If you are Black, or just a lover of Black cinema, then the Black movies of the 80s ought to represent something special to you. The 1980’s decade was a rebirth for black filmmakers and film lovers alike, as the 1970’s largely introduced the blaxploitation genre, which while positive in some aspects, was fraught with societal and economic issues that didn’t exactly favor Black Americans.
But when the Black movies of the 80s arrived, it brought with it a new breed of Black filmmaker that was set out to make up for a somewhat lost decade of Black film. So we want to revisit some of the 80s Black movies that helped usher in a new day in Black cinema. Here are THE Black movies 80s style:
(1982), Eddie Murphy – Murphy was nearing the end of his magical stint on Saturday Night Live when “48 Hrs.” hit theaters during the Christmas season of 1982, and once it opened to record-breaking success, it was clear that Murphy’s time on SNL was all but assured to come to an end. The movie featured Eddie Murphy as a fast-talking, recently released convict who was teamed up with a mediocre cop (played by Nick Nolte). The two go on a 48-hour mission to avenge recently killed cops. The movie is marked by the incredible chemistry between the two, especially at racially aware time in America, where having a white and Black buddy-cop wasn’t the norm, despite its success way back in the 1960s with Bill Cosby’s “I Spy”. Ultimately, the movie is remembered for just how well it was able to mix action with comedy, something that would become a mark of a spry, physically fit, Eddie Murphy for years to come.
(1983), Eddie Murphy – It didn’t take long for Murphy to get back on the success train, and did the immediate year after “48 Hrs.” with a starring Role in “Trading Places”, one the most consequential movies of our times. Here, Eddie stars alongside Dan Akroid and Jamie Lee Curtis, posing as an out-of-luck man on the street, who on a whim, is tapped to become a real player on Wall Street by a couple of elderly financial types. As you can see, the theme of “down on his luck” Black guy teaming up with “knocked off his perch” white guy, is yet again the theme of an Eddie Murphy—another element that would become a large part of the amazing actors career, as it was often that element that helped draw out white audiences and build the allure that is Murphy.
(1984), Prince – Finally, a movie that Eddie Murphy wasn’t in—although, he did attend the premiere. But that’s about all it had in common with Murphy, as the musical drama film was definitely a unique fixture of 80s Black movies. This movie marked Prince’s acting debut, and he essentially played himself in a semi-autobiographical plot about coming up as a singer in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Throughout the plot, you’ll see Prince battle his demons, deal with an up-and-down household, and find himself in the music he creates. We also see Prince intertwined with a love interest, who goes by the now made infamous name of Apollonia. Naturally, the movie serves as a concert for Prince’s own musical works, including “When Doves Cry, “Let’s Go Crazy”, and of course, the eponymous, “Purple Rain”.
The Color Purple
(1985), Whoopi Goldberg – If “Purple Rain” was the Black movie from the 80s that brought us the music and Prince, then “The Color Purple” was the movie from the decade that brought us the drama and Whoopi Goldberg. For the uninitiated, “The Color Purple” tells the story of a sexually, emotionally and physically abused teenage girl who has been separated from her children, held hostage by her abusive father, and forced to live a life of destitute—until she fights back. I’ll leave the rest for you to see, but don’t write this off as just another dark story about Black trauma. It’s more so a story about hope, resilience and love, and it’s that interweaving of it all that led to the movie’s winning of two Golden Globe Awards.
(1985), Richard Pryor – This was just one of those quintessential movies of the 80s that was funny, full of morals, and ends on a high note. It was actually kind of rare for a movie of that sort to be led by a Black comedian like Richard Pryor, but so it was, and it probably was the beginning of the long arc of Black actors in Hollywood getting do more than just sell on Black trauma. The movie follows Monty Brewster, a minor league baseball player, who suddenly inherits $300 million, but only if he can spend $30 million, in 30 days, without acquiring any assets. Now, that might not be as “easy” as it is in 2023 when you find a cup of coffee for $12 in New York City, but in 1985? Spending $30 million would’ve gotten you an NBA franchise (seriously, the Celtics were purchased for $3.5 million in 1980, and the Miami Heat for $32 million in 1989). As you can imagine, this “catch” led to some pretty hilarious, and extravagant, scenes. And there was no better fit to deliver on the comedic promise of that than Richard Pryor.
She’s Gotta Have It
(1986), Tracy Camilla Johns – By no means was “She’s Gotta Have It’ this huge commercial success, as it only made $7 million in the box office when it came out. However, it was the opening calling card for Spike Lee, and an introduction to a filmmaking style that was unapologetically Black. As you can imagine a Spike Lee joint does, the film is set in Brooklyn, and it’s about Nola, a woman who is the embodiment of the sexual revolution, but for Black women, as she simultaneously deals with the three Black men that she is dating. This was the opening salvo for Lee, who let us know that he was not afraid to break cinematic boundaries, take issue with certain stereotypes, and speak to his audience—the Black audience. There may have been more widely viewed Black movies in the 80s, but there was nothing more seminal than this one, as it not only challenged societal norms, but it birthed perhaps the most important filmmaker of our time.
Beverly Hills Cop II
(1987), Eddie Murphy – Okay, so I didn’t include “Beverly Hill Cop I” in this list, not because it isn’t deserving, but because it probably only makes sense to include one of the two movies that came out in the 1980s (a third also came out in the 90’s), and in my humble and personal opinion, I think the sequel was much better than the original. Now stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but in this movie, Eddie Murphy plays a witty and stubborn hero who is paired up with out-of-step cops, and eventually, they bond and work together to solve a crime. Yeah, not too different a plot from either “48 Hours”, but when it’s Eddie Murphy, you can trust you’re always going to get something a little bit different. As you would expect, he’s absolutely hilarious in this film and is just about the only Black guy in it, but a Black movie it remains nonetheless, as the witty and cutting remarks and jabs Murphy spits out, minute after minute, sound all too much like the same stuff I hear at the family reunion spades game.
Coming to America
(1988), Eddie Murphy – If “The Color Purple” was the defining Black drama movie of the 1980s, it’s my belief that “Coming to America” was the defining comedy of the decade. Up until now, we really only had seen Eddie Murphy in settings where he was surrounded by white People. Whether it was “48 Hours”, “Trading Places” or “Beverly Hills Cop”, Murphy’s characters weren’t really about the Black experience—the experience he had worked so hard to poke fun at and explore while at Saturday Night Live and in his standup routines, like “Delirious”. But with the plot centered around a young, African male moving to Queens, New York City, we finally got to see Eddie in the environment that birthed him. Yes, he played an African prince, but he also played a basement dwelling barber and over exuberant singer (Sexual Chocolate!). Perhaps even more importantly, Murphy’s castmates brought us some of the most hilarious movie moments of the decade, as Black acting legends like Paul Bates, James Earl Jones, Madge Sinclair, Vanessa Bell Calloway, John Amos, Eriq La Salle, and of course, Arsenio Hall, delivered amazing comedic performances. And if you look real closely, you can also see some young upstarts in the film, like a young Cuba Gooding Jr., Samuel L. Jackson, and Garcelle Beauvais.
(1988), Larry Fishburne – Spike Lee’s ‘School Daze’ is a vibrant, musical exploration of Black life and racial identity set against the backdrop of a historically Black college. The film, led by Larry Fishburne, delves into the nuances of African-American culture, tackling issues like colorism, hair texture bias, and fraternity/sorority life. The story centers on Dap Dunlap (Fishburne), a politically conscious student who challenges the school’s administration and social norms. ‘School Daze’ is a bold, unapologetic display of Black collegiate life, highlighting the diversity within the Black community and the ongoing struggle for self-identity. Its impactful narrative and lively musical numbers make it a memorable addition to the canon of 80s Black cinema.
I’m Gonna Git You Sucka
(1988), Keenen Ivory Wayans – The late 80’s action comedy film marked the directorial debut of Keenen Ivory Wayans, who also stars in this vibrant spoof of the Blaxploitation genre of the 1970s that I spoke of earlier. The movie, featuring a cast of Black cinema legends like Bernie Casey, Isaac Hayes, and Jim Brown, follows Jack Spade (Wayans) as he returns home from the army to find his brother dead from an “OG” – over-gold – the result of wearing too many gold chains. In his quest for revenge against Mr. Big, the local crime lord, Jack assembles a team of retired Black action heroes, leading to a series of hilarious and exaggerated encounters that parody classic Blaxploitation tropes. The film cleverly combines humor with social commentary, poking fun at the genre’s clichés while also paying homage to its cultural impact. “I’m Gonna Git You Sucka” is not just a comedic endeavor; it’s a witty, nostalgic nod to an era in Black cinema, filled with slapstick comedy, satirical undertones, and an affectionate look at the genre that, for all its issues, shaped a generation.
Lean on Me
(1989), Morgan Freeman – In 1989, Morgan Freeman took on the role of Joe Clark in ‘Lean on Me,’ a film based on the true story of a controversial high school principal in New Jersey. This gripping drama showcases Freeman’s powerful performance as Clark, who employs unconventional and strict methods to improve the declining Eastside High School. The movie is a stirring depiction of educational challenges in urban America, highlighting issues of discipline, respect, and the power of tough love. Freeman’s portrayal of Clark, a man both feared and respected, drives the narrative, offering a nuanced look at the complexities of educational leadership and reform in underprivileged communities.
Do the Right Thing
(1989), Spike Lee – With no offense to the other films, we may have saved the best for last, as it’s possible that Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” is one of the best movies of all-time, white or Black, 80s, 90s or into the ever distant future. The movie was so well written, tackling local issues, national issues, racial issues and gender issues—all with an unforced ease that almost no other filmmaker has been able to accomplish in the years since. The plot focuses on Lee’s character, Mookie, who gets into it with his pizzeria boss over issues involving race. That issue balloons into many others, and the entirety of the Bed-Stuy neighborhood it takes place in ends up rallying around a tumultuous and despairing climax that is result of the many trials and tribulations bubbling up, so seamlessly, throughout the entirety of the movie. This movie was truly a defining moment. Yes, it became the calling card for Spike Lee, who proved he was going to be the boldest filmmaker of his time, unafraid to speak truth to power, while probably breaking most of the norms taught to him while at New York Film School. However, it was also a defining moment for society, who when faced with the audacity of this movie both turned away from it (snubbing it at Canne and the Academy Awards), while also turning a blind eye to the issues it spoke to by unfairly reviewing it as an overdone, violence-inducing, oversimplifying, stereotypical Black movie. They often overlooked the artistic and social merits of Spike Lee’s seminal work, and failed to celebrate it for the artistic innovation and cultural significance it clearly had delivered. Time has somewhat healed all wounds though, as “Do the Right Thing” is now widely and historically considered one of American cinemas landmark films and a pivotal inflection point for the direction of Black cinema and Hollywood as a whole.
Black Movies of the 80s, Honorable Mentions:
- “Hollywood Shuffle”, (1987), Robert Townsend
- “Glory”, (1989), Matthew Broderick
- “Harlem Nights”, (1989), Eddie Murphy
A Taste of Black Movies…80s Style – While the Black movies of the 80s certainly brought with a sea change in the way Black movies were made and viewed, it wasn’t perfect. There was still a lack of women on and behind the screen in important roles. Most of the movies we’ve mentioned failed to compete with the contemporaries at the box office in terms of their ability to generate ticket sales. And even the financing of these movies was often fraught with issues, with many of the Black filmmakers having to find funding outside of the traditional Hollywood ecosystem.
Nevertheless, the 80s helped push the Black movie, and really all Black entertainment forward. As a result, we saw 90s Black movies take it to the next level, with a more diverse set of stories being told, ones that involved many more female faces, as well as a more hopeful tone with genres like romance and family being explored. And on the TV side of things, we already know that the 90s were possibly the greatest decade on record for quality Black programming—oftentimes led by the creatives that got their starts in some of the 80s movies we just mentioned.
This all of course transcends into something like this blog, Black Content Review, being able to exist, along with our parent company, BlackOakTV, being able to create and distribute Black TV shows and movies to the entirety of Black viewers across the world. So let’s be sure not to forget these gems that took us out of the era of Blaxploitation and into a decades-long run of advancing Black narratives—even if we still have a long way to go!