Whitfield began her acting career in television and theatre, before progressing to supporting roles in film. She won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Miniseries or a Special and a NAACP Image Award for her performance as Josephine Baker in the television movie The Josephine Baker Story (1991). She also won NAACP Image awards for her work in Touched by an Angel (1998), The Planet of Junior Brown (2000) and Redemption: The Stan Tookie Williams Story (2004).
Her film work includes performances in A Thin Line Between Love and Hate (1996), Eve's Bayou (1997), The Cheetah Girls (2003) Madea's Family Reunion (2006) and The Cheetah Girls 2 (2006).
Whitfield was born Lynn Butler-Smith in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, the daughter of Jean (née Butler), an officer of a finance agency, and Valerian Smith, a dentist. Lynn Whitfield is an Honorary Member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated.
Whitfield had a series of television appearances before her film career began, including playing Jill Thomas in the award-winning series Hill Street Blues. After gaining attention on stage in Ntozake Shange's For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf, Whitfield appeared in supporting roles in such films as Doctor Detroit (1983) and Silverado (1985). She gained wider success by starring in the television films The George McKenna Story, Johnnie Mae Gibson: FBI, (both 1986), and the miniseries The Women of Brewster Place (1989).
Whitfield achieved international recognition in the title role of The Josephine Baker Story (1991), the HBO biopic requiring her to age from 18 to 68. She portrayed the American Folies Bergère star who became a Resistance fighter during WWII and civil rights activist. In a highly publicized casting call, Whitfield was chosen over more than 500 women. She won an Emmy Award for her role and said this gave her, "the greatest sense of accomplishment and realization of my vision. It absolutely called upon everything I thought I could do at that point."
Whitfield worked as a regular in two ABC series (Heartbreak and Equal Justice) prior to playing Baker. She returned to a TV series opposite Bill Cosby in The Cosby Mysteries (NBC, 1994-95).
A Thin Line Between Love and Hate and Gone Fishin' (both 1996) increased her exposure. Whitfield then appeared in Eve's Bayou (1997), as the head of a prosperous, socially prominent black family in Louisiana. She returned to a similar milieu as snobby Martha's Vineyard matron Corinne Coles in the ABC miniseries The Wedding (1998). In recent years, she starred as Dorthea Garibaldi in both The Cheetah Girls and The Cheetah Girls 2. She recently starred in Mama, I Want To Sing! with Ciara, and in 2006's film drama Madea's Family Reunion.