15 Movies That Celebrate and Center Black Characters, Experiences and Creators
Somehow, celebrities learned nothing from the willfully ignorant, giant misstep that was Gal Gadot’s "Imagine" video — remember, at the pandemic’s onset when a bunch of wealthy celebrities sang bits of the John Lennon hit from their mansions in a misguided attempt to prove that we were all in this thing together? Well, out-of-touch celebrities have struck again, this time taking up Black Lives Matter as their cause.
Hollywood’s latest lapse in judgment came in the form of the "I Take Responsibility" video compilation, which featured many of Tinseltown’s white A-listers, from Aaron Paul to Julianne Moore, recording themselves owning up to being silent and complicit in the rampant racism in the film industry. The failings here? Where does one even begin?
On June 12, 2020, comedian, author and 2 Dope Queens co-host Phoebe Robinson (@dopequeenpheebs) posted in response to the compilation video, saying she was "tired" and that "AlI I ask is [for] one hour without the bullsh-t. Just 60 mins of peace. But apparently, that’s too big an ask? Like just stop. No more videos, pledges, demonstrations, and black and white portrait mode vids shot in French New Wave style to show you’re ‘sad’ and ‘get it.’" No more reading lines from a sheet of paper to prove you care about black people."
Robinson went on to add, "Quit only consuming Black works of art are about race and suffering. Yes, they are important, but if you don’t watch How Stella Got Her Groove Back or listen to any Marvin Gaye songs except "What’s Going On?" or read books by Black authors that aren’t in the canon, then you don’t see BLACK HUMANITY. We are much more than the trauma we endure." While this remark speaks to the missteps taken by the celebrities in the compilation video, it also speaks to the missteps of white and non-Black folks in general.
Yes, reading works from anti-racist book lists and watching When They See Us are important when it comes to self-education, but celebrating and centering Black narratives — and not just when they’re about trauma — is also essential. In a video for BBC Ideas, author Irenosen Okojie reiterates that we need to celebrate Black film, art and literature since these works shape our perception of Black communities and people. "What’s happened for a lot of the time and for a long time is Black trauma has been something that’s been at the forefront," Okojie said. "What that does in the long term, I think, is that it creates a warped sense of what Black culture is, so we don’t see enough of Black achievement and Black celebration." Make space for Black joy, for the fullness of Black experiences.
In the wake of his must-watch biographical drama Malcolm X (1992), acclaimed director Spike Lee pivoted from a sweeping, Civil Rights Movement film to something a bit more autobiographical. In fact, Lee’s Crooklyn, which is based on his childhood growing up in 1970’s Brooklyn, was co-written with his siblings.
House Party (1990)
Written and directed by Reginald Hudlin, House Party has become a cult classic in the decades since its release, and the teen comedy helped launch the careers of Martin Lawrence, Tisha Campbell and Daryl Mitchell. In House Party, the film’s stars, Christopher "Kid" Reid and Christopher "Play" Martin — together known as the hip-hop duo Kid ‘n’ Play — decide to throw a (you guessed it) party while Play’s parents are away on vacation.
How Stella Got Her Groove Back (1998)
Directed by Kevin Rodney Sullivan, How Stella Got Her Groove Back tells the story of Stella Payne (Angela Bassett), a successful 40-year-old stockbroker who’s content working nine to five and raising her son — until her pal Delilah (Whoopi Goldberg) convinces her to take a well-deserved trip to Jamaica. While there, Stella meets handsome islander Winston (Taye Diggs).
Do the Right Thing (1989)
Nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, Do the Right Thing is a comedy-drama that was written, directed and produced by acclaimed filmmaker Spike Lee. Often referred to as one of the greatest films of all time, Sezín Koehler, writing for Black Girl Nerds, noted that, even decades after its initial release, "Do the Right Thing remains an absolute master class in American cinema."
Written and directed by Barry Jenkins, the coming-of-age drama Moonlight is based on Tarell Alvin McCraney’s unpublished play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue. Taking from its stage roots, Jenkins’ film is told in three parts, each representing a different stage in the main character’s, Chiron (Trevante Rhodes, Ashton Sanders and Alex Hibbert), life and explores his struggles with sexuality, identity and past abuse.
