heart broken by Jules (Hunter Schafer). 

On Feb. 6, the actress shared her thoughts about Rue’s journey, especially when it came to her relapse and what it meant for her going forward. She concluded by saying, “Redemption is possible.” 

It's so hard, loving Rue, but Zendaya makes it worth it.

Chandra Wilson as Dr. Miranda Bailey on Grey's Anatomy 

There's never been a character quite like Grey's Anatomy's Miranda Bailey. One of the three OGs left on the show, alongside Ellen Pompeo and James Pickens Jr. who have been with the medical drama since its inception in March 2005, Wilson's Bailey was initially seen as the stereotypical bossy Black woman. But she quickly became a breakout star of the show as her tough, protective nature was revealed to both the viewers and other characters. We watched her give birth to her son, get divorced, find a new love and eventually, become Chief of Surgery.

Fifteen years into her time on Grey's, Wilson still feels reinvigorated by the storytelling and her character.

"I learn new things about Bailey every script, continually," Wilson told ET. "There's still something new, the story hasn't gotten old. We're not regurgitating anything. They continue to grow and that's the thing I love the most about having been Bailey for so long."

"When she started in that first episode and she was leading her ducklings around, in her head she thought she was Chief of Surgery. But we got the chance to see somebody who was a resident have a goal, achieve that goal and now she's living the thing that she wanted from the very beginning. And probably in real time; you can do that in 15 years. So that's what's been really rewarding and what has also given inspiration to folks out there to go into medicine because they saw Miranda Bailey. Now they know that they can be a surgeon. I still get those kinds of letters and notes all the time."

Tracy Morgan as Tray Leviticus Barker on The Last O.G. 

Morgan has a knack for portraying wacky characters who find their way into viewers' hearts and his role as Tray is no different. The series follows the ex-con after he's served 15 years in prison and is released for good behavior. He returns to his old Brooklyn neighborhood to find that it has become gentrified and his ex-girlfriend, Shannon (Tiffany Haddish), is now raising their twins with her new husband, Josh.

Tray decides to become a better man and father to his children, enlisting the help of the owner of a halfway house, Miniard Mullins (Cedric the Entertainer), and a delightful, star-studded cast of characters. Morgan perfects the balancing act of comedy, tenderness and bleakness as Tracy battles the ups and downs of reform. Fundamentally a good man, Tracy tends to find himself in the wrong situation while trying to make things right. It's his love for his family and friends that often steers him away from temptation, a quick easy fix and winding back up in jail. It's the perfect role for Morgan, who nearly lost his life after a collision with a Walmart truck in 2014.  

"We got everybody on that, man. We got Mike Tyson on there, Tiffany Haddish, we got Katt Williams, we got John Amos, we got a lot of folks... Since we're in the house, I just want everybody -- this is our gift to the world," he told ET back in 2020. "This is a gift to the world, laughter."

Issa Rae as Issa Dee, Yvonne Orji as Molly Carter, Natasha Rothwell as Kelli Prenny and Amanda Seales as Tiffany DuBois on Insecure


Since the HBO series premiered in 2016, it's been compared to several classic Black sitcoms including Living Single and Girlfriends, and that's with good reason. Like those that came before it, Insecure took viewers into the lives of four distinctly different Black women and showed how complex and varied the Black experience can be, even within one friend group. 

Viewers watched as Rae's Issa went from a verifiable mess who cheated on her boyfriend to a successful businesswoman who chose the love story she wanted for herself instead of allowing fear to hold her back. We watched as Orji's Molly drifted from love interest to love interest, never finding a partner she deemed enough until she was able to reevaluate what she wanted from her life as an individual before she tried to find someone to share it with. And when she finally met her match in Taurean, we wept happy tears right along with her on her wedding day.

We watched Rothwell break out as Kelli, going from the comic relief that fans fell in love with to the one character they begged a spinoff for. And fans rallied around Seales' Tiffany as she grappled with motherhood, postpartum depression, and leaving her home in Los Angeles to build something new with her family in Denver. 

Five seasons of trials and tribulations -- along with increasingly mind-blowingly amazing soundtracks -- guaranteed that Insecure will stand the test of time, and the dynamic foursome that made us tune in every Sunday will live on alongside the great TV friendships that came before them. 

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