Audiences and artists have come to realize that exploring black lives does not necessarily mean making grim, depressing films that depict the brutal realities of slavery, drug use and poverty. These films, however, when made honestly, can be extraordinary. But more and more films about black people proved to be slice of life movies; in many instances, the only difference is the skin-colour of the characters. However, we know there is much more being explored here.
In the seventies, things became better with the cult movement of blaxploitation films. ‘Shaft’ (1971) played a huge role in changing attitudes about blacks in films. It became very popular among white audiences. ‘Sounder’ (1972), another popular black film from that period, is an honest exploration of a poverty-stricken family during the Depression. Gradually, more and more black actors were nominated for Oscars, but from the eighties, through the 2000s, the door opened and closed for various reasons.
Eddie Murphy reigned through the eighties as the top box office star, but his characters were not grounded in any reality. Each and every character he played was always the smartest guy in the room. There was recently a controversy that the Academy was not paying attention to black artists, and slowly, that is being rectified with directors, writers and cinematographers of colour winning and getting nominated for several awards. With all that said, here’s the the list of top African-American movies ever made. You can watch several of these black movies on Netflix, Hulu or Amazon Prime.
30. Beloved (1998)
Let me be clear, without Oprah Winfrey, without her casting in the film, with a real actor, say Angela Basset or a young Viola Davis, this wins the Academy Award and I would consider it a near masterpiece. Winfrey lacked the acting depth to make the film work, but as producer, and owner to the rights of the book, she wanted the part and cast herself. Jonathan Demme made a film steeped in black culture and superstitions, where ghosts exist and the dead come back. It was in many ways creating a new cinematic language, but audiences stayed away and critics some did not get it; but some did. Thandie Newton is superb, as is Kimberly Elise, each blowing Winfrey off the screen. Had she had the courage as a producer to cast an actress, a real actress, she might have accepted an Oscar for Best Picture.
29. The Birth of a Nation (2016)
I am perhaps in the minority of critics who will admit to admiring this strong film by Nate Parker, which a year ago at this time was the odds on favourite for the Academy Award. By the time it hit TIFF overnight, it was finished; old accusations came out against the director, star writer and any chance of Oscar was done, finished. Before TIFF, it was nearly impossible to get an interview with him, but the next day, the studio was struggling to find people to do interviews. Parker tells the story of a slave uprising in the 1830s that few were aware of (I was not) in American history, of a minister slave used by his master to preach who rallies together other slaves and they attack and murder many of their masters before being beaten by the army. Parker is brilliant in the lead role, his direction is outstanding, and though it sometimes feels like a vanity project, it is a dark journey worth taking.
28. Dreamgirls (2006)
‘Dreamgirls’ is a brilliant musical, loosely based on the rise and break up of the Supremes. Bill Condon directed the film with biting honesty. It is an incredibly intriguing exploration of the Motown music scene. Beyoncé Knowles is superb as the leader of the trio, but the film belongs to Jennifer Hudson who is magnificent in her first screen role. A losing contestant on American Idol, Hudson is stunning in the film, winning every possible award for supporting actress they give out. Knowles shines, and Eddie Murphy gives a lacerating performance as a gifted performer confined to his art by the label, but struggling to change, wanting to change. Jamie Foxx does good work as their manager and the man who tears them apart in every way.
27. Shaft (1971)
‘Shaft’ stars Richard Roundtree in the leading role. Roundtree became a star for a short few years as John Shaft, a tough, though fair, cop. Though not necessarily a great film, its place in film history cannot be denied because there was a film with a black cop, set largely in the world of African-Americans, and it was both a box office and well-reviewed work. Roundtree followed Poitier to stardom for a short time but was never as strong an actor. A remake came out in 2000 with, who else, Samuel L. Jackson as John Shafts’ nephew. It was entertaining and nothing else. More than anything else, ‘Shaft’ (1971) made it clear that white audiences were just fine with a black hero.
