13 Essential Movies from Black Directors that You Need to Watch

Production Still from If Beale Street Could Talk.

The late, great film critic Roger Ebert once called cinema "a machine for empathy". And in these troubled times, we need that machine more than ever.

Cinema has always had the ability to tell stories and bridge divides between communities and those of different backgrounds. So, if you're looking for movies that can illuminate, entertain and educate, here's our blog list of thirteen essential movies from some of the greatest black filmmakers.

 

1. Do The Right Thing (1989) – Spike Lee

Lee's second feature film and quite possibly his best achievement, Do The Right Thing is a profoundly ironic look at 24 hours of racial bigotry. The irony stems from the title: no-one in the movie does the right thing – not the African-Americans, Italian-Americans, Koreans or white Americans. Instead, the movie drops the audience into the middle of a broiling conflagration on one scorching New York day, mixing provocative laughs with uncomfortable social commentary to leave audiences stunned.


2. Boyz n the Hood (1991) – John Singleton

Cuba Gooding Jr. delivered his breakout performance in Singleton's sensitive drama of two African-American friends on either side of the divide. Gooding Jr.'s character Tre aspires to attend college while his bestie Dougboy (Ice Cube) struggles with the allure towards gang culture and violence. Non-judgmental and steadfastly objective in its town, this coming-of-age drama also features memorable performances from the likes of Laurence Fishburne and Angela Bassett.


3. Devil in a Blue Dress (1995) – Carl Franklin

Stories of racial discrimination and prejudice can take many different forms. Carl Franklin's thrilling Devil in a Blue Dress, based on Walter Mosley's novel, smuggles these themes in beneath the guise of an achingly cool 1950s noir thriller. Denzel Washington is on typically commanding form as private eye Easy Rawlins who comes unstuck when investigating the disappearance of a young white woman. Featuring a memorable early performance from Don Cheadle as the unhinged Mouse, this is an underrated treasure that deserves fresh appraisal.


4. Eve's Bayou (1997) – Kasi Lemmons

Silence of the Lambs and Candyman actor Kasi Lemmons made her feature film debut with this impactful drama. Set in the steamy climes of America's deep south, Eve's Bayou showcases an overlooked Samuel L. Jackson performance. He plays an unfaithful husband whose actions send one Creole-American family into freefall, the action unfolding from the point-of-view of young Eve Batiste (a memorable early role for Birds of Prey star Jurnee Smollett-Bell).


5. Training Day (2001) – Antoine Fuqua

Like Devil in a Blue Dress, the rip-roaring Training Day uses suspenseful popcorn thrills to communicate harsh messages of bigotry and racial injustice. And, like the earlier movie, it also stars Denzel Washington. However, this is an atypical performance from the star – he roars and raves as crooked detective Alonzo Harris, who's schooling naive young rookie Jake (Ethan Hawke) in the language of the streets. That final meltdown scene from Washington is a rare moment of volcanic anger from an actor who is usually composed on the big screen.


6. Precious (2009) – Lee Daniels

This harrowing drama is subtitled 'Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire'. Director Lee Daniels takes an unblinking yet compassionate look at the life of the eponymous African-American teenager, played with great sensitivity by Gabourey Sidibe. Precious suffers an appalling home life at the hands of her abusive mother (played to Oscar-winning effect by Monique), but with dignity, she learns to overcome her struggles. There's also a brief yet surprisingly effective appearance from Mariah Carey as a care worker.


7. Fruitvale Station (2013) – Ryan Coogler

In his astonishing feature film debut, director Ryan Coogler dramatizes the tragic real-life shooting of African-American man Oscar Grant. Coogler reclaims the essence of the man lurking behind the hysterical media headlines, showing us the last 24 hours of Grant's life leading up to his death. And he's aided by a profoundly empathetic performance from Michael B. Jordan, making the first of several collaborations with the filmmaker. (The others being the first Creed movie, and Marvel's Black Panther.)


8. Selma (2014) – Ava DuVernay

Remarkably, prior to Selma, there hadn't been a feature-length movie about Martin Luther King Jr. Director Ava DuVernay was, therefore, tasked with great responsibility, charged with doing justice to the revered Civil Rights leader while also fashioning an engaging drama. The movie is a complete success, dramatizing King's pivotal 1965 Selma to Montgomery march, and with an exemplary central performance from David Oyelowo. He may not be speaking King's actual words (owing to copyright issues), but the delivery is eerily accurate.


9. Straight Outta Compton (2015) – F. Gary Gray

Pioneering rap group N.W.A. is the subject of F. Gary Gray's blistering biopic. In the late eighties and early nineties, N.W.A. stormed the stage with their racially-charged lyrics, upending the status quo and paving the way for many other acts coming in their wake. Gray's movie is an idealized but stirring account of the group's rise to fame, with powerful performances from O'Shea Jackson Jr. (playing his father, Ice Cube) and Jason Mitchell as Eazy-E.


10. Get Out (2017) – Jordan Peele

Comedian Jordan Peele graduated to the role of feature film director with honors with this terrific horror-satire. Peele draws on his background with Keegan-Michael Key in this wince-inducing and terrifying story of a young black man at the mercy of his white girlfriend's family. Taking aim at liberal, rather than overt, racism, this sly story showcases a star-making performance from Daniel Kaluuya, and won Peele the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, making him the first African-American filmmaker to do so.


11. The Hate U Give (2018) – George Tillman Jr.

Inspirational and harrowing by turns, The Hate U Give is the story of how young people can make a significant difference in the face of racial hatred. This teen-friendly yet hard-hitting drama features a strong performance from Amandla Stenberg as a young girl whose response to a police shooting galvanizes her community. Adapted from the novel of the same name by Angie Thomas, the movie is a laudable attempt to introduce the complex subject matter to a mass audience.


12. Sorry To Bother You (2018) – Boots Riley

Imagine a hybrid of Terry Gilliam's weirdness and Spike Lee's provocation, and you come close to imagining Sorry To Bother You. Activist and musician Boots Riley makes a striking feature film debut with this crazy story of a black telemarketer whose career ascent puts him at odds with his friends on the picket line. And the story gets even weirder from there, mixing huge laughs with astringent racial observations. Lakeith Stanfield and Tessa Thompson lead the excellent cast.


13. If Beale Street Could Talk (2019) – Barry Jenkins

A young black couple unwittingly becomes an emblem of a troubled society in this moving drama from Moonlight director Barry Jenkins. Adapted from James Baldwin's novel, If Beale Street Could Talk centers on Tish and Fonny, a young 1970s Harlem couple whose love and imminent childbirth is threatened when the latter is sent to prison. Luscious in its music and visuals yet gritty in its underlying themes, the film is, appropriately enough given the current situation, a mixture of hope and despair.



Do you have a particular favorite movie from a black director? If so, tweet us your choices @RegalMovies.