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17 Essential Films About the Black Experience

From ‘A Raisin in the Sun’ to ‘Get Out,’ these movies span the vast culture of Black life in America

Loretta Devine Lela Rochon Whitney Houston and Angela Bassett star in Waiting to Exhale and Denzel Washington and Viola Davis in the film Fences

Randee St. Nicholas/20th Century Fox Film Corp/Courtesy Everett Collection; David Lee/Paramount/Courtesy Everett Collection

En español | In response to the call of summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, streaming services started offering movies depicting the “Black experience.” The quotes prove necessary. It’s tricky enough to capture the feeling of a people, let alone tell the story of a community that resists a one-size-fits-all approach. Still, you don’t have to go all professorial to know there are films that resonate with Black moviegoers a little differently than those depicting Black lives from a remove, or only in relation to white folks and racism. There’s always a little more texture woven in by a Black writer or director. It may be the way a father pauses to take the measure of his son, the way a mother hums, or how she looks across the table at an impertinent grownup child. (Remember Oprah at the dinner table in The Butler?) Yes, experience is vapor and a story passed down, but also a saga of resilience and abundance. Here are movies that run the gamut because, well, the Black experience does.

12 Years a Slave

Brit artist-director Steve McQueen’s take on the American horror story would make a tough but bold double feature with Get Out. A cordial dinner between a free Black man and a couple of white men turns catastrophic when he’s kidnapped and sold into slavery. Kafka’s inescapable nightmare has nothing on chattel slavery. While the outrages of the slave owner are woundingly vivid, it’s the movie’s graph on the psychological trauma and survival strategies that render Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) so wrenchingly authentic.

Watch here: YouTube, Amazon Prime, Google Play

A Raisin in the Sun

There was a time in the ’60s when some Black critics grew pointedly dismissive of Sidney Poitier’s growing stature as one of America’s great actors, treating his characters as too establishment-pleasing to be significant. To do that was to ignore what he always brought to the screen: the deeper truths of the men he played. Behold Walter Younger’s thwarted aspirations, pent-up anger and simmering frustration in the movie version of Lorraine Hansberry’s groundbreaker about a South Side Chicago family. He embodies the coiled start of an answer to poet Langston Hughes’ query, “What happens to a dream deferred?”

Watch here: Amazon Prime, Google Play, iTunes

Barbershop

Director Tim Story takes a chair at the go-to location for enthusiastic dozens sparring, neighborhood gossip and community reckoning. This comedy’s location is the South Side Chicago shop of Calvin Palmer (Ice Cube) but could have been a gathering joint in Atlanta or Milwaukee or Denver, which would give the sauce its own flavor but never change the fact that you were at a vibrant barbecue. The franchise found a holler back in the Queen Latifah-led Beauty Shop movies.

Watch here: Showtime, Google Play, YouTube

Morris Chestnut Cuba Gooding Junior and Ice Cube star in the film Boyz N the Hood

AF archive/Alamy Stock Photo

Boyz N the Hood

Career-changing performances by Cuba Gooding Jr. and Ice Cube make it easy to forget how many actual kids live in the South Central Los Angeles neighborhood of writer-director John Singleton’s trailblazing debut. An internet description tags it “Drama/Crime,” which is boneheaded. There’s death, self-poisoning masculinity, gunplay. But to prioritize that is to ignore the fundamental thread: It’s about a father and a son, about women trying to figure out their place in that narrative while pursuing their own. It’s about the Black family as economically vulnerable,  but also stout and aspiring. It’s about community self-love and, yes, self-sabotage. The scenes between Furious Styles (Laurence Fishburne) and Tre (as a 10-year-old and as a teen) offer a glimpse of fatherly tenderness worth the price of the ticket.

Watch here: Google Play, AMC, Amazon Prime


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Lawrence-Hilton Jacobs and Glynn Turman star in the film Cooley High

FilmPublicityArchive/United Archives via Getty Images

Cooley High

Boyz II Men titled its first album Cooleyhighharmony and covered the 1975 flick’s final song “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday” for good reason. This 1975 coming-of-age film is a touchstone. It’s 1964 and best friends Richard “Cochise” Morris (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs) and Leroy “Preach” Jackson (Glynn Turman) have plans to leave their Near-North Side Chicago stomping ground: smooth operator Cochise on a basketball scholarship, brainy Preach to pursue his California dreams. Funny but also unexpectedly crushing, the movie comes by its hints of Good Times and What’s Happening!! honestly — it was penned by Eric Monte, writer of those TV sitcoms.

Watch here: Vudu

Daughters of the Dust

Julie Dash’s history-making feature (the first by a Black female director distributed theatrically) offers a poetic, rich, near mythical, yet so embodied vision of three generations of Gullah Geechee women of South Carolina. That in itself would be a bold gesture of recovery, but the writer-director’s vision remains an invitation to Black filmmakers to spin ancestor tales into bold and haunting cinema.

Watch here: YouTube, Google Play

Fences

All sinew and simmering sentiment, this muscular adaptation of August Wilson’s Pulitzer-winning play — part of his Pittsburgh Cycle — is about a father embittered by his missed opportunity to play professional baseball. Denzel Washington directs with such ardor and stars, along with Viola Davis, in roles that garnered each a Tony — and Davis an Oscar. The film isn’t merely a labor of love, it’s the tribute paid by one consummate artist to the protean elder on whose shoulders he stands.

