Ladies First: 14 Of Our Favorite TV Leading Ladies From The Past And Present

September 12, 2014  |  
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Many of the black faces that we see on television today in leading roles are on because of the hard work of their predecessors to keep people of color on the small screen. This upcoming TV season features, among many, leading ladies such as Viola Davis in ABC’s “How to Get Away With Murder” and Octavia Spencer in the FOX drama “Red Band Society.” We are taking a look at some of our favorite leading ladies of the past and present who make us proud of all that they have done to portray black women in a positive light!

ABC

KERRY WASHINGTON AS OLIVIA POPE

To say that Shonda Rhimes owns Thursday night network television is an understatement! We can thank her for bringing Olivia Pope into our lives every week on the ABC hit series “Scandal.” It is hard to believe that quite a few years have passed since we saw a black leading lady on television before Washington, but we are sure there will be many more to come thanks to her amazing performances and award-winning efforts that she puts in week after week on the show!

Fox

QUEEN LATIFAH AS KHADIJAH JAMES

When it comes to remembering TV from the ’90s, it’s hard to forget about “Living Single,” which was a household favorite for many of us. It gave us a glimpse into what life was like for young women trying to navigate the city, friendships and love back in the day. Khadijah James, with her sense of humor and entrepreneurial drive, was one of our favorites.

BET

GABRIELLE UNION AS MARY JANE PAUL

Last year, “Being Mary Jane” premiered as a BET original movie and roped in a jaw-dropping four million viewers! This success paved the way for the weekly show, a series starring Gabrielle Union as Mary Jane Paul, a woman who struggles to juggle life as a successful cable newscaster, daughter and sister financially taking care of her family and a single woman desperate to be in a  relationship. While her character can be controversial, Paul is relatable. As Union put it, “It would be very easy to label Mary Jane a freak, whatever. But enjoying sex doesn’t make you a ho.”

Fox/HBO

TISHA CAMPBELL MARTIN AS GINA WATERS-PAYNE

Another ’90s classic was “Martin,” and standing next to the hilarious Martin Lawrence as Martin Payne was Tisha Campbell Martin as successful, smart and spunky Gina Waters (later Payne). We all loved tuning in each week to see Gina hold it down for Martin as he struggled with his career and trying to find his way in the world. The funny moments and the sentimental ones stand out in our minds as some of the best on TV.

CBS

JA’NET DUBOIS AS WILLONA WOODS

You might be hard pressed to find someone who hasn’t enjoyed reruns of the 1970s hit show “Good Times.” We loved seeing Ja’net Dunois as Willona, the wacky but lovable neighbor who lived across the hall from the Evans family and helped them through the good times and the bad. And how many times did you get to see women, black women at that, adopt kids on TV? 

NBC

PHYLICIA RASHAD AS CLAIR HUXTABLE

Unless you have been living under a rock, you have undoubtedly seen Phylicia Rashad in her role as Clair Huxtable in the ever-so-popular “Cosby Show.” This show ruled the 1980s and early 90s while depicting an upper-income black family living in Brooklyn, learning life lessons in a comical way. Some of our favorite highlights on the show included Rashad’s seemingly effortless portrayal of a loving wife, successful lawyer and nurturing mother to an often unruly, but lovable brood of children! 

USA

GINA TORRES AS JESSICA PEARSON

On the wildly-popular USA Network show “Suits,” Gina Torres (the other half of actor Laurence Fishburne), portrays Jessica Pearson. Her character is at the helm of one of the top law firms in the city and she is always ready for a challenge with anyone who dares to step into the ring. She faces hardships involving former legal partners, failed mergers and other hurdles that would make the average woman buckle under the pressure. But thankfully, she never budges and we salute her for that!

AMC

DANAI GURIRA AS MICHONNE

Danai Gurira, 36, has been keeping audiences on the edges of their seats with her role as Michonne on the hit drama series “The Walking Dead” on AMC. Gurira joined the cast in 2012 and it is safe to say that her character, one already popular due to the comic book series, became a brooding big hit audiences can’t take their eyes off of.

Netflix

UZO ADUBA AS SUZANNE “CRAZY EYES” WARREN

“Orange is the New Black”  has been setting the TV world (the streaming TV world that is) on fire with its amazing yet hilarious storylines and award-winning performances by a diverse ensemble cast. Uzo Aduba, 34, keeps audiences in hysterics with her performance as Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren. All of her hard work and comedic genius have paid off since she recently received the 2014 Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series. We are certain there will be many more awards to come for her in the near future! 

NBC

DIAHANN CARROLL AS JULIA BAKER

We would not have any of these amazing characters on TV without the pioneer herself, Diahann Carroll. “Julia” was the first TV series to have a black woman in a leading role, and although the series was relatively short-lived, it paved the way for many other leading black ladies on the small screen. Carroll portrayed Julia Baker, a single mother and nurse trying to raise a son alone after losing her husband during the turbulent 1960s. We appreciate the trail that was blazed through this TV series.

CW

TRACEE ELLIS ROSS AS JOAN CLAYTON

Although it hasn’t been that long since “Girlfriends” went off the air, we still remember it and its episodes like it was yesterday. Tracee Ellis Ross’s work as Joan Carol Clayton, Esq. showed many what strong, independent, smart and very fashionable black women (despite a turbulent love life) were like. The show had a successful eight-year run on the UPN/CW Network between 2000 and 2008 and we enjoyed how Ross’s wit and work as Joan. 

AMC

TEYONAH PARRIS AS DAWN CHAMBERS

This graduate of Julliard got her first big break on the AMC hit series “Mad Men.” Teyonah Parris portrays Dawn, the first black employee at the illustrious ad agency and the secretary for Don Draper. She put ups with a lot, but is strong-minded, caring and compassionate. And while we’re sad that “Mad Men” is in its final season, you don’t have to worry about missing out on Parris’ work. Her upcoming projects include films such as Dear White People and the upcoming series on the Starz Network, “Survivor’s Remorse.”

NBC

JASMINE GUY AS WHITLEY GILBERT

Having a great group of friends around you during your college years is always a blessing! We all remember having our hearts and minds captured by the entire cast of “A Different World,” but especially by Jasmine Guy, who portrayed Southern belle Whitley Gilbert. Her relationship with Dwayne, wit and love for her peers are just a few reasons why we were so glad when Guy’s character of Whitley Gilbert became the lead character on the show (sorry Lisa Bonet…).

NBC

REGINA KING AS BRENDA JENKINS

You would never guess by her youthful looks that Regina King has been in the acting game for more than 30 years! Her role on the 1980s comedy series “227” was memorable as she played sassy and quick-witted pre-teen Brenda Jenkins. Since that time, King has been in a number of powerful roles on the big screen and small screen  (“Southland” anyone?) as well.

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