Like books and music, few things in this world can make us lose ourselves quite like good films. They make us laugh, cry, discover our history, and even shape our identities. We're celebrating Black History Month by taking a look at 25 memorable films (in no particular order) that brilliantly capture the Black experience. Enjoy!
"Malcolm X" (1992)
"When it was released in ’92, Spike Lee’s Malcolm X was not only a movie but a movement. Suddenly kids in the neighborhood were proudly wearing baseball caps and sweatshirts emblazoned with that giant “X,” and Alex Haley’s 1965 biography, upon which the film is based, became a must-read. Because finally, we saw the celebration of a civil rights hero different from the ones we learned about in school — an icon who, as played by Denzel Washington in an Oscar-worthy performance, was fiery, fearless and free-thinking." —Dawnie Walton, Managing Editor, ESSENCE.com
"What's Love Got to Do With It?" (1993)
“Angela Bassett channeled Tina Turner in the role of a lifetime. Classic storytelling, amazing performances, and Angela's arms.” —Emil Wilbekin, Editor-at-Large, ESSENCE
'12 Years a Slave'
Though this Oscar contender revolved around the kidnapping of Solomon Northup, the women of 12 Years tell a chilling story of Black women coped with the horror of slavery.
Photo by Fox Searchlight
"The Color Purple" (1985)
“The acting in this film is so powerful, dramatic and rich that I can watch it over and over again and see something new. It's the personification of a Black narrative and is a classic.” —Emil Wilbekin, Editor-at-Large, ESSENCE
'Lady Sings the Blues'
Diana Ross does an impeccable job playing jazz singer Billie Holiday in this 1972 biopic.
"Carmen Jones" (1954)
“It’s vintage Harry Belafonte, and the chemistry with Dorothy Dandridge was dripping with sizzle and seduction. Dandridge also became the first Black women to be nominated for an Oscar for Best Actress.” —Wendy Wilson, News Editor, ESSENCE
"Waiting to Exhale" (1995)
“Yes, Black women date and have sex on our terms! From abortion to sleeping with another woman's husband, this classic didn't shy away from the real-life drama that comes along with falling in love. I am thankful this film showed Black professional women to the world, owning our bodies and the beautiful bonds inside our sisterhood. And I still jam hard to this soundtrack. Brandy better do 'Sittin' Up in My Room' at ESSENCE Festival!” —Charreah Jackson, Relationships Editor, ESSENCE
"Daughters of the Dust" (1991)
“I've never seen another movie like it. It's a uniquely African and African-American story, but also a universal one at the same time. It's the lyrical story of a Gullah family on St. Helena Island on the eve of their move to the mainland (United States/South Carolina). The visuals are stunning, the acting is great, and the story is just original. To boot, the filmmaker Julie Dash was the first Black woman to have her feature film (this one) distributed theatrically nationwide. The Library of Congress selected the film for the National Film Registry." —Akkida McDowell, Deputy Research Editor, ESSENCE
'Beasts of the Southern Wild'
Quvenzhané Wallis made her debut in this indie fantasy drama playing Hushpuppy, a feisty 6-year-old heroine who lives with her father Wink on the fringes of the Louisiana Bayou.
“Seeing Diana Ross transform from aspiring fashion designer to supermodel with the backdrop of a love affair with Billy Dee Williams is fabulous, dramatic and romantic.” —Emil Wilbekin, Editor-at-Large, ESSENCE
Adapted from Toni Morrison's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Beloved tells the story of Sethe (Oprah Winfrey), a former slave who goes to the extremes—even killing her daughter—to protect her children from being sold into slavery.
"Do the Right Thing" (1989)
"Because who can forget Radio Raheem, Mookie, Buggin Out and Mother Sister surviving in inner-city Brooklyn in the summertime. Through them we experience racism, inequality, and police brutality head on." —Yolanda Sangweni, Entertainment Editor, ESSENCE.com
'Set It Off'
This chilling story of sisterhood, set in the backdrop of a crime spree by four Black women who become bank robbers, is always a tearjerker.