26. Ali (2001)
The sports biopic based on the life of legendary boxer Muhammad Ali specifically focused between the years 1964 and 1974. Will Smith plays the leading titular role in the film. The opening scene shows Cassius Clay Jr. awaiting his championship debut against Sonny Liston, a heavyweight champion. After becoming the second youngest heavyweight champion of the world, Cassius Clay, along with his mentor and a Muslim minister Malcolm X, heads to Africa where the leader of Nation of Islam Elijah Muhammad confers him the title of Muhammad Ali. After facing conviction for refusing conscription, Ali tries to make a comeback by fighting Joe Frazier but loses. Later, he beats the man who had beaten Frazier to regain the title that he was stripped off earlier. Will Smith got an Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of the lead role in the film.
25. A Soldier’s Story (1984)
Norman Jewison directed this tense, outstanding film about racism, which features great performances by Howard Rollins Jr., Adolph Caesar and newcomer Denzel Washington. A major critical success and Best Picture nominee, the film was a minor success at the box office and demonstrated that class issues and hatred ran rampant among blacks just as it does with whites. Called in to investigate the murder of a cocky, bunny rooster of a drill sergeant, Rollins knows almost from the beginning that it is a soldier in the man’s charge who killed him. Directed tautly by Jewison, it might be the best film of his long career.
24. Fences (2016)
Directed by Denzel Washington, who also gives a searing performance as an angry black man in the fifties who has watched life pass him by, losing his chance to play in the pro baseball leagues, ‘Fences’ is an incredibly powerful, evocative film. He looms large in his house, dominating the lives of his wife and sons, even the boy who has left, ridiculed by his father for his chosen profession. It is a towering performance from one of the great actors of our time, but the heart and soul of the film is Viola Davis as his long-suffering wife, forced to raise a child he fathers with another woman. It is a tough movie, lots of anger and rage flowing through it, and the actors are up to the challenge in every way. The claustrophobic setting almost gives the film the feel of a play, which makes for an incredibly unique, engaging experience.
23. Whitney (2018)
One of the most defining documentaries of the decade, ‘Whitney’ revolves around the life of American singer-actress Whitney Houston, the Guinness World Record holder for being one of the most decorated and awarded singers of all time, with more than 200 million records sold to date. The documentary chronicles the singer’s life from the beginning of her career when she used to sing in a church till topping the Billboard charts in the ’80s.
22. Precious (2009)
‘Precious’ is a searing, heartbreaking film about an obese young girl living in poverty with her cruel and vicious mother who sees her daughter as money and nothing else. Precious (Gabourey Sidibe) is again pregnant by her father; she is already mother to a child with Downs Syndrome, and is struggling in school and at home. One of the most heartbreaking moments in the film is hearing her say to her mother that she is hungry. As a counsellor chips away at her armour, Precious opens up about her horrific home life, which eventually she escapes. Monique is astonishing as her mother in a startling performance of courage and raw power. Looking at her newborn grandbaby, cigarette dangling from her mouth, she casually tosses the baby on the couch, with a look of contempt. Lee Daniels brilliantly directed this dark film about hope and survival and forgiveness of one’s self. Monique won a richly deserved Oscar.
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21. Black Panther (2018)
The only superhero movie on this list, along with being the first superhero movie to be nominated for Best Picture Academy Award for 2019, ‘Black Panther‘ at the very outset is a superhero origin story of the ‘Black Panther’ of the MCU, in continuation with the Avengers’ narrative. The film follows the events after ‘Captain America: Civil War’ and begins with T’Challa’s father T’Chaka in a backstory wherein he visits his brother N’Jobu in 1992 and asks him to visit Wakanda to answer for his crimes for stealing Vibranium and selling it to Ulysses Klaue in the black market.
In the present day, T’Challa is coping with the death of his father and is learning his ropes to be the new unchallenged King of Wakanda, with support from various tribes to save the Jabari and their leader M’Baku. T’Challa’s claim to the throne is also later challenged by Killmonger who defeats the former in a decisive hand-to-hand challenge. ‘Black Panther’ is essentially the story of coming back stronger than ever and how a timid, non-believing T’Challa becomes the most powerful man in Wakanda, known as the Black Panther.
