In the year of “Black Panther” and a summer movie season with two highly anticipated black movies, the time is right to celebrate the last two decades of black cinema in the U.S.
Black voices have always been essential to American cinema, but they’re especially potent this summer, with two exciting upcoming releases: Boots Riley’s “Sorry To Bother You” and Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman” have impressed critics and magnified the beating pulse of black identity politics, while skewering those persons and institutions that hinder black social and economic advancement. Though vastly different in tone and technique, they echo similar themes: Black American political disillusionment, the struggle for higher standards, and the pressure to maintain an authentic version of oneself.
With these potent ideas playing out at movie theaters across the country, we’ve arrived at a perfect opportunity to examine the best black American films of the 21st century.
From renowned stories and landmark performances to culturally relevant comedies and iconic directors, each of these movies have molded the landscape of black cinema into what it is today. Dee Rees, Ava DuVernay, Ryan Coogler, Barry Jenkins, and Jordan Peele are just a few of the filmmakers our critics singled out for recognition; read all our ranked picks below. We applied a broad criteria, including both films with black directors as well as others that feature black characters. —Jacqueline Coley
Jamie Foxx in “Ray”
In the world of biopics, there are often impressions, accents, and performances inspired by or mirroring the real individuals. Then there are a handful of transformations in which actors become synonymous with their subjects. When the mannerisms, dialogue, and movements become so indistinguishable, it’s no longer just acting; it’s a possession — as if the person’s soul was conjured from the heavens and the actor provided the physical embodiment to retell the story here on earth.
This was the case for Jamie Foxx’s turn as legendary crooner Ray Charles in Taylor Hackford’s “Ray.” Modern-day music biopics can come off as jukebox-driven highlight reels with no resonance or nuance about the multifaceted artists at their center. Hackford’s direction and James L. White’s script crafted a symphonic ode to Ray Charles’ life and legacy. Foxx’s heartbreaking and at times hilarious performance is the haunting refrain. There was no question as to who was walking home with the Best Actor trophy at the 77th Oscar ceremony, but no one could have predicted how Foxx would bring everyone watching to tears with his heartfelt acceptance speech. —JC
Denzel Washington and Viola Davis in “Fences”
For his third directorial outing (after “The Debaters” and “Antwone Fisher”), Denzel Washington skirted the hazards of “opening up” a play by chasing honest emotions. The two-time acting Oscar-winner took on the film adaptation of August Wilson’s ’50s Pittsburgh family drama “Fences” both as director and disgruntled former baseball player Troy Maxson, rejoining his fellow Tony-winning 2010 Broadway revival costar Viola Davis as his beleaguered wife Rose. Washington told Davis two things on the Pittsburgh location: “Don’t forget the love,” and “Trust me.” So Davis went big, letting Troy have it when he tells his wife of 18 years that he has been unfaithful. Debuting film actor Jovan Adepo (“The Leftovers”) shines in a key scene as high school football player Cory, who is crushed when his father tells him to quit the team and take back his job at a grocery store. “How come you ain’t never liked me?” he asks his father. “Liked you?” responds Troy. “Who the hell say I got to like you?” —Anne Thompson
23. “Straight Outta Compton”
Aldis Hodge, Neil Brown Jr., Jason Mitchell, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Corey Hawkins in “Straight Outta Compton”
To tell the story of the rise (and fall) of one of the biggest rap groups in history — N.W.A., whose members included Eazy-E, Ice Cube, and Dr. Dre— there was no better person than director F. Gray Gray. After all, not only did he grow up in South Los Angeles area where the group started, but also he began his career as music video director, and had worked with Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, and other artists during that era. So when the film came out, it had everything the fans wanted to see and more. It had the original group’s blessing to use their music, great performances from the three leads — relative newcomers Jason Mitchell, Corey Hawkins, and Ice Cube’s son O’Shea Jackson, Jr. — and an energy level so high that audiences resonated with each scene and song.
With three straight weekends as the U.S.’s number one film and over $200 million at the global box office, the film was more than a commercial success: it’s the highest-grossing music biopic ever. Sadly, Gray’s feature didn’t receive deserved Oscar nominations for Best Picture or its performances, an oversight that helped popularize #OscarSoWhite. —Wilson Morales
Ice Cube in “Barbershop”
This comedy-drama, featuring Ice Cube, Cedric the Entertainer, Eve, and Michael Ealy, resulted in a humorous and pleasurable film, one that put forth a dialogue with a high sense of realness that folks could relate to. Long before talk shows like “Meet the Press,” there was always a barbershop where people would go and get in on any topic of conversation. Cube plays Calvin, owner of his father’s former Chicago barbershop. Those who work there for a family, even though some are not pulling their weight. Throughout the non-stop jokes and money drama, Calvin has to find within himself whether he has the strength to keep the business afloat when selling out sounds easier. Its $77 million finish at the box office led to a franchise: two sequels (“Barbershop 2: Back in Business,” “Barbershop: The Next Cut”) and a spinoff (“Beauty Shop”) for Queen Latifah. —WM
Mo’Nique in “Precious”
When discussing comedians who became dramatic actors, Oscar winners Robin Williams and Jamie Foxx come to mind, as do nominees Jim Carrey and Steve Carell. But none had a more extreme transformation than Mo’Nique for “Precious.” Based on Sapphire’s 1996 novel “Push” and directed by Lee Daniels, the film cast her as Mary, a hellish Harlem mother who sexually abuses her illiterate teen daughter (newcomer Gabourey Sidibe). Always-bullied Precious has lived a life of continuous trauma, culminating when she learns that her father has given her HIV. But through the kindness of a teacher (Paula Patton), social worker (Mariah Carey), and hospital employee (Lenny Kravitz), she begins to acquire her own agency, eventually severing ties with Mary to become a responsible parent herself.
The jarring film’s production team included Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry, each vocal survivors of sexual assault. Mo’Nique won an Academy Award, while a thriving television career (“The Big C,” “American Horror Story,” “Empire”) awaited Sidibe. Today, her self-possessed characters are rarely ever the victims. —JM
Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriquez in “Tangerine”
Sin-Dee Rella dragged that girl by her hair from the flophouse to the West Hollywood Donut Time with one shoe on Christmas Eve. I have to confess, the first time I saw that moment, I screamed. It was so hood, yet so real. That authentic flavor is why such a simple film like “Tangerine” can leave an indelible mark on audiences. Katina Kiki Rodriguez’s Sin-Dee Rella is one of the most fearless females I’ve seen onscreen, and it still shocks me she was not more prevalent in that year’s awards conversation. I know a transgender sex worker would not strike some as such, but for me, she is just that: fearless.
On the surface, Sean Baker’s film is a simple slice of life story low on female empowerment: a protagonist fresh from jail, trying to track down her wayward boyfriend and the cis-gender woman he has been cheating with doesn’t seem like a vehicle to champion anyone. But underneath that is a story about friendship and a rare glimpse into genuinely invisible margins of the urban landscape. Shot entirely on an iPhone using primarily unknown and first-time actors for less than $100,000, the film is a testament to Baker’s brilliance. —JC