It is both exciting and difficult to create a list like this, when there are countless actresses of color to watch in 2014. This speaks to the growing visibility of a group of women who have long been (and, indeed, still are in many ways) marginalized. Shonda Rhimes herself (creator of Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal) recently accepted a Diversity Award from the Director’s Guild of America, and admitted that she was both honored and “pissed” to be receiving such an accolade. She was pleased to be recognized for her work, and also disappointed—even angry—that we live in a time when diversity in media is still rare enough that awards are given to those who embrace and encourage it.
With a similar mindset, Paste offers up this list. In 2013, hit shows and critically acclaimed films brought the talent and stories of African Americans and Africans to the forefront. While women did not always take the lead, they often functioned as the nucleus for some of these narratives. Many of these names are already on everyone’s radar. Kerry Washington (Scandal), Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years A Slave) and Nicole Beharie (Sleepy Hollow) have gotten plenty of buzz for their work, and with good reason. However, there are many more actors with less-recognizable names who deserve the spotlight, as well.
We hope to contribute to the growing visibility of these and other black actresses, and we also hope that a list like this will one day be completely unnecessary. In the meantime, here are ten talented black actresses gearing up for a very big 2014.
1. Yaya Alafia
In 2013, Alafia left her America’s Next Top Model roots far behind when she delivered a powerful performance as a non-violent activist-turned-Black Panther in Lee Daniels’ The Butler. With previous roles in Ugly Betty and the 2010 Oscar-nominated film The Kids Are Alright, the Harlem native has proved that she’s got the look, and she definitely has the chops to become a more familiar face in the film world. She pulled a lead role in the movie Big Words, which made its way around the festival circuit last year, and this year Alafia finds herself in good company once again with a role in Rob Reiner’s And So It Goes, starring Diane Keaton and Michael Douglas.
Follow Alafia on Twitter.
2. Laverne Cox
June 6 marks the return of the acclaimed Netflix series Orange Is the New Black, and this is reason enough to get excited about Cox. She was heralded last year for her brilliant performance of Sophia Burset, a transsexual inmate with a deeply fascinating back story and the only inmate to see when in need of a weave laid straight. This year, Cox will also play in the indie film Grand Street, and as she works to give more visibility and advocacy to trans individuals, she’ll continue fundraising for her documentary, Free CeCe.
Follow Cox on Twitter.
Pretty much everybody loves the Parks and Recreation comedian, and this year Retta is finally taking it to the silver screen. With Come Simi, Muffin Top: A Love Story and Sex Ed all set for a 2014 release, the world needs to go ahead and prepare for the Retta takeover. It is imminent.
You must follow Retta on Twitter.
4. Tessa Thompson
Justin Simien’s Dear White People was a big hit at this year’s Sundance Film Festival (nabbing the Special Jury Prize for Breakthrough Talent), and Thompson has had much to do with the film’s success. She plays the lead in the acclaimed film as Samantha White, a black student speaking out against what she sees as the ridiculousness of her white classmates at her Ivy League university. With gems like, “Dear White People, the amount of black friends required not to seem racist has just been raised to two. Sorry, your weed man, Tyrone, doesn’t count,” it’s safe to assume that Thompson’s role will be truly memorable. Although Veronica Mars fans will be disappointed to learn that she will not be reprising her role as Jackie Cook in the forthcoming movie, she does have two films on the way, including Grantham & Rose, where she’ll star alongside Jake T. Austin.
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5. Amandla Stenberg
The Hunger Games fans the world over got a welcome surprise when Stenberg (better known as Rue) suddenly showed up on the FOX series Sleepy Hollow. Stenberg plays Macey Irving, the daughter of Orlando Jones’ character, and the episode where she became possessed by a demon was easily one of the best of a very good first season. The actress is also in a band called Hawley, and if you aren’t a fan of hers yet, you probably will be when you read her thoughts about feminism and what it means to be a young, black actor in Hollywood in Dazed magazine. This year, she’ll be starring alongside the incomparable Craig Robinson in a new television series Mr. Robinson, and we can expect to see more of her once Sleepy Hollow picks back up … though one hopes we’ve seen the last of demon-possessed Macey.
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6. Chandra Thomas
Best known for her extensive work in live theatre, Thomas has been steadily transitioning to television and film over the past few years, with appearances on The Good Wife and Law & Order: Criminal Intent. The supremely talented actress landed a role alongside Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin in this year’s Labor Day, and was recently featured by the Black Actress Webseries as a rising star to watch. Sweet Lorraine will be Thomas’ next feature film, and we’d love to see the actress/writer/producer become the next big thing on the indie circuit and beyond.
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7. Gabrielle Union
Move over (if only for a moment) Scandal! While the ABC series has been on winter break, BET’s Being Mary Jane came from out of nowhere and debuted to five million viewers. Mara Brock Akil’s creation had the number one original series debut on cable for the 2013-14 television season, and for those of us who might have been sleeping on Gabrielle Union’s skills, it was quite the wakeup call. As Mary Jane Paul, Union is responsible for bringing a new, complex character to the small screen, and this contribution is no small matter. Equal parts successful and messy, she is akin to Kerry Washington’s Olivia Pope, but a bit more relatable than the Washington fixer. Unlike some of the other actors on this list, Union is pretty mainstream, but this new role is opening her up to an audience of viewers who are now more invested and more interested in the next stage of her career.
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8. Zoë Kravitz
While her last name has certainly garnered some extra attention, Kravitz has been putting in legitimate work on the indie scene over the years, starring in films like Twelve and Yelling to the Sky with Gabourey Sidibe. Her role in the upcoming Divergent movie will certainly have plenty of folks buzzing, but we’re equally excited to see her take on the role of Marie, an anorexic patient who becomes the object of affection of a young man with Tourette’s Syndrome (Robert Sheehan) in The Road Within. Her other upcoming projects include Mad Max: Fury Road and Good Kill, which are both set for a 2015 release.
Follow Kravitz on Twitter.
9. Lyndie Greenwood
Another Sleepy Hollow actor, Greenwood is a rising talent whose recent performances have earned her the interest of some big names. The Canadian actor plays the brilliantly bad ass (and newly released from the psych ward) sister to Nicole Beharie’s character on FOX’s Sleepy Hollow, and she’s also been playing Sonya on the CW hit Nikita since 2011. This year, fans of the new FOX show can expect to see more of her general awesomeness when the second season picks up in the fall, and she recently filmed an appearance on the forthcoming Martin Lawrence/Kelsey Grammer comedy series.
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10. Quvenzhané Wallis
Since her 2012 Oscar nomination for her performance in Beasts of the Southern Wild, little Hushpuppy has been laying fairly low. While she had a small role in last year’s 12 Years a Slave and got some buzz more recently for her Maserati Super Bowl XLVIII ad, 2014 will bring us the highly anticipated Annie remake, with Wallis in the lead role. She’s also voicing Almitra in the animated version of Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet, and she was recently cast alongside Octavia Spencer, Russell Crowe and Amanda Seyfried in Fathers and Daughters. She’ll be playing a troubled child in a psychiatric clinic, which means that we can most likely anticipate another powerful turn from the ten-year-old. Because yes, we’re talking about a ten-year-old here.
Follow Quvenzhané on Twitter.