We can’t get through Black History Month without talking about the significance of Black film and how it has influenced the culture. Oscar Micheaux’s 20th-century race films were made to combat mistrial images of the era. Sir Sidney Poitier reigned in the 1960’s. There was the Blaxploitation era of the ’70s, Black City Cinema of the ‘90s and now there is a current resurgence of Black films. Like the rest of popular culture, Black folks have made their mark in movies. Though there is a vast list of acclaimed Black films, we chose some of the most unforgettable movies to watch during Black History Month.
F. Gary Grey’s feature film debut from the script written by Ice Cube was destined to be a classic. Fresh off his performance in Boyz n the Hood, Cube was clearly ready to write his own stories.
The film’s premise is simple; Craig (Ice Cube) is fired on his day off, and we watch what happens in the aftermath of the fallout. Joined by his homeboy Smokey (Chris Tucker), the men decide to get high and get into more shenanigans. The characters in Friday are what makes it so iconic. From Mrs. Parker to Felicia and obviously the late Bernie Mac’s Pastor Clever — the lines in the flicks are endlessly quotable.
Family and food will always be timeless for Black folk, and George Tillman Jr.’s 1997 flick Soul Food paired both of them together. The Chicago set film follows three grown sisters, Teri (Vanessa L. Williams), Maxine (Vivica A. Fox), and Bird (Nia Long) who are trying to come to grips with the death of their mother Big Mama (Irma P. Hall)
As the matriarch’s death begins to rip the family apart, it’s up to Maxine’s pre-teen son Ahmad (Brandon Hammond) to get the family back together again. We know you remember that scene when Vanessa Williams pulls that knife on her cheating husband.
The story was so dope that it spawned a long-running television series on Showtime.
In the Heat of the Night
Despite the racial politics of the time, Sir Sidney Poitier dominated the box office in the 1960’s, and one of his most memorable films was the 1967 flick, In the Heat of the Night. In the film, Poitier plays a straight-laced detective Virgil Tibbs, who heads to the South to help catch a murderer.
Obviously, the good ole boys don’t take too kindly to his presence. The film pretty much goes as one would expect for Hollywood during that time period except for the fact that Poitier slaps the sh*t out of the racist white sheriff. It was the first time a Black person had ever hit a white person in the movies.
Spike Lee has a lot of fantastic films, but Crooklyn— the film that was written by his sister Joi Lee is often forgotten about. It’s a shame because it’s one of his most compelling. Set in Brooklyn in the 1970’s, the outstanding film follows Troy (Zelda Harris), the only girl of the rambunctious Carmichael family who must deal with her brothers’ antics, and her parents’ (played by Delroy Lindo and Alfre Woodard) often strained marriage.
As summer looms, Troy’s life is reshaped in a way that she never expected. From the iconic soundtrack, a memorable appearance by RuPaul, and a young Isaiah Washington Lee’s semi-biographical film is one of his best.
Boyz n the Hood
If you can’t close your eyes and see Morris Chestnut running for his life as Ricky, then you don’t know films. John Singleton’s directorial debut Boyz n the Hood made him the youngest and first Black director to be nominated for an Academy Award for Directing.
The film focuses on Tre Styles (Cuba Gooding Jr.), a kid living with his father (Lawrence Fishburne) in crime-riddled South Central LA. Tre’s life begins to unravel as the violence in his neighborhood grows. He along with his good friend Ricky (Chestnut) –a talented football player and Ricky’s half-brother the criminally minded Doughboy (Ice Cube) get caught up on in the chaos and violence in the worst ways.
The film kicked off the hood-homebody genre that would birth, New Jack City, Menace II Society, Juice, and many others.
From Larenz Tate’s sultry “Brother to the Night” performance to the cheese omelets, Ted Witcher’s Chicago set 1997 flick Love Jones is an indie classic. Starring Nia Long as Nina Mosely and Tate as Darius Lovehall, Love Jones captured the build up and implosion of a sexy situationship. (We’ve all been there.)
