15 Movies That Celebrate and Center Black Characters, Experiences and Creators
In the midst of winter each year, February is a beacon of celebration — celebrations of love, of course, but also the recognition and celebration of an essential and important element of American history: Black history. Representation matters, and celebrating Black History Month each February is a valuable time to open the doors to conversations and learning opportunities about Black folks' achievements, the rich depth of Black culture and the ways in which those accomplishments remain indelibly woven into the fabric of the American story.
While it's critical not to relegate discussions about Black history to February alone, the monthlong holiday is a significant opportunity to recalibrate and refocus on the cultural and creative contributions Black folks have made throughout American history and to spark discussions about inclusion, diversity and our shared role in pursuing racial justice. It's also a time to enjoy artistic works by Black creators — works that illuminate collective pain but also those that highlight the beauty of what it means to be Black.
Reading works on anti-racist book lists and watching When They See Us are important tools in learning more about Black folks' experiences. But it's also essential to celebrate and shine a spotlight on Black narratives — and not just when they’re about trauma. In a video for BBC Ideas, author Irenosen Okojie reiterates that it's critical to celebrate Black film, art and literature because 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." As Black History Month approaches, it's time of particular importance to make space for Black joy and for the full richness of Black experiences — and you can get started on that with these incredible movies.
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.
In "The Black Film Canon: The 50 Greatest Movies by Black Directors," writers Aisha Harris and Dan Kois noted that the film "contains some of the most vivid, enjoyable, affectionate scenes of Lee’s career." At its core, Crooklyn is a coming-of-age story for Troy (Zelda Harris), who is a stand-in for Joie Lee, the director’s sister and co-writer, and a thoughtful family portrait. "It’s the Spike movie you might have skipped," Harris and Kois wrote, "but it’s the one that will make you love him all the more."
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.
Unsurprisingly, things get out of hand. Hilarity (and an iconic dance sequence and several prizes at Sundance) ensues. In "The Black Film Canon," Aisha Harris and Dan Kois noted that, thanks to House Party, "Black teenage movie characters were finally allowed to be as freewheeling and mischievous — without things ever getting too heavy — as their white counterparts had been in high school romps for decades."
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).
As you might expect, the winning May-September romance that ensues forces Stella to take a good, hard look at her life and figure out what it is — or who it is — she really wants. Rolling Stone critic Peter Travers wrote that Stella "delivers guilt-free escapism about pretty people having wicked-hot fun in pretty places." Honestly, what more could you want out of a rom-com?
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."
For first-time viewers, the film is set in Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy neighborhood, which is simmering with racial tension — all of which comes to a head on a hot summer day. Toward the end of the film, protagonist Mookie (Lee) must make an important decision. In the film’s DVD commentary, Lee points out that only white viewers ask him if Mookie does the right thing, whereas Black viewers don’t question the choice. Needless to say, the film remains essential viewing more than 30 years later.
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.
Often, Moonlight is heralded as one of the best films of the 21st century. The film won top prizes at both the Golden Globes and the Oscars and nabbed additional Oscars for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor for Mahershala Ali, who plays Chiron’s father figure. By exploring the intersections of masculinity, queerness and Blackness, Moonlight, as the Los Angeles Times’ Justin Chang puts it, is both "achingly romantic and uncommonly wise."
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.
Described in the "The Black Film Canon" as the "quintessential ‘hood’ movie that sparked a flurry of ‘90s imitators… 25 years later, Boyz n the Hood still stands among the best films of the decade." This was partly because Singleton, who became the youngest Best Director Oscar nominee and first Black man to be nominated for a directing Oscar, "captured a very particular cultural moment and uncovered the anger, despair and even hope of an urban Black America that had been largely ignored by the rest of the nation."
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.
In addition to giving audiences all the heartache and romantic high notes they could ask for, Love & Basketball also provides sports film thrills and deftly captures what it means to be a woman athlete. Actor and filmmaker Robert Townsend notes that Prince-Bythewood "painted on a romantic canvas that we normally don’t see. We [Black folks] don’t get that many love stories, and she gave us a love story that made us believe in love again."
