The 20 Best TV Performances From Black Actors In 2021
Photo Credit: Starz, Peacock, HBO Max, Netflix, Showtime
Television

The 20 Best TV Performances From Black Actors In 2021

It's time to talk about the best of 2021 television, including the Black actors who made some of this year's shows become must-see television. From breakout hits like Yellowjackets and emerging faves like South Side - to series that ended their runs like Insecure and Pose - these stars made their shows what they are.

Shadow and Act managing editor Trey Mangum, news editor Monique Jones, staff writer Jamil David and contributing writer Shanique Yates put together the below list of the year's best.

Also, read the companion list: The 23 Best Television Series Of 2021

In no particular order...

Patina Miller, ‘Power Book III: Raising Kanan’

Photo: Starz

The Power franchise has reimagined itself in the image of Patina Miller, and it is incredibly better for it. The Broadway star, whose biggest TV work before this was Madam Secretary, showed that she’s soon-to-be-revered in multiple mediums for her powerhouse performance as drug queenpin Raquel “Raq” Thomas in the third Power franchise at Starz. – TM

Thuso Mbedu, ‘The Underground Railroad’

Photo: Amazon Prime Video

Thuso Mbedu brought so much to her role as Cora in The Underground Railroad. The South African performer is already beloved in her home country and should be primed to become a household name in the states. Seemingly the perfect actor for director Barry Jenkins, who uses her ability to let emotion permeate throughout her entire body in what was a compelling performance. Mbedu embodied the empathy and hope needed to be the lead in such a harrowing story to tell in what was one of the best performances of the year in one of the year’s best series. – JD 

Alyah Chanelle Scott, ‘The Sex Lives of College Girls’

Photo: HBO Max

Alyah Chanelle Scott is proof that there’s depth to being the token Black girl in a teen comedy or drama. Scott stuns in her performance as Whitney as she discovers her identity as a freshman alongside her roommates. Scott’s character is a reminder that as we journey through adulthood, letting go of the perception of who our parents want us to be is vital. At the same time, her relationship with her boss of a mother is the prime example of how leaning in on our parents during the formative adult years is important and even sometimes vital to us learning to carry our own weight. – SY

William Jackson Harper, ‘Love Life’

Photo: Sarah Shatz/HBO Max

William Jackson Harper is one of the best actors on television and is now one of the most recognizable. From his role in The Good Place to now Love Life’s second season, he has distinguished himself as someone who can do it all, whether he needs to be the funniest guy in the room or someone wallowing through the process of looking for love in the city. Love Life season 2 improves from a good first season to something special, and William Jackson Harper is the big reason why. – JD 

Chandra Russell, ‘South Side’

Photo: HBO Max

As a true Chicagoan, Chandra Russell brings Officer Turner to life in the hit series South Side. Changing wigs at the same rate that one may switch up their panties (maybe even more), Russell brings a refreshing and relatable air to her character that can’t be found anywhere else. As a two for one, she not only lends her acting expertise to the series, but brings it as a writer, penning episodes like this seasons’ “Turner’s and Brenda’s Day Off.” She is proof that Black women in comedy are not a monolith and certainly here to stay. – SY

Renée Elise Goldsberry, 'Girls5Eva'

Photo: Heidi Gutman/Peacock

After wowing the world with Hamilton and becoming a household name, Renée Elise Goldsberry is doing the best work of her career right now as pop star Wickie on Girls5Eva. Goldsberry is clearly having the time of her life, and we’re had the best times of 2021 watching her eat up the screen. TM 

Tawny Cypress, ‘Yellowjackets’

Photo: Michael Courtney/SHOWTIME.

Tawny Cypress plays the recent day version of Taissa in Yellowjackets. She has long put what happened in the wilderness behind her and is a successful politician with ambitious goals. Cypress balances her ambitions with the horrific potential of whatever dark secrets she and her surviving teammates have long-buried, ruining the peaceful life she has built with her wife and son. In a show with so many great performances from different women, Cypress is always captivating (especially when Tai gets further and further from reality), and her talents are on full display. – JD

Issa Rae, ‘Insecure’

Photo: HBO

Issa Rae is not just a great actress; she’s also a great businesswoman, creative, and producer. She carved her own path as the creator of web series The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, and became a standout creative talent with HBO’s Insecure, which just finished its five-season run. As Issa Dee, Rae has encapsulated a generation of Black women’s yearning for representation and understanding. Even better: she made being a 30-something finding their way in the world seem cool; she gave her fans the message that it is okay to not know what will happen, because you’ll find a way to land on your feet. – MJ

Jasmin Savoy Brown, ‘Yellowjackets’

Photo: Kailey Schwerman/SHOWTIME

Jasmin Savoy Brown as Taissa is a natural leader in a dire situation. She is recognized as one of the strongest in the group of survivors after her high school soccer team’s plane crashes in the wilderness, and Savoy Brown carries herself with determination and resolve. When she lets her facade down, and the thrilling nature of the story takes hold, her performance really shines through the horror that’s going on around her, and the chilling mystery of her past is on display. It’s a performance that will have you looking forward to what she does next and her Teen Tai is a great pair to Cypress’ Adult Tai. – JD

Hailey Kilgore, ‘Power Book III: Raising Kanan’

Photo: Starz

The second Power star to appear on our list (who happens to also be a Broadway transplant like her co-star, Patina Miller) Hailey Kilgore has the honor of taking on a role that was initially played by Anika Noni Rose in the parent series. Portraying the character with a specific gravitas that only she and Rose could nail, Kilgore is elevating Jukebox to one of the most important people in Power lore, period.  – TM 

