In 1995, Aunjanue Ellis made her professional acting debut as Ariel in a Broadway production of William Shakespeare's ‘The Tempest’, opposite Patrick Stewart's Prospero. She later made her screen debut in the police drama series ‘New York Undercover’ aired on Fox.
She made her motion picture debut opposite Lili Taylor in ‘Girls Town’, which was a hit at the Sundance Film Festival. In the late 1990s, she appeared in some supporting roles in films like ‘Ed's Next Move,’ ‘Desert Blue,’ ‘In Too Deep’, and ‘A Map of the World’.
In 1996, she was cast as Officer Leslie Joyner in the police drama series, ‘High Incident’ created by Steven Spielberg and aired on ABC. She continued in the series till it was canceled in 1997. In 1999, she played the recurring role of Sharon Young on legal drama ‘The Practice’, aired on ABC.
She starred opposite Cuba Gooding Jr. in the 2000 drama film ‘Men of Honor’, directed by George Tillman, Jr. In 2001, she was featured in the mystery drama film ‘The Caveman's Valentine’, directed by Kasi Lemmons. It was based on George Dawes Green's novel of the same name. That year, she also appeared in a supporting role in the comedy drama film ‘Lovely & Amazing’.
She was cast in another regular role on the medical drama ‘MDs’ on ABC in 2002. That same year, she landed the main role alongside Eddie Griffin in the action comedy film ‘Undercover Brother’.
In 2004, she portrayed Mary Ann Fisher in the biographical film ‘Ray’, which was about the musician Ray Charles. The film was nominated for several Academy Awards. From 2005 to 2006, she appeared in a short-lived drama ‘E-Ring’ on NBC. In 2006, she was featured in a recurring role in nine episodes of ‘Justice’ as Miranda Lee.
In 2007, she played a leading role in the thriller drama film ‘Cover’. Her other film credits include ‘The Express’ in 2008, ‘Notorious’ in 2009, and ‘Romeo and Juliet in Harlem’ in 2014. She also played Denzel Washington's wife in ‘The Taking of Pelham 123’ in 2009, directed by Tony Scott.
From 2010 to 2013, she had a recurring role in the series ‘The Mentalist’, as Madeleine Hightower. In 2011, she appeared in the period drama ‘The Help’ as Eula Mae Davis, one of the maids. She played the lead role in the independent films ‘Money Matters’ in 2011 and ‘The Volunteer’ in 2013.
In 2012, she was featured as Michelle Hanna in seven episodes of the TV series ‘NCIS: Los Angeles’. She also played the leading role in the 2012 television film ‘Abducted: The Carlina White Story’ and starred in the 2012 ABC miniseries ‘Missing.’
Ellis starred as one of the lead characters in the 2013 AMC pilot ‘The Divide’, which was converted into a series on WE TV. In 2014, she played Vicki Anderson in the biographical drama film ‘Get on Up’ about the life of singer James Brown. In the same year, she played the lead character in ‘Romeo and Juliet’, and ‘Una Vida: A Fable of Music and the Mind’.
In 2014, she was cast as the lead character Aminata Diallo in the epic miniseries ‘The Book of Negroes, based on Lawrence Hill’s bestselling novel. ‘The Book of Negroes’ premiered in 2015, and Ellis received critical acclaim for her performance and a number of awards. In the same year, she appeared as Miranda Shaw, the main character, in a regular role in the thriller series ‘Quantico’, which was aired on ABC.
In 2016, she was featured in the historical drama film ‘The Birth of a Nation’, based on the story of the 1831 slave rebellion led by Nat Turner. Ellis played the character of Nancy Turner, Nat Turner’s mother. In the same year, she was cast opposite Keke Palmer in the drama film ‘Pimp’, which highlighted the life of the women on the streets of New York.
In November 2017, Ellis joined the cast of Barry Jenkins’ next film ‘If Beale Street Could Talk’, based on James Baldwin’s novel about a newly engaged Harlem woman who struggles to prove the innocence of her falsely imprisoned lover. The film is currently in production.