"Love Jones" (1997)
"The late 1990s marked a Renaissance for Black film, and one of the best productions of the era is this romance starring Larenz Tate and Nia Long. As Darius and Nina, they are witty, sophisticated, charged, sexy, poetic — in other words, everything you’d like to be in a relationship. Plus... that soundtrack!" —Dawnie Walton, Managing Editor, ESSENCE.com
'Free Angela and All Political Prisoners'
No detail is left untouched as filmmaker Shola Lynch chronicles activist Angela Davis's turbulent rise from college professor to the FBI's most-wanted list in a manner of a few years.
"Cleopatra Jones" (1973)
“This was first Black woman I ever saw take down a whole gang of men and look fly as hell doing it.” —Wendy Wilson, News Editor, ESSENCE
'4 Little Girls'
This Spike Lee documentary carefully chronicles the heartbreaking 1963 murder of four African-American girls at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.
Photo by Amazon
"A Raisin in the Sun" (1961)
"There’s a reason Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 play has been adapted and revived so many times through the years: Its characters struggle with money, dreams deferred, and their own identities, struggles that many of us face today. The most memorable adaptation is this film starring Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee and Diana Sands — as members of the Younger family, they embody the frustrations and hopes of the young, gifted and Black." —Dawnie Walton, Managing Editor, ESSENCE.com
"The Best Man" (1999)
“Black people get married too — but prior to the release of The Best Man in 1999, you wouldn't know it from watching romance play out on the big screen. When seven dear old college friends came together for a wedding, some of the most memorable (and lovable) antics ensued and their bonds were tested in very real ways. Their problems, their love, and ultimately their faith in each other inspired us all to believe in love, Black love especially, again.” —Charli Penn, Relationships Editor, ESSENCE.com
This endearing look at a school-teacher mom Carolyn Carmichael (Alfre Woodard), her musician husband and five sassy children living in brownstone Brooklyn in the 70s is a timeless reminder of the no-nonsense Black matriach we could all relate to.
Photo by 40 Acres & A Mule Filmworks
"Their Eyes Were Watching God" (2005)
“It's a fantastic movie adaption to the famed book by Zora Neale Hurston starring Halle Berry and Michael Ealy. Not only does the main character, Janie Crawford (Berry), represent many women struggling to find themselves in life, she also fights to not let love rule her." —Derrick Taylor, Associate Editor, ESSENCE.com
"Coming to America" (1988)
“Who could forget Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall as Prince Akeem and Semmi? Everybody knows the words, everybody knows what's going to happen, but it never gets old. From the numerous characters to the witty lines, it's the gold standard in Black comedy.” —Derrick Taylor, Associate Editor, ESSENCE.com
Photo by Paramount HE
"Brown Sugar" (2005)
“When this film hit theaters, it was the first time many young Black women saw a leading lady they could identify with in a romantic comedy. Sanaa Lathan's Syd and Taye Diggs' Dre were in love with each other and hip-hop, and we were rooting for them almost instantly. We just have one question for you: Did you love it too? Circle Yes or No!” —Charli Penn, Relationships Editor, ESSENCE.com
'Middle of Nowhere'
Newcomer Emayatzy Corinealdi shined as Ruby, a nurse struggling at a crossroads between continuing to stand by her incarcerated husband, for whom she's already sacrificed her dreams, or make build a new life.
Photo by Courtesy of 'Middle of Nowhere'
"The Wiz" (1978)
"This lavish musical production, an all-Black retelling of The Wizard of Oz, showcased some of the greatest talents of all time — Diana Ross as Dorothy, Michael Jackson as The Scarecrow, Lena Horne as Glinda the Good Witch and Richard Pryor as the Wizard, plus songs by Ashford & Simpson, Luther Vandross and Quincy Jones. But amid all that easin’ down the road, it also slipped in sly commentary about what it meant to be Black at the time it was made — notice, for example, how every taxi in Oz speeds away when Dorothy and her friends approach." —Dawnie Walton, Managing Editor, ESSENCE.com