When a film is done well, it has a way of leaving a lasting imprint on the fabric of society. It may change perceptions, set a trend, or be so enlightening that it stands the test of time. In honor of Black History Month, I compiled a list of 20 of my favorite #BlackExcellence movies that I feel did this in some way.
20 Noteworthy #BlackExcellence Movies to watch in honor of Black History Month:
– Fruitvale Station
This 2013 biopic that shows the last day of Oscar Grant’s life was not only a lightning rod in propelling the careers of Director Ryan Coogler, and also cementing the range and star power of Michael B. Jordan, but it also reignited the conversation around police brutality. The film did a great job of showing Grant’s humanity instead of just another black man dying at the hands of police. He is in no way perfect, but we see his attempts to make his life better, and that is something we all can relate to. He was a father, a son, a provider, and a man.
– Malcolm X
One of the biggest Academy Awards snubs came with the release of this film. Denzel Washington not only portrayed the Civil Rights leader, but seemed to completely embody the essence and spirit of the man. This film’s release reinvigorated the public’s interest in Malcolm’s life. You couldn’t walk around in 1992 without seeing “X” hats, t-shirts or posters. The movie was a holistic look at the man who not only changed himself from hustler to icon, but it also gave a sense of pride to anyone who watched it. Even the making of the film operated in the teachings of Minister Malcolm such as self-determination. During filming, the production ran out of money and was in danger of not being completed. Director Spike Lee tapped into Malcolm’s teachings and realized that our community has the power to come together and pull it off. Thanks to generous donations from several prominent Black celebrities, the film was able to be completed. Now, that’s Black Power.
– 12 Years a Slave
As if life for a Pre-Civil War Black man wasn’t challenging enough, imagine actually being a free Black man who gets kidnapped and sold into slavery. Then, battling for 12 years before finally regaining your freedom. Well, that is the true story of Solomon Northup that the movie conveys. The film is difficult and painful to watch, but I think it is necessary in the lexicon of cinema. An argument is often raised that there are too many “slave movies” and those are the only ones that mainstream Hollywood acknowledges. The critical acclaim this film received doesn’t really help dispute that argument. It grossed over $180 million and won numerous awards. But, the undeniably powerful performances by Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong’o were deserving of all the praise received.
– Do The Right Thing
Any film that opens with a jazz rendition of the Black National Anthem that segues into Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” with Rosie Perez doing one of the funkiest dance routines ever choreographed, deserves all the hype! The opening truly sets the tone for all the #BlackExcellence that is about to happen on screen. The movie follows the hottest day of the summer in New York, which ends up being a tragic night with the death of an unarmed Black man that results in a riot. The movie has unforgettable characters like Radio Raheem who breaks down the battle between love and hate, and Buggin Out who fights for the representation of Black people in an establishment whose customer base is predominately Black. The film also had great performances by the late Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, and Robin Harris. It’s hard to believe that this was only Spike Lee’s 3rdmajor motion picture … to be young, gifted, and Black.
Director Ava DuVernay tackles the prison system in an outstanding documentary that shows how the 13thAmendment has a direct correlation to the unfair imprisonment of minorities. The 13thAmendment officially abolished slavery, but with its obscure clause, continued to allow slavery or involuntary servitude as a punishment for crime, which led to the mass incarceration of millions. The documentary includes insights from the likes of Angela Davis, Van Jones, and Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
– The Color Purple
This film continues to resurface as generations pass, and that is the mark of a true classic. Everything from “Harpo, who dis woman?!” to “All my life I had to fight,” you would think this movie just came out as often as these and other memorable quotes seem to be engraved into our language, memes, and culture. Based on the book of the same title by Alice Walker, this critically acclaimed story was successful in novel and film form. The story follows the life and perils of Celie, played impeccably by Whoopi Goldberg. She faces bigotry, abuse and disappointment constantly. But, this story of hope and overcoming your surroundings is an undeniable inspiration.
I’ve always viewed this movie of how Jackie Robinson integrated major league baseball a little differently. It was never just a sports film or a historical rendering. I’ve always saw it as a labor of love. Being the first at anything is never easy. To endure the verbal abuse, threats and prejudice but still hold your dignity and poise is exemplary. You have to embody love to successfully do that. Also, the love story between Jackie and his wife Rachel is too sweet for words. The way she strengthens and encourages him through the difficult process of integrating the Brooklyn Dodgers shows the essence of what Black love can be and do. Chadwick Boseman and Harrison Ford deliver outstanding performances as Jackie Robinson and Dodgers’ owner Branch Rickey, respectively.