20. Blindspotting (2018)
One of the latest on this list, ‘Blindspotting’ is the story of Collin Hoskins, a laid-back former convict who is on the last three days of his probation. Collin works with Miles for a moving company in Oakland. He witnesses a white police officer assaulting and killing a black man — something which causes him nightmares. Miles buys a gun for self-protection and begins trotting it everywhere he feels offended, which is something that is opposed by Collin. During his last moving job, Collin comes to know that his customer is none other than the police officer whom he witnessed commit the murder. He warns the officer at gunpoint but doesn’t kill him and moves on with his life. ‘Blindspotting’, with its portrayal of real-life happenstances, boasts of powerful performances, strong characters and effective storytelling.
19. BlacKkKlansman (2018)
‘BlacKkKlansman‘ tells the refreshing story of an African American man who resolves to take on the Ku Klux Klan. The movie begins with Ron Stallworth, the first African American officer in the Colorado Springs Police Department who works in a menial job and continuously faces racial criticism from his colleagues. After reading about the KKK in a newspaper article, he asks his Jewish associate Philip Zimmerman to pose as a white supremacist and infiltrate the organization, in an attempt to take it down from within. Considered to be Spike Lee’s best work as a director, ‘BlacKkKlansman’ is resilient, funny, compelling and audacious. A truly masterful effort at the very outset.
18. Sounder (1972)
This is an incredibly powerful, beautiful film about the deep love a black family has for one another. The father (Paul Schofield) is sent to jail for stealing a ham to feed his starving family. The mother of the family is portrayed with breathtaking beauty by Cicely Tyson, who had stunned audiences the year before in the award-winning TV film ‘The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman’ (1971). Martin Ritt directed the film and does not hit a false note, bringing on screen a world we do not understand. The film was nominated for Academy Award for Best Picture, as were the lead actors, for Best Actor and Actress, as they should have been.
17. Selma (2014)
David Oyelewo plays Martin Luther King, Jr. in this hard-hitting biographical drama. ‘Selma’ opens with Martin Luther King, Jr. accepting his Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. Soon after, King demands President Johnson to pass legislation that would secure the voting rights of African Americans in the South, but Johnson stalls it citing unforeseen reasons. Eventually, in March 1965, King, along with John Lewis of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and South Christian Leadership Conference leads a legendary march from Selma to Montgomery, an event that is televised across the world, obviously showcasing the atrocities of Alabama State Troopers. King is further embroiled in controversies by the FBI as a part of an elaborate plot. ‘Selma’ boasts of a terrific performance from Oyelewo and draws fire from the massively popular figure that was Martin Luther King, Jr. Go watch it, now!
16. Moonlight (2016)
A superb low-budget film that stunned the world winning Best Picture Oscar in 2017, Moonlight is a searing study of the life of a boy through teen years and into adulthood. Raised in poverty by his drug-addicted mother, portrayed with wild-eyed fury by Naomi, the film depicts how the boy grows into a decent man. He is taken under the wing of Juan (Mahershala Ali), a gentle black man who befriends the boy, teaches him, and becomes a surrogate father; but he is also the dealer selling drugs to the boy’s mother. The child grows into a man, a gay man, and while confident in his sexuality, he longs for his first love even though the boy betrayed him. Barry Jenkins directed and wrote the film.
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15. The Five Heartbeats (1991)
A simplistic musical drama surrounding five friends from the same neighbourhood who team up for a band. They team up at a time when Motown is at its peak and the entire country is reeling under the charm of rock, heavy metal music. They name their band “The Five Heartbeats” and soon top the charts, only to face corruption, racial extremism, and the collapse from within, thus leading to an equally staggering fall. Later, the five reconcile forgetting their differences over a now non-existent band. ‘The Five Heartbeats’ received mixed reviews from critics owing to its non-consistent storyline and weak performances. Still, it is one of the best African American movies to date on the subject.
14. Malcolm X (1992)
Spike Lee directed this biographical masterpiece using Alex Haley’s seminal book on Malcolm as his guide. Being sent to prison saved the young criminal from himself because there, he discovered the Muslim faith and embraced it and lashed out against the repression of blacks in the sixties. Very much part of the civil rights movement, though far more incendiary than Martin Luther King, he was feared by Americans. Denzel Washington has never been better than he is in this powerful film.
