Real talk. Pinning down classic Black TV shows and movies that are unique and specific to Gen Z is difficult. It’s complex for a variety of reasons. For starters, how are we defining a Black classic? And how are we defining a Black classic that is specific to Gen Z? There’s a whole canon of Black television and cinema, of Black popular culture at large, that we’re pretty familiar with. On the television side of things, we’ve got A Different World, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Living Single, Sister Sister, Girlfriends. In Black film canon includes Boyz n Tha Hood, Do The Right Thing, Waiting to Exhale, Love Jones, Love and Basketball, Friday, Set It Off…the list goes on and on and on.
While moving images of Black people and our stories are vast, wide-reaching, and constantly contested, I would argue that many of these movies and television shows would fall under a category of Black classics that really everyone should watch, or binge, at least once at some point in their life to understand how we get our Atlantas, Insecures, Moonlights, and the list goes on and on, of today. They are both classic and iconic. However, a discussion of classic Black TV shows and movies that Gen Z can lay claim to in particular is a rather different phenomenon.
I define classic Black TV shows or movies as films or television that not only could Generation Z, born in the late 90s to the early 2010s, watch as new episodes or premieres, but as films and shows that have shaped our pop-cultural landscape, frames of references, memes, and TikTok recreations as some of us start to grow into, or just out of adolescence.
Many Black Gen Zers mostly likely have seen the iconic Black sitcoms and movies that definitely shaped millennial audiences and creators such as Issa Rae, Justin Simien, and Lena Waithe, but those classics trickled down to Gen Zers as reruns on Nick at Nite or as a bevy of content dropped onto streaming platforms to be binged. We watch and consume those in retrospect, never having been of the time or place in which those classics existed.
Personally, I claim Girlfriends as my story if only to the extent that I picked up a vague sense that the show represented an ideal of Black womanhood and friendship that I couldn’t fully understand peering behind the couch as my mother watched. In reality, when a lot of these shows and films came out, I along with my fellow Gen Zers weren’t even a twinkle in our daddies’ eye.
Keep in mind also that Gen Z came up in the shadow of a golden era for Black sitcoms in the 90’s and under the guise of a “post-racial” society during the Obama years, which meant that there was a dearth of shows created for Black youth with a majority Black cast and creators.
Still, we made an earnest attempt to identify a top five list of classics for Black Gen Zers, a generation that’s still being shaped as the media landscape shifts and evolves day by day.
Gen Z’s Top 5 Classic Black TV Shows & Movies
#1 That’s So Raven (2003-2007)
This Disney Channel original series in which Raven Symone (also a veteran of The Cosby Show, whose spot on the classic sitcom list has been tainted by the egregious crimes committed by its creator) plays Raven Baxter, a Black teenage girl living in San Francisco who is gifted with the power to see the future. Folks, do not underestimate the genius of this children’s show! I’d go as far as to say Raven Symone was giving us Lucille Ball-level screwball physical comedy, silly disguises, and that signature catchphrase “Oh, snap!”
#2. Let It Shine (2012)
Another Disney Channel original? Are we noticing a pattern here? In all fairness, Disney Channel continues to have a chokehold on Gen Z. Just take a look at TikTok, where we are imitating and deconstructing all those Disney channel tropes. In Let It Shine, Tyler James Williams (of Everybody Hates Chris fame – another classic Black sitcom) is a teenage boy, Cyrus, who hides his passion for rapping from his conservative pastor father. This Disney movie has Black church scenes in it – how much Blacker could it get? In the film, Cyrus lets his best friend, Kris (Trevor), use his raps to woo a young teen star, Roxie (Coco Jones), and then he starts to fall in love with her. It’s a Black musical drama for the ages–or at least for those of the Generation age!
#3. Akeelah and the Bee (2006)
As my younger brother stated, “Whose teacher didn’t put this one on in class?” You remember those days close to a holiday break, when the teacher was just as over it as the students were, so they just put on a movie. Akeelah and the Bee is one of those movies, but it’s also a riveting and heartwarming film about a little Black girl in South LA with a talent for spelling. With the help of her community and an older teacher, her goals are brought within reach. It stars Keke Palmer (a millennial technically, but we’ll let it slide), Angela Bassett, and Lawrence Fishburne – instant Black classic status!
#4. Dear White People (2017)
Hear me out, y’all! I know the final season was a lil’ iffy; however, I would be remiss not to claim Dear White People as a Black series that didn’t specifically touch Gen Z. As a generation, we’re described as digital natives who’ve grown up with the internet and social media. We’ve also come of age in the era of streaming, and it can be argued that Dear White People would not exist without the special conditions and time in which it was made, an era of Black renaissance in television that started to look like the golden era of the ’90s, but with a twist that is bolder and more satirical. As a series set in a predominantly white university that explicitly tackled issues of race, identity, police brutality, and activism and challenged the “post-raciality” of the Obama era, the show particularly resonated with Gen Z. We are a generation that, with information and a multitude of opinions at their fingertips, had been politically galvanized and pushed into social-consciousness, even if misguided, misinformed, or overzealous at times. Nevertheless, I think it can be said that Dear White People, its characters, unique visual and narrative style, and voice left its impact on Gen Z. It got us talking and it created new expectations for what we wanted and got from shows regarding representation and themes.
#5. Get Out (2017)
Now, this one might start a debate because Jordan Peele’s directorial debut, Get Out, marked a significant turning point for what horror could do for Black cinema. With the momentous critical and popular success of Get Out, Peele ignited audiences’ demands for what he termed social thrillers, which to be honest itself is nothing new. Horror as a genre has always had the ability to serve as a commentary on race relations, oppression, and societal trauma. I do, however, credit Peele with reinvigorating the genre’s potential to do exactly that. I’m categorizing this as a new Black classic that Gen Z can claim, not as our own necessarily, but to be able to say we were there when Get Out was what everyone was talking about, and to see its ripple effect in the industry (looking at you, Candyman sequel/reboot). We were there when it made history when Peele was the first African American to win in the best original screenplay category at the Oscars.
There’s no doubt that this list isn’t exhaustive, but it is a starting point. The fact of the matter is Black millennials are still running the show in Hollywood. They’ve had more time to create and to consume. They’ve also carved out an easier path for future Black Gen Z producers, showrunners, directors, and screenwriters to come up behind them. In this renaissance of Black television and film, I believe we have yet to see what cinematic and televisual classics Gen Z has to offer or to even see how what’s currently on our screens will shape our tastes, and what will come to replace the Disney channel for our nostalgia.
To react to the author, feel free to reach out to her on Twitter @madityler070.
And looking to establish some new classics? Check out BlackOakTV’s new series and shows, full of the black influencers and actors Gen Z is discovering every day on YouTube, TikTok, and Instagram. Watch BlackOakTV now!