When it comes to depicting Blackness on screen, trauma always seems to win out over joy. While Black stories remain largely underrepresented in cinemas, those that do get Hollywood’s attention (and crucially, funding) are typically stories of struggle, slavery, segregation and ongoing systemic racism.
While those films illuminate important truths of the many ways race and racism shape Black experiences, their dominance overshadows the fact that Black life is about so much more than just trauma and violence, and that not all of our stories revolve around our relationship to whiteness. Along with pain and sadness, we experience joy, beauty, love and ecstasy — the whole spectrum of human emotions. It’s only right that those feelings are reflected on screen, too. How powerful is it to be able to find happiness and humor in a world full of darkness?
Here are eight compelling films, including one Oscar-winning Best Picture, that highlight and celebrate the multi-facets of the Black experience.
1. Dope (2015)
In this Sundance favorite from Nigerian-American director Rick Famuyiwa, high school senior Malcolm (Shameik Moore) and his geeky band of 1990s-obsessed friends, who live in a rough part of Inglewood, California, find themselves unwittingly dragged into a world of drugs and crime after a mix-up at a party. The film is heavy on laughs and charm (A$AP Rocky is delightful as dealer Dom in his feature film debut), but behind the hijinks, Malcolm struggles with the kind of dilemma many Black people know too well. Should he play up his underprivileged background in an admissions essay to increase his chances of landing a spot at Harvard, as a condescending guidance counsellor advises, or present the more holistic version of himself that defies expectations?
2. Hidden Figures (2016)
Set in the early 1960s, Hidden Figures tells the little-known (well, until now) true story of Katherine Johnson (Taraji P Henson), Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) and Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) — three African-American mathematicians who overcame both the racism in the Jim Crow south and rampant sexism to serve an integral role in NASA’s space program.
Stories like this show that black people’s contributions to society extend far beyond the usual recognized fields of music, sports and literature. At a time when people of color and women are still vastly underrepresented and underestimated in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, this film is especially pertinent.
3. Black Panther (2018)
No film in the past decade has electrified the Black diaspora as strongly as Black Panther. From Lagos to London to Los Angeles, audiences showed up and showed out at screenings of Ryan Coogler’s high-gloss big-budget feature, donning African-inspired ensembles in shows of pride and fandom.
The Marvel epic is set in the fictional African nation of Wakanda, a hidden Afro-futurist utopia that leads the world in terms of technological advancement. The conflict arises when, after the death of his father, T’Challa (the titular hero, played by Chadwick Boseman) must face a new adversary (Michael B Jordan) who threatens both his crown and the fate of the nation.
The fact that the film went on to gross more than $1bn in ticket sales worldwide and was nominated for Best Picture at the 2019 Academy Awards (it came out on top in three production categories) confirmed what we’ve always known: Black stories don’t have to center around suffering to have universal appeal.
4. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)
In what might be the most dazzling addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Shameik Moore stars as Miles Morales, an Afro-Latino kid from Brooklyn who — spoiler — gains fantastic powers after being bitten by a radioactive spider. In this take on the familiar tale, he grows into his powers (and, yes, himself) while working with Spider-Man iterations from other timelines to conquer a common foe.
The film succeeds on all counts. The combination of 3D animation and traditional comic book stylings is wholly unique, and the relationship between Miles and his father is genuinely heartwarming. But it’s also just a joy to see a Black kid who loves rapper Swae Lee and graffiti, swinging through the city in a hoodie and Jordans.
5. Homecoming (2019)
Where Black Is King, Beyoncé’s recent impressionistic retelling of The Lion King, is a splendid vision of a Black fantasy, Homecoming is a loving ode to the history and culture of marching bands at America’s historically Black colleges and universities. In both the footage of her high-octane Coachella sets and the behind-the-scenes clips of her work with the instrumentalists and dancers, the performers’ joy is as palpable as Beyoncé’s reverence for their traditions.
As a devoted Beyoncé fan and someone who has seen 2002’s Drumline at least a dozen times, Homecoming appealed to me on multiple levels. But you don’t need to be a fan of (or even be familiar with) marching band culture or Beyoncé to appreciate the depth of vision, level of artistry and specificity of experience reflected on screen.
6. Queen & Slim (2019)
In many ways, Queen & Slim plays into the existing tradition of Black films in Hollywood. After a violent altercation with a police officer during a traffic stop, Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith) and Slim (Daniel Kaluuya) end up on the run, fleeing unjust punishment in a system that prioritizes officers’ reputations over those of Black civilians. But the underlying messages around Black love, iconography and kinship — not to mention its sumptuous aesthetics — help to deepen the conversation.
Fashion lovers will appreciate how director Melina Matsoukas (best known for her work on HBO’s Insecure and for directing music videos for the likes of Beyoncé and Rihanna), collaborated with costume designer Shiona Turini to extend her “for us, by us” mission to the cast’s vibrant wardrobe. (Think lush track suits and furs; a blue latex minidress and snake-skin boots.) Both established and emerging Black designers, from Sean John and Dapper Dan to Kerby Jean-Raymond of Pyer Moss and Carly Cushnie were tapped to weave Black creativity deeper into the film’s fabrics.
7. Moonlight (2016)
Barry Jenkins’ sensitive portrait of masculinity, desire, love and family made history in 2017, when it became the first film with an entirely Black cast to win an Oscar for Best Picture, as well as the first LGBTQ+-themed story to receive the honor.
Based in part on a semi-autobiographical play by Tarell Alvin McCraney, the film visits Chiron, a quiet Black boy living in a Miami housing project, at different chapters of his life: childhood (played by Alex Hibbert), adolescence (Ashton Sanders) and young adulthood (Trevante Rhodes). Lit and edited to otherworldly perfection, set to a chopped-and-screwed classical score by Nicholas Britell, and moving in terms of both narrative and performance, the film feels gentle and urgent all at once.
8. Rafiki (2018)
In private, shy Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) and flamboyant, rainbow-haired Ziki (Sheila Munyiva) live in a Nairobi of color, joy and romance, making out in a van overgrown with flowers and dancing under a blacklight in a neon nightclub — all in keeping with director Wanuri Kahiu’s eye-popping, self-styled ‘Afrobubblegum’ aesthetic. But their story is complicated by the fact that in Kenya, lesbian relationships are not only highly stigmatized but also illegal: just last year, the country’s high court ruled to uphold a law criminalizing same-sex relationships.
Because of this entrenched homophobia, Rafiki was initially banned in Kenya, but it has found success on the world stage — in 2018, it became the first Kenyan film selected to screen at Cannes.