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13. Training Day (2001)
The one-day training, a rookie cop and a seasoned LAPD detective form the crux of ‘Training Day’, which features Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke in leading roles. Apparently, Los Angeles is riled with drug dealers and vicious drug lords and going by the law won’t fetch the cops anything. Enter LAPD detective Alonzo Harris, a veteran who has his own way of law enforcement which is not strictly ethical. Jake Hoyt is a rookie who reports to Harris for a day’s training and towards the end, begins questioning his methods, and so do the audience. ‘Training Day’ won Denzel Washington his second Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role.
12. Ray (2004)
A musical biopic featuring Jamie Foxx, ‘Ray’ is the story of the legendary R&B musician Ray Charles, who was brought up in countryside Florida and became blind at the age of seven. Soon, Charles found his love for piano and gained his repute slowly yet steadily across the country as a leading R&B singer-musician. Jamie Foxx won his first Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role for his portrayal of Charles in the film.
11. Creed II (2018)
Yet another sports drama on the list, ‘Creed II’ follows the story of its predecessor ‘Creed’ when a new champion Adonis Creed is challenged by a Ukranian Drago, whose father was the one who killed Creed’s father in a match. Creed is engaged to his girlfriend Bianca and the latter is pregnant with his child. Creed’s mentor Rocky Balboa insists that he shouldn’t accept the challenge. After Adonis is injured in an incident, he must train harder to face his opponent in the event of a grave disadvantage. ‘Creed II’ is predictable, yet boasts of a strong performance from Michael Jordan.
10. Boyz n the Hood (1991)
‘Boyz n the Hood’ is a penetrating look into the lives of black families struggling to eke out a life in East LA where gangs own the streets, turning them into the Wild West. Guns are everywhere, danger seems around each corner, bringing tension to the film that is shocking to sit through. Cuba Gooding Jr. had his first great role here as a smart young man whose friend is gunned down in the street, ending the chance of a pro football career. Angry, he wants to lash out, but his father’s words ring in his ears and he sees a chance to get out of the violence he exists in. John Singleton became the first black director to be nominated for an Oscar for this riveting film. Gritty, honest, raw and visceral, the director gave it a documentary feel, which worked like a dream.
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9. The Color Purple (1985)
From the kitty of Steven Spielberg, ‘The Color Purple’ revolves around Celie Harris, an Afro-American girl residing in countryside of Georgia, who faces a ton of adversities — sexual abuse from her stepfather, along with bearing his two children, for decades altogether. After her stepfather takes their second child and asks her to stay mum about it, her younger sister Nettie receives a marriage proposal from a farmer named Mister. Her stepfather denies the proposal and asks him to marry Celie instead, thus furthering Celie’s mental and physical abuse. Nettie also faces the same fate as her sister from their stepfather until Mister has a change of heart. ‘The Color Purple’ is one of Spielberg’s lost treasures that no one usually talks about, given the sensitive subject and equally sensitive treatment. Regardless, ‘The Color Purple’ is one of Spielberg’s better films.
8. Remember the Titans (2000)
Denzel Washington stars in this yet another significant movie surrounding the Afro-American community — this time in the role of a head coach of a football team. In a typical white vs. black narrative, black coach Herman Boone was appointed as the head coach of a football team comprising of only black players and they’re put up against the white T.C. Williams football team. Boone has to work even harder to ensure that his team wins, for losing would mean reinstating of white coach Yoast for his own job. Boone and Yoast are put up against each other more than their teams, as both of them are equally motivated to the idea of winning. ‘Remember the Titans’ is a relatable, triumphant affair with a path-breaking performance from Denzel Washington.
7. Glory (1989)
When I saw this magnificent epic about many black men fighting the tyranny of slavery, it really moved me to tears; some were well-educated men, some illiterate, other former slaves now free, while others were runaways. They were often at war with each other, as we see class has no skin color, but they were forged into a lethal fighting unit under the leadership of Colonel Shaw (Matthew Broderick). Denzel Washington won an Oscar for supporting actor as Trip, the ferocious runaway, and Morgan Freeman is quietly remarkable as an older soldier who is awarded stripes. The film won Oscars for Cinematography and Sound in addition to the aforementioned win. The film was not nominated for Best Picture or Director but it certainly deserved one.
