Sometimes it's good to take a step back and look at the movie industry from a higher vantage, to look beyond movies at face value and to peer behind the curtains. In this case, we're talking about movies that were created by black directors and filmmakers.
"You don't know what's happening on the other side of the wall, because you don't want to know."
The vibrant world of black cinema is often overlooked, neglected, or even brushed off for being too political.
Indeed, many often associate black cinema with movies about civil rights, slavery, or poverty—but that misses out on the passion, drama, and joy of other black-made movies.
Here are my picks for the best movies made by black directors and filmmakers, which is our way of celebrating underappreciated talents in a white-dominated industry.
15. Black Girl (1966)
Directed by Ousmane Sembène
Starring Mbissine Thérèse Diop, Anne-Marie Jelinek, Robert Fontaine
Drama (1h 5m)
Unless you've studied a degree in film, you probably haven't heard of this one. Before Spike Lee pioneered the Black New Wave of the 90s, France had its own New Wave in the 60s.
The French New Wave was dominated by white surrealists like Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut, but there were a few hidden gems from black directors as well. Sadly, they flew under the radar.
One such film was Ousmane Sembène's Black Girl. What this low-key film (intentionally) lacks in soundtrack, spectacle, and speed, it makes up for with insightful filmmaking that verges on poetry.
Diouana (played by Mbissine Thérèse Diop) may not be a plantation slave, but she's still practically "owned" by the white family she serves in France after having left her poor village in Dakar, Senegal.
The original French title La noire de... translate to "the black girl of..." (which is in reference to the film's themes of dual identity/nationality and a sense of being owned). Director Ousmane Sembène was also born in Senegal before he moved to France.
14. Straight Outta Compton (2015)
Directed by F. Gary Gray
Starring O'Shea Jackson Jr., Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell
Biography, Drama, History (2h 27m)
If prefer mainstream Hollywood blockbusters over old black-and-white foreign films, you'll find much to like in this one.
O'Shea Jackson Jr. stars as his father Ice Cube in F. Gary Gray's Oscar snub Straight Outta Compton. As you might guess, this is a biopic about Ice Cube and his world-famous hip-hop group N.W.A.
N.W.A popularized gangsta rap in 1980s America. Their explicit political lyrics made them a hotbed for controversy, which Gray explores in his second collaboration with Ice Cube (the other being 1995's Friday).
John Singleton—who directed Boyz N the Hood—was also approached for this project, but Gray ultimately took the lead. The end product is a rich and tactile look into the hip-hop industry, one that re-stirred the pot for all involved and resulted in lawsuits and on-set violence.
13. The Watermelon Woman (1996)
Directed by Cheryl Dunye
Starring Cheryl Dunye, Guinevere Turner, Valarie Walker
Comedy, Drama, Romance (1h 30m)
The Watermelon Woman is an important yet overlooked addition to LGBTQ+ cinema, being the first feature film that was released by a black lesbian director.
Cheryl Dunye wrote the semi-autobiographical rom-com and used elements of fantasy to relay her own experience navigating a white-dominated, heterosexual industry. In doing this, Dunye began carving out a space for queer, African-American female voices.
The title derives from the credits of an old 1940s film, in which a black actress is referred to simply as "The Watermelon Woman" and deprived the acknowledgement of her real name.
Dunye not only wrote, directed, and edited this film, but also starred in it as a fictionalized version of herself. Working at a video rental store in Philadelphia, she tries to uncover the true identity of the credited "Watermelon Woman" by making a documentary.
12. Small Axe (2020)
Directed by Steve McQueen
Starring Naomi Ackie, Gary Beadle, Khali Best
Drama, History (6h 46m)
Small Axe isn't just one film—it's an anthology of five films that was made during the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020. Small Axe is comprised of five feature-length episodes, so you could even think of it as a miniseries.
Each film tells a different story of West Indian immigrants living in London to the retro backdrop of the 1960s to 1980s. The title is a reference to Bob Marley's 1973 song: "If you are a big tree/we are the small axe."
Director Steve McQueen proved his expertise for storytelling and cinematography with his Oscar-winning drama 12 Years a Slave, and before that, Hunger and Shame. Small Axe is yet another sophisticated and hard-hitting example of McQueen's genius.
