By EW Staff
February 08, 2021 at 12:16 PM EST
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This article was written independently by Entertainment Weekly's editorial team and meets our editorial standards. CBS is a paid advertising partner in Winter 2021.

When Queen Latifah started following in the footsteps of fellow rappers Will Smith and Ice-T in making the transition from hip-hop star to actress, fans were pleasantly surprised to discover how natural she was on screen. She launched her acting career with a small role in 1991's Jungle Fever as a waitress with a serious attitude problem. Though she only had one scene, where her character Lashawn takes an interracial couple (played by Wesley Snipes and Annabella Sciorra) to task, it was memorable — and made it clear she was destined for bigger things.

To celebrate her latest role as Robyn McCall in CBS' reboot of The Equalizer, we're looking back at some of Latifah's best performances over the span of her 30-year career, in no particular order. All hail the queen!

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As the Keeper of the Keys, the Countess of the Clink herself, Queen Latifah earned an Oscar nomination for her performance in Chicago, proving that her acting and singing chops were indisputable. She’s funny, warm, intimidating, and wry. In short, all the things Matron Mama Morton should be. The entire film offers her numerous standout moments, but none as mesmerizing as her feature song, “When You’re Good to Mama,” which finds her strutting her way through double entendres with an oversized fan. It’s easy to be good to mama — and to admire Queen Latifah — when a performance is this spectacular.  —Maureen Lee Lenker

Related: Queen Latifah is committed to The Equalizer for the long haul

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Fans may know Queen Latifah from her days as a rapper and singer, or one of her many hit TV/film projects to date. But it all began on the acting front for her with the ‘90s hit Living Single, a comedy series that followed the lives of four professional Black women living in Brooklyn, N.Y., which was often unfairly compared to Friends. Latifah played Khadijah, an entrepreneur who started her own magazine where she worked alongside her cousin and roommate Synclaire (Kim Coles). At the time, Latifah and her costars — Coles, Kim Fields, and Erika Alexander — boldly proved there was a need for stories about successful women, specifically Black women. Not only did the show serve as a showcase for Latifah's comedic timing, but Latifah through Kadijah inspired countless young Black women and women of color to not only work hard and dream big, but to remember the importance of lifting up your friends while celebrating each other’s successes.

There were talented men on the series, too, including John Henton and Terrence 'T.C.' Carson, but the focus of Living Single— a precursor to Sex and the City — was always on the ladies. —Rosy Cordero

Related: Kim Coles on why Living Single shouldn’t just be labeled a 'Black show'

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Queen Latifah joined the animated Ice Age saga in the series’ second film, Ice Age: The Meltdown. As Ellie, a woolly mammoth who believes she is an opossum, Latifah brought her comedic chops and some much-needed female energy to the pack, which previously consisted of Sid (John Leguizamo), Manny (Ray Romano), and Diego (Denis Leary). She reprised the role in all three of the subsequent sequels — Dawn of the DinosaursContinental Drift, and Collision Course — each time adding a signature warmth and humor to the wild and wacky proceedings, and the series was ultimately better off for it. —Lauren Huff

Related: How a single joke turned into the fifth Ice Age movie

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Set If Off screenwriter Takashi Bufford created the Cleo character with Queen Latifah in mind and, in retrospect, it’s clear why. At the time, Latifah was still mostly untested as a dramatic actor. She had excelled in comedies like The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, but was still best known for her powerhouse hip-hop career. Nevertheless, Latifah proved Bufford's intuition was right with a career-making performance in Set If Off, in which Cleo and four of her friends (played by Vivica A. Fox, Jada Pinkett Smith, and Kimberly Elise) go on a bank-robbing spree. Latifah easily balances Cleo’s hardened, defiant exterior with sincere affection for her friends. Her onscreen death is still a tearjerker more than 20 years later, and watching Latifah play an unabashedly queer woman was a boundary-pushing triumph in the mid-'90s. —Chanelle Berlin Johnson 

