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Lola Falana Portrait Session

Source: LOS ANGELES – 1987: Actress Lola Falana poses for a portrait in 1987 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Harry Langdon/Getty Images) / Getty

Each February, Black History Month descends upon us and with it, a reminder of the unique and monumental contributions of Black Americans to our national history. And as the country’s race relations crumble under the pressure of systemic prejudice, it is perhaps more important than ever to commemorate these contributions as not only a part of Black History, but American history at large.

Particularly, amid  the mounting dialogue around diversity of representation, it appears the impact of Black Americans in entertainment and film is suddenly up for debate.

Award shows may forget their Black Hollywood heavyweights, but we certainly have not. Here’s a lesson in Black Herstory you certainly never learned in class. These are 8 Black women in Hollywood you should definitely know.


Lola Falana Portrait Session

Source: Harry Langdon / Getty

Her name is Lola. She was a showgirl… Loletha Elayne Lola” Falana was working as a dancer in Harlem when famed entertainer Sammy Davis Jr. cast her in the lead role for the Broadway musical “The Golden Boy” in 1964. From there, she went on to become the “Queen of Las Vegas,” head-lining shows in city throughout the 1970s, and is the rumored inspiration for the infamous Barry Manilow song “Copacabana.”


Marpessa Dawn

Source: American-born French actress, singer, and dancer Marpessa Dawn (1934 – 2008), circa 1960. (Photo by Archive Photos/Getty Images) / Getty

Born in America and migrating to Europe as a teenager, Marpessa Dawn is an international actress, singer and dancer best known for her work in “Black Orpheus,” the Brazilian remake of the Greek classic “Orpheus and Eurydice.” In 1959, the film won the Palm dor at the Cannes Film festival, the highest prize awarded at the event, and in 1960 it received the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. While “Black Orpheus” received critical claim, Dawn never found much commercial success. She would go on to make appearances both on screen and on stage touring through Europe and Northern Africa.



'Spectre' - The Black Women Of Bond Tribute - Arrivals

Source: LOS ANGELES, CA – NOVEMBER 03: Actress Judy Pace attends ‘Spectre’ – The Black Women of Bond tribute at the California African American Museum on November 3, 2015 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by David Livingston/Getty Images) / Getty

Judy Lenteen Pace was a woman of many firsts. In addition to being the first Black woman to ever receive a contract from a major motion picture studio, she is also the first Black television villainess, starring in the hit show “Peyton Place” in 1964. The dramatic series was the first to feature a Black family on prime time television.



'Pie Pie Blackbird'

Source: Publicity still of American actress Nina Mae McKinney in the all black cast short musical film ‘Pie Pie Blackbird’ (Vitaphone), with Eubie Blake and the Nicholas Brothers, 1932. (Photo by John D. Kisch/Separate Cinema Archive/Getty Images) / Getty

Dubbed, “The Black Garbot,” Nina Mae McKinney was a self-taught actress, singer, and dancer among the first Black film stars in America and abroad. In 1929, she starred in the film production of the all-Black musical Hallelujah as the sexy, seductress Chick, a role that would, fundamentally, transform the national perception of Black actresses who had always been cast as servants.  


Etta Moten Barnett

Source: Portrait of African-American actress and singer Etta Moten Barnett, 1950. (Photo by Afro American Newspapers/Gado/Getty Images) / Getty

The first Black star to perform at the White House, Etta Moten Barnett is perhaps best known in her signature role of “Bess” in the 1942 Broadway production of “Porgy and Bess.” However, McKinney’s influence her influence extended far beyond her work on stage. After retiring from entertainment, Barnett went on to become an active activist and philanthropist in Chicago before being appointed representative on cultural missions to ten African nations by the United States government.



Leontyne Price

Source: (GERMANY OUT) Price, Leontyne Saengerin- als Aida- 1960 (Photo by Fayer/ullstein bild via Getty Images) / Getty

The first Black American-born prima donna, Mary Violet Leontyne Price was a musician and opera singer who among one of the first Black artists to lead at the Metropolitan Opera. Rising to international stardom throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Price has received more honors and accolades than any other classical singer, including 19 Grammy Awards and the first Opera Honors given by the National Endowment for the Arts.  


Cleo Laine, London, 1971.

Source: Cleo Laine, London, 1971. (Photo by Jazz Services/Heritage Images/Getty Images) / Getty

Born Clementine Dinah Bullock, Cleo Laine was a British singer and actress most renowned for her jazz scats and extensive range. Known as the “Queen of Jazz” in her prime, she is the only female artist to receive Grammy nominations in the jazz, popular music and classical music categories.


Ovation TV Premiere Screening Of 'Art Breakers'

Source: LOS ANGELES, CA – OCTOBER 01: Nichelle Nichols attends the Ovation TV premiere screening of ‘Art Breakers’ on October 1, 2015 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Araya Diaz/Getty Images for Ovation) / Getty

Grace Dell “Nichelle” Nichols was an actress and singer who worked with the likes of Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton and Captain Kirk, himself. Nichols starred alongside William Shatner as Lieutenant Uhura in the famed science fiction series Star Trek where the pair shared one of the first interracial kisses between a white man and Black women to appear on American television.

Did we miss someone? Share some of your favorite Black women in Hollywood in the comments below.

For 2024’s iteration of MadameNoire and HelloBeautiful’s annual series Women to Know, we knew we wanted to celebrate the people who help make the joys of film and television possible. To create art is to create magic. This year, we spotlight Hollywood Executive’s changing the face of cinema.