11. Malcolm X (1992)
Directed by Spike Lee
Starring Denzel Washington, Angela Bassett, Delroy Lindo
Biography, Drama, History (3h 22m)
Malcolm X remains one of the most influential figures in black history, so we had to include his biopic in this list—especially since it was made by one of the most influential black filmmakers in cinema history!
We are, of course, talking about the great Spike Lee. The epic drama Malcolm X stars Denzel Washington as Malcolm Little (the X symbolizes his unknown African surname). It's often cited as one of the top films of the 1990s—and we can see why!
After growing up in a string of foster homes, Malcolm X became a human rights activist during the pivotal decade of the 1960s.
He was a spokesperson for the Nation of Islam and, controversially, spoke against peaceful protest and non-violence as a means of promoting black power.
10. The Hate U Give (2018)
Directed by George Tillman Jr.
Starring Amandla Stenberg, Regina Hall, Russell Hornsby
Crime, Drama (2h 13m)
Prepare to shed a few tears—as much from rage as sadness—when you watch The Hate U Give.
George Tillman Jr. directs this moving crime drama, adapted from the 2017 book by Angie Thomas. Amandla Stenberg gives a powerhouse performance as the young Starr Carter, caught between two worlds.
Despite living in a poor and predominantly black neighborhood, Starr attends a rich, white prep school. A fatal shooting by a white police officer splits her dual identity asunder, forcing her to choose between what is right and what is easy.
It may not be the most cinematic film, but its story and characters are well worth watching. It's a tragic tale we've heard time and time again, and will continue to hear until the right degree of change is met.
9. Queen & Slim (2019)
Directed by Melina Matsoukas
Starring Daniel Kaluuya, Jodie Turner-Smith, Bokeem Woodbine
Crime, Drama, Romance (2h 12m)
Melina Matsoukas directs Queen & Slim, a stylish and tender romance drama where a couple's first date goes hellishly wrong.
You can probably guess what causes it: a white policeman. Queen (played by Jodie Turner-Smith) and Slim (played by Daniel Kaluuya) are stopped for "rash" driving, which forces them to go on the run.
Besides its transcendent storyline and timely exploration of race relations in modern America, Queen & Slim is just really, really pretty. Even the promo shots are chic pieces of art—like something straight out of Vogue.
Though it's not based on a true story, Queen & Slim was inspired by real headlines—ones that, tragically, are all too familiar in today's world. But at its core lies a beautiful love story as old as time.
8. Selma (2014)
Directed by Ava DuVernay
Starring David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo, Oprah Winfrey
Biography, Drama, History (2h 8m)
The film industry is distinctly lacking in black female directors. Fortunately, we have Ava DuVernay, who's one of the very few working black female directors today.
DuVernay created the brutal–yet-poignant miniseries When They See Us in 2019, but before that, she received immense praise for her historical drama Selma, starring David Oyelowo as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
We've all heard the name, but DuVernay educates us with a deeper look into the 1965 voting rights marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. When four black girls are killed by a bomb planted by the KKK, King is determined to have black voting rights unencumbered.
7. If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)
Directed by Barry Jenkins
Starring KiKi Layne, Stephan James, Regina King
Drama, Romance (1h 59m)
Barry Jenkins is the voice of an entire generation, beloved for his empathetic films about complex black characters.
Based on the infamous James Baldwin's 1974 novel, If Beale Street Could Talk won three Academy Awards in 2019. KiKi Layne and Stephan James star as star-crossed lovers Tish and Fonny, who struggle to find a place to live in Downtown Memphis, Tennessee.
After Fonny is arrested for a crime he didn't commit (it would have literally been impossible), Tish announces her pregnancy during a jail visit. Despite difficult circumstances, Tish is determined to prove his innocence. If Beale Street Could Talk is full of soul, depth, and honesty.
6. Get Out (2017)
Directed by Jordan Peele
Starring Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Bradley Whitford
Horror, Mystery, Thriller (1h 44m)
Get Out taps into a much closer kind of horror than ghosts and goblins—the white middle class. Jordan Peele's suburban thriller was a resounding success upon release, raking in staggering box office figures for a directorial debut.
Daniel Kaluuya's performance is brilliant as Chris, an African-American photographer who visits his white girlfriend's house for the first time. Big mistake! As it turns out, Rose (played by Allison Williams) is part of a family cult that preys on the black community.
The petrified black staff should have been warning enough, but alas, Chris falls into a warped world of possession and hypnotic body-swapping. Peele uses the horror genre to expose issues of slavery—something that isn't simply a thing of the past.
