Black actors from the 70s

Updated April 17, 2017

Roles for black actors significantly increased in the 1970s, both on the big screen and on television. Starting in the early 70s, major and independent studios released more than 200 "blaxploitation" films aimed at the African-American market. In addition to these movies, comedies starring black actors drew in huge audiences, biopics earned some black actors Academy Award nominations and television programs starring black actors became prime-time hits.


Low-budget "blaxploitation" movies featured black actors in urban settings and caused controversy because of the depictions of violence, gore and sex. These films also created a whole segment of new stars. Pam Grier, known as the Queen of Blaxploitation, became a symbol of female empowerment in a racist world, thanks to her roles as a sexy woman out for vengeance in "Coffy" in 1973 and "Foxy Brown" in 1974. Richard Roundtree broke through black stereotypes by portraying a strong, confident, articulate private eye in the 1971 film, "Shaft." Other actors in this genre include Melvin Van Peeples in "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song" in '71, Ron O'Neal in "Super Fly" in '72, and Fred Williamson in "Black Ceasar" in 1973, plus "Three the Hard Way" in 1975.


Comedies with black actors made big money in the 1970s. Sidney Poitier and Bill Cosby starred together for the first time in the successful "Uptown Saturday Night" in 1974, followed by "Let's Do It Again" in '75 and "A Piece of the Action" in 1977. Known for his live comedy shows, Richard Pryor made the transition to actor in the 1970s starring with Billy Dee Williams and James Earl Jones in "The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings" and "Silver Streak" in 1976. That same year, he starred in "Car Wash" and then in "Which Way Is Up?" in 1977.


In the '70s, several black actors won nominations and awards for their dramatic roles: James Earl Jones won a Golden Globe and received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor for portraying Jack Johnson, the first African-American Heavyweight Champion of the World in "The Great White Hope" in 1970. Successful Motown singer Diana Ross received a Golden Globe and Academy Award nomination for her first role as Billie Holiday in "Lady Sings the Blues" in 1972. She went on to star in "Mahogany" in '75 and "The Wiz" in '78. Cicley Tyson received an Academy Award nomination for her gripping performance as Rebecca Morgan in "Sounder" in 1972 and became the first African-American woman to win an Emmy for lead actress for "The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman" in 1974.


From made-for-TV movies to sitcoms to miniseries, television in the 1970s featured many roles starring black actors. The widely watched 1971 tearjerker "Brian's Song" starred Billy Dee Williams as Chicago Bears player Gale Sayers who supported his cancer-stricken friend and teammate, Brian Piccolo. And then there were the sitcoms: "Sanford and Son" ran from 1972 to 1977, starred Redd Foxx, Demond Wilson and LaWanda Page; "Good Times" starring John Amos, Esther Rolle and Jimmie Walker was hit from 1974 through 1979; and "The Jeffersons" saw a 10-year success from 1975 to 1985, starring Sherman Hemsley, Isabel Sanford and Marla Gibbs. More than 80 million people watched the finale of "Roots" in 1977, an eight-part, 12-hour miniseries, starring LeVar Burton, Ben Vereen, Louis Gossett Jr., Leslie Uggams and John Amos. This compelling show gave viewers a better understanding of slavery and how it shaped America.

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About the Author

Robbin McClain has been writing professionally since 1992. She has written about beauty, fashion, health, business and crafts for "American Salon," "Redbook," "Woman's Day" and other publications. McClain holds a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Texas.