8 Actors Who Have Portrayed Prominent Black Figures on TV

Filmways Television / Courtesy: Everett Collection; Epix

There are several shows that have helped shape black culture, such as Martin, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, The Cosby Show, and so on. What many black shows, including those, have in common is that they are sitcoms.

However, there’s several series that depict real-life events and situations that turned a corner in not just black culture, but American culture in general. There are shows dating back to King and as recent as Godfather of Harlem that depict Black history for its advancements, triumphs, and hardships that are equally as important as the content that makes us laugh.

Below we highlight eight actors who have portrayed prominent black figures throughout history on television. Did your favorite television portrayal get left out? Let us know which should have been mentioned in the comments below.

Paul Winfield in King, 1978
Filmways Television / Courtesy: Everett Collection

Paul Winfield, Martin Luther King Jr. — King

King is an NBC miniseries from 1978 based on the life of Martin Luther King Jr. Paul Winfield portrayed the civil rights leader, and several real-life figures from the Civil Rights Movement played a role in its production. This includes then-Atlanta mayor Maynard Jackson as well as King’s sister Christine King Farris, his niece Alveda King, and his four children: Yolanda, Martin III, Dexter, and Bernice. Donzaleigh Abernathy, Tony Bennett, Julian Bond, and Ramsey Clark portrayed themselves.

Nigel Thatch in Godfather of Harlem

Nigel Thatch, Malcolm X — Godfather of Harlem

Godfather of Harlem is a crime drama television series airing on MGM+ and starring Forest Whitaker as 1960s New York City gangster Bumpy Johnson. Nigél Thatch portrays Malcolm X in the first two seasons and was praised for his performance. He was nominated for an NAACP Image Award in the category of Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series in 2020 alongside Whitaker and Giancarlo Esposito, who also stars in the series.

Leon in 'The Little Richard Story'
Everett Collection

Leon, Little Richard — Little Richard

Little Richard is a 2000 biographical television film that aired on NBC and was directed by Robert Townsend. Based on the 1984 book, Quasar of Rock: The Life and Times of Little Richard, the TV movie chronicles the rise of the iconic Little Richard from his poor upbringing in Macon, Georgia to achieving superstardom as one of the pioneers of Rock and Roll, as well as the conflicts between his religion and secular lifestyle.

For his performance in the title role, Leon earned nominations for Best Actor in the Black Reel Awards and the NAACP Image Awards.

Jharrel Jerome in When They See Us
Atsushi Nishijima/Netflix

Jharrel Jerome, Korey Wise — When They See Us

When They See Us is a television miniseries created by Ava DuVernay for Netflix, based on the events of the 1989 Central Park jogger case. It explores the lives and families of the five Black and Latino male suspects who were falsely accused and then prosecuted on charges related to the rape and assault of a white woman in Central Park in New York City.

Jharrel Jerome, who portrayed Korey Wise, won the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited Series or Movie and the Critics’ Choice Television Award for Best Actor in a Movie/Miniseries.

Angela Bassett accepts an award 4th Annual Family Television Awards in July 2002
Photo by Vince Bucci/Getty Images

Angela Bassett, Rosa Parks — The Rosa Parks Story

The Rosa Parks Story is a 2002 television movie broadcasted on CBS, written by Paris Qualles, and directed by Julie Dash. The film depicts Angela Bassett as Rosa Parks and her actions in the civil rights movement, with Cicely Tyson in a supporting role as her mother.

The film was named the Best Television Movie in the NAACP Image Awards. Bassett won the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Actress in a Television Movie, Mini-Series or Dramatic Special for her performance.

Byron Cohen/FX

Courtney B. Vance, Johnnie Cochran — The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story

The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story centers around the O. J. Simpson murder case and is based on Jeffrey Toobin’s book The Run of His Life: The People v. O. J. Simpson. The season received critical acclaim, especially Courtney B. Vance and Sarah Paulson’s performances as Johnnie Cochran and Marcia Clark, respectively.

It received 22 Primetime Emmy Award nominations in 13 categories, winning nine, including Outstanding Limited Series and Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited Series or Movie for Vance.

ABC/courtesy Everett Collection

Jason Weaver/Wylie Draper, Michael Jackson — The Jacksons: An American Dream

The Jacksons: An American Dream is a five-hour American miniseries broadcast in two halves on ABC and is based on Katherine Jackson’s My Family autobiography, depicting the formation of the Jackson 5. A critical and commercial success, the program won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Individual Achievement in Choreography.

Jason Weaver won a special award for Outstanding Young Performers Starring in a Mini-Series. Sadly, Wylie Draper, who portrayed an older Michael Jackson, died shortly after the miniseries’ debut.

Adrienne Warren and Cedric Joe in Women of the Movement
ABC/Matt Sayles

Adrienne Warren, Mamie Till-Mobley — Women of the Movement

Women of the Movement is a historical drama miniseries from ABC that centers on Mamie Till-Mobley (Adrienne Warren), who devoted her life to seeking justice for her murdered son Emmett (Cedric Joe).

The series is based on the book Emmett Till: The Murder That Shocked the World and Propelled the Civil Rights Movement by Devery S. Anderson and Death of Innocence: The Story of the Hate Crime That Changed America by Mobley and Christopher Benson. The show was nominated for a Black Reel, Golden Trailer, and NAACP Image Award, with performances by Warren and Joe receiving acclaim from critics.