Unlike Forbes' annual lists of the richest in Hollywood royalty, determining who possesses the most power is very much a subjective task. So much depends on perception: If you think someone has power, they probably do, regardless of whether their last film was a box-office hit or a bomb. In fact, power in Hollywood is as much about how people choose to wield it as it is about how they managed to acquire it.

African Americans in Hollywood, meanwhile, remain something of a subset of the industry, despite the obvious fact that there are more black actors, writers, directors and producers than ever before, and no one denies the clout that people of color can exert at the box office.

Still, developing a list of the 10 Most Powerful African Americans in Hollywood is a challenge. For example, no one under 30 made the top slots, and it really says something significant that the man-woman ratio here is an unsatisfactory 8-to-2. What we know is that ground continues to be broken each year.

Unlike Forbes' annual lists of the richest in Hollywood royalty, determining who possesses the most power is very much a subjective task. So much depends on perception: If you think someone has power, they probably do, regardless of whether their last film was a box-office hit or a bomb. In fact, power in Hollywood is as much about how people choose to wield it as it is about how they managed to acquire it.

African Americans in Hollywood, meanwhile, remain something of a subset of the industry, despite the obvious fact that there are more black actors, writers, directors and producers than ever before, and no one denies the clout that people of color can exert at the box office.

Still, developing a list of the 10 Most Powerful African Americans in Hollywood is a challenge. For example, no one under 30 made the top slots, and it really says something significant that the man-woman ratio here is an unsatisfactory 8-to-2. What we know is that ground continues to be broken each year.

10. Samuel L. Jackson
For sheer volume alone, Samuel L. Jackson must rank as one of the busiest Hollywood actors of the last 20 years and, by dint of his Q factor, one of the most powerful. The fact that so many of his films have enjoyed huge box-office success ('Pulp Fiction,' 'Die Hard: With a Vengeance,' and 'A Time to Kill' were nine-figure hits before the 'Star Wars' prequel trilogy), is not coincidental. Jackson often plays characters who are scurrilous, evasive, mercurial and even downright unlikable, yet he reliably burrows far underneath their skin, raising to the surface enough about them so they seem full of flesh, bone and life.

9. Lee Daniels
If you were flippant, you could sum up the current power of the 50-year-old Daniels in one word: 'Precious.' But a little history will explain why that would shortchange the fastest-rising black director of the last decade. After all, a brusque, daring 2001 film that Daniels produced -- 'Monster's Ball' -- gave Halle Berry the role that made her the first African American to win an Oscar for Best Actress. It also solidified Daniels' credibility -- he was then the first African American sole producer of an Oscar-winning film. 'Precious' has global grosses approaching $51 million, slightly more than the $45 million achieved by 'Monster's Ball.' Equally important, what Daniels has done with 'Precious' is simply galvanized the Hollywood establishment. You don't get Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry to sign on as co-executive producers of your movie otherwise.

8. Morgan Freeman
In Hollywood, 73-year-old Oscar-winner is an institution, the go-to talent at every studio for the sage role, the august role, the character whose shattering backstory is mirrored on the actor's deeply expressive face. Freeman reinforced all these perceptions last year with his towering performance in 'Invictus,' in which he finally achieved his longtime goal of playing Nelson Mandela on screen. Freeman earned an Academy Award nomination for his work and kept his record at the box office among the very best, although it's hard top the billion in worldwide grosses that 'The Dark Knight' piled up. Freeman's name, and the sense of gravitas that he projects, makes him immediately value-added for any project.

7. Eddie Murphy
Film critics may often castigate him for the pungent innocuousness of some of his projects (so sorry, 'Norbit' fans), but Murphy remains one of the most powerful comic actors working in Hollywood today. And it's not that the movie world doesn't acknowledge his talent: his Golden Globe win and Oscar nomination for 'Dreamgirls' attests to that. Murphy's problem is that the public has come to expect a kind of manic, loopy silliness from him, and when he's fully attuned to it, no one in the industry makes audiences laugh more readily. However, when Murphy tries to stretch by relying on old shtick -- or worse, making a fetish of cliche as with 2009's unimaginative 'Imagine That' -- he typically doesn't excel.