Remember that cab scene when Nina and her homegirl Josie (Lisa Nicole Carson) were talking about sex? YASSSS.
Isaiah Washington and Bill Bellamy also make appearances. Love Jones just turned 20, but it’s as timeless as ever.
Dee Rees redefined the coming-of-age story with her stellar 2011 film Pariah. The movie follows 17-year-old Alike (Adepero Oduye) who is coming to grips with her sexuality in the midst of her parents’ tumultuous marriage and her mother’s (Kim Wayans) fear-based Christianity.
Often a difficult film to watch, especially in those gripping scenes with Kim Wayans, Rees confronted twenty-first-century teenhood and homophobia in the Black community. This exceptional first feature helped pave the way for Bessie and most recently, Mudbound.
“Memory is the selection of images, some elusive; others printed indelibly on the brain. The summer I killed my father, I was 10 years old.” The opening line of Eve’s Bayou sets the tone for the movie.
Hollywood has never been afraid to tackle stories that examine young Black boys during their transition from childhood to adulthood, but Black girls have often been ignored. Kasi Lemmons changed that with her gorgeous 1960s set film, Eve’s Bayou. In the movie, 10-year old Eve Baptiste (Jurnee Smollett) recounts the summer her father (Samuel L. Jackson) was killed.
With Lynn Whitfield, Meagan Good, and Debbi Morgan also starring, Lemmons paints a tapestry of black female childhood.
Spike Lee’s most significant directorial feat to date was his stellar biopic Malcolm X. Based on Alex Haley’s The Autobiography of Malcolm X the film stars Denzel Washington in the titular role as the magnetic and legendary Civil Rights icon.
The movie begins with Malcolm Little, a petty criminal and follows his imprisonment, conversation to Isalm, and his rise through the ranks of the Nation of Islam.
A thorough and outstanding film, Lee made sure we would never forget the magnitude of Malcolm X.
Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song
Melvin Van Peebles birthed Blaxpotation with his 1971 flick Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. It shook Hollywood to its core, redefined what Black folks could do in the film, and ushered in the likes of Super Fly and Cleopatra Jones. Van Peebles stars in the film as Sweetback — a pimp who goes on the run after killing two white cops for beating up an innocent Black man.
The film was as appalling as it was legendary, and the fact that Sweetback got away with murder makes the film memorable.
Do the Right Thing
Spike Lee’s 1989 feature, Do The Right Thing brought modern-day racism to the forefront of popular culture and stunned everyone while doing so. The film which is set in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn on the hottest day of the year follows Mookie (Lee), a pizza delivery man who decides to do something when he notices his employer Saul’s Pizzeria – though situated in a Black neighborhood — has failed to include any Black folks on their “Wall of Fame.”
Things swiftly come to a head, dissolving in a riot and the murder of the hood’s fly guy, Radio Raheem at the hands of the police. Though it’s been nearly 30 years since Do the Right Thing was released, it’s never been more important.
The Five Heartbeats
There is The Temptations, and then there is Robert Townsend’s The Five Heartbeats. For us, The Five Heartbeats is the film we always remember. The story follows a fictional R&B/Soul group, who rise to the spotlight in the 1960’s and eventually imploded due to fame, arrogance, and inner turmoil.
The film stars Townsend as Donald “Duck” Matthews, Leon as J.T, Harry J. Lennix as Terrence “Dresser” Williams, Tico Wells as Anthony “Choir Boy” Williams, and Michael Wright as frontman, Eddie King, Jr. The movie’s most memorable scene will always be that singing competition when the group blows their rivals, Bird and the Midnight Falcons out of the water.
In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, Eddie Murphy dominated the box office. Directed by Reginald Hudlin, Murphy’s Boomerang was a fantastic window into the male and female psyches – it was also a lesson on karma which may of us still hasn’t grasped yet. In the film, Murphy played the arrogant Marcus Graham who falls for his boss, the gorgeous and ferocious Jacqueline (Robin Givens). After dogging women out for years, Jacqueline gives Marcus a taste of his own medicine. To say that he was shook would be an understatement.