Boyz n the Hood (1991)
Without a doubt, this film gave a voice to a generation of young, Black Americans. Written and directed by John Singleton, Boyz n the Hood features a truly incredible cast: Ice Cube, Cuba Gooding Jr., Morris Chestnut, Laurence Fishburne, Nia Long, Regina King and Angela Bassett — but the stellar cast is just one of the film’s many merits. The movie follows Tre Styles (Gooding Jr.), who is sent to live with his father (Fishburne) in South Central Los Angeles. While there, Tre encounters the neighborhood’s booming gang culture.
Love & Basketball (2000)
For her directorial debut, Gina Prince-Bythewood told Slate that she "wanted to make a real love story with Black people. Not a romantic comedy, but the kind that wrecks you and builds you back up." Without a doubt, Love & Basketball does just that. The film traces the relationship between Monica (Sanaa Lathan) and Quincy (Omar Epps), two kids who love basketball, become rivals and then, throughout their lives, explore an on-again/off-again relationship.
Dirty Computer (2018)
Technically, Dirty Computer was dubbed an "emotion picture" by its creator, singer/songwriter Janelle Monáe, who crafted the short film as a companion piece to her 2018 album of the same name. In past albums, Monáe adopted the android persona of Cindi Mayweather, saying that she "chose an android because the android to me represents ‘the other’ in our society."
"Gordon Parks’ shaggy detective story is hardly perfect[,] [t]hough it’s a thoroughly satisfying B-movie," Aisha Harris and Dan Kois wrote in Slate’s "The Black Film Canon." But there’s no denying that the ever-cool Shaft was an instant hit when it debuted in the summer of 1971.
Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit (1993)
Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit is the rare sequel that may, in fact, surpass the original film’s greatness — and that’s not just because it’s title contains the best pun ever. In the original film, Deloris van Cartier (Whoopi Goldberg) dons a habit and poses as a nun in order to hide from the mob. The sequel, which is directed by Black filmmaker and actor Bill Duke, finds Deloris hitting it big as a Las Vegas performer.
Executive produced by Spike Lee, Pariah marks acclaimed director Dee Rees’ debut feature-length film and was adapted from her award-winning 2007 short of the same name. The film stars Adepero Oduye as Alike, a 17-year-old from Brooklyn who’s eager for her first sexual experience — and discovering what it means as a lesbian.
Black Panther (2018)
If you haven’t seen Marvel’s three-time Oscar-winning blockbuster Black Panther, remedy that immediately — even if you aren’t an MCU faithful. Directed by Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station, Creed), the film stars Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa, a.k.a. Black Panther, who must grapple with being crowned king of Wakanda following his father’s sudden death. Of course, T’Challa’s problems don’t end there; he’s also challenged by Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), who wants to undo Wakanda’s isolationist policies and start a global revolution.
Girls Trip (2017)
Co-written by Black-ish creator Kenya Barris and Issa Rae collaborator Tracy Oliver, Girls Trip assembles an all-star cast — Regina Hall, Queen Latifah, Tiffany Haddish and Jada Pinkett Smith — for a film that’s best described as comedy gold.
The made-for-HBO film Bessie marks director Dee Rees second entry on our must-watch list, and it sees Rees teaming up with Queen Latifah to tell the story of American blues singer Bessie Smith. Audiences and critics alike flocked to their TVs to watch Bessie Smith’s (Queen Latifah) transformation from struggling songstress into "The Empress of Blues."
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)
Sure, we’ve seen quite a few Spider-Man origin stories on the silver screen, but "let’s do this just one more time." In this iteration, our hero is Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), a Black Puerto Rican teen from Brooklyn who fears he’s not living up to his father’s high expectations. As Spidey fate would have it, Miles is bitten by a radioactive arachnid. Our hero then runs into Peter Parker, a.k.a. Spider-Man, who dies while battling the Green Goblin and Kingpin (Liev Schreiber).