Related: Why Set It Off is an era-defining film that shouldn't be remade

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Given her recording career and vocal chops, it’s anyone’s guess as to why Queen Latifah hasn’t been in more musicals. Luckily, those chops are on full display in Hairspray, the rollickingly fun film adaptation of the campy Broadway hit. As DJ and record shop owner Motormouth Maybelle, Latifah gets some superb showcases with the body-positive anthem “Big, Blonde and Beautiful” and the stirring 11 o’clock number “I Know Where I’ve Been,” which anchors the 1960s-set musical’s anti-racism message. If it’s not the meatiest or showiest role of Latifah’s career, it’s one that demands her inclusion in a lot more musicals in the future. Hollywood, make it happen!—Tyler Aquilina

Related: Hairspray director Adam Shankman on why the project made him feel 'very exposed'

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Latifah teamed up with Tiffany Haddish, Regina Hall, and Jada Pinkett-Smith in this raucous comedy about four friends (better known as the Flossy Posse) who reunite for a wild trip to the Essence Fest in New Orleans. Latifah's character Sasha Franklin — a former journalist turned celebrity gossip blogger — is willing to put herself in plenty of hilarious situations to secure an exclusive, but when the girls aren’t getting into over-the-top hijinks, Sasha can't help but reflect on her career. It’s obvious that she’s not proud of what she’s currently doing to pay the bills, and is struggling to find her way. (Perhaps Sasha watched Living Single was inspired by Latifah’s character Khadijah to pursue a career in media?) The actress/rapper thrives when playing bold women like Sasha who are often flawed and almost always underestimated, which is why she represents so much to regular, everyday women. —Rosy Cordero

Related: Watch the cast of Girls Trip reunite and reveal their hilarious celebrity crushes

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One facet of Queen Latifah’s career that’s often overlooked is how much of a trailblazer she's been in terms of romantic comedies. Audiences rarely see women who aren’t a size zero falling in love on the big screen. Meanwhile, in this poignant Wayne Wang directed comedy, part of the plot is other characters quite literally shaming the one person who isn’t charmed by Georgia Byrd, a former department store clerk Latifah plays who jets off to Europe to live out her dreams after she’s told she only has a few weeks to live. It’s a testament to how much she and LL Cool J (who portrays Georgia's love interest Sean) have developed as actors that we almost don't notice that we’re watching two of the '90s biggest rappers play romantic leads. The film is equal parts tragic, inspiring, and uproarious.  —Marcus Jones

Related: See first look at Adam Sandler and Queen Latifah in Netflix's Hustle

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When Queen Latifah the rapper was first approached to play Bessie Smith back in 1992, she didn’t even know who she was. But after studying up on the legendary blues singer who rose to fame in the 1920s, Latifah discovered they had a lot of similarities. “I had no idea our lives would parallel in certain ways that would allow me to really tap into things the I know she probably felt,” she said while promoting the film in 2015. For example: “How to stick up for yourself, how to be respected, how to be independent, how to not be a male-basher because you are a powerful woman who fights for women.” As a result, Latifah had no problem capturing the essence of the larger-than-life performer in HBO’s Bessie, which tells the story of how Smith went from being a struggling young singer to one of the highest-paid Black entertainers of the day. Despite all her success, the Empress of the Blues also struggled with depression and addiction, and Latifah convincingly conveyed the personal toll life took on the singer. Critics rewarded the effort, and Latifah nabbed a SAG Award, as well as an Emmy nomination for her gutsy performance. While she did not take home the Best TV Movie Actress Emmy, she did win her first Emmy as one of Bessie’s executive producers. —Rebecca Detken

Related: See Queen Latifah's first screen test for Bessie in 1992

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Years after appearing in 1999’s The Bone Collector with Denzel Washington and Angelina Jolie, Queen Latifah confessed on her eponymous talk show she felt like she “crashed and burned” while reminiscing about the film shoot with her costar Washington as they discussed the challenges of portraying a nurse whose charge is a quadriplegic forensics expert. Hate to argue with the Queen, but nothing could be further from the truth; her nurse Thelma had the presence to stay collected in medical emergencies and when being bullied by police, giving strength to what otherwise would have been a minor role. —Sarah Sprague

Related: How Queen Latifah changed Michael K. Williams’ life: 'I’ve known her since she was 17!'

