Powell was born in Washington, D.C. Known for playing supporting roles in films, most significantly Ray (2004), for which he received an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture Film nomination. Powell has appeared in more than one hundred films, beginning in the 1980's. His credits include Menace II Society (1993), Dead Presidents (1995), Why Do Fools Fall in Love (1998), Rush Hour (1998), Next Friday (2000), and its 2002 sequel, Friday After Next, Woman Thou Art Loosed (2004). He played Martin Luther King, Jr. in the 1999 television film Selma, Lord, Selma. On television, Powell had the recurring roles on Roc, South Central, and Army Wives, and well as guest-starred on In the Heat of the Night, Murder She Wrote, NYPD Blue, and CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. In 2016, Powell was cast as main antagonist in the Bounce TV first prime time drama, Saints & Sinners. Powell is also known for his voice acting role as the antagonist Big Smoke from the video game Grand Theft Auto: San Andrea's.