While there are many late 20th-century movie classics we all know and love, the crunchy video and audio quality is enough to turn off a generation that is used to Marvel-level productions. However, some of the most renowned, influential and daring films are arguably from this time, more specifically the 1970s. But the films being highlighted here are not just any films– they’re 70s Black movies. These films centering Black characters and stories during the 70s were known to confront themes of Black culture and empowerment, including the ongoing civil rights movement and racial issues, urban life, resistance to oppression and more. 

Most notably, many 70s Black movies were Blaxploitation films. This genre, although criticized for certain stereotypes and tropes, often featured strong Black protagonists in urban settings dealing with crime, corruption and social issues. Though many people nowadays want Black movies that represent the community in diverse tropes, movies of this time were underrepresented.

70s Black movies offer a glimpse into what life was like post-segregation and what problems affected the Black community at the time, many of which are still present today. However, others amongst these movies are feel-good, comedies that stand the test of time. 

Check out this list of 70s Black movies that are ranked in order of lowest to highest IMDb score and Rotten Tomatoes rating.  

12. Mahogany (1975)

IMDb: 6.1/10

Rotten Tomatoes: 29%

Mahogany (1975), directed by Berry Gordy, follows the story of Tracy Chambers, played by Diana Ross. Tracy is a young woman from Chicago’s South Side with dreams of becoming a fashion designer. She faces numerous challenges as she navigates the fashion industry, eventually catching the eye of a renowned photographer. As her career blossoms, Tracy finds herself torn between her ambitions and the love of a political activist, played by Billy Dee Williams. The film explores themes of ambition, love and the price of success. It also showcases the glamor of the fashion world juxtaposed with the struggles of maintaining personal integrity. Mahogany is notable for Diana Ross’s performance and its examination of the sacrifices one must make in pursuit of their dreams, while also reflecting on themes of identity and social expectations.

11. The Mack (1973)

IMDb: 6.6/10

Rotten Tomatoes: 60%

The Mack (1973), directed by Michael Campus, follows the story of Goldie, portrayed by Max Julien, a hustler who returns to Oakland after a stint in prison and aims to become the city’s top pimp. The film delves into the underworld of pimping and the harsh realities of street life, portraying the glitz and danger inherent in Goldie’s pursuit of power and success in the criminal world. The film also explores themes of loyalty, betrayal and the personal cost of pursuing the American dream in a disadvantaged community with its gritty depiction of the pimping subculture. The Mack became a notable entry in the blaxploitation genre, offering a raw and unflinching look at the complexities and dangers of life on the streets.

10. Foxy Brown (1974)

IMDb: 6.5/10

Rotten Tomatoes: 64%

Next is one of the most well known 70s Black movies. Foxy Brown (1974), directed by Jack Hill and starring Pam Grier in the title role, follows the story of Foxy Brown, a woman seeking vengeance after her boyfriend is murdered by a drug syndicate. Foxy sets out on a mission of retribution after disguising herself to infiltrate the criminal underworld. The film is a quintessential example of the blaxploitation genre, showcasing Grier’s powerful and charismatic portrayal of a strong, independent Black woman taking on corrupt forces. Foxy Brown is known for its action-packed sequences, unapologetic approach to feminist themes and its significant contribution to the representation of Black women in ’70s cinema. It also solidified Pam Grier as an iconic figure in the genre.

9. Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971)

IMDb: 5.5/10

Rotten Tomatoes: 75%

Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971), directed by and starring Melvin Van Peebles, is a seminal film in the history of Black cinema. It tells the story of Sweetback, a Black protagonist who becomes a fugitive after retaliating against police brutality. The film presents a gritty and unflinching portrayal of systemic racism as he escapes through a series of daring encounters. It showcases the harsh realities faced by Black communities. Notably, this film defied conventional narrative structures, employed guerrilla-style filmmaking techniques and boldly challenged societal norms of the time. Its revolutionary nature and unapologetic depiction of Black empowerment made it a cornerstone of independent cinema, shaping discussions on race, activism and artistic expression for years to come.

8. Car Wash (1976)

IMDb: 6.2/10

Rotten Tomatoes: 86%

Car Wash (1976), directed by Michael Schultz, is a lively ensemble comedy that takes place over the course of a day at a Los Angeles car wash. The film follows the eclectic group of employees and customers who interact in this vibrant setting, showcasing their diverse personalities, dreams and struggles. The movie explores themes of friendship, community and the pursuit of aspirations amid the backdrop of a seemingly mundane job through a series of comedic and poignant moments. With its energetic soundtrack and colorful characters, Car Wash became a cultural hit, celebrated for its representation of working-class life and its blend of humor, social commentary and infectious music.

