The Top 25: The Most Significant Black Movies of All Time
As the annual celebration of movies that was last night’s Oscar telecast, one thing was abundantly clear. Despite black nominees like Taraji P. Henson and Viola Davis and previous winners like Jamie Foxx, Forest Whitaker, Denzel Washington and Halle Berry, the Oscars still have a long way to go toward acknowledging the contributions of black actors, writers and directors. That’s why we’re taking the time to compile our list of the top 25 most important black movies of all time. The one requirement is that our choices of significant black films must have been originally released in theaters.
Now, let’s be clear: It’s almost impossible to create a definitive list. There are so many worthy choices among black films, whether you make your decision based on performances, writing, directing or even historical or political significance. But we’re going to try, and if you don’t agree or think we left something out, well, we figure you’ll go hard in the comments and let us know. Be gentle.
1. THE EXILE (1931)- Directed by Oscar Micheaux. You may not have heard of him, but Oscar Micheaux was the most prolific director in black movie history. He made 44 films, of which this one is the most significant as it was the first black movie helmed by a black director, with sound.
2. STORMY WEATHER (1943) – Directed by Andrew L. Stone. Starring Lena Horne, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and the Nicholas Brothers. One of two musicals released in the same year starring Lena Horne, both “Stormy Weather” and “Cabin In The Sky” showcase the music and performance skills of some of the time’s top actors, singers and dancers. “Stormy Weather” is in the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress for its historical and cultural significance.
3. CARMEN JONES (1954) – Directed by Otto Preminger. Starring Harry Belafonte and Dorothy Dandridge. A black film classic that helped Dorothy Dandridge emerge as Hollywood’s first black sex symbol.
4. NOTHING BUT A MAN (1964) – Directed by Michael Roemer. Starring Ivan Dixon and Abbey Lincoln. One of the most compelling black movies ever filmed if just for the simplicity of the story about a man struggling to succeed despite racism and financial challenges.
5. IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT (1967) – Directed by Norman Jewison. Starring Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger. This Southern police drama is lifted out of formula territory by a searing performance by Poitier, who plays a Philadelphia police detective stranded in a small Southern town. It features one of the most defiant lines ever spoken by a black man onscreen. When Steiger, as redneck Sheriff Gillespie, asks Poitier’s character “What do they call a n—r like you in Philadelphia?” His answer: “They call me MISTER Tibbs!”
6. SWEET SWEETBACK’S BAADASSSSS SONG (1971) – Star and director: Melvin Van Peebles. Shot over 19 days and finished with a $50,000 loan from Bill Cosby, this anti-establishment film is credited with starting the blaxploitation genre as well as becoming the precursor of black independent film.
7. SHAFT (1971) – Directed by Gordon Parks, starring Richard Roundtree. Roundtree plays the coolest black detective alive; legendary photographer Gordon Parks helms the movie, and Isaac Hayes creates the classic blaxploitation soundtrack. It is also in the Library of Congress as a historical and cultural work.
8. LADY SINGS THE BLUES (1971) Directed by Sidney J. Furie. Starring Diana Ross, Billy Dee Williams and Richard Pryor. The Billie Holiday biopic scored its star, Diana Ross, an Oscar nomination for her unglamorous portrayal of the iconic jazz singer.
9. THE SPOOK WHO SAT BY THE DOOR (1973) Produced and directed by Ivan Dixon, screenplay by Melvin Clay and Sam Greenlee (from his book of the same title). One of the most radical black movies ever made, it tells the story of a non-threatening black man who rises in the CIA, only to quit and use his training to start the black revolution in Chicago. Hmmm.
10. WATTSTAX (1973) – Directed by Mel Stuart. Starring Richard Pryor, The Staple Singers, Isaac Hayes. A Los Angeles concert where tickets cost just one dollar, it’s viewed as the “black Woodstock.” To this day, performances still amaze.
11. CLAUDINE (1974) – Directed by John Berry. Starring James Earl Jones and Diahann Carroll. A struggling single mother finds love with a garbage man. No guns, drugs, gangs or any of the other blaxploitation staples; just a simple love story makes this a classic. 12. BLAZING SADDLES (1974) – Directed by Mel Brooks. Starring Cleavon Little and Gene Wilder. As Tom Joyner’s favorite movie, this comedy classic must make the list, but it’s certainly worthy as a tongue-in-cheek parody of western films that brilliantly skewers racism and its sheer idiocy.
13. COOLEY HIGH – (1975) Directed by Michael Schulz. Written by “Good Times’” Eric Monte, starring Glynn Turman and Lawrence Hilton- Jacobs. Arguably the best black coming-of-age film of all time. It’s still a tearjerker more than 30 years later.
14. RICHARD PRYOR LIVE IN CONCERT (1979) – Directed by Jeff Margolis. Starring Richard Pryor, music by Patti Labelle. The king of comedy at his best; this was the first of his shows to be released in theaters.
15. PURPLE RAIN (1984) – Directed by Albert Magnoli, starring Prince. It could have been a musician’s vanity project, instead it’s still the most significant musical film ever made by a black recording artist.
16. THE COLOR PURPLE – (1985) Directed by Steven Spielberg, starring Whoopi Goldberg, Danny Glover and Oprah Winfrey. Based on the Alice Walker book of the same title, this story of a woman’s triumph over abuse is still amazing, as was Goldberg’s performance.
17. SHE’S GOTTA HAVE IT – (1986) – The debut that launched several careers, including of course, director Spike Lee’s and just about everyone else’s, except ironically enough, the stars of this seminal film.
18. EDDIE MURPHY RAW (1987) – Directed by Robert Townsend, starring Eddie Murphy. Every sketch, almost every minute of Murphy’s second film is classic comedy. At the time it set the record for use of the “f” word, until “Goodfellas” came out and surpassed it.
19. BOYZ IN THE HOOD (1991) /NEW JACK CITY (1991) – Director for “Boyz”: John Singleton; starring Morris Chestnut and Cuba Gooding, Jr. Director for “New Jack City”: Mario Van Peebles; Starring Wesley Snipes and Allen Payne. These two films are considered two of the first “hip-hop” genre films and amazingly, they came out the same year.
20. WHAT’S LOVE GOT TO DO WITH IT? (1993) – Directed by Brian Gibson, written by Tina Andrews based on the Tina Turner bio, “I, Tina.” Starring Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne. Two simple reasons – the performances of Bassett and Fishburne as the dysfunctional musical couple Ike and Tina Turner.
21. MALCOLM X (1992) – Directed by Spike Lee, this is undoubtedly one of Denzel Washington’s best performances ever. A powerful tribute to one of history’s most principled men.
22. BAD BOYS – (1995) Directed by Michael Bay, starring Will Smith and Martin Lawrence. Even Will Smith would probably tell you that this was the movie that set him up to be Hollywood’s most bankable movie star.
23. FRIDAY (1995) – Directed by F. Gary Gray. Written by Ice Cube and DJ Pooh., starring Ice Cube and Chris Tucker. You know those white Hollywood slacker marijuana movies? Well, score one for black folks in this still quotable comedy.
24. LOVE AND BASKETBALL (2000) Written and directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, starring Sanaa Lathan and Omar Epps. One of the only mainstream black films ever to be written and directed by a black woman.
25. ANTWONE FISHER: (2002) Not only is it Denzel Washington’s directorial debut; it’s Derek Luke’s film acting debut. This is one of the few black films that deal honestly with the benefits of therapy and the havoc that a dysfunctional childhood can wreak in adult life.
By: Tonya Pendleton