The 1980s were an interesting time in terms of growth of opportunity for Black Actresses in Hollywood. At the same time, however, there were still limits and glass ceilings that Black women faced in the movie industry. As opposed to the 1990s and the 2000s, only a slim few Black actresses consistently headlined major films in Hollywood. A lot more found themselves in Made for TV films. This list takes that into account while at the same time trying to remain in the realm of Hollywood cinema and film. With that in mind, here are the top ten Black actresses of the 1980s.
1. Alfre Woodard
Alfre Woodard best known as the mother, Carolyn, in Spike Lee's Crooklyn held court in the 1980s as one of the premier actresses of that decade. Landing an Oscar nomination for her performance as Geechee in 1983's CrossCreek, she was also a strong contender for the role of Miss Sophia in The Color Purple and made splashes across the small screen with major roles in Hill Street Blues and St. Elsewhere. Starting off the decade in Robert Altman's film HealtH, she then delivered a powerful performance in the 1982 screen adaptation of Ntozake Shonge's celebrated Broadway play, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When The Rainbow Was Enuf. In 1986, she portrayed Winnie Mandela in the HBO film,Mandela.
2. Lynn Whitfield
The incredibly talented Lynn Whitfield, who brought Josephine Baker's life to the screen in 1991's The Josephine Baker story, was one of the most visible and lauded Black actresses of the 1980s. Beginning the decade with a powerful performance in the screen adaptation of Ntozake Shange's For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When The Rainbow is Enuf, she became highly visible with major television roles on Hill Street Blues,Cagney and Lacy,Miami Vice, and St. Elsewhere. In 1989, she added a major credit to her name with her portrayal of Ciel in Oprah Winfrey's television miniseries,The Women of Brewster Place. She also appeared in two other major films of the decade, Silverado in 1985 and Jaws: The Revenge in 1987.
3. Lonette McKee
Lonette McKee, who has made her career portraying the struggles of African American women of mixed heritage, was one of the most visible and successful Black actresses of the 1980s. Between 1980 and 1989, she appeared in four feature films, The Cotton Club in 1982,Brewster's Millions in 1985, 'Round Midnight in 1986, and Garden of Stone in 1987, a major feat in a decade where even the most celebrated of Black actresses, such as Cicely Tyson, were relegated to the realm of Made for TV movies and the occasional sitcom. McKee scored a major credit in 1989 when she portrayed Lorraine, a lesbian school teacher, in Oprah Winfrey's celebrated miniseries, The Women of Brewster Place.
4. Whoopi Goldberg
It could be argued that Whoopi Goldberg was the most commercially successful Black actress of the 1980s with three blockbuster hits in that decade, The Color Purple, Jumpin' Jack Flash, and Clara's Heart. 1985 was a pinnacle year in Whoopi Goldberg's career with her defining role as Celie in The Color Purple and her subsequent Oscar nomination for Best Actress.
5. Oprah Winfrey
The reigning Queen of Daytime Television and the wealthiest Black woman in the world, Oprah Winfrey made her own indelible mark on Hollywood in the 1980s. Hand-picked by Quincy Jones to play the character of Sophia in 1985's The Color Purple, Oprah etched that character and her own image into the public mind, setting herself up to become one of the most powerful people in the world. After landing an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress for The Color Purple and appearing as the mother of Bigger Thomas in 1986's screen adaptation of Richard Wright's novel, Native Son, Oprah set up her own production company and produced the most celebrated miniseries of the decade, The Women of Brewster Place, starring herself, Jackee, Lynn Whitfield, Lonette McKee,Robin Givens, Mary Alice, Cicely Tyson, and Paula Kelly.
6. Jennifer Beals
Jennifer Beals burst out onto the Hollywood scene as the star of the 1983 surprise hit film, Flashdance, which grossed over $100 million dollars worldwide and was number three at the box office that year, behind Return of the Jedi and Terms of Endearment. Flashdance, was her only major film during the decade, but with this film she established herself and the film into the cultural iconography of American cinema.
7. Margaret Avery
Margaret Avery etched her name into pop culture with her unforgettable performance as Shug Avery in 1985's The Color Purple alongside Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey. She along with Oprah and Whoopi were the three Black women nominated for Academy Awards in 1985.
8. Irene Cara
Irene Cara was a major star of the 1970s and 80s, modeled somewhat in the fashion of Donna Summer, a double threat with both an amazing music career(she received the Oscar in 1983 for Best Song for "What a Feeling"-the theme song to the hit film Flashdance and won several Grammy awards) and a lauded career as an actress. Her appearance in the iconic film, Fame in 1980 as Coco Hernandez, lands her on this list. Unfortunately, after Fame, Cara never appeared in another major film.
9. Debbie Allen
Debbie Allen, the dancer, choreographer,director, actress makes this list for her memorable performance as Michelle, one of the wives of Richard Pryor in his 1986 biopic, JoJo Dancer Your Life is Calling. The scene of her dancing on stage at the nightclub is one of the most sensuous scenes in cinematic history and the car scene with Pryor is also quite memorable. Allen also appeared in the 1980 hit film, Fame as well as in the television series of the same name.
10. Rae Dawn Chong
Daughter of comedian and actor, Tommy Chong, Rae Dawn Chong enjoyed a very rewarding career as a film actress in the 1980s, starring in fourteen feature films between 1980 and 1989. Her most memorable roles that decade came in 1985's The Color Purple in the role of Squeaks/Mary Agnes and in 1986's Soul Man playing opposite C.Thomas Howell.