6. Spike Lee
It was exactly 25 years ago that the first major Spike Lee "Joint," 'She's Gotta Have It,' revolutionized popular perceptions of black cinema and brought it solidly into the mainstream. Today, Lee's power in Hollywood remains strong, even if his films aren't necessarily the highest grossing (notwithstanding the $184 million worldwide take of 2006's 'Inside Man'). One of the most overtly political directors in Hollywood, Lee speaks provocatively and assertively to the industry's liberal conscience: only Lee, many say, had the clout to create 'When the Levees Broke,' a two-part documentary accusing the government of complicity in the Hurricane Katrina tragedy, which won three Emmys. Oscar-nominated twice, the 52-year-old Lee can largely pick and choose projects at will.

5. Tyler Perry
When you think of Hollywood artists whose name signifies a brand, the 40-year-old actor-writer-director-producer-novelist springs to mind. More than just the creator of the unforgettable Madea, Perry's chronicles and satires of contemporary African American life anchor a one-man industry. It includes seven films to date (grossing over $350 million domestically), popular plays and two successful TV series ('House of Payne' and 'Meet the Browns'), all with his name put in the possessive part of the title. Together with Oprah Winfrey, Perry co-executive produced 'Precious,' catapulting the film to greater bottom-line success. One of Perry's next projects -- a film version of Ntozake Shange's play 'For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf,' slated for 2011 -- will star Oscar-winner Halle Berry. Can Perry's own Oscar be far off?

4. Halle Berry
Not only is the 44-year-old Oscar winner the highest-paid African American actress, she is one of the top female earners overall, commanding upward of $10 million per picture, plus the customary back-end percentage. Almost from the moment she accepted her Oscar for 'Monster's Ball' in 2002, paying tribute to the black actresses who had come before her, Berry has seemingly conducted her career with her own legacy in mind, exercising her enormous box office and personal clout in a spirit of balance. The results have sometimes been risible (the Razzie-winning 'Catwoman'), but more often they mix blockbusters (like the 'X-Men' franchise) with walk-on-the-edge dramas ('Things We Lost in the Fire') that test the limits of her talent. Berry's outer beauty is only matched by her willingness to put her soul on the line every time, for better or for worse.

3. Denzel Washington
When Forbes inaugurated a new ranking of Hollywood power called Star Currency in 2009, it was a given that the 54-year-old Washington would appear on it -- the question was where in the Top 10 they would rank him (they deemed him 8th). The two-time Oscar-winner's first name is so well recognized to the general public that marketing anything he acts in is really about promoting the content. This is also because Washington's performances are generally among the most consistently polished, be it in a historical biopic or a picture with mass-audience appeal. More than almost any other film actor, African American or otherwise, Washington's brand connotes superlative quality. Even misses, like remakes of 'The Manchurian Candidate' or 'The Taking of Pelham 123,' redeem themselves when Washington's unveils talent for showing strength, vulnerability and unexpected humor with total verve.

2. Oprah Winfrey
Characterizing Oprah Winfrey's wealth is easy: Last September, Forbes named her the richest self-made woman in America, worth a cool $2.3 billion. Describing Winfrey's power, however, is more like "Where do you start?" Her eponymous talk show, her book club, her magazine, her philanthropy -- or her endorsement of a certain presidential candidate? Hollywood is also recognizing the thunder of the 54-year-old Winfrey's brand these days, and with good reason: almost singlehandedly, she altered the fate of the movie 'Precious' when she became one of its executive producers. Was 'Precious' the talk of the 2009 Sundance Film Festival simply owing to Winfrey's imprimatur? No. But Lee Daniels' film is an outsized critical and commercial success -- now topping $50 million in worldwide grosses -- thanks in large part to Winfrey's ability to promote it across innumerable platforms.



1. Will Smith
Few actors in Hollywood offer the kind of seemingly apparent box office guarantee that Will Smith brings to the table. More than 10 of his films have crossed the $100 million threshold, including a sizzling string of hits during the '00s ('Hitch,' 'The Pursuit of Happyness,' 'I Am Legend' and 'Hancock'). If you go all the way back to Smith's first commercial successes -- 'Men in Black' and 'Men in Black II,' plus a little blockbuster called 'Independence Day' -- what is most amazing is Smith's extraordinary staying power. And then there is his fantastic wealth: Smith's earning during 2008 was $80 million, according to Forbes, making him the best-paid actor of that year. Together with his wife, Jada Pinckett Smith, an actress with a formidable brand name of her own, the 41-year-old Smith's ability to write his own ticket remains virtually unlimited.