Spoiler: Not every one of these fine films won.
Last week I decided to spotlight 10 often overlooked feature films from notable black directors, so it only makes sense to keep the momentum going with 10 films with much higher profiles. Since the jury is still out on next year’s Academy Awards, why not give a nod to 10 movies that ended up changing Oscar history and, in some cases, the nature of the film industry itself.
Black Panther (2018) (Disney+, Amazon Prime, YouTube Premium)
After several failed attempts, Marvel Comics’ trailblazing black superhero finally hit the big screen in what became one of the most acclaimed comic book-based films in history. Of its seven nominations and three wins on Oscar night, the one that made me smile the biggest was the much deserved and way, way overdue statuette for costume design handed to Ruth Carter who had helped craft so many memorable characters in numerous Spike Lee films. The first black woman to be nominated in the category — with only Sharen Davis following afterward — she simply had to win for the incredible Wakandan creations she used to clothe even the smallest of extras.
Carmen Jones (1954) (iTunes, Vudu, Amazon Prime, Google Play)
The hit Broadway musical inspired by the classic opera “Carmen,” was turned into a colorful, lavish vehicle for Harry Belafonte and the radiant Dorothy Dandridge, who became the first African American nominee for best actress. Sadly, her romantic relationship behind the scenes with director Otto Preminger was as ill-fated as her character, later dramatized in the excellent 1998 film “Introducing Dorothy Dandridge” starring Halle Berry.
Dear Basketball (2017) (Vimeo)
I’m bending the rules a little here by including a short film, but it’s a biggie. Kobe Bryant, who we lost less than six months ago, became the first pro athlete to win an Oscar in any category as well as the first black winner in the academy’s animated short film category for “Dear Basketball,” which he wrote and narrated based on his own real-life retirement letter.
Get Out (2017) (iTunes, YouTube, Vudu, Amazon Prime, Google Play)
With this cunning blend of horror and satire, Jordan Peele caught everyone by surprise, given his famous background in TV comedy. One of the most influential genre films of the past decade, this unsettling but darkly funny take on the absorption of black identity and psychological warfare also found Peele breaking ground as the first black winner in the original screenplay category (not to mention his best director nom).
Glory (1990) (iTunes, YouTube, Vudu, Amazon Prime, Google Play)
Denzel Washington became the first African American actor to receive two acting nominations, following “Cry Freedom.” He took home his first Oscar for this stirring true story about a regiment of black soldiers in the Civil War. Washington would later make history again as the first African American actor to win multiple awards thanks to 2001’s “Training Day.”
Lilies of the Field (1963) (Vudu, Amazon Prime)
The number of doors broken down by Sidney Poitier can’t even be counted by this point. The Bahamas-born actor paved the way for generations of actors to come with his powerhouse performance in this leading role — as a drifter whose destiny intersects with an order of European nuns — that made him the first black recipient of the best actor Oscar. When Poitier earned an honorary Oscar years later, it was on the same night Washington won for “Training Day.” “I’ll always be chasing you, Sidney,” Washington said in his acceptance speech. “I’ll always be following in your footsteps. There’s nothing I would rather do, sir.”
Monster’s Ball (2001) (iTunes, YouTube, Amazon Prime, Google Play)
Among the 12 black women nominated for best actress, only one has managed to win: Halle Berry. She is also the only woman of color to have ever received the prized statuette. (No, really!) Her emotional acceptance speech for her dramatic role in “Monster’s Ball” is still incredibly powerful and features a heartfelt shoutout to Dandridge. The film really seems to have slipped through the cracks a bit over the past two decades, but if you haven’t seen it, prepare to be blown away by Berry’s intense talent on display here.
Shaft (1971) (Amazon Prime, iTunes, YouTube, Vudu, Google Play)
No other musical performers have electrified audiences on Oscar night quite like Isaac Hayes, sporting his familiar chain vest while riding out on the vibrant red stage surrounded by dozens of gyrating dancers. His spectacularly funky “Theme from Shaft” made him the first African American original song winner, an honor later bestowed on everyone from Stevie Wonder to Common to Three 6 Mafia.
12 Years A Slave (2013) (Amazon Prime, iTunes, YouTube, Google Play)
Before becoming a Hollywood star, Kenyan-raised Lupita Nyong’o caused a major stir with her wrenching portrayal of Patsey in Steve McQueen’s triple Oscar-winning drama about Solomon Northup, an African American man who was kidnapped and forced into a life of slavery. Her powerful performance earned her a supporting actress win, making her the only African black thespian to do so.
Undefeated (2012) (Netflix, Amazon Prime, iTunes, Vudu)
High school football has rarely been as gripping as in this true story about a life-changing season for Memphis’ Manassas Tigers. Appropriately, the film by Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin turned out to be a big underdog of its own when it took home a win for documentary feature, making Martin the first black director to pull it off.