Teyonah Parris, ‘WandaVision’

Photo: Suzanne Tenner/Marvel Studios

Teyonah Parris has been putting in the work in Hollywood for a while. But it seems like she is finally being recognized as the powerhouse actress she is thanks to her role as Monica Rambeau in Marvel’s WandaVision. As Monica, Parris brings heart to a story that is, at its core, about dealing with grief and loss. Parris also engages in superheroism once Monica discovers her powers, setting the stage for Monica’s film debut in Nia DaCosta’s The Marvels. – MJ

Malcolm Mays, ‘Power Book III: Raising Kanan’

Photo: Starz

Making it a 3-peat for Power Book III: Raising Kanan stars on our list, most were introduced to Mays on the first two seasons of Snowfall. He shifts to Power Book III: Raising Kanan and proves that on both shows, he wasn’t just Franklin Saint’s — nor Raq Thomas’ — lackey. Mays’ performance, a pitch-perfect interpretation of what the temperament of Raq and Marvin’s youngest sibling should be, the actor sets the stage for what may be an iconic-level performance in seasons to come. – TM 

Jasmine Cephas Jones, ‘Blindspotting’

Photo: Starz

Jasmine Cephas Jones took the reins to Starz’s TV spinoff of the critically-acclaimed indie film (which she had a supporting role in) with masterful ease. In all honestly, it is no telling how the show, which makes a lot of use of poetic/dream sequences, would have fared with a different lead than this stage great — but luckily, we won’t have to find out. – TM

Myles Truitt and Ajiona Alexus, ‘BMF’

Photo: Starz

The only duo to share a slot on this list, it was only right that it be the two standouts of BMF’s first season for their tragic love arc. Myles Truitt’s role as B-Mickie has changed the course of his acting career forever. Both he and Alexus left it all within their characters in BMF and although they may not be the show leads, their talent shone bright enough for the world to realize that this is only the beginning for the pair. – SY 

Wesley Snipes, ‘True Story’

Photo: Netflix

The iconic Wesley Snipes has killed it with his comedy work in recent years, including his Oscar-worthy turn in Dolemite Is My Name. So when he’d signed on for a Netflix limited series with Kevin Hart, one would expect laughs…right? What we actually got is stellar dramatic work and one of Snipes’ finest performances to date, elevating the series tenfold. – TM 

Wanda Sykes, ‘The Upshaws’ and ‘The Other Two’

Photo: HBO Max

The only person on our list this year to appear here because of not one — but two performances, Sykes had us rolling in 2021 for her work on Netflix’s The Upshaws (which she co-created) as laugh-out-loud auntie Lucretia Turner and HBO Max’s The Other Two as on-her-toes music exec Shuli Kucerac on HBO Max’s The Other Two. In the latter, it is wild to think she remains one of the funniest people on television’s funniest show — and proves that the underrated funny woman is at the top of her game, years later. – TM  

Michaela Jaé Rodriguez, ‘Pose’

Photo: FX

Michaela Jaé Rodriguez made the leap from the stage to the small screen as house mother Blanca Rodriguez in Pose. Rodriguez’s warm, heartfelt portrayal of Blanca is the heartbeat of the series, acting as the glue that keeps the cast of characters together. As Blanca, Rodriguez shows viewers that people can keep their minds towards hope and a better tomorrow, even when the deck seems stacked against you. – MJ

Uzo Aduba, ‘In Treatment’

Photo: HBO

Of course, it should be understood that Uzo Aduba will excel in any role — including the idea that she would take over a dormant HBO series that would now be a contained 30-minute drama. The revival of HBO’s In Treatment sees Aduba at her finest and couldn’t have come at a better time. – TM 

Shalita Grant, ‘You’

Photo: Netflix

Known to most for her work on a procedural, Shalia Grant has now become one of television’s go-to comedy queens. She kicked off the era with roles in Santa Clarita Diet and Search Party, and reaches her current peak with the third season of Netflix’s juggernaut hit, You. Over the course of the season, her tour de force as Sherry Conrad turns her from polarizing fave to probably one of the most likable characters on the roster and the one who everyone is rooting for. – TM 

Kim Fields, ‘The Upshaws’

Photo: Netflix

Kim Fields is a television veteran. Starting as a child actor and now working as an actor, producer, and director, Fields is back in the sitcom game with Netflix’s The Upshaws. As Regina Upshaw, the wife to mechanic Bennie Upshaw (Mike Epps), Fields is showing why she’s a sitcom legend, bringing complexity and humor to Regina’s life as a working mom and partner in a relationship that has had to overcome infidelity, resulting in a child. – MJ

Honorable Mentions | The Next 10:

Damson Idris (Snowfall)

Angela Lewis (Snowfall)

Brett Gray (On My Block)

Alycia Pascual-Peńa and Dexter Darden (Saved by the Bell)

Chase W. Dillon (The Underground Railroad)

Meagan Good (Harlem)

Yvonne Orji (Insecure)

Bresha Webb (Run The World)

London Brown (Power Book III: Raising Kanan)

Jaylen Barron (Blindspotting)

Shadow and Act is a website dedicated to cinema, television and web content of Africa and its global Diaspora. With daily news, interviews, in-depth investigations into the audiovisual industry, and more, Shadow and Act promotes content created by and about people of African descent throughout the world.

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