Black representation in film was not a feat easily achieved. While Black cinema has grown substantially in the last 40 years, not every film bares artistic, historical, or cultural significance. But the following films certainly do. Though we couldn’t possibly name them all, we’d be remiss not to name a few.
In honor Black History Month check out our list of 15 of the most iconic Black films ever made.
Boyz in the Hood (1991)
Boyz in the Hood is a sobering look into the harsh realities faced by young men in South Central, Los Angeles where gangs, guns, drugs, money, and death are a daily impediment to achieving any betterment. The 1991 film had such an impact that director John Singleton received an Oscar nomination for Best Director, making him the youngest person and the first Black person to ever be nominated for this award. The film was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.
Roots gave viewers a look at slavery in America through the first-hand perspective of its characters from colonial times to the post Civil War era. The 8-part mini series was, at the time, the highest rated entertainment program in TV history. Today it holds the spot at number three. Roots earned 9 Emmy Awards as well as the Golden Globe for best TV Series Drama.
New Jack City (1991)
Actor Mario Van Peebles’ directorial debut in 1991 doesn’t miss a beat in its gritty depiction of the mean streets of New York flooded with cr-ack c o c a i n e. The film offers intelligent characters and dialogue as we get see the war on drugs unfold up-close between Nino Brown, a rising drug dealer and the narcotics unit hellbent on bringing him down. Films like New Jack City and Boyz in the Hood paralleled the rise of a new gangsta rap culture and informed many viewers on the invisible war on drugs.
Love & Basketball (2000)
A favorite among the African-American community, Love and Basketball gave viewers genuine multidimensional characters. Sanaa Lathan’s portrayal of Monica Wright, a female basketball player who loves the game and falls for her best friend Quincy (Omar Epps), offered a representation of Black women both feminine and independent as she dealt with the pressures of being an athlete.
Love Jones (1997)
The Black romantic comedy, about a young poet and a young photographer who fall for each other but have to figure out what their relationship is, set a standard for Black romance films. The film approaches love in an intelligent and passionate manner with smart and stimulating dialogue. All of the characters in the ensemble cast feel real, and their interactions ring true amongst viewers. Atypical of most Black films, Love Jones explores the lives of urban, artistic, literate, middle-class African-Americans, showing the positive aspects of the Black community. The film provided viewers the type of love they could aspire to and became a cult-classic.
Waiting to Exhale (1995)
The film made by actor Forrest Whitaker in his directorial debut is significant to cinema in that it represented the plight of Black women in romance and depicted the solidarity of sisterhood amongst women. Four friends support each other as they face abandonment, infidelity, unrequited love, and motherhood. Starring Angela Bassett, the late Whitney Houston, Lela Rochon, and Loretta Devine, Waiting to Exhale is based on the book of the same title by popular African-American female writer Terry McMillan.
Spielberg moved audiences with this 1997 drama. The film is based on the true story of the uprising of newly captured Africans enslaved aboard a ship from Cuba who end up embroiled in a legal battle to determine whether or not they will remain slaves or be set free to return home. Before Amistad, few mainstream films delivered such a raw depiction of slave treatment. The film’s greatest feat was in giving faces and names to the African characters who are often depicted in film as faceless victims.
Lady Sings the Blues (1972)
Diana Ross shines in this biopic about the life, career, and struggle of Jazz music legend Billie Holiday. The film, based loosely on Holiday’s own autobiography, was the first African American biopic to earn 4 Oscar nominations. Diana Ross made a stunning film debut, showing her versatility in being able to transition from drastically different stages in Holiday’s life. The role earned her the Academy Award nomination for Best Actress. No other performance of Ross’ has lived up to the potential she displayed in Lady Sings the Blues.
Malcolm X (1992)
This powerful biopic chronicling the life of the great human rights activist Malcolm X garnered critical acclaim for both director Spike Lee and Denzel Washington for his portrayal of X. Washington earned the Oscar nomination for best lead actor for his role while the film went on to be deemed an American classic and selected for preservation by the United States National Film Registry.
Eve’s Bayou (1997)
Eve’s Bayou is a gripping drama that presents a terrifying scenario of hatred, betrayal, infidelity, incest, and voodoo all within a single family that also serves to highlight racial and class issues in 1962 Louisiana. The film and the actors’ performances –which included Samuel L. Jackson, Lynn Whitfield, Debbi Morgan, Jurnee Smollet (as Eve) and Megan Good–received overwhelmingly positive reviews from every major paper and magazine including: Chicago Sun-Times, Empire, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, TIME, Variety, and The Washington Post. Despite this, the film received no Oscar nominations. Still, TIME Magazine names it one of the Top 25 most important films on race.
Foxy Brown (1974)
Playing a woman out for revenge on a crime syndicate who murdered her boyfriend, Pam Grier thrilled audiences in this 1974 Blaxploitation classic. Foxy Brown and the preceding film Coffy created the first modern Black female action hero and gave Black women a whole new representation in film, demonstrating that they could kick butt, take names, and be s e x y while doing it.
The Color Purple (1997)
The Color Purple is yet another credit to the genius of Steven Spielberg, but more importantly, a credit to the spirit of the African-American woman. One woman’s painful journey to self-worth through the help of her female companions spotlights the problems of poverty, racism, and sexism that Black women faced in the early 1900’s. This adaptation of the unforgettable book by Alice Walker earned Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Best Leading Actress for Whoopie Goldberg, and Best Supporting Actress for Oprah and Margaret Avery.
A Raisin in the Sun (1961)
This 1961 film based on Lorraine Hansberry’s play represents a monument in Black history. The original play, which had an all Black cast, was considered a risky investment but went on to become the first play written by a Black woman to be produced on Broadway as well as the first play with a Black director on Broadway. The film, which featured the original cast of the play, earned Sidney Poitier and Claudia McNeil Golden Globe nominations for Best Actor and Best Actress, respectively. A Raisin in the Sun was selected for preservation by the United States National Film Registry for its significance to cinema culture in 2005.
Do the Right Thing (1989)
Spike Lee takes racism head on in this jarring dramedy about the racial tensions that boil over on the hottest day of the year in a Brooklyn neighborhood. The events of this in-your-face film involve a host of characters–played by an all-star cast–each representative of the various viewpoints and mindsets on both sides of the race conflict. The tension builds to a dramatic and tragic ending that leaves viewers stunned.
Coming to America (1988)
Coming to America is one of the most highly praised, if not the most highly praised, Black film comedies ever made. Eddie Murphy turns in the performance of a lifetime as an African prince who comes to America to find a wife. He and co-star Arsenio Hall are masters in disguise as they play a host of characters in this laugh-out-loud comedy.