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6. Django Unchained (2012)
Set in 1858, Schultz is a bounty hunter who has bought a slave man named Django, with a promise to free him later on. He has bought Django for a reason — to track a few men and help Schultz out. In return, Django asks his freedom to look out for his wife Broomhilda, who has allegedly been captured by another slave owner. Schultz also agrees to help Django if he agrees to partner with him. It is then revealed that Broomhilda has been sold to a brutal plantation owner in Mississippi named Calvin Candie and on a quest to rescue Broomhilda, they pose as investors in a fighting racket. Stephen is a dedicated slave of Calvin and quickly sees the plot but Django and Schultz must escape unscathed. ‘Django Unchained’ is a gory, daring adventure undertaken by Tarantino which also earned him immense accolades and several award nominations.
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5. The Pursuit of Happyness (2006)
Oh, the sorrow and the tears that follow! My favourite Will Smith movie to date, ‘The Pursuit of Happyness’ tells the story of Chris Gardner, set in 1981. Gardner is a salesman based out in San Francisco who has invested all of his savings in buying Bone Density Scanners, a mechanical machine that apparently is easier to use than X-Ray machines. His wife Linda works as a maid in a hotel and they share a strained relationship due to financial crunch. With soaring bills and unable to meet his expenses, Gardner and his son are forced to stay in a homeless shelter while Chris interns for an unpaid internship to become a stockbroker at Dean Witter’s. The taste of success that he gets in the end is a defining moment in the film that we as an audience should never miss.
4. The Help (2011)
‘The Help’ is a hugely successful film about a group of black maids, who in the sixties agree to tell their stories to a young writer, knowing they risk their jobs to do so. It is the sixties, times are changing but not fast enough in the South, where the abuse of maids runs rampant. Viola Davis is remarkable as a woman trying to handle the grief of losing her son. What impressed me the most about the film is its honesty; it doesn’t resort to any kind of manipulations and manages to bring out genuine emotions in you.
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3. Hotel Rwanda (2004)
Often called the African Schindler’s List, ‘Hotel Rwanda’ is based around the true event of the infamous Rwandan Genocide during 1994, when hotelier Paul Rusesabagina saved more than a thousand lives single-handedly. The movie opens amid the Rwandan civil war between the Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups. While Paul, the owner of the Hotel Des Mille Collines, is a Hutu, his wife is a Tutsi. After the assassination of the Rwandan President, and the Tutsi rebellion start falling against the stronger Hutu, Paul leaves no stone unturned to protect the guests in his hotel at all costs, irrespective of their ethnicity. ‘Hotel Rwanda’ is cornerstone cinema and deserves to be on the top of any list. The movie has been listed as one of the 100 Most Inspirational Movies of All Time by the American Film Institute.
2. 12 Years a Slave (2013)
’12 Years a Slave’ is based on the true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man living in the North, with a wife and children, who made a good living as a musician. Treated as an equal by the whites in his society, he is stunned to be kidnapped and sold into slavery in the South, despite his protests that he is free. Beaten, whipped, threatened with death, treated like an animal, Solomon never gives up hope and believes that someone will help him, though he knows he must never trust a white man. He does and is betrayed, but does again, and (spoiler) one day wealthy whites arrive to find him working on the field. They speak to him as an equal and he falls into their arms; they embrace him as a friend. Stirring, powerful, the scene is one of cinema’s greatest moments. Beautifully directed by Steve McQueen, the film is acted brilliantly by the entire cast with lead actor Chiwetel Ejiofor being a standout. Tough, uncompromising, but full of hope and the power of the human spirit.
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1. Do the Right Thing (1989)
Spike Lee directed, wrote and has a key role in this incendiary drama set in New York on the hottest day of the year. It has often been written that the film deals with black-white racial tensions, but it actually deals with all racial prejudice. We hear and see Asians, Italians, Poles, blacks and whites, gays, the wealthy being attacked; no one is safe, but that is the point, isn’t it? An Italian pizzeria owner finds himself embroiled in racism with the locals, in this case, blacks in Brooklyn, who want him to recognize black achievements on the walls of his place. It escalates, there is an unnecessary death, and a riot, and sadly, awareness coming too late. The film was not even nominated for Best Picture or Best Director, despite being the year’s best film.
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