With an amazing soundtrack, one of Halle Berry’s earlier appearances, and Grace Jones and the temperamental supermodel Strangé, Boomerang will always be iconic.
That Strangé perfume commercial is still embedded in our collective memories.
If a film can have students flocking to Historically Black Colleges and Universities, you know it’s saying something profound. Spike Lee’s 1988 joint School Daze was impactful and intense –highlighting what it means to be young, Black and gifted in the late ‘80s. At a time when colorism was at the forefront of the Black community, and South Africa was still tangled in apartheid, many young people were trying to figure out where they fit in the world.
A timeless look at HBCUs, Lee was careful to also put his own spin on things with his iconic dolly shots, a dope musical number and some sensational performances from the likes of Laurence Fishburne and Tisha Campbell.
Love & Basketball
Titanic is dope and whatever, but there is no current love story in Black cinema more timeless than Gina Prince-Bythewood’s 2000 film Love & Basketball. Starring Sanaa Lathan as Monica Wright and Omar Epps as Quincy McCall, the film is a legendary work on love, dreams, and how gender roles and expectations can hold us back.
Gabrielle Union, Regina Hall, Dennis Haysbert, Debbi Morgan, and the stellar Alfre Woodard also make fantastic appearances. We can’t even begin to praise the fantastic soundtrack enough. That prom night scene with Maxwell’s “A Woman’s Work” in the background was absolute perfection. (We should see the brown sex more in movies.)
What’s Love Got To Do With It?
The fact that Angela Bassett didn’t win an Oscar for her performance as the iconic Tina Turner makes us want to fight the air!! Inspired by the singer’s book, Tina, What’s Love Got to Do With It? Bassett became the legendary songstress while Lawrence Fishburne gave an incredible and terrifying performance as the sinister Ike Turner.
From the costumes to the music, and who can forget that limo scene where the couple proceeds to beat the dog crap out of each other? Every time What’s Love Got to Do With It? is on TV; we stop everything to watch it.
(FYI: This is where “Eat the cake Anna Mae” comes from.)
New Jack City
Weasly Snipes draped in all black as Nino Brown is all we need on a cold February day. Mario Van Peebles followed in his father’s footsteps but created a classic on his own with the ’91 gangster flick New Jack City.
Set in the ‘80s, the film followed crack kingpin Brown and his crew. It also boasted an early performance from the legend that we now know as Chris Rock. We know you remember when Nino picked up that little girl and used her body to shield himself from a spray of bullets, and what about pre- Law and Order: SVU Ice-T as police officer Scotty Appleton?
Coming to America
There is not another Eddie Murphy film as classic as Coming to America (which is why we don’t need a sequel). Written by the former SNL star, Coming to America is a masterpiece that follows Prince Akeem (Murphy) and his best friend Semmi (Arsenio Hall). With his impending wedding to a woman he doesn’t know or find very interesting in his kingdom of Zamunda, Prince Akeem sets off to Queens, New York to find his true queen.
Though he eventually gets his lady love, Prince Akeem’s journey is the stuff of legends. Trying to fit in with the regular folk, Akeem gets a job at McDowell’s (a bootleg McDonald’s) and falls for Lisa (Shari Headley), the eldest daughter of John Amos, the restaurant’s owner. Unfortunately, Lisa’s affections seem to still lie with her jerry curl wearing beau Darryl (Eriq La Salle), whose family owns the curl activator company, Soul Glo.
From the multiple characters that Murphy and Hall play to the bellowing of “She’s Your Queen to Be,” Coming to America is as perfect today as it was when it originally premiered.
Aramide A Tinubu is a film critic and entertainment writer. As a journalist, her work has been published in EBONY, JET, ESSENCE, Bustle, The Daily Mail, IndieWire and Blavity. She wrote her Master’s thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can find her reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, read her blog at: www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami