From Oscar Micheaux's 20th-century silent work to Marlon Riggs' excellent documentary that cracked open the Black queer narrative in cinema and our more recent, cherished films like Black Panther and Get Out, there is so much to explore in Black cinema.
At a time when various voices are contributing different narratives to Black film, it's important to see how complex Black stories have been throughout history. Micheaux's race films, for example, were in direct response to white propaganda that was validating the Ku Klux Klan. Riggs' Tongues Untied paved the way for Barry Jenkins' Moonlight, and Kathleen Collins opened the door for other Black female filmmakers like Julie Dash, Ava DuVernay, and Kasi Lemmons among others. This Black History Month, get into these 28 Black films to watch.
1) Nothing But A Man
For its time, Nothing But A Man was revolutionary. Ivan Dixon starred as Duff Anderson a charismatic Pullman porter who sets his sights on Josie Dawson (Abbey Lincoln), a school teacher and preacher's daughter during one of his trips down South. Though her father doesn't approve, Josie and Duff fall in love and eventually marry. However, they must learn to weather the storms of their marriage and the deep racism of the Jim Crow South.
Nothing But A Man is a beautiful and nuanced work of art. The narrative also refuses to let Duff off the hook easily. Though racism and segregation contribute to his problems, his womanizing and anger also lead to issues of his own creation.
Set in Harlem in the '90s, Ernest Dickerson's iconic thriller Juice follows four young Black men, Bishop (Tupac Shakur), Q (Omar Epps), Steel (Jermaine Hopkins) and Raheem (Khalil Kain) whose lives change dramatically as a result of one tragic decision. With themes surrounding friendship, broken dreams, and the unpredictability of youth, the film is tragic and timeless.
Juice also proved to the world that the late Shakur was much more than just a West Coast rapper.
3) Super Fly
In the early ‘70s Gordon Parks Jr. tilted his lens towards Harlem and delivered Super Fly. A staple of the Blaxploitation era that helped break the mold for Black representation in film, Super Fly follows Priest (Ron O'Neal), a coke kingpin looking to get out the game. With the help of his reluctant partner Eddie (Carl Lee), Priest goes all in on one last score.
Unfortunately, he finds himself in the crosshairs of two dirty cops. For the soundtrack crafted by Curtis Mayfield and O'Neal's swagger, the original Super Fly is a must watch.
4) Daughters of the Dust
Julie Dash's Daughters of the Dust is a stunning work on Black culture, and how traditions are shaped and shifted through the generations. In 1991, Dash was the first Black woman to have a feature film that was distributed theatrically in the United States. Set in 1902, Daughters of the Dust follows three generations of Gullah Geechee women who prepare to leave their home on Saint Helena Island and move North to the mainland.
Memory and the need for change are juxtaposed against one another as are Dash's astounding visuals.
5) Coming to America
In the 1980s Eddie Murphy dominated the box office. Coming to America, a film that he wrote himself, is still perhaps his most classic work. Full of gems, the movie follows Prince Akeem (Murphy) and his best friend Semmi (Arsenio Hall). Aggravated at the idea of an arranged marriage to be carried out in his kingdom of Zamunda, Prince Akeem embarks on a trip to Queens, New York in an attempt to find true love.
The whole love part is cute or whatever, but Akeem and Semmi's induction into U.S. culture is the real meat and potatoes of this world. From McDowell's to Soul Glo and "She's Your Queen to Be," we all have a favorite moment from Coming to America.
6) Menace II Society
Like Boyz N the Hood and Juice, Menace II Society comes out of the '90s desire to put the Black male inner-city experience on screen. Perhaps one of the most mesmerizing and violent of the genre, Menace II Society follows Caine Lawson (Tyrin Turner) who is determined to get out of the LA hood. Unfortunately, his volatile friend O-Dog (Larenz Tate) seems to bask in the violence and terror of it all. As much as Caine wants out, the life he's always known is pulling him in deeper.
The film is a striking narrative of cycles and truths.