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In the adaptation of Sue Monk Kidd’s novel of the same name, Latifah portrays beekeeper August Boatwright, the matriarch of a group of Black women who take in runaway Lily Owens (Dakota Fanning) and her caretaker Rosaleen (Jennifer Hudson). The movie is heartwarming without losings its complexity and grit in depicting the South in 1964, and it’s thanks to commanding performances from the nearly all-female cast, but especially Latifah. A character like August is rare to come by not only on the big screen but in real life, and the actress captures that singularity with a portrayal exuding kindness, wisdom, and strength. —Rachel Yang

Related: Carpool Karaoke almost becomes Crashpool Karaoke with Queen Latifah at the wheel

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Though marketing for Barbershop 2 led audiences to believe that Queen Latifah’s character Gina features in the movie more than she actually does, Latifah maximizes the impact of her limited screen time. As the hairdresser next door and Calvin's (Ice Cube) ex, Latifah gets to slide into scenes and deliver some of the most memorable punchlines. A backyard cookout scene where she goes toe-to-toe with Cedric the Entertainer’s Eddie is the pinnacle of this. Their escalating roasts about each other’s characters show that Latifah can hold her own against even one of the Kings of Comedy, which led to her character’s return in Barbershop 3 and a spin-off film, Beauty Shop. —Chanelle Berlin Johnson

Related: Meet Barbershop 2's first lady, Eve

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For a multitude of reasons, Queen Latifah might not be the most obvious choice to play legendary Oscar winner Hattie McDaniel. But in Hollywood, a limited Netflix series from Ryan Murphy, she brings her indomitable spirit and warmth to a Black actress who paved the way for so many others in Hollywood, while suffering harsh racism all the while. Latifah is radiant as the Gone With the Wind star, but it’s particularly gratifying to see her reclaim some agency for a woman who never got her due in her own time. Latifah’s own experiences clearly imbue the role with a poignant nuance and understanding that help bring this legendary figure from Hollywood history to life. —Maureen Lee Lenker

Related: Inside the complicated legacy of Hattie McDaniel, the first black Oscar winner

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Queen Latifah is a standout in the 2003 film Bringing Down the House for combating racist Black stereotypes with comedy. Latifah portrays Charlene, an intelligent woman who is doing time for a murder she claims she didn’t commit. While behind bars, she connects with an attorney named Peter (Steve Martin) in an internet chat room for lawyers, with whom she exchanges pleasantries and legal advice. After she breaks out of prison in search of evidence to prove her innocence, she tracks down Peter who quickly realizes the sexy blonde he thought he was flirting with online was really Charlene.

Throughout the film, Charlene makes those in Peter’s life uncomfortable. Not because she’s a convicted killer (at least not at first), but because she’s a confident Black woman helping Peter make positive life changes. The film itself relies too much on outdated stereotypes for laughs, but Latifah’s comedic chops in this film prove the onus is on filmmakers to challenge their talent in more creative ways. Maybe director Adam Shankman will make a sequel where legal eagle Charlene passes the bar and joins Peter and Howie’s (Eugene Levy) firm as their newest partner? Of course, she’d be the star. —Rosy Cordero

Related: Classic Black comedies you can stream right now

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Could there be a little bit of editorial bias selecting a movie in which Queen Latifah is not the lead? Perhaps, but what editor wouldn’t want a Penny Escher assigned to every writer — in this case, Emma Thompson as Karen Eiffel — to keep them on track within the story, help them from getting lost in the details, and making sure the author does not lose their mind along the way. Queen Latifah’s Escher is more than a guardian angel in the form of a writer’s assistant, she is the calming presence throughout this twisty comedy-or-tragedy where the ending is always in question. Plus, she’s never missed a deadline, no matter how difficult the writer. Respect. —Sarah Sprague

Related: Will Ferrell talks about playing it low-key in Stranger Than Fiction

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