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."
In the sci-fi masterpiece Dirty Computer, Monáe plays an approximation of her human self, dubbed Jane 57821 by the authorities of the dystopian world, who call humans "Computers" and try to cleanse them — i.e. erase their memories and personalities — if they’re deemed "dirty" (or unique). Backed by the album’s incredible electro-pop sound, Dirty Computer threads together the album’s seemingly disparate music videos, punctuating them with a feminist retelling of the dystopian genre and, at the same time, crafting a sharp commentary about present-day America.
"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.
Set in New York, the film stars Richard Roundtree as the eponymous private detective — at a time when Black action heroes were virtually nonexistent — and explores themes like race, masculinity and the Black Power movement.
"The first black detective thriller helmed by a black director. It paved the way for all the other black action heroes to follow," said filmmaker Ernest Dickerson (Juice, The Wire). Viewers can also check out other entries in the film series, including a Shaft (2000) remake, which stars Samuel L. Jackson and ditches the Blaxploitation elements for more of a crime-thriller feel, and Shaft (2019), which stars Roundtree, Jackson and Jessie T. Usher in a more satirical, buddy-cop comedy take.
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.
As fate would have it, she finds herself taking up the Sister Mary Clarence moniker again in order to teach music to a group of Catholic students whose school is slated for closure. In a Refinery29 article about Black joy, Sesali Bowen teamed up with the co-hosts of The Black Joy Mixtape podcast, Amber J. Phillips and Jazmine Walker, and noted that Sister Act 2 works because "Gospel choirs are an important part of Black culture and are directly responsible for spreading cheer and inspiration in any given space."
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.
Alike’s parents (played by Charles Parnell and Kim Wayans) love their daughter deeply, but mistrust — and fail to really understand — her in the wake of her self-discovery. Praising the raw, tender film, critic Dana Stevens wrote, "Just when you think every coming-out-as-coming-of-age story has been told, along comes Pariah. Adepero Oduye is incandescent as she’s forced to code-switch between the ladylike conduct expected by her churchgoing parents and the mystifying rituals of the gay nightclub she frequents."
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.
Onscreen, the almost all-Black cast is led by stars like Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright, Winston Duke, Angela Bassett and Forest Whitaker, and, behind the scenes, the film is also bolstered by Black creatives and filmmakers, like Oscar-winning costume designer Ruth E. Carter. Thrilling, thought-provoking and incredibly epic, Black Panther garnered a staggering $1.3 billion worldwide, making it the highest-grossing film by a Black director.
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.
In the film, Hall plays lifestyle writer Ryan Pierce, who is dubbed "the next Oprah," and is invited to speak at the Essence Music Festival in New Orleans. Hoping to reconnect with her college pals, Ryan decides to make a girls’ weekend out of the whole affair — leading to hilarity, hijinks and heartfelt rekindling. The film is credited with launching Haddish’s career to new heights, and it ended up grossing $140 million worldwide, making it the first film by a Black American woman screenwriter to do so.
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."
By 2016, it became the most-watched HBO original film of all time and garnered four Emmy Awards, including Outstanding Television Movie. Praised universally for Queen Latifah’s star performance as well as Mo’Nique’s supporting role as fellow blues icon Ma Rainey, Bessie was described in "The Black Film Canon" as "one of the best and most unabashedly honest portrayals of Black womanhood and sexuality put on screen." Ren Jender, a writer for Bitch Flicks, echoed that sentiment, saying that although the biopic follows the genre’s usual beats, "a queer Black woman (Smith was bisexual) by an out queer Black woman who also directed is unusual" and, therefore, needed.
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).
With Spider-Man out of the way, Kingpin hopes his "Super Collider" project will grant him access to parallel universes. To save Brooklyn — and the multiverse — Miles takes up the Spidey mantle after getting a few pointers from some inter-dimensional Spider-People, like reluctant mentor Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson) and Spider-Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld). Hilarious, action-packed and full of heart, the Oscar-winning Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse proves anyone can wear the mask.