7) Hollywood Shuffle
Hollywood has never been a safe space for Black artists, and Robert Townsend wanted to depict just how troubling things could be. 1987's Hollywood Shuffle is a film written, directed by, and starring Townsend as Bobby Taylor, an aspiring actor who finally gets a starring role. Unfortunately, it's in an exploitation film called Jivetime Jimmy's Revenge. Bobby must reconcile living his dream with being cast as a shucking and jiving stereotype.
Townsend also financed the satirical comedy and paved the way for films like I'm Gonna Git You Sucka and even Get Out.
8) She’s Gotta Have It
Spike Lee's first feature-length film, She’s Gotta Have It has some problematic themes, he even said so -- which is why it's so refreshing that he got the opportunity to revisit Nola Darling in the 21st century on Netflix. However, the original film is still important. In the 1986 flick, Nola (Tracy Camilla Johns) is trying to figure out her life as an artist in Brooklyn while dating three very different men she's not all that sure about. Despite that horrendous sexual assault scene, Johns is outstanding in the film as is the cinematography.
She’s Gotta Have It helped pave the way for its television reimagining, and series like Insecure, Being Mary Jane, and Girlfriends.
9) Killer of Sheep
When studios decided that Blaxploitation films were no longer viable in the late '70s and into the '80s, Black filmmakers out of LA pushed out their own stories. Films like Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep were in direct response to the stereotypes about Black people that were being upheld in Hollywood’s studio system.
Set in Watts in the late '70s, the film follows Stan, a slaughterhouse worker who is hanging on by a thread trying to provide for his family. Riddled with insomnia, the stress of it all, including the schemes and plans of his friends, begin to weigh on him as he agonizes over the impossibility of a better life.
10) Within Our Gates
Cinema is still a relatively new medium, and back when all movies were being shot on film, they were extremely expensive to make. That didn't stop Black folks from making their mark. Oscar Micheaux is still known as the grandfather of Black cinema. During a time when films like D. W. Griffith's The Birth of A Nation was validating the Ku Klux Klan and white supremacy, Micheaux was making race films to provide audiences with an alternative narrative. In his 1920 silent film, Within Our Gates, we meet a young Black woman named Sylvia who travels between the North and South raising money for a Black southern school. Using flashback sequences which were unheard of the time, we learn how Sylvia's encounters with racism through her life have caused her great pain and trauma.
11) Get Out
Jordan Peele's Academy Award-winning racial thriller, Get Out is a blistering critique of white liberals, racists, and the horrors that befall Black people when they encounter unchecked racial privilege. Daniel Kaluuya stars as Chris, a young Black photographer who goes away with his white girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams) to meet her parents for the first time
Unfortunately, things don't go as smoothly as Chris would have hoped. When he arrives, he's put off by the family's behavior and he's apprehensive about the strange Black servants that run their households. Things only get worse from there. Get Out proves that racism is terrorizing.
12) Stormy Weather
Listening to Lena Horne belt out "Stormy Weather" is necessary for a life well-lived. The stunning song comes from the 1943 film of the same name. A musical starring everyone from Fats Waller to The Nicholas Brothers follows Bill Williamson (Bill "Bojangles" Robinson), a struggling musician who meets and falls in love with a singer named Selina Rogers (Horne). As their fame skyrockets, the pair part ways only to find each other once again when they work on a huge stage musical.
13) Love Jones
Black love, sex, and intimacy are things that are still slowly emerging in film and on television. Since these themes are almost never seen, Ted Witcher's Chicago set 1997 flick Love Jones was so revolutionary. At 26, Witcher penned and directed a film about two young Black people who couldn't quite get the whole love thing right. Before social media and cell phones, the '90s still had its sexy situationships. Starring Nia Long as Nina Mosely and Larenz Tate as Darius Lovehall, Love Jones is the perfect film to watch alone or with your bae. With all of the build-up, anticipation, and disappointment, it's all still so relevant.
14) The Defiant Ones
There are more than a few questionable moments in The Defiant Ones. In fact, in The Devil Finds Work, James Baldwin eviscerates the buddy drama. The film's ending, in particular, showed just how divided Black and white folks were (and still are.) And yet, the 1958 film which stars Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis is some of Poitier's boldest work. Joker (Curtis) and Noah (Poitier) are members of a chain gang being transported South. When their vehicle crashes they escape, but they are literally tied together and forced to lean on each other to survive.