– What’s Love Got to Do With It
Easily one of the most formidable onscreen duos, Laurence Fishburne and Angela Bassett as Ike and Tina Turner blew audiences away in this 1993 film. You can feel the passion and emotions oozing from the screen, thanks in part to the undeniable musical performances throughout the film. Ike is accredited with finding and developing Tina, whose actual name is Anna Mae Bullock’s, talent as a singer and performer, but he must also take the responsibility for the mental manipulation, physical abuse, and mistreatment of her as well. The movie’s cultural impact is still felt. For many, it introduced Buddhism, which Tina converted to and credits with giving her the strength to leave her abusive relationship to Ike. It also shined a serious light on physical abuse and how difficult it can be to escape those toxic relationships. Despite the serious manner, we still find humor in almost anything. I’m sure you’ve uttered “Eat the cake Anna Mae!” at least once in your life.
– Hollywood Shuffle
Let’s talk about a film that broke barriers, tackled stereotypes head on, is insanely funny and officially put the legends Robert Townsend and Keenan Ivory Wayans on the map. What did ALL of that? Hollywood Shuffle, released in 1987. Townsend financed the film himself by maxing out several credit cards with a $100,000 budget, but the sacrifice paid off big when the film grossed over $5 million. The movie uses satire to show the struggle for a young Black actor to get roles other than pimps, criminals, or slaves. It also has a refreshing message of not being ashamed of an honest blue-collar job which is often shunned as not being as glamorous. The imaginative take and humor in this movie is both inspiring and stands the test of time.
– The Wiz
I recall the first time I saw The Wiz. I was so in awe of the spectacle of it all, and the music was outstanding! The movie came out in 1978, so it was a little before my time, but even an 80’s baby like me appreciated the magnitude of what I was watching once I was exposed to it … Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Nipsey Russell, Lena Horne, and Richard Pryor (just to name a few). Not to mention the incomparable Quincy Jones who was the music producer and supervisor for the film (he has a cameo in the dance sequence as they reach the Emerald City too). This remake of “The Wizard of Oz” dipped in melanin magic is everything wonderful! It is a truly feel-good movie that drives home messages of believing in yourself, facing your fears, and not allowing the negativity to get the better of you. I constantly remind myself to “Ease on down the road … don’t you carry nothing that might be a load. Ease on down, ease on down the road.”
– Hidden Figures
Thanks to this film, Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, and Mary Jackson are hidden figures no longer. This film shows the incredible story of how these three Black women, played by Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monae, where the intellect behind the space launch of astronaut John Glenn. The movie does a great job of showing the struggles of Jim Crow segregation all while highlighting the exceptional talent, drive, and tenacity of the women whose work behind the scenes literally propelled the United States into the stratosphere. Female empowerment and breaking racial barriers all wrapped up in movie that can’t help but leave you inspired.
– New Jack City
In 1991, every Black man seemed to want to be Nino Brown. Not so much to emulate his life as a drug kingpin, but to just embody his swag and influence. Before Cash Money Records was taking over for the 99 and the 2000, the Cash Money Brothers (CMB) ruled the streets of New York in this Mario Van Peebles directed masterpiece that shows the highs and lows of the drug game from multiple sides; the user, the dealer, the police, the justice system, and the communities they affect. The film is also credited with putting Teddy Riley’s “New Jack Swing” musical style on a national platform. This movie’s influence has been seen as decades continue to pass. One of the funniest episodes of the television show Martinwas his re-enactment of a pivotal scene from New Jack City when his entire crew is dressed in black and Martin stalks around the room as Nino Brown interrogating his friends about who stole his CD player. Just as much as this film can be seen as a cautionary tale, it’s just as valid as an entertaining movie, or a think-piece.
– Imitation of Life
This was one of the first films I remember seeing that made me see the world differently. On the surface, some categorize this movie as a romantic drama, but it is so much more than that. The movie explores race relations, separatism, classism, self-identity, and self-respect. I know that sounds like an overload of themes, but it is done so quite well. This film rendition was released in 1959. Lora, a single White mother and aspiring actress meets Annie, a widowed Black mother whose children become instant friends. Lora hires Annie as a caretaker and their lives soon become intertwined. As a light-skinned black girl, Annie’s daughter battles with accepting her true identity which causes much distress and pain for her mother. As Lora’s acting career thrives, the gap between her and Annie grows. I still get chills thinking of the soulful rendition of “Trouble of this World” sung by Mahalia Jackson, which concludes the film on an emotional and tear-jerking climax.
– Purple Rain
Do I really need to give a reason to why Purple Rain is on this list?! Ok, I’ll give you three: Prince. Rogers. Nelson. Now, to be fair, admittedly, this screenplay is not the best thing ever written. But, the musical performances are such perfection that it makes up for any missteps in plot points. The 1984 movie follows The Kid, played by Prince, as he tries to navigate between the abusive relationship with his parents, a new love-interest in Apollonia, and his music career with his band, The Revolution. Also noteworthy is Morris Day’s performance as The Kid’s main competitor and provider of many of the most memorable comic relief moments in the movie. The movie’s soundtrack was an instant hit and propelled the movie into iconic status.
If Will Smith ever deserved an Oscar, he should have gotten one for his portrayal of Muhammad Ali. It wasn’t just mannerisms and impersonations, but Will embodied the physicality of who many consider the greatest boxer of all time. That is no easy feat. What makes this biopic beautiful is how it shows the totality of the man, the good, the bad, and the ugly. Clearly, Ali was a remarkable athlete, but he was also a Civil Rights activist, a father, and to many, a hero. Despite his larger than life persona, the film shows his humanity, courage in facing challenges, and love for his community. Some have criticized the film for leaving out major landmarks in Ali’s life, but with such an accomplished and long career, there was no way to fit everything into one movie, not even with a running time of over 2 hours and 40 minutes. Every viewer should feel inspired after seeing this movie.
Growing up, of course I had heard of The Black Panther Party for Self Defense, but I never had a holistic view of the organization until this movie came out in 1995. It is #BlackExcellence in itself that Mario Van Peebles directed this film adapted from the novel of the same name written by his father, Melvin Van Peebles. The movie is loosely based on the origins of the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California. Courtney B. Vance and Marcus Chong gave unforgettable performances as founders Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton. The film shows the triumphant rise of the organization with strides such as community protection and free meal programs. It also shows the tragic fall thanks to tactics like infiltration efforts by the FBI and the start of the crack epidemic. I recommend this movie to everyone because it can be a source of great pride. The Black Panther Party was not just about afros, black berets, and guns. The movie shows the essence and heart that The Party wanted for Black people … “All Power to the People.”
– Higher Learning
This 1995 classic from Director John Singleton takes place on the fictitious campus of Columbus University and follows the lives and experiences of very different incoming freshman. The film tackles many hot-button issues that are still relevant in today’s society and on college campuses across America such as rape culture, school shootings, racism, reactions to the National Anthem, and sexual identity. Despite all the turmoil, the campus tries to unify but struggles as challenges continue to arise. The film features an outstanding cast in the likes of Omar Epps, Ice Cube, Tyra Banks, Michael Rapaport, and Busta Rhymes. This movie will leave you thinking outside of the box and analyzing many things that we see daily. It is a great think-piece.
– Something the Lord Made
If you ever doubted a rapper’s ability to cross over and be respected as a serious actor, I suggest you watch Mos Def’s performance as Vivien Thomas in this HBO original film. A real-life reason why we should never judge a book by its cover, Vivien started as a janitor/handyman turned heart surgeon. His mild demeanor steadily bucked against the racist system that tried to hold him back to go on to successfully defeat infant heart disease through surgery. However, being that this took place in the 1930s, Vivien did not receive the credit he deserved, but the accolades were bestowed upon Dr. Alfred Blalock, the White surgeon who Vivien worked for. This movie helped to finally give Vivien the credit he so richly deserved.
– Boyz N the Hood
In 1991, John Singleton made his directorial debut with a bold look at the many issues facing not only South-Central Los Angeles, but also the Black community as a whole. The story follows three friends and the different paths their lives take despite growing up in the same neighborhood. Cuba Gooding Jr. as Tre, Ice Cube as Doughboy, Morris Chestnut as Ricky, and Laurence Fishburne as Furious Styles each portrayed elements of the Black experience that we could all relate to. For many, it was the first time they really saw and understood the widespread effects of poverty, violence, and drugs. The film was so pivotal that it is actually the skeleton of the Wayans satire “Don’t be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood.” Stellar performances matched with an unapologetic display of Blackness makes this film unforgettable.
Spike Lee’s films are often criticized for being too “preachy,” but sometimes, a blatant message is needed to drive home a point. In 2000, Lee released this satire about a television executive, Pierre Delacroix, played by Damon Wayans, who creates a new-age minstrel show with Black actors wearing blackface in hopes that it would be perceived as so racist he would get fired. Instead, the show becomes a sweeping success and worldwide phenomenon. In the chaos of it all, Pierre starts to believe his own hype and gets lost in the damage that the stereotypical images his show reinforces has on the Black community and race relations altogether. The film shows how media representations matter. As someone who works in media and communications, I watch this film often, especially the ending sequence that is a “highlight reel” of sorts of how Blacks have been depicted in television and film through the years. It is gut-wrenching, thought-provoking, and eye-opening. You will feel disgust, but hopefully you will move past those feelings to know that you are worthy of accurate representation in the media, you are more than the butt of a joke or considered less than human. Also noteworthy are the multi-layered performances by Savion Glover as Manray and Tommy Davidson as Womack.