Enjoy the rich tapestry of black cinema with these 10 films by 10 African American directors — from Spike Lee to Kasi Lemmons, Ossie Davis to Ryan Coogler.
The voices of African American artists have been at the center of our country’s creativity and progress throughout history, and nowhere is that clearer than in the films that have not only entertained us but often helped change our hearts and open our eyes.
While sticking with the usual 10-movie format here, I’d like to offer some essential but perhaps overlooked titles that are well worth your time. If you haven’t seen such acclaimed and popular heavy hitters as “Do the Right Thing,” “Boyz n the Hood,” “Straight Outta Compton,” “Malcolm X,” “Get Out,” “Selma,” “Training Day” and “Moonlight,” please fix that pronto — and then use that as a springboard to discover some of the most dynamic cinematic stories around.
Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970) (Amazon Prime, iTunes, YouTube, Vudu)
Best known as one of the greatest stage and screen actors, Ossie Davis has proved himself a force to be reckoned with behind the camera as well thanks to this highly entertaining and incisive directorial debut. Though typically sold as a blaxploitation film, it’s really a hilarious buddy cop movie starring Godfrey Cambridge and Raymond St. Jacques — as the incredibly named Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson — investigating a huge scam in Harlem involving a shady evangelist. The great Redd Foxx also has an early role here just before he exploded on TV in “Sanford and Son.”
Crooklyn (1994) (iTunes, Vudu, Google Play, YouTube, Amazon Prime)
The years have given us plenty of spirited debates about the best film — and overall best period — in the career of the irreplaceable Spike Lee. But for my money, his most underrated work has to be the movies he produced during that glorious period at Universal in the ’90s when he got to go wild with some of his biggest budgets and casts on films like “Mo’ Better Blues,” “Jungle Fever,” and “Clockers.” The real jewel, though, is this vibrant, compulsively rewatchable snapshot of his own experiences growing up in Brooklyn in the early ’70s in a family of five kids. I may be biased, though, since this is also one of the best vehicles around for its star, Alfre Woodward, one of our very greatest living thespians.
Devil in a Blue Dress (1995) (Hulu, Amazon Prime, YouTube, iTunes)
We can all probably agree that Denzel Washington is one of the very, very few Hollywood stars whose career isn’t marred by a single dud. However, if you want to see him at his maximum movie star wattage, look no further than Carl Franklin’s visually sumptuous film noir set in 1948 L.A. Here, Washington plays private eye and war vet Easy Rawlins, who becomes embroiled in a seamy web of political corruption, racial tensions and red-hot jazz clubs.
As one of the most haunting American indies of the ’90s, “Eve’s Bayou” should have been a calling card to Hollywood glory for actress-turned-writer-director Kasi Lemmons, who has since followed this film with four more features — most recently “Harriet” — but deserves many more. Samuel L. Jackson and Lynn Whitfield headline an exceptional cast in this snapshot of a ’60s Louisiana family whose one dark secret involving infidelity sets off a domino effect that will leave them all changed (and not all alive by the end).
Fruitvale Station (2013) (Tubi, Vudu, YouTube, iTunes, Google Play)
Before he hit the big time with “Creed” and “Black Panther,” Ryan Coogler proved he had some powerful chops with his first film as writer and director. His regular leading man, Michael B. Jordan, shines in this chronicle of one fateful New Year’s Eve in the true-life story of Oscar Grant, a young Bay Area man who becomes a wake-up call for the entire country.
Hollywood Shuffle (1987) (Vudu, YouTube, iTunes, Google Play, Amazon Prime)
Tired of facing rejection at casting calls by white studio reps dismissing him for not fitting their definition of “black,” Robert Townsend turned to every resource at his disposal, including maxing out 10 credit cards, to finance this riotous skewering of movie stereotypes. Townsend stars here as — what else? — a struggling actor chafing against the usual slave and pimp roles available to black actors. And he brought plenty of his friends along for the ride, with some of the most quotable dialogue you’ll ever hear. And remember — there’s always work at the post office.
Horror Noire (2019) (Shudder)
Black horror films have been around since the sound era and I could easily recommend dozens of them, but there’s no better place to start than this interview-packed documentary from Xavier Burgin. Get ready to have your head spun around by everything from dreamy art chillers like “Ganja & Hess” to the cult classic “Blacula” and more modern offerings like “Candyman,” “Bones” and “Blade.”
Set It Off (1996) (Vudu, Amazon Prime, YouTube, Google Play)
A few years before “Ocean’s Eleven” made the buddy heist movie popular for modern audiences, the four women in this gloriously entertaining caper from F. Gary Gray got there first. Jada Pinkett Smith, Queen Latifah, Vivica A. Fox and Kimberly Elise share a crackling chemistry as best friends who decide to pull off a bank robbery in L.A. and end up getting more than they bargained for. Extra points for not ending this movie quite the way you might expect.
Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971) (Amazon Prime / Fandor)
If there’s one film that truly paved the way for modern African American cinema, this is the one. Writer-director Melvin Van Peebles stars as the title character on the run from corrupt white cops after intervening in the persecution of a Black Panther. Famously targeted by the MPAA, Van Peebles flipped the script by giving this film one of the greatest taglines of the decade, “Rated X by an All-White Jury.”
After nabbing an Oscar and establishing himself as Hollywood’s first bona fide bankable black movie star, Sidney Poitier turned director with a string of hits including “Uptown Saturday Night” and its two sequels. However, he decided to stay behind the camera for this very funny hangout comedy starring Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder back together after the 1976 hit “Silver Streak.” There isn’t much plot here as they’re set up for a bank robbery and sent to the slammer, but the fun is all in the journey thanks to the two stars’ great charisma — and the sight of them in big bird suits!