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Ten most successful African actresses in Hollywood

By Mwangi Alberto
Wednesday, September 16th, 2020
In summary

In her acceptance speech at the Annual Primetime Emmy Awards in 2015,  Viola Davis — the only black actress to win an Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a drama series — said black women are just as good in front of the camera, only they don’t get as many opportunities as they should. Even so, there are a number of African-American actresses leading the charge and making waves in Hollywood. Mwangi Alberto compiles a few that have established themselves as  A-listers

Lupita Nyong’o

Our very own 37-year-old Oscar winner has had a great run in Hollywood and is now one of the most sought-after actresses in the industry.

She has played roles in many films including her claim to fame 12 Years a Slave, Black Panther, Star Wars, The Jungle Book and Non-Stop.

In 2014, she was awarded the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Patsey in 12 Years a Slave, becoming the sixth black actress and the first African to win an Oscar. Since then, Lupita has 116 award nominations, winning 66 times.

Benu Mabhena

Benu Mabhena was born in London, UK. While she can trace her acting development to the US, the actress’s bloodline lies in Zimbabwe, where her parents and most of her siblings were born.

The US government at some point offered them asylum, and they settled in San Francisco, where Mabhena would live throughout her teenage years.

From an early age, it was clear that Mabhena was in love with performance arts. She would do impressions and tell stories to those around her.

As she grew older, she veered more into poetry, writing and reciting poetic pieces. Her credentials were solidified when she attended Diablo Valley College and participated in theatre.

After college, she chose to live in Southern California and pursue her acting dreams, landing a role in the highly acclaimed 2006 film Blood Diamonds. She has also featured in Night Walkers and Princess.

Charlize Theron

Charlize Theron was born in Benoni, in the then Transvaal Province (now Gauteng Province), South Africa.

She’s an actress who also doubles as a film producer. Theron was thrust into the limelight after her role in The Devil’s Advocate in 1997.

She’s also known for roles in Mad Max: Fury Road, Snow White and the Huntsman, Atomic Blonde, Monster and Dark Places.

The dizzying heights of Hollywood fame were nothing to the then-budding star who went on to star in many other movies even winning an Academy Award in 2004 for her stellar performance in Monster where she played the serial killer Aileen Wuornos.

Thandie Newton

Thandiwe Nashita Newton has starred in many blockbuster Hollywood releases and has cemented her name as one of the biggest female stars of our times.

A daughter of Nyasha, a Zimbabwean princess of the Shona people, and Nick Newton, an English laboratory technician and artist, she has had roles in both American and British releases.

Thandie made her debut in the film Flirting in 1991, then in Interview With A Vampire, three years later.

She played a lead role in HBO’s successful show Westworld, and played a supporting role in some blockbusters such as Solo: A Star Wars Story and 2012.

Her most notable roles include Nyah Nordhoff-Hall in Mission Impossible II, Sally Hemings in Jefferson In Paris, Kate Thomas in Norbit, Linda in The Pursuit of Happiness and a title role in Beloved. 

Michelle Van Der Water

The actress was born in Cape Town, South Africa, in 1978, but the family moved to Australia soon after her birth.

Michelle Van Der Water
The actres

She is a graduate of Wollongong University, where she pursued a Bachelor’s Degree in Creative Arts in Graphic Design and New Media.

She has acted in films such as Teeth and Blood, Minotaur, We Are Love, Crosshairs, Melrose Place, Castle, and NCIS: Los Angeles.

Megalyn Echikunwoke

Megalyn was born in 1983 to a Nigerian father and an English, German and Irish mother.

The actress was discovered early and started acting at the tender age of 14.

You may know her from The 4400, a TV series as the grown-up Isabelle Tyler.

She has featured in other films including House of Lies, 24, Damsels in Distress, Vixen, Raising The Bar, Made In Jersey and The 70’s Show. 

Ella Thomas

Ella was born on August 15, 1981, to an Eritrean mother from Asmara and an American Air Force officer, who was stationed in Eritrea.

When she was still a child, Ella’s family relocated to Germany. She developed an appreciation for the performing arts, and began taking part in local school and theatre productions.

After finishing her studies, she went into acting and managed to carve a niche for herself. One of her most notable roles was on the hit TV series Entourage as Viveca.

She has appeared in many other popular films such as Ballers, Ten Days in the Valley, Mistresses, All My Children, CSI: Miami, Castle and NCIS: Los Angeles. 

Chipo Chung

Even though Chipo Chung was born in 1977 in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, she is actually half Zimbabwean and half Chinese.

Her first two years of life were tumultuous, as her parents tried to establish a permanent residence due to the instability in Zimbabwe. During this time, she stayed in a refugee camp in Mozambique.

When she turned 18, she left for the US and has since appeared in films such as Sunshine, Proof, In the Loop, Phèdre, Doctor Who, Last Enemy, Sherlock, and Camelot.

Apart from being an actor, Chung is a well-known activist, and some of her work has involved setting up the SAFE-Kenya outfit, which campaigns towards creating awareness for HIV and abolishing female genital mutilation in Kenya. 

Liya Kebede

Born and raised in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Kebede has done everything when it comes to the entertainment scene.

The actress started out as a model and developed into a clothing designer and an advocate for maternal health advocate.

Liya Kebede

In 2007, she rose to become the 11th most paid model according to the Forbes list. Her filmography includes some highly popular films such as Lord of War, The Good Shepherd, The Best Offer, and Desert Flower.

The actress and model have also given a lot to goodwill and even got appointed World Health Organisation Goodwill Ambassador for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health. She won Glamor’s Women of the Year award for her philanthropy in 2013.

Rachel Mwanza

Rachel Mwanza is an actress from the Democratic Republic of Congo. She is mostly known for her roles in the Belgian films Kinshasa Kids in 2012 and Troisièmes noces in 2018.

Mwanza’s acting break would come when Kim Ngunyen, a film director, saw her featured in a documentary about surviving the streets of Kinshasa. She was subsequently cast in the movie War Witch in 2012.

Her performance brought about an avalanche of awards in the Berlin Film Festival, Vancouver Film Critics Circle, and the Tribeca Film Festival.