The ending aside, The Defiant Ones is worth the watch.
15) Cotton Comes to Harlem
The late legendary Ossie Davis presented a love letter to Harlem in his 1970 film; Cotton Comes to Harlem. The movie follows crooked Rev. Deke O'Malley (Calvin Lockhart) who is determined to rip off the Black community and two NYPD officers, Gravedigger Jones (Godfrey Cambridge) and Coffin Ed Johnson (Raymond St. Jacques) who are investigating the Reverend and his scam.
Based on the novel by Chester Himes, Cotton Comes to Harlem is a critique of white power and privilege juxtaposed against the magic of the neighborhood.
16) Boyz N the Hood
It was the film that would jumpstart the hood-homeboy genre. John Singleton's directorial debut Boyz N the Hood follows teenager Tre Styles (Cuba Gooding Jr.) who lives with his father (Lawrence Fishburne) in crime-riddled South Central LA. Tre’s life begins to unravel as the violence in his neighborhood grows. He along with his good friend Ricky (Morris Chestnut) --a talented football player and Ricky's half-brother the criminally minded Doughboy (Ice Cube) get caught up on in the chaos and violence in the worst ways.
Boyz N the Hood was a critical and commercial hit making Singleton the youngest and first Black director to be nominated for an Academy Award for Directing.
17) Losing Ground
In 1982, playwright Kathleen Collins became one of the first Black women to direct a feature film. Her semiautobiographical movie, Losing Ground follows Sara Rogers (Seret Scott), a beloved philosophy professor who becomes jealous of her husband, Victor (Bill Gun), an artist whose rising fame and ego begins to threaten their marriage.
Intimacy, jealousy, identity, and sexual tension are all themes explored here. Most importantly, Collins allowed Sara to be whole and separate way from her husband's towering shadow. Collins died in 1988 at the age of 46.
18) Tongues Untied
Paris Is Burning, and FX's Pose would follow it, but Marlon Riggs' Tongues Untied would give gay Black men and people of color in the LGBTQ community a voice in film and television. Riggs' 1989 documentary was a revolution for Black and queer cinema. The essay film presented personal stories to the world as these men confronted the horrors of racism, homophobia, and marginalization.
Riggs said that the film's purpose was to, "shatter the nation's brutalizing silence on matters of sexual and racial difference."
19) Malcolm X
When Malcolm X was being filmed it seemed like Spike Lee was never going to finish it. In fact, in the midst of completing the biopic, the prolific director ran out of money and had to reach out to his celebrity friends for help. However, Mr. Lee got it done. With Denzel Washington in the titular role and based on Alex Haley's The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Lee's Malcolm X is spectacular.
With a lengthy three hour and twenty-two-minute runtime, the film follows the Civil Right's icon from his days as a petty criminal through his rise up the ranks of the Nation of Islam.
Barry Jenkins' Moonlight is a once in a lifetime coming-of-age story. Based on Tarell Alvin McCraney’s stunning play, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, the film is a riveting masterpiece on Black queer identity, hyper-masculinity, and compassion. It’s a film that speaks more loudly in its silences than the most overpacked and overblown action films.
The film won Best Picture at the 2017 Academy Awards.
21) Eve's Bayou
Eve's Bayou has become a contemporary classic in Black cinema. Directed by Kasi Lemmons and set in the early 1960s in Louisiana, the film is primarily a family drama. It also has the distinction of being about a specific place that wasn't absorbed into the Civil Rights and Black Power movements that were picking up steam across the country around that time.
Though the film has a marquee cast that includes Samuel L. Jackson, Debbi Morgan, Diahann Carroll and Lynn Whitfield -- and let's not forget the very young and adorable Jurnee Smollett-Bell and Meagan Good -- no one rests on their laurels.
22) New Jack City
Weasly Snipes draped in all black as Nino Brown is all we need on a cold February day. Mario Van Peebles followed in his father’s footsteps but created a classic on his own with the ’91 gangster flick New Jack City.
