Top 10 Classic Black Movies Everyone Should See at Least Once

Actresses portraying classic black movies

Black movies include a rich heritage of storytelling, highlighting generations of culture, struggle, resilience, and joy. Classic black films are a critical part of society. Through entertainment, these movies provide a window into the nuanced experiences of black history and life. In this blog post, Black Content Review will share classic black movies. We think everyone, black or not, should see these movies at least once.

Black Cinema: A Little History

Black Americans are no strangers to resilience, perseverance, and creativity. Black cinema is no different. Black movies emerged in the 20th century with limited reach—referred to as “race films,” catering to Black audiences due to segregation and limited resources.

The Blaxploitation era of the 1970s brought us controversial films like Shaft, Superfly, and Foxy Brown. In the 1970s, the entertainment industry exploited the mass appeal of black films meant for black audiences that reached a diverse audience with an overwhelmingly positive response. Although controversial, the Blaxploitation era increased the visibility of black actors and iconic characters. The 1980s and 1990s introduced films addressing complex racial issues head-on through an influx of black directors like Spike Lee and John Singleton. Today, Black storytelling is becoming an accepted and celebrated form of movie-making.

What Makes a Movie a Classic?

No standard definition of what makes a movie a classic exists, but a few common elements exist in all classic films. Classic movies typically have some emotional resonance lasting long after viewing and are considered cinematically important. Ultimately, the viewers determine which movies are considered classics, and our designation of classic movies may evolve over time.

Top 10 Classic Black Movies Everyone Should See

“Carmen Jones” (1954)

“Carmen Jones” is a sultry adaptation of the opera about doomed love. It stars Dorothy Dandridge, who was nominated for an Oscar for her performance, and features an all-black cast. The story, as told through a black cast, stands the test of time and was recently reintroduced on Broadway.

“Imitation of Life” (1959)

A heartrending story about race and motherhood: “Imitation of Life” tackles complex identity issues involving passing as white. This is an unforgettable classic starring Lana Turner and Juanita Moore. This cast is not all-black but addresses issues ahead of its time (1959) about navigating single motherhood, being black in a white society, and mother-daughter relationships.

“The Color Purple” (1985)

“The Color Purple” is an undeniable classic that changed movies in America with its all-star cast full of famous black actors. “The Color Purple” features Oprah Winfrey’s debut film performance in a story that dives deep into the struggles and triumphs of black women. It is based on the classic novel of the same name by Alice Walker.

“Boyz in the Hood” (1991)

Painting a raw picture of life in South Central L.A., “Boyz in the Hood” explores gang violence, family relationships, and black life. Instead of addressing these issues with harsh cynicism, John Singleton uses idealism and humanity shared through intelligent, powerful performances by a cast of black actors, including Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburn.

“Menace II Society” (1993)

Famously known as the movie Tupac Shakur was almost in, “Menace II Society” remains a classic today for its gritty portrayal of life in Watts, LA. Exploring crime and its consequences in a tumultuous time of urban survival.

“Malcolm X” (1992)

Denzel Washington portrays Malcolm X in this biographical classic film based on the autobiography of the influential leader. “Malcolm X” was directed by Spike Lee and covers most of Malcolm X’s life, from his time as a gangster to his religious conversion and time as a Black Nationalist Leader.

“Baby Boy” (2001)

A coming-of-age story follows a young man named Jody, played by R&B singer Tyrese Gibson. The story is set in South Central LA. It follows this twenty-something young man navigating adulthood, fathering multiple children, and many other black social, sexual, and racial identity issues. Filmmaker John Singleton takes a compassionate look at very real-life circumstances.

“Pursuit of Happyness” (2006)

Based on the autobiography of the same name, “Pursuit of Happyness” is an autobiographical account of Chris Gardner’s life. It is based on his best-selling memoir telling his life story, coming from tragedy and then rising to become a highly successful American businessman and motivational speaker. Will Smith plays Gardner in an inspiring performance about perseverance.

“12 Years a Slave” (2013)

“12 Years a Slave” is a culturally significant film openly portraying aspects of slavery through African-American slave narration. The movie marks a social shift in current times where many Americans of various races accept honest depictions of slavery in America. The film follows Solomon Northup confronting the brutal realities of his life and shedding light on the resilience of the human spirit when facing unimaginable adversities.

“Moonlight” (2016)

“Moonlight” is a black classic set in the 1980. The movie is an adaptation of an autobiographical play about a gay black man. Giving audiences a powerful look into black male identity, sexuality, and masculinity. It is a contemporary classic paving the way for more black LGBTQ+ people in entertainment as actors and consumers.

Honorable Mention: More Classic Black Movies

There are hundreds of black movies today worth mentioning, capturing Black voices and perspectives from romantic dramas and comedies to tales of resilience.

Here are a few more we wanted to mention as we discuss classic Black movies everyone should see:

  • “Get Out” (2017); Genre: Psychological Thriller
  • “Love & Basketball” (2000); Genre: Love Story
  • “Black Panther” (2018); Genre: action, adventure
  • “What’s Love Got to Do with It” (1993); Genre: biographical, drama
  • “Waiting to Exhale” (1995); Genre: drama
  • “American Gangster” (2007); Genre: drama
  • “House Party” (1990); Genre: comedy

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