It may have taken us a while to get here, but the 2010s will go down in history as one of the most exceptional eras in Black movie history. Not just because we had some record-breakers (hello, Black Panther). But because many of the films were for us, by us, and dared to challenge the system.
There were first time directors who came out the gate with strong voices, as well as auteurs who dug deep into their own lives to tell a story that resonated with audiences across the globe. There were also several filmmakers who hit us with more than one great film to chew up (looking at you, Barry Jenkins).
And of course, there are the stand-out performances that grounded each film and made us want to return to it again and again. Black cinema ran the gamut of genre, obliterated heteronormity, and even put pre-teen talent on the map for all of us to celebrate. There was really something for everyone.
Here are the films that made the 2010s worth it.
Goodness knows we’ve seen plenty heteronormative, melanin-deficient coming-of-age movies to last a lifetime. Rees’ touching and ultimately triumphant semi-autobiographical film centers a young Black woman (Adepero Oduye) at the cusp of making many difficult decisions: college, coming out, and stepping into her own identity. It’s a film that explores each of these conflicts with compassion with a central performance that floors you.
20 Feet from Stardom (2013)
Much like Hidden Figures, director Morgan Neville’s documentary seeks to bring forth the women who’ve been shadowed by largely White musical acts out of relative obscurity to the grand stage their deserve. Talents like the great Merry Clayton and Patti Austin are hailed for their tremendous contributions as backup singers, as well as lead vocalists in their own right, and their significance in music history.
Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)
In case you need more proof that Black girls rule the world, director-cowriter Benh Zeitlin’s breathtaking bayou-set drama tells the awe-inspiring story of six-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), who singlehandedly fights to protect her ailing dad and dilapidated home from scary aurochs. It’s gorgeously shot with an astounding, Oscar-nominated performance by Wallis.
Jess Pinkham / Fox Searchlight Pictures
It’s rare that Black women even make it on the call sheet at all in a British period film. But in director Amma Asante’s beautiful based-on-a-true-story tale, Gugu Mbatha-Raw isn’t just in the ensemble cast; she plays the title character. Her sensitive yet valiant performance as a biracial aristocrat struggling to find love and acceptance, even in her own prejudiced home, grounds this eloquent movie.
Fruitvale Station (2013)
Many may think that Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther put Michael B. Jordan on the map, but it was the director’s earlier film about a young Black man who was shot by police in Oakland that first solidified Jordan’s status as a leading man. Add to his heartbreaking portrayal is Octavia Spencer and Melonie Diaz’s astounding supporting performances that make this film utterly unforgettable.
Straight Outta Compton (2015)
Director F. Gary Gray’s engrossing chronicle of the rise of NWA is part biopic and part an examination of hip hop’s influence in American culture—including how it has always indicted police brutality and racism, particularly against young Black men growing up in the hood in California. On top of that, it’s a gripping narrative about the lasting friendship that grounds the film.
Jaimie Trueblood / Universal Pictures
I Am Not Your Negro (2016)
It should come as no surprise that James Baldwin’s finest works remain just as relevant today as they were back in the 50s-80s when they were first published. Director Raoul Peck’s stirring documentary stunningly weaves together the literary icon’s prose to galvanize a new generation of activists about issues such as racial identity, bigotry, and patriotism.
A photographer of author James Baldwin smoking a cigarette.
Period dramas that make their way from stage to film is a dime a dozen in Hollywood. But we seldom see that same trend with Black stories, especially intimate family dramas like this one. Director-star Denzel Washington’s gut-wrenching adaptation of August Wilson’s seminal work is so undeniably great, with tremendous performances throughout (including Viola Davis’ Oscar turn).
Hidden Figures (2016)
One Black female genius in a film is enough to capture audience’s attention across the globe. But three of them on the big screen together? Magnetic. That’s the best way to describe experiencing director-cowriter Theodore Melfi’s inspiring tribute to real-life NASA mathematicians (Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe). Ever since this film, we’ve been begging for more stories about hidden figures.
Hopper Stone/Hopper Stone, SMPSP / 2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
Queen of Katwe (2016)
Black girl nerd films are still hard to find, but director Mira Nair’s inspiring true story about a Ugandan girl (Madina Nalwanga) whose life changes after she develops a love—and talent—for chess wonderfully breaks the Hollywood mold. That’s because it’s more than simply a story about a board game champion. It’s a glorious look at the African country that we rarely get to see on the big screen and tells a heartrending tale about a mother (Lupita Nyong’o) and her whip-smart daughter.
