African Queens Of The Big Screen: 13 Of Our Favorite African Actresses

November 11, 2013  |  
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While we’re just beginning to recognize African American actresses the way we should in Hollywood, African actresses, who were either born on the continent or in the U.S. to parents from the motherland, still don’t often get the recognition they deserve. We’re going to attempt to put a stop to that with this list acknowledging 13 of our favorite African Queens of the big screen.


Lupita Nyong’o

Although she was born in Mexico, Lupita Nyong’o was raised in Kenya once her family moved back to their native country. After attending college in the U.S., the 30-year-old actress and filmmaker worked behind the camera before making her debut in a short film in 2008. Nyong’o headed back to school and enrolled in the acting program at the Yale School of Drama. Immediately following graduation, she was cast in Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave. Up next for Nyong’o is Non-Stop, costarring Liam Neeson.


Adepero Oduye

Adepero Oduye is another shining star of 12 Years A Slave, but the Cornell University graduate born to Nigerian parents has been acting for well over a decade. Starring in several short films since 2002, Oduye made her Broadway debut in the musical Fela! Earning both a Spirit Award and NAACP nomination for best actress in the critically acclaimed independent movie Pariah, the Brooklyn born Oduye also starred in last year’s Lifetime remake of Steel Magnolias.


Sophie Okonedo

Born in London to a Nigerian father and a Jewish mother, Sophie Okonedo began acting in the early 90’s. Working on both British and American projects, Okonedo was cast as the Wachiti princess in Jim Carrey’s 1995 Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls and starred opposite Queen Latifah, Alicia Keys and Jennifer Hudson in The Secret Life of Bees. But the mother of three may be best remembered for her harrowing performance in Hotel Rwanda, which earned her numerous award nominations. Proud of her biracial ethnicity, Okonedo has said, “I feel as proud to be Jewish as I feel to be Black.”


Gugulethu Mbatha-Raw

English-born actress Gugulethu (Gugu) Mbatha-Raw snagged small television roles early on in her career. Trained at the fame Royal Academy of the Arts, Mbatha-Raw also cut her teeth in theater before she was cast in 2011’s Larry Crowne, which was co-written, directed by, and starred Tom Hanks. For two seasons, Mbatha-Raw starred opposite Keifer Sutherland on Touch as social worker Clea Hopkins. Earlier this year, Fox announced the show would not be back for a third season.


Danai Gurira

AMC struck gold with its hit post-apocalypse zombie-filled show “The Walking Dead.” Premiering in 2010, Zimbabwe-born actress Dania Gurira joined the cast in season three. Before her big break on AMC, Gurira earned a master’s in Fine Arts at NYU and had minor roles on “Law & Order” and “Treme.” Determined to give back to her homeland, Gurira co-founded Almasi, an organization that is dedicated to continuing arts education in Zimbabwe in 2011.


Thandie Newton

Thandie Newton started out in the film industry in the early 90’s. By the time Oprah Winfrey tapped her to star in Beloved, Newton, who’s first name means “beloved,” had almost a dozen film credits under her belt. Newton, whose mother was a Zimbabwean health worker, followed her critically acclaimed performance by starring in the action flicks Mission: Impossible II and The Chronicles of Riddick. Newton received further praise, numerous nominations and several awards for her role in the Academy award winning film Crash. The married mother of two recently revealed she is pregnant with her third child.


Lesley-Ann Brandt

Born in South Africa, Lesley-Ann Brandt moved with her family to Auckland, New Zealand and that’s where she first started her career in front of the camera. Padding her resume with numerous television roles, Brandt became an international sensation with her portrayal of slave girl Naevia in Starz’ “Spartacus: Blood and Sand.” A year later, she reprised her role as Naevia in the min-series and prequel “Spartacus: Gods of the Arena.” Up next for Brandt is Drift, the Australian film about the birth of the surf industry.


Yaya DaCosta

Yaya DaCosta came this close to winning the third cycle of “America’s Next Top Model” but lost out to Eva Marcille. After a successful career in modeling, DaCosta, who is of Nigerian and Brazilian descent, made the transition to acting. Snagging minor roles on “Eve,” “All My Children,” and “Ugly Betty,” DaCosta had a breakout performance in the 2010 independent film The Kids Are Alright, which garnered numerous award nominations and critical acclaim. The multilingual actress married independent producer/director Joshua Bee Alafia and gave birth to their first child several months ago.


Ashley Madekwe

Born in London, Ashley Madekwe earned a degree at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art before officially beginning her career on camera. Woody Allen cast the British actress, who is of Nigerian descent, in her first motion picture in 2007 in Cassandra’s Dream opposite two of Hollywood’s hunks, Colin Farrell and Ewan McGregor. Falling back into television, Madekwe guest starred on numerous shows before finding a permanent home on ABC’s hit show “Revenge” as the social climbing, back stabbing friend Ashley Davenport.


Megalyn Echikunwoke

Raised on a Navajo Native American Reservation in Arizona, Megalyn Echikunwoke always knew she’d make it out. Getting her start in television in the late 90’s, the 30-year-old actress of Nigerian descent may be best known as Dr. Tara Price on CBS’ “CSI: Miami.” After starring in the show as the resident medical examiner for six seasons, Khandi Alexander’s character was replaced by Dr. Price. However, Echikunwoke stayed with the show for just one season. Up next for Echikunwoke is ABC’s drama series “Mind Games,” which is expected be a midseason replacement show that is set to debut sometime next year.

Leleti Khumalo

In 1985, South African born actress Leleti Khumalo auditioned for a musical that would change her life. Khumalo landed the lead role in Sarafina! and starred in the play in South Africa before it made its way to Broadway. After the musical’s two-year run ended on the great, white way, Khumalo stayed on as the title character as the show embarked on a worldwide tour. When the successful play was turned into a motion picture, Khumalo starred opposite Whoopi Goldberg and Miriam Mekeba in the biggest film production released in Africa. Aside from her work in Sarafina!, the 43-year-old actress also starred in Hotel Rwanda and Invictus.

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Gaboure Sidibe

Gaboure’s spirit is a precious as the movie role we’ve come to know her for. After nailing the lead role in Lee Daniels’ 2009 flick based on the book “Sapphire,” Sidibe, whose father is from Senegal, went on to land parts in “The Big C,” “Yelling to the Sky,” and even hosted an episode of “Saturday Night Live.”


Uzo Aduba

Have we mentioned we love “Orange is the New Black” yet? Well, one of the major reasons we do is Uzo Aduba, also known as “Crazy Eyes,” on the Netflix series. The Nigerian actress has been in the game for a while, having made her Broadway debut in 2007 as Toby in Coram Boy. Aduba was also a member of the Original Revival Cast of Godspell from 2011 through 2012, and she followed that feat up with her first television appearance on Blue Bloods in 2012.

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