5. Do the Right Thing (1989)
Directed by Spike Lee
Starring Danny Aiello, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee
Comedy, Drama (2h)
Hmm, what's this movie trying to tell us? Maybe, if we squint, we'll be able to see the subtlety of Spike Lee's message. Hang on... Spike Lee. Subtle. Isn't that an oxymoron?
This classic Spike Lee joint shows the ripple effect of intolerance on all kinds of communities. Set in a majority African-American New York neighborhood, everybody in Do the Right Thing hates each other.
The Italian-Americans of the pizzeria and the local convenience store Koreans knuckle against the black community in a sometimes-funny-but-ultimately-tragic chain of who-hates-who.
With Do the Right Thing, Spike Lee shouts loud and proud his views on modern society: just do the right thing! This 80s cult classic became a touchstone of pop culture.
4. I Am Not Your Negro (2016)
Directed by Raoul Peck
Starring Samuel L. Jackson
Documentary, History (1h 33m)
While there are countless documentaries celebrating black culture (including Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson's recent film Summer of Soul) and unmasking the reality of racism, I Am Not Your Negro is one of the absolute best of them all.
Narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, Raoul Peck's social critique recounts the role of numerous civil rights activists throughout black history. Material was mainly sourced from James Baldwin's unfinished memoirs, Remember This House.
I Am Not Your Negro is essentially a collection of black voices that demand (and deserve) to be heard. However, it did receive criticism for not observing Baldwin's complicated sexuality—one that further marginalized his place in society.
3. Judas and the Black Messiah (2021)
Directed by Shaka King
Starring LaKeith Stanfield, Daniel Kaluuya, Jesse Plemons
Biography, Drama, History (2h 6m)
Based on a true story, Judas and the Black Messiah follows a petty criminal who escapes jail by becoming an informant. Bill O'Neal (played by LaKeith Stanfield) is assigned to infiltrate the Black Panthers of Illinois, betraying his race and identity for a ticket to freedom.
However, his feelings toward the party—and the fierce, beautiful Deborah Johnson (played by Dominique Fishback)—make the guilt creep in. And Daniel Kaluuya dazzles us as the 1968 Chairman of the Black Panther Party, winning an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.
Judas and the Black Messiah isn't just well-written and well-acted. The cinematography is gorgeous! Perfectly capturing a vintage 1960s Chicago, the camera moves with pure emotion.
Shaka King's biopic ends with real footage of Bill O'Neal, leaving viewers with a bittersweet opinion of him.
2. Boyz N the Hood (1991)
Directed by John Singleton
Starring Cuba Gooding Jr., Laurence Fishburne, Ice Cube
Crime, Drama (1h 52m)
John Singleton's blaxploitation coming-of-age film was a supreme hit—impressive given it was his directorial debut!
Boyz N the Hood stars Ice Cube and Cuba Gooding Jr. as two friends living in South Central Los Angeles, both with very different support systems.
While his friends are drawn into gang culture, Cuba Gooding Jr.'s Tre is taught the values of hard work and respect by his tough father, Furious Styles (played by Larry Fishburne).
Split between two time periods (1984 and 1991), Boyz N the Hood is a classic tale of morality that makes us laugh along the way. It's an old-school movie with tons of personality, launching Ice Cube's acting career and forever being referenced in pop culture.
1. Moonlight (2016)
Directed by Barry Jenkins
Starring Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris, Trevante Rhodes
Drama (1h 51m)
With Moonlight, Barry Jenkins hits us with a triptych coming-of-age drama. It won several Academy Awards in 2017, including Best Picture, which had us all rejoicing.
It's based on Tarell Alvin McCraney's unpublished semi-biographical play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, brought to the big screen with humility and grace.
Moonlight is divided into three sections as it follows protagonist Chiron through childhood, adolescence, and adulthood.
Trevante Rhodes, Ashton Sanders, and Alex Hibbert each portray Chiron during three very distinct times of his life as he grapples with his homosexuality amid a world of gangs, drugs, and poverty.
Rich colors and blurred edges make Moonlight's cinematography glow with beauty, balancing the artistic with the realistic in a Miami at the height of its crack epidemic.
This A24 indie gem was absorbed by critics and cinemagoers alike, praised for its eloquent and contemplative style.