Vance was born on March 12, 1960 in Detroit, Michigan, the son of Leslie Anita (Daniels), a librarian, and Conroy Vance, a grocery store manager and benefits administrator. He attended Detroit Country Day School, and later graduated from Harvard University with a bachelor of arts degree. While attending Harvard, Vance was already working as an actor at the Boston Shakespeare Company. He earned a Master of Fine Arts degree later at Yale School of Drama where he met fellow student and future wife Angela Bassett.
Vance has earned three Tony Award nominations. He won Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in a Play for his performance as Hap Hairston in Nora Ephron's Lucky Guy at the 67th Tony Awards (2013). He was nominated for Best Featured Actor in a Play for his role as Corey in August Wilson's Pulitzer Prize-winning and Tony Award for Best Play-winning play Fences at the 41st Tony Awards (1987). He was nominated for Tony Award for Best Actor in a Play for his performance as Paul in John Guare's Six Degrees of Separation at the 45th Tony Awards (1991). In 1987, he won a Clarence Derwent Award for his role as Cory Maxson in Fences.
Prior to joining the cast of Law & Order: Criminal Intent, Vance appeared on the original Law & Order series twice: in a minor role in the first-season episode "By Hooker, By Crook", and in a major role in the fifth-season episode "Rage".
His early feature film credits include Hamburger Hill, The Hunt for Red October, The Last Supper, Dangerous Minds, and The Adventures of Huck Finn. More recently, he appeared in Robert Altman's Cookie's Fortune, Penny Marshall's The Preacher's Wife, and in Clint Eastwood's Space Cowboys. Vance also starred in Love and Action in Chicago, a romantic comedy which he also co-produced. Vance played Black Panther Bobby Seale in the Melvin and Mario Van Peebles docudrama Panther. In 2008 and 2009, he guest starred in the final season of ER, alongside his wife Angela Bassett. He was also in Hurricane Season.
On December 2, 2008, TV Guide reported that Vance has been cast as the Los Angeles bureau chief of the FBI in the new ABC pilot FlashForward, which is based on a Robert J. Sawyer novel, and is said to be a possible “companion show” to Lost. In 2011, he starred in the American horror film Final Destination 5. Vance is set for the lead in the German-American apocalypse thriller The Divide.
He also appeared in a Disney Channel Original Movie titled Let It Shine, where he played the Pastor Jacob Debarge, the main character's father. Vance co-starred with Tyler James Williams, Trevor Jackson, Coco Jones, Brandon Mychal Smith, and Dawnn Lewis. It was the third time Vance portrayed a pastor in a motion picture (the first being The Preacher's Wife and the second being Joyful Noise).
Vance has also provided the voiceover for the National Football League's "You Want the NFL, Go to the NFL" television spots.
He appeared as Chief Tommy Delk on the TNT series, The Closer from 2010 to 2011 (Season 6–7). Vance also played the role of Attorney Benjamin Brooks on four episodes of ABC's Revenge. In 2015, he portrayed Miles Dyson in Terminator Genisys.
In 2016, he played the role of Johnnie Cochran in FX's American Crime Story, which tells the story of the O. J. Simpson murder case. The series premiered on February 2, 2016, and his performance was critically acclaimed by critics.
Vance is married to Angela Bassett, whom he first met in 1980. Together, they have twins, son Slater Josiah Vance and daughter Bronwyn Golden Vance; the twins were born on January 27, 2006. He and Bassett have authored a book, Friends: A Love Story, with Hilary Beard. The two also participate in the annual Christmas celebration, Candlelight Processional, at Epcot. The family lives in Los Angeles.
Vance is on the Board of Directors for The Actors Center in New York City, and is an active supporter of Boys & Girls Clubs of America. He is an alumnus of the Detroit Boys & Girls Club, and was recently inducted into the Alumni Hall of Fame for Boys & Girls Clubs of America.
On the PBS program Finding Your Roots, Vance discovered that his father was born out of wedlock to a 17-year-old woman, Victoria Ardella Vance.