20 Black Movies That Raised the Bar

20 Black Movies That Raised the Bar
ESSENCE.COM Feb, 19, 2012

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Dorothy Dandridge played Carmen Jones and made history by becoming the first African-American woman to earn an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress in 1955. In 1992, this musical was selected for preservation by the United States National Film Registry and was deemed culturally and historically significant.

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This touching film about race and family relationships grabbed America’s attention in 1959 and actress Juanita Moore earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress for her performance as Annie Johnson, the mother of a daughter trying to pass for White.

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This 1961 film based on Lorraine Hansberry’s play became an instant classic. Sidney Poitier and Claudia McNeil earned Golden Globe nominations for Best Actor and Best Actress respectively for their roles as Walter Lee Younger and Lena Younger. In 2005, the film was selected for preservation by the United States National Film Registry for its significance to cinema culture.

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Sidney Poitier made history by becoming the first African-American man to win the Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance in 1963’s Lilies of the Field.

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This emotional film about a poor Black sharecropping family struggling to survive during the Great Depression contained several Oscar-worthy performances. Paul Winfield and Cicely Tyson received Oscar nominations for Best Actor and Best Actress in 1973 for their roles as Nathan Lee and Rebecca Morgan.

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Diana Ross mesmerized moviegoers in this biographical film about Billie Holiday. Ross picked up an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress for her portrayal of the troubled blues singer.

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A single mother on welfare, Claudine (Diahann Carroll) struggles to raise her six children while finding love with a garbage collector (played by James Earl Jones) in this 1974 classic. The film cleverly tackled hot-button issues of the day, like welfare and class. Carroll picked up an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress in 1975.

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ESSENCE 2012 “Black Women in Hollywood” honoree, Pam Grier, thrilled audiences in this 1974 Blaxploitation classic about a woman out to get revenge on a syndicate that killed her boyfriend. Considered one of the first Black female action heros, “Foxy” presented a new way of portraying Black women on film.

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Roots captivated audiences with its stunning portrayal of slavery in America. The mini-series, which ran for eight nights in 1977, broke records by being the most watched entertainment program in history at the time, according to the Museum of Broadcast Communications. It earned the Golden Globe for Best TV Series in 1978.

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The film adaptation of Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel won audiences over in 1985. Whoopi Goldberg picked up the Academy Award nomination for Best Actress, while her co-stars, Oprah Winfrey and Margaret Avery, earned nominations for Best Supporting Actress.

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Eddie Murphy put on the performance of a lifetime as Akeem, an African prince who comes to America to find love. Murphy and co-star Arsenio Hall play several characters in one of the funniest — and successful — Black comedies of all time.

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The story of America’s first all-Black infantry unit fighting in the Civil War is vividly captured in this 1990 movie. Denzel Washington won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role as an espcaped slave named Trip.

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Spike Lee’s 1989 film about a Brooklyn neighborhood dealing with race relations on the hottest day of the summer was a hit with moviegoers. Its all-star cast features Danny Aiello, Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis, and more. This classic also earned Lee an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay.

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Set in Los Angeles in the early ’90s, Boyz in the Hood tells the story three men who make very different decisions growing up in their tough neighborhood. John Singleton became the first African-American director to be nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Director category.

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Denzel Washington earned an Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of Malcolm X in this film of the same name. The film was also selected for preservation by the United States Film Registry in 2010 — making it a true American classic.

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The iconic biopic What’s Love Got to Do with It was based on Tina Turner’s autobiography that was written by Kurt Loder. The film chronicled Turner, played by Angela Bassett, and her rise to fame and the abuse she experienced from husband Ike Turner, played by Laurence Fishburne.

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Samuel L. Jackson and Lynn Whitfield put on terrific performances in this drama about race, class and voodoo in 1962 Louisiana. In 2008, the movie landed a spot on TIME‘s list of 25 Important Movies on Race, and actress Debbie Morgan’s performance as Mozelle Batiste Delacroix was included in Pop Matters’ 100 Essential Female Film Performances list in 2009.

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Halle Berry’s portrayal of Dorothy Dandridge catapulted her into new heights as an actress. Berry won the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Motion Picture Made for TV.

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Who didn’t see Love and Basketball in theaters in 2000? Not only does this film explore father-son relationships, but its writer and director, Gina Prince-Bythewood, raised the bar when it comes to directing stories about young African-American life.

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Don Cheadle earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor for his portrayal of a man who saved more than 1,000 of his own people during the 1994 Rwandan genocide. His co-star, Sophie Okonedo, also picked up a nomination for Best Actress. The epic story earned international acclaim including the People’s Choice Award at Toronto International Film Festival.

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Jamie Foxx had the honor of playing one of America’s greatest singers, Ray Charles in this film of the same name. Foxx picked up an Academy Award for Best Actor in 2005 for his role as the blind prodigy.

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The heart-wrenching story of an overweight and sexually abused teenager earned some 76 awards in 2010. The movie introduced the world to actress Gabourey Sidebe who picked up an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress for her role. Co-star Mo’Nique won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Mary, Precious’ abusive mother.

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Tyler Perry’s adaptation of Ntozake Shange’s play, For Colored Girls, was the first time in recent memory that so many Black actresses assembled on the big screen. Tackling themes like abuse, class, marriage, and rape, these women made it known that sisterhood is what counts the most.

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Janet Jackson made her feature film debut alongside famed rapper Tupac Shakur in Poetic Justice.

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Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh may have stared in Gone with the Wind, but Hattie McDaniel stole the show. McDaniel’s portrayal of Mammy earned her a spot in history as the first African-American to be nominated for and win an Academy Award — picking up the trophy for Best Supporting Actress. It would be another 23 years later that another African-American won.

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