Walt Disney Pictures
Writer-director Barry Jenkins’ poignant Oscar-winning film is as much as a love story between a young Black man named Chiron, unfolding in three stages of his life, and the men with whom he’s enamored as it is with himself. It remains an industry-shifting archetype of Black love, self-identity, and gay Black male narratives.
David Bornfriend / A24
Get Out (2017)
There’s a reason why audiences still refer to writer-director Jordan Peele’s meet-the-parents nightmare as an indelible mark in the horror genre. Though there have been countless subversive scary movies, few have had the crossover appeal. The film stars Daniel Kaluuya as an unsuspecting Black man as he's introduced to his girlfriend’s (Allison Williams) racist family at their home in the suburbs. It underscores that the simple act of being the only Black face in a white space is its own terror.
Blumhouse / Universal Pictures
Black male mental health is still an underdiscussed topic on and off screen, particularly among veterans. But director-cowriter Dee Rees’ astounding drama uproots that taboo in a story about two men (Jason Mitchell and Garrett Hedlund) who return home from WWII and struggle to reacclimate themselves to the racism and lack of opportunities that impede them. From the cinematography to the remarkable performances, this film is nothing less than extraordinary.
Strong Island (2017)
Back in 2017, director Yance Ford told ESSENCE, “There is a pattern of...the possession and subsequent dispossession of the Black body.” That is the charge that he investigates, and proves, in this horrifying documentary examining how race impacts the criminal justice system. Years after his unarmed brother William was killed “in self-defense” by a White man on Long Island, and his family was ripped apart, Ford presented this stirring account of events that effectively indict the horrifying cause of “reasonable fear.”
It’s the film that was so good that it spawned a few half-baked knockoffs (including this year’s The Kitchen). Four women (Viola Davis, Cynthia Erivo, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki), bonded only by their grief and financial desperation, set out to steal the money they need to get a crooked Chicago system off their backs shortly after the deaths of their criminal husbands. Director Steve McQueen’s merciless film is just as much about emotional and monetary debt as it is about women tipping the broken economic structure in their favor. It remains as relevant as ever.
Merrick Morton / Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)
Love is once again at the core of writer-director Jenkins’ beautiful romantic adaptation of James Baldwin’s novel of the same name. The filmmaker centers a young couple (Kiki Layne and Stephan James) whose relationship is tested when the soon-to-be father is sentenced for a murder he didn’t do. Yes, the film talks points to the bigoted criminal justice system. But what makes Jenkins’ latest soar is his commitment to underline each character’s action with love and affection. It epitomizes the love story.
Sorry to Bother You (2018)
Writer-director Boots Riley’s singular film is quirky. It’s got people turning into “equisapiens.” And it also helped introduce White audiences to the art of code-switching. Through an increasingly bizarre, and captivating, narrative about corporate America, Riley shined a light on what it’s like to be Black and have to constantly choose between your own principles and the White man who pays you. It’s wild yet still manages to get its point across.
Peter Prato / Annapurna Pictures
Black Panther (2018)
There’s been only one Black movie in the last decade that, once you hear its title, you immediately throw up the proverbial hand gesture (aka the Wakanda greeting with your arms across your chest). Coogler’s masterpiece is a groundbreaking superhero film that boasts as many fascinating and impeccably portrayed subplots: immigration, brotherhood, romance, and Black power. We had high expectations for this pioneering superhero narrative going in, and somehow even those were exceeded.
It takes a masterful film to effectively tell the story of two very different friends (Rafael Casal and Daveed Diggs) whose allyship is challenged when one is released from jail after an altercation while his continuously deviant White friend remains uninhibited. These are two men who’ve been close since childhood and, after a series of alarming events (including a White cop shooting an unarmed Black man), Collin (Diggs) is compelled to confront Miles (Casal) about how his privilege and cultural appropriation has impacted his own freedom. It’s a riveting movie about friendship, race, and the lies we tell ourselves.
After watching director-cowriter Julius Onah’s staggering drama about the titular Black teen (an exceptional Kelvin Harrison Jr.) accused of bringing explosives to school, the question you may ask is: “Did he do it?” But the filmmaker seems to be encouraging us to consider this instead: “Why don’t we believe him when he says he didn’t?” It’s a movie that uproots our own biases, much like Luce’s teacher (Octavia Spencer). We still don’t know whether Luce did what he was accused of, and we’re haunted by this long after we’ve seen it.