Set in the ‘80s, the film followed crack kingpin Brown and his crew. It also boasted an early performance from the legend that we now know as Chris Rock. We know you remember when Nino picked up that little girl and used her body to shield himself from a spray of bullets, and what about pre- Law and Order: SVU Ice-T as police officer Scotty Appleton?
23) What’s Love Got To Do With It?
The fact that Angela Bassett didn’t win an Oscar for her performance as the iconic Tina Turner makes us want to fight the air!! Inspired by the singer’s book, Tina, What's Love Got to Do With It? Bassett became the legendary songstress while Lawrence Fishburne gave an incredible and terrifying performance as the sinister Ike Turner.
From the costumes to the music, and who can forget that limo scene where the couple proceeds to beat the dog crap out of each other? Every time What’s Love Got to Do With It? is on TV; we stop everything to watch it.
24) Love & Basketball
Titanic is dope and whatever, but there is no current love story in Black cinema more timeless than Gina Prince-Bythewood’s 2000 film Love & Basketball. Starring Sanaa Lathan as Monica Wright and Omar Epps as Quincy McCall, the film is a legendary work on love, dreams, and how gender roles and expectations can hold us back.
Gabrielle Union, Regina Hall, Dennis Haysbert, Debbi Morgan, and the stellar Alfre Woodard also make fantastic appearances. We can’t even begin to praise the fantastic soundtrack enough. That prom night scene with Maxwell’s "A Woman’s Work" in the background was absolute perfection. (We should see the brown sex more in movies.)
25) School Daze
If a film can have students flocking to Historically Black Colleges and Universities, you know it’s saying something profound. Spike Lee’s 1988 joint School Daze was impactful and intense --highlighting what it means to be young, Black and gifted in the late ‘80s. At a time when colorism was at the forefront of the Black community, and South Africa was still tangled in apartheid, many young people were trying to figure out where they fit in the world.
A timeless look at HBCUs, Lee was careful to also put his own spin on things with his iconic dolly shots, a dope musical number and some sensational performances from the likes of Laurence Fishburne and Tisha Campbell.
26) The Five Heartbeats
There is The Temptations, and then there is Robert Townsend’s The Five Heartbeats. For us, The Five Heartbeats is the film we always remember. The story follows a fictional R&B/Soul group, who rise to the spotlight in the 1960's and eventually imploded due to fame, arrogance, and inner turmoil.
The film stars Townsend as Donald "Duck" Matthews, Leon as J.T, Harry J. Lennix as Terrence "Dresser" Williams, Tico Wells as Anthony "Choir Boy" Williams, and Michael Wright as frontman, Eddie King, Jr. The movie's most memorable scene will always be that singing competition when the group blows their rivals, Bird and the Midnight Falcons out of the water.
27) Do the Right Thing
Spike Lee’s 1989 feature, Do The Right Thing brought modern-day racism to the forefront of popular culture and stunned everyone while doing so. The film which is set in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn on the hottest day of the year follows Mookie (Lee), a pizza delivery man who decides to do something when he notices his employer Saul's Pizzeria – though situated in a Black neighborhood -- has failed to include any Black folks on their "Wall of Fame.”
Things swiftly come to a head, dissolving in a riot and the murder of the hood’s fly guy, Radio Raheem at the hands of the police. Though it’s been nearly 30 years since Do the Right Thing was released, it’s never been more important.
Spike Lee has a lot of fantastic films, but Crooklyn-- the film that was written by his sister Joi Lee is often forgotten about. It’s a shame because it’s one of his most compelling. Set in Brooklyn in the 1970’s, the outstanding film follows Troy (Zelda Harris), the only girl of the rambunctious Carmichael family who must deal with her brothers' antics, and her parents' (played by Delroy Lindo and Alfre Woodard) often strained marriage.
As summer looms, Troy's life is reshaped in a way that she never expected. From the iconic soundtrack, a memorable appearance by RuPaul, and a young Isaiah Washington Lee’s semi-biographical film is one of his best.
Aramide A. Tinubu is a film critic and entertainment writer. As a journalist, her work has been published in EBONY, JET, ESSENCE, Bustle, The Daily Mail, IndieWire and Blavity. She wrote her master’s thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can find her reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, read her blog at www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami.