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10 Great Movies About the Black Experience

From Dr. Dre to unsung NASA geniuses, heroes of American history are immortalized in these films

Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles in Ray David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King Junior in Selma and Toni Morrison from the documentary Toni Morrison The Pieces I Am

Universal/Everett Collection; Atsushi Nishijima/Paramount Pictures/Everett Collection; Timothy Greenfield-Sanders/Magnolia Pictures

Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles in "Ray," novelist Toni Morrison and David Oyelowo as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in "Selma."

Black cinema is making more and more inroads into the heart of American popular culture. Witness it in the eye-opening 2020 Netflix documentary series They've Gotta Have Us.

Even the Oscars are starting to wake up since the minority population of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science's voting members has doubled from 8 percent in 2015 to 16 percent today.

Now is a good time to take a look back at the essential films about the black experience. Here are 10 must-sees.

Sean Patrick Thomas Eve Ice Cube and Cedric The Entertainer in in the film Barbershop

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/Getty Images

Barbershop (2002)

Sick of movies with clichéd, phony black characters? Try one with all kinds of realistic people, congregating in the tonsorial establishment that serves as a neighborhood social center.

Great rapper Ice Cube proved himself a fine producer and actor, playing a barbershop owner trying to get out of the biz and get his friend out of a bum-rap accusation that could send him to prison forever. It's light, sweet, PG-13 and full of warm family values.

If you like it, try the Queen Latifah spin-off, Beauty Shop, and Spike Lee's student film Joe's Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads, made with the help of his New York University classmates Ang Lee and Ernest Dickerson.

Streaming on Amazon, Google Play, Hulu, iTunes, YouTube, Vudu

Jamie Foxx stars as Ray Charles in the movie Ray

Universal/Everett Collection

Ray (2004)

Jamie Foxx won an Oscar as Ray Charles, the blind, Georgia-born prodigy who was the first music superstar to spring from Seattle's music scene. The movie is sanitized, conventional and very skillful. But Foxx's genius in capturing Charles’ genius makes this a must-see.

Streaming on Amazon, Fandango, Google Play, iTunes, Philo, Vudu

Lupita Nyong'o Michael Fassbender and Chiwetel Ejiofor in the movie 12 Years a Slave

Francois Duhamel/TM/Fox Searchlight/Everett Collection

12 Years a Slave (2013)

Winning the Oscar for best picture, this film tells the fascinating true story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the prosperous New Yorker kidnapped in 1841 and forced to be a plantation slave in New Orleans. Ejiofor is titanic, and Lupita Nyong'o utterly searing as the victim of a psychotic slave owner (Michael Fassbender).

Streaming on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, YouTube, Vudu

Tessa Thompson Omar J Dorsey Colman Domingo David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King Junior Andre Holland Corey Reynolds and Lorraine Toussaint in a scene from the film Selma

Paramount Pictures/Everett Collection

Selma (2014)

No one had ever captured the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in a movie until Ava DuVernay made her breakthrough masterpiece about the 1965 Alabama civil rights march that led to the historic Voting Rights Act. Denied use of King's actual speeches, the screenwriters created dialogue that sounds just like the activist would say.

David Oyelowo didn't try to mimic King's voice, but he nailed his persona. It's almost completely historically accurate, though DuVernay added one scene that didn't happen but should have: Coretta Scott King rebuking her husband for the infidelity that sullies his sainthood.

Streaming on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, YouTube, Vudu

Aldis Hodge as M C Ren Jason Mitchell as Eazy E O'Shea Jackson Junior as Ice Cube Neil Brown Junior as D j Yella and Corey Hawkins as Doctor Dre in Straight Outta Compton

Universal Pictures/AF archive/Alamy Stock Photo

Straight Outta Compton (2015)

This biopic reveals the origin of N.W.A., the revolutionary rap group of Ice Cube and the first hip-hop billionaire, Dr. Dre. It may be a bit soft on the guys and hard on the managers presented as monsters (Paul Giamatti and R. Marcos Taylor), but it captures the creative magic that made them great.

Streaming on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, YouTube, Vudu

Janelle Monae Taraji P Henson and Octavia Spencer star in the film Hidden Figures

Twentieth Century Studios

Hidden Figures (2016)

If all you knew about African Americans was the depiction of black characters in movies, you wouldn't guess that they were pivotal in the space race with the Soviet Union. When NASA sent John Glenn into orbit, the people who got them there included three black female mathematicians (Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe).

It's enraging to see the women deprived of credit, banned from segregated libraries and forced to walk half a mile to use a bathroom but fun to watch them outwit their racist white bosses and win. The movie didn't nab the best picture Oscar, but it made more money than any competitor.

Streaming on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, YouTube, Vudu

Queen Latifah Regina Hall Jada Pinkett Smith and Tiffany Haddish star in the film Girls Trip

Michele K. Short/Universal Pictures/Everett Collection

Girls Trip (2017)

Black cinematic history would not be complete without this high-spirited jaunt about the “Flossy Posse” — Jada Pinkett Smith, Queen Latifah, Regina Hall and skyrocketing star Tiffany Haddish — who go to New Orleans to learn what fun really is.

Streaming on Amazon, Google Play, Hulu, iTunes, YouTube, Vudu

Chadwick Boseman stars as T'Challa in the film Black Panther

Marvel Studios

Black Panther (2018)

It's not just the best black superhero movie; it's the best superhero movie — period. Set in the high-tech magical African kingdom of Wakanda, which wisely keeps its superpowers secret, this flick has the power of myth.

Chadwick Boseman — who also has played Jackie Robinson, James Brown and Thurgood Marshall — pours that greatness and more into the title hero, who makes Iron Man look like the Tin Man. Angela Bassett has gravitas as Black Panther's mom, and Forest Whitaker is his Obi-Wan.

Streaming on Amazon, Google Play, Netflix, YouTube, Vudu

Adam Driver stars as Flip Zimmerman and John David Washington as Ron Stallworth in Spike Lee’s film BlacKkKLansman

David Lee/Focus Features

BlacKkKlansman (2018)

Spike Lee had a massive hit with the hilarious true story of the first black detective in Colorado Springs (John David Washington), who infiltrated and exposed the Ku Klux Klan with help from a white officer (Adam Driver). The most chilling scene is Harry Belafonte as a character telling the story of the original 1915 blockbuster The Birth of a Nation, which revived the KKK.

This movie is a blow against that pioneering film, and it's also more entertaining.

Streaming on Amazon, Google Play, Hulu, YouTube, Vudu

Toni Morrison in the documentary film Toni Morrison The Pieces I Am

Timothy Greenfield-Sanders/Magnolia Pictures

Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am (2019)

Sure, the 1998 Oprah Winfrey picture of Morrison's searing best seller Beloved is one you've got to watch. But the mind of the creator of that story is even more interesting.

She was an elusive genius, but this film reveals her astounding life. Born poor to a dad who witnessed lynchings, she was the editor who brought black literature to publishing — and she got up at 5 a.m. with a baby on her knee to write the books that won her the Pulitzer Prize, the Nobel Prize and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Streaming on Amazon, Google Play, Hulu, YouTube, Vudu

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