7. Lady Sings the Blues (1972)

IMDb: 7/10

Rotten Tomatoes: 68%

Lady Sings the Blues (1972), directed by Sidney J. Furie, is a biographical drama starring Diana Ross as legendary jazz singer Billie Holiday. The film chronicles Holiday’s tumultuous life, from her troubled upbringing to her rise in the music industry and her struggles with addiction and abusive relationships. Diana Ross’s powerful performance earned her an Academy Award nomination, capturing the essence of Holiday’s soulful singing and capturing the emotional depth of her personal hardships. The movie, while fictionalized in parts, offers a poignant portrayal of Billie Holiday’s indelible mark on music history.  It also highlights the challenges she faced in a racially divided society, making it a compelling tribute to the iconic jazz vocalist.

6. Shaft (1971)

IMDb: 6.6/10

Rotten Tomatoes: 88%

Shaft (1971), directed by Gordon Parks, follows the charismatic and tough private detective John Shaft, played by Richard Roundtree, as he navigates the gritty streets of New York City. The story follows Shaft as he dives into the city’s underworld after being tasked with finding the kidnapped daughter of a prominent mobster, facing danger at every turn. Shaft became a cultural phenomenon known for its iconic theme song by Isaac Hayes and its portrayal of a confident Black protagonist in the midst of the blaxploitation era. The film’s success spawned sequels and a legacy that cemented it as a classic in both Black cinema and the action genre. It is loved for showcasing a strong, independent Black lead in a time when such representation was scarce in Hollywood.

5. The Spook Who Sat by the Door (1973)

IMDb: 7.1/10

Rotten Tomatoes: 75%

The Spook Who Sat by the Door (1973), directed by Ivan Dixon, is a politically charged and provocative film centered on Dan Freeman, the first Black CIA officer, who becomes disillusioned with the agency’s racist policies. After resigning, he returns to Chicago and uses his training to organize and lead a militant movement aimed at empowering Black communities. The movie confronts systemic racism, government oppression and the struggle for Black liberation, exploring themes of resistance, identity and the power dynamics within society. The film faced controversy and was initially pulled from theaters. Despite this, it gained a cult following for its unapologetic portrayal of Black empowerment and activism during a tumultuous period in American history. The film continues to be regarded for its bold commentary on race and politics.

4. Super Fly (1972) 

IMDb: 6.4/10

Rotten Tomatoes: 93%

Super Fly (1972), directed by Gordon Parks Jr., revolves around the life of Youngblood Priest, portrayed by Ron O’Neal, a cocaine dealer in Harlem looking to make one last big score before leaving the drug business for good. Frustrated with the dangers and pitfalls of the drug trade, Priest aims to secure his financial future and escape the cycle of crime. The film delves into the complexities of the drug culture of the era, offering a critical perspective on the societal issues surrounding addiction, poverty and the lure of quick wealth. Its gritty portrayal of urban life, coupled with a compelling soundtrack by Curtis Mayfield, contributed to its significance as a defining work in the blaxploitation genre and as a cultural touchstone of the 1970s.

3. Coffy (1973)

IMDb: 6.8/10

Rotten Tomatoes: 79%

Coffy (1973), directed by Jack Hill and starring Pam Grier in the titular role, follows the story of Coffy, a nurse seeking vengeance against drug dealers who have devastated her community and harmed her sister. Coffy takes matters into her own hands, embarking on a brutal and relentless mission to eliminate those responsible for the drug epidemic. This film is a notable entry in the blaxploitation genre and is celebrated for its portrayal of a strong, empowered Black woman taking control in a male-dominated world of crime and corruption. Pam Grier’s iconic performance and the film’s unapologetic approach to issues of justice, revenge and the societal impact of drugs contributed to its popularity and significance in ’70s cinema.

2. Cooley High (1975)

IMDb: 7.1/10

Rotten Tomatoes: 89%

Cooley High (1975), directed by Michael Schultz, is a coming-of-age film set in 1960s Chicago, focusing on the lives of two high school friends, Preach and Cochise, as they navigate the trials and tribulations of adolescence. The movie captures the essence of friendship, dreams and the challenges faced by inner-city youth. It balances humor and poignant moments while addressing themes of identity, societal expectations and the realities of urban life. Cooley High remains a beloved classic through its authentic portrayal of the characters’ experiences, struggles and aspirations. Its impact is apparent with the way it resonates with audiences for its heartfelt storytelling and its reflection of a particular time and place in American history.

1. Sounder (1972)

IMDb: 7.5/10

Rotten Tomatoes: 91%

Sounder (1972), directed by Martin Ritt, is a moving drama set in the Depression-era South, focusing on the struggles of the Morgan family, particularly their son, David Lee, and their faithful dog, Sounder. When the father, Nathan Lee, is unjustly imprisoned for stealing food, the family is left to fend for themselves. The film chronicles their resilience and the son’s journey to find his father. It showcases themes of love, perseverance and the enduring bond within the family. Sounder is praised for its powerful performances, authentic portrayal of rural life and its exploration of the Black American experience in the face of adversity. It earned multiple Academy Award nominations and became a classic in American cinema.