Earlier this month I wrote about five Black men who are worthy of leading roles in film, and while I really am rooting for those guys (and for “everybody black,” in general), this is the piece I’ve been wanting to write for a long time. However, unlike my piece on leading Black men, I find myself concerned with something beyond exposure for the following black actresses; I find myself concerned with the content of the roles they’ll be presented with. There’s a likability factor that I’m afraid of embracing, when I demand that these women be given the opportunity to take the lead on screen. So, to be clear, I’m not asking for lead roles featuring strong, Black women who are encountering some sort of difficulty in life that they will surely overcome. I’m asking for stranger, darker more complex roles. I’m asking that we assume Black women can and should play literally any type of character (that isn’t some Black, female character trope) imaginable, and—especially—those unimaginable ones. And I’m asking that we remember there are other black female actresses beyond favorites like Gabrielle Union, Kerry Washington, Issa Rae, Taraji P. Henson and Viola Davis. Here are six black actresses who are more than ready to take the lead in the next big- or small-budget project—assuming those projects are worthy of their talents.
1. Aisha Hinds
No disrespect to Viola Davis (an icon, an influencer, the woman responsible for the most important Black-Woman-over-it-reaction gif of all time), but it’s going to be difficult to see another Harriet Tubman after watching Hinds on the small screen. This was an incredible year for the actor, who played a young pastor and activist on Shots Fired as well as Harriet Tubman on Season Two of Underground. Hinds will be remembered by everyone who watched the critically acclaimed drama, particularly for carrying an entire episode that worked as a one-woman show of sorts, “Minty.” In that hour, it became clear that Hinds is a force—something she’s proven time and again throughout her lengthy TV career (which includes True Blood and Under the Dome). But her strength and commanding presence tell me that all of our lives will improve greatly once Hollywood writers start giving her the superhero/action/sci-fi roles she deserves. Hinds will be seen next on Fox’s 9-1-1 and then playing Biggie Smalls’ mother Voletta Wallace on Unsolved, but it’d be a shame to see her relegated to biopics and dramas when she has the range to do anything she wants to.
2. Natasha Rothwell
Some people watch Insecure for Molly, others for the beautiful directing, and still others because it just feels good to see all that melanin on HBO. And then there are a select few of us—the coolest and smartest audience members—who know that this show all but belongs to Natasha Rothwell’s Kelli. No character has done more for the TV culture than Issa and Molly’s friend, who achieved peak black feminism when she engaged in a sex act at a diner, whilst enjoying her diet cheat day. In 2016, Rothwell also blessed us with an entire episode of weirdness on Netflix’s The Characters, in which she brought to life, among many other oddballs, a guy on the subway asking for spare change and sent from spoiler hell to tell you all about the Game of Thrones episode you haven’t watched yet. Rothwell recently landed her own development deal with HBO, but I won’t be satisfied until Idris Elba is playing her love interest in a romantic comedy based on that Valentine’s Day contest that I may or may not have entered earlier this year.
3. Alexandra Grey
Amazon’s Emmy-winning series Transparent made the brilliant decision of opening their third season with a story centered on Elizah, a young black trans woman played by Grey who has a brief and odd, but powerful encounter with Maura Pfefferman. Grey was truly captivating on screen and my only disappointment with that incredible season is that we didn’t get to see more of her. Since watching Grey as Elizah and seeing her go on to play Marsha P. Johnson in an amazing episode of Drunk History, I’ve realized that I want to live in a world where #girlslikeher get to write, produce and star in stories that speak to their many varied, wholly human experiences. This year Grey appeared on Doubt and When We Rise, but let’s hope she’ll be booked to high heaven in 2018. I could easily see her bringing back that gorgeous green hair from Transparent and playing an as-yet unimagined superhero (or supervillain), or putting her vocal talents to use (I’m just going to assume that she can easily learn to sing opera, if she doesn’t know how to already) in the long overdue Leontyne Price biopic.
4. Tina Lifford
We all have shows that we regret not keeping up with, and I’ll admit that Queen Sugar is one of mine. So it speaks volumes that, having not seen any episodes since the first season, I often find myself thinking about Tina Lifford’s Aunt Vi. Lifford plays the aunt to the Bordelon sisters, and her performance was so authentic and so striking that its stuck with me over the years. Perhaps it was the thrill of seeing an older woman with a younger man (in a relationship that was treated with great care), or perhaps it was that moment when she smoked up with her nieces, but Lifford’s work made such an impression on me, I can’t help but envision her in a role where she really gets to take center stage. She’s currently playing CIA Director Lowry on Scandal, and others will recognize from her role on Parenthood, but it’s clear that she’s not been given her just due. I’m personally disinterested in a world where older white men are the only ones still getting to play action heroes and love interests on screen, and thus I am ready for the Tina Lifford takeover.
5. Natalie Paul
This year’s Crown Heights is a far from perfect film, but one of the standout characters is Natalie Paul’s Antoinette. Paul plays the childhood friend-turned-lover to Lakeith Stanfield’s Colin Warner, in the film based on the tragic true story of a wrongfully convicted Trinidadian man from Brooklyn. Although it’s not her character’s story, Antoinette becomes a key figure in the fight for Warner’s freedom, and Paul is authentic and sincere in her portrayal of a woman falling in love and fighting inexhaustibly for justice. Paul also played a small role on the Starz hit Power and is responsible for one of the most important and progressive TV sex scenes of all time. Having landed a role on HBO’s The Deuce, I suspect that Paul is already well on her way to a leading role, but I’m really hoping to see her career move in some exciting and unexpected directions.
6. Amirah Vann
Umma let all those Emmy-nominated actresses finish, but Amirah Vann brought to life one of the most important and irresistibly complicated characters the TV medium has ever known. As Underground’s Ernestine, Vann (like the other actors on the show) didn’t play an American slave, she played a flawed, strange and at times villainous human being who happened to be living under American slavery. The actor earned her stripes with her theater work, and is another name on this list long overdue for leading roles in Hollywood movies, and in this time of Peak TV. In 2016, after the first season of the show), I declared that we wouldn’t fully understand the impact of Underground until we saw Vann as an “Annalise Keating-esque lawyer, or a Leftovers-type cult leader, or a ruthless spy, à la Elizabeth Jennings.” I’m thrilled that she recently joined the cast of How to Get Away with Murder, but seeing as how she has more talent in her pinky finger than precisely 72% of the white actresses you’ll see on every cover this awards season, I demand more (and by “more” I mean everything) for this formidable talent.
Shannon M. Houston is a writer on Hulu’s upcoming series The Looming Tower and Amazon’s Homecoming. She is the former TV Editor of Paste Magazine, and her work has appeared in Salon, Indiewire’s Shadow and Act, and Heart&Soul. She currently has more babies than you. You can follow her on Twitter.