Okay. So this is going to be highly debated, but the conversation has to be had: what are the top 10 black movie dramas of all-time?
Let’s start off by clarifying that we are strictly going for drama-drama movies. So romance films like Love Jones and Luv & Basketball obviously aren’t in consideration for some of this. We also eliminated sports movies from the conversation, as the real drama of those almost lies within itself—although, we’ll admit that there’s a difference between White Men Can’t Jump, which we didn’t consider, and He Got Game, which we did.
Last but not least, I must admit that when scouring all of time for the best Black drama movies, I unwittingly landed on black movies that were released during my lifetime. But in our analysis, at least when it comes to drama movies, the 70s were full of Blaxploitation films, which I don’t think really stand the test of time outside of maybe Foxy Brown and Shaft. Also among the 1970s black movies was Roots, but that was more a mini-series. Before the 70s, you really just have Carmen Jones, A Raisin in the Sun, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner that still hold up all these years later, but it’s really hard to say that they are movies that were widely watched in the decades since their release.
But these following movies are watched, re-watched, celebrated, borrowed-from and more importantly, are at the center of just about everything we’ve created and done in Black culture over the past 30-40 years. Of course, a lot of Black people will object to having movies that don’t always put Black people in a purely grandiose light, but I have no problem with such movies–when done well and in moderation. While those types of stories aren’t all we’re about as a people, if we don’t tell our story of struggle, who will?
On to the list, which is in chronological order. Maybe we’ll rank these 10 among themselves another day.
The Color Purple (1985)
This was certainly a turning point in Black cinema. At the same time we had the emergence of The Cosby Show and it becoming the #1 television show in America, it would only be a year later that we’d see a dark-skinned woman that wasn’t celebrated for her beauty become the lead of a movie that would go on to gross $142 million at the box office. With Whoopie Goldberg at the lead, the movie was scattered with acting talent that included Danny Glover, Oprah Winfrey and Margaret Avery–the last two which earned Oscar nominations alongside Goldberg. In a story that is full of trials, tribulations and abuse, it’s ultimately a story about the love between black women, two sisters, and their fight for just treatment. This movie was a hard departure from the Blaxploitation movement of the 70s, and because of its success, it’s probably what allows the many Black movies that came after it to forge a new path forward.
Do the Right Thing (1989)
I know there’s some comedy in this movie, but there’s a laugh or two in The Sopranos, but that doesn’t make it a sitcom. Anyway, Do the Right Thing was Spike Lee’s coming out party, and what a party it was. A story about a changing Brooklyn neighborhood and the many characters one comes across in a Black neighborhood cut deep, rang true, and inspired a whirlwind of conversation among Blacks and whites alike. Siskel and Eibert not only named it the best movie of 1989, but the said it was a top 10 movie of the decade–among all movies, not just Black ones. That type of universal praise gets this movie on this list alone, but when you add how Black people felt to see a story they could appreciate, made in a uniquely Black fashion, it just gives credence to how pioneering this Black film was for the advancement of the culture in so many ways.
Boyz n the Hood (1991)
Described in Wikipedia as a “coming of age hood drama”, you could also say it was a coming out party. You essentially had some of the best actors of 90s, and beyond, announcing their arrival on the Hollywood scene, including Cuba Gooding Jr., Morris Chestnut, Laurence Fisburne, Ice Cube, Nia Long, and even Angela Bassett’s small role was the precursor for her in What’s Love Got to Do with It. With that kind of budding star power, you can imagine why this was successful, as we really hadn’t seen that type of thespian talent in a “hood-good” movie up until this movie’s release. And speaking of a coming out party, this was John Singleton’s directorial debut, which he had written all the way back in 1986. Talk about putting your boy on the shelf?
New Jack City (1991)
This might be the most controversial of the movies I’m putting on the list, as it certainly didn’t set out to put Black people fully in the best of lights, and it wasn’t exactly critically received all that well. But what a hell of a movie it was for daring to do the impossible, and achieving it–at least in my mind. In a story about drug lords and dealing crack, particularly coming out of the 80s, it was a tough task trying to feature that a drug king pin while making a statement against drugs. But Mario Van Peebles directed a movie that did just that, with special assistance from Wesley Snipes and Ice-T and Chris Rock, both of which probably put forth their best acting performances of all-time. Everything about this movie was on point, from its cinematography and acting, to the writing and location scouting, as the film basically turned Harlem into a movie set for the ages. And while films like The Color Purple and Do The Right Thing helped put an end to the blaxploitation era, New Jack City brought back the best of what those movies could’ve been if they hadn’t been built entirely by corporate America as a way to placate Black America.
Malcolm X (1992)
Another Spike Lee joint, another great Black movie. I thought about eliminating the Biopic from consideration for dramas given that, in some sense, the drama of such movies is fleeting as we already know the main character’s plight and conclusion. But this was the movie that made such a filter impossible, because how can you tell the story of Black movies without including Malcolm X. First of all, you had Spike Lee in his bag on this one, risking all of the reputation he had built with Do the Right Thing to make a movie that Hollywood essentially wanted nothing to do with. But he went directly to Hollywood, Black Hollywood in particular, and got the big stars of the time to put money on the project so that it could come to be. And second of all…Denzel. The man delivered. I mean, he had always delivered, but with this movie, we know he should’ve won an Oscar. Even though he didn’t, his portrayal of Malcolm X, and Spike’s uniquely Black way of telling that story, was a shock to the system of moviegoers everywhere.
I promise this is the last Black movie, but I must say, it’s hard to have a list of all-time best Black movies and not have the most celebrated Black filmmaker of our time up here a few times. Of his three movies that we are putting in the top 10, Crooklyn is probably the least heralded one–certainly in terms of box office. But it’s also the one that harkens back to a time of yesteryear that isn’t completely Jim Crow (ala The Color Purple), as the movie is about a young family in 1970s Brooklyn going through…well, life. Spike Lee doesn’t really do PG-13 movies, but for this one, about a young, black girl growing up Bed-Stuy, he created a family affair that had a little of The Wonder Years and My Girl all wrapped up in one, semi-autobiographical, Black story. But it was the music that may have been the biggest departure from modern day films, as Spike picked only songs from the 60s and 70s, his childhood, and then featured it on a 2-part album.
Set it Off (1996)
I know this doesn’t make everyone’s list, but the impact of Set It Off is so monumental, I can’t see how we’d leave this movie off the list. Certainly, you could argue it’s less drama and more of an action movie, but the stories in it, although not necessarily relatable to most, were so chilling and sad, that you connected with the fearless foursome in ways that are hard to believe given they were bonafide criminals. One could argue, this was one of the first times in modern film that black women took the role of antihero and were beloved by the audience. Of course, it helped that the women in question are undeniable Black legends. Jada Pinkett, Queen Latifah, Vivica A. Fox and Kimberly Elise starred in this ensemble, each of them bringing passionate performance that allowed us to the beauty in their characters’ sisterhood, even in criminal conditions.
Soul Food (1997)
Vivica A. Fox is going back to back on our list, as she also was a star in Soul Food, which came out just a year later. She had some help, too, though, which included Vanessa Williams, Mekhi Phifer, and Nia Long, who also is among our other top Black drama movies. This movie gave you all the feels coming up in the 90s. It was a story that covered the entire evolution of the modern day black person. You had rich folks and poor folks. You had the newly married and the newly single. You had the healthy and the unhealthy. You had the corporates and the hustlers. And you had the moral and morally corrupt. But whatever you had, you always had Black. Black food. Black weddings. Black funerals. Black business. Black music. And of course, Black families. Crooklyn got on this list largely for its appeal to our childhood sensibilities. Soul Food makes this list because of its appeal to the Black family at a critical, yet hopeful, time in Black America.
Training Day (2001)
Denzel did it again. While he didn’t bring home the Oscar for Malcolm X, so he had to go bad to bring home the Oscar with his performance in Training Day. We can’t leave out a Black movie that delivered the first Best Actor award for a Black man in 38 years, right? In the role of a narcotics officer, Denzel took us into the world of West Coast gangs through the eyes of a compromised cop gone bad. The monologues, diction, emotion and passion this man delivered, scene after scene, were amazing. The entire movie was reminiscent of watching Michael Jordan play in his prime–you were just sitting on the edge of your seat anticipating what was going to happen next. Of course, Antoine Fuqua deserves some love for creating such a dramatic and cinematic film that somehow managed to incorporate Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg into worthwhile appearances of their own.
Have to follow-up one Oscar winning performance with another, right? Jamie Foxx transported into the actor none of us really knew he could be when he played Ray Charles in the eponymous film. The movie took us back to the earliest days of Ray Charles–from a young boy losing his vision to a blind man on top of the world. And while Foxx was perfect for singing aspect of this role, he also crushed the immensely down moments of Ray’s life, allowing us to see two sides of a man that was universally beloved, but clearly was also very troubled beyond his inability to see. I’ll admit that this wasn’t the best critically-reviewed movie, but the folks who loved it, loved it, often leading with the fact that the movie was worth the cost of admission to watch Jamie Foxx go into this acting bag alone.
Get Out (2017)
It’s hard moving all-time classics out of the way, but 13 years after Ray premiered in 2004, it’s Get Out that managed to bump someone out of the top 10 list of all-time Black dramas. Okay, don’t get mad that I’m putting this on the list, as it is obviously a horror movie. However, the incredible creativity of this movie, to speak to so much more than horror, but also race and class, made me realize, made us all realize, that this movie was bigger than your typical horror film. It called out upper-class white people. It called out modern-day slavery. It called out the world’s ignoring of missing Black people. While this list is full of movies that called out society, this movie may have taken more shots than anyone–and it in a seamless fashion. And of course, we can’t ignore the impact this movie has had on the Hollywood landscape ever since. Jordan Peele, the director, has been cranking out amazing horror-comedy-drama films every 2 years. Other black directors have followed suit with movies like Candy Man and shows like Them. And let’s not forget what the movie did for Daniel Kaluuya’s career–who has since gone on to become a bonafide superstar and take home an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.