Watch here: YouTube, Google Play, Amazon Prime

Fruitvale Station

So much of Ryan Coogler’s first feature film isn’t about what happened to Oscar Grant III early New Year’s Day at the Bay Area Rapid Transit station of the title. No, it’s about the messy-beautiful life the writer-director calls forth as the camera accompanies Grant (a terrific Michael B. Jordan) in the hours before his murder by a police officer: time spent with friends, with his mother and his girlfriend, with his oh-so-dear daughter. A scene worth a doctoral thesis comes when Oscar finds a mortally wounded pit bull, a too-often-demonized young Black man compassionately connecting with a vilified, often maltreated dog breed. There’s an understated, rattling grace in that image.

Watch here: Amazon Prime, YouTube, Google Play

Get Out

Required viewing for books clubs just now diving into White Fragility and How to Be an Anti-Racist. After all, gaslighting and virtue signaling get featured roles in Jordan Peele’s insta-classic horror flick. Oh, the damage wrought by wolves in allies’ clothing. Like some of the best horror films that have come before, Get Out reinvigorated the power of the genre to provide soul-curdling metaphors for a nation’s failings and torments. In this case it’s “Sunken Place” racism.

Watch here: YouTube, Google Play, Amazon Prime

The Last Black Man in San Francisco and Sorry to Bother You

Each had its premiere to acclaim at the Sundance Film Festival, and the two couldn’t be more different in terms of energy and approach. Yet they both extol — in ways melancholy or satirically hopped up, respectively — the blight of gentrification on Bay Area communities and on Black denizens of a bohemian bent.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco
Watch here: YouTube, Google Play

Sorry to Bother You
Watch here: YouTube, Google Play

Moonlight

Barry Jenkins’ abiding affection for Black love — at times damaged and damaging but more often restorative — courses through his Oscar-winning best pic. The writer-director builds on collaborator Tarell Alvin McCraney’s script to cast his gaze on the hero Chiron, played by three very different actors. Each rivets and touches. It is also very much the story of a place. With its knowing and compassionate view of Miami’s Liberty City neighborhood (where the writers came of age) and its slow awakening of Chiron’s yearning for his male friend, the film’s variations on masculinity broke new ground.

Watch here: Netflix, YouTube, Amazon Prime

Precious

Black children aren’t immune to familial abuse, and director Lee Daniels poured his own experiences of domestic volatility into this searing adaptation of Sapphire’s novel Push, about a Harlem girl whose journey to literacy may just set her free. It has turn-away-from-the-screen moments of brutality. Mo’Nique won an Oscar for her supporting role as Precious’ unsupportive (understatement) mother (overstatement). Gabourey Sidibe challenged assumptions and launched her career playing the traumatized and then triumphant title character.

Watch here: YouTube, Google Play

Paul Winfield and Cicely Tyson in a scene from the film Sounder

Courtesy Everett Collection

Sounder

A player in the Black Arts Movement of the ’60s and ’70s, playwright Lonne Elder III took William H. Armstrong’s young adult novel about a boy and his sharecropping family and rooted it even more deeply in Black life. He leavened the racial injustice with grounded moments of family affection, joy, even emotional bounty — not in order to make a happy story but to create a fuller one. As true as the parents Nathan and Rebecca’s dialogue rings, so much passes without words between acting greats Paul Winfield and Cicely Tyson. Kevin Hooks’ David sees so much ­— and so do we. Taj Mahal’s steel guitar-strumming score adds a buoyant blue tint to the hurt and the hope. 

Watch here: Amazon Prime

Talk to Me

Not enough folks know director Kasi Lemmons’ hellaciously entertaining and oh-so-astute film about the teaming up of radio maverick Dewey Hughes with charismatic ex-con Petey Greene. Don Cheadle nails the early shock jock with a verbal swagger and a peacock’s wardrobe. Ejiofor is uptight but oh-so-right as Hughes. Among the great scenes: Hughes pulling a “They call me Mr. Tibbs!” moment with the too cocky Greene while playing pool. As Vernell, Petey’s squeeze, Taraji P. Henson gives a performance a grand as her outsized afro.

Watch here: YouTube, Google Play

The cast of To Sleep With Anger

Samuel Goldwyn Films/Courtesy Everett Collection

To Sleep With Anger

A middle-class Los Angeles family gets upended and a sibling rivalry is set ablaze when an old friend from the South comes a-visiting Gideon (Paul Butler), Susie (Mary Alice) and their grown sons. In Charles Burnett’s damn-smart dramedy, increasingly thorny relationships between the urban and the rural, the modern and the folkloric — the stuff of the Great Migration — get a loving treatment. The initially welcome guest becomes more than a pest. Great turns by Sheryl Lee Ralph, Mary Alice and Ethel Ayler signal that there’s trouble afoot with this Harry, played with devilish relish by Danny Glover.

Watch here: YouTube, Google Play

Waiting to Exhale

Terry McMillan’s best seller about four women, the men they love and, above all, the female friendships they forge got its stellar groove on with Angela Bassett, Whitney Houston, Loretta Devine and Lela Rochon as the women. In the midst of the gangsta movie explosion, it provided a breath of fresh air. Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds’ soundtrack is a keeper, too. 

Watch here: YouTube, Amazon Prime, Vudu

Spike Lee posing for a photo nearby the Sydney Opera House in Sydney Australia

Jaimi Chisholm/Getty Images

Wait, where’s Spike Lee?

For more than four decades, pop culture’s grasp of the “Black experience” — and therefore, in many ways, America’s — has been shaped by the prickly, brilliant guy sporting the Knicks jersey. Sexiness: She’s Gotta Have It. Historically Black colleges and their conflicts: School Daze. Frustration and fury: Mookie and that trash can in Do the Right Thing. Resistance: Malcolm X. That doesn’t even get us deep into the ’90s. That’s why he’ll be getting his own list in the coming weeks.

Editor's note: This article was originally published on Feb. 14, 2020. It has been updated with additional movies added to the list.

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