This has been a rough year, but one that has certainly provided a cultural awakening for the United States. First, we were faced with the realization that our healthcare system was ill prepared for a major pandemic forcing all of us to rethink our priorities and values as the world slowly and temporarily shut down. But more recently our country has also received a new awakening that was even longer overdue. The death of George Floyd set in motion protests and demands for change to end the mistreatment of the black community. Whether you agree with it or not calls for change in racial inequality are now more active than they probably have been since the Civil Rights movement changes our nation for the better. I usually try my best to keep politics out of this blog, but regardless of what this makes you think of me I personally stand in solidarity with the movement. As a movie fan I’ve found that theatrical films have played a big role in opening my eyes to a lot of issues in the world over the last decade, including America’s racial divide. Many of these movies went on to become some of my favorites from their respective years and they are so numerous that African American themed films or “Black” films have evolved into a genre all their own. Today I wanted to do my part to recommend some of the films that helped me gain some new insight into the struggles of the black community over the past ten years and have helped open eyes to the black experience in American and beyond. These are Ten Great Black Films from the 2010s.
For this list I put together a countdown of 10 of my personal favorite films released from 2010 through 2019 that focused on African American life in the United States or possessed underlying social themes meant to draw attention to racial injustice and inequalities through cinema. These movies aren’t in any particular order but if you want to considered them ranked I’d say they’re simply in order of which ones I think you should watch the most. They don’t have to be composed of an all African American cast or specifically designed to draw attention to police violence against blacks and the films don’t necessarily have to be about America specifically. These ten movies spoke to me as a person so I’m hoping that if you’re willing to give them a chance they will also provide you perspective as well.
What black films stood out to you in the 2010s? Let me know in the comments.
10. “Black Panther”
The most successful film on this list in terms of box office revenue, “Black Panther” served as the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s first film with a black lead and thus the first movie in the lineup to specifically focus on a black superhero. Showcasing Black Panther T’Challa’s rise to the throne of Wakanda and subsequent struggles with the villain Killmonger, his cousin, who seeks to use the weapons of Wakanda to help liberate black men and women across the world “Black Panther” quickly earned its place as a culturally significant examination of the continued racial struggles not just in the United States but across the world. Immediately iconic, “Black Panther” may suffer from some pretty obvious subtext and less-than-polished CGI, but it’s still an important and powerful comic book movie with both a complex hero and an understandable and equally complex villain at its core to help drive home its deeper themes.
I only just recently saw “Pariah” which had an extremely limited release back in 2011. It’s an excellent film and one that touches on an idea similar to an Academy Award winning picture you’ll see later on this list which is sexual identity. “Pariah” follows 17-year-old African American girl Alike who struggles with her status as a closeted lesbian. She deals with her mother’s conservative values and a love interest who herself tries to hide her romantic connections to the same sex. “Pariah” is a deep examination of the LGBTQ experience and, at the time, was relatively unique for exploring the topic from the perspective of a minority. While “Pariah” doesn’t stray away from acknowledging the race of its main character it’s more about the LGBTQ and the struggle to personal acceptance of one’s identity. At just under an hour and a half it’s an easy and effective watch especially for anyone of any skin color dealing with the inevitability of coming out.
8. “If Beale Street Could Talk”
“If Beale Street Could Talk” is one of the most striking modern examinations of the mistreatment of African Americans by the criminal justice system in the United States. Based on a 1974 novel, this romantic drama focuses on Tish and her fiancée Fonny with the latter wrongly charged of rape leading to significant jail time. Tish teams with her family to try and clear Fonny’s name experiencing numerous roadblocks from a system that seems determined to keep Fonny behind bars. “If Beale Street Could Talk” is nothing short of an eye opener that feels extremely relevant to modern audiences and captures a longstanding problem in American society that became a hot button issue in the 2010s. Using a relatable and charming love story as its main focus and showcasing how families are torn apart by such mistreatment helps drive home its message and yet not once does it ever feel preachy or pretentious. It simply feels tragic and human.
Based on the stage play of the same name, “Fences” is a spectacular adaptation starring and directed by Denzel Washington who plays Troy, a black man in 1950s Pittsburgh who has seen his life fall apart due to a combination of the racism around him an his own bad decisions. It’s the pervasive racism that hurts him the most having led to him being unable to play in Major League Baseball and struggling to earn a promotion over his white co-workers. As the story progresses, we see the lasting impact these roadblocks have had on Troy as it fractures his relationships with his son and his wife thanks to his regret and animosity over things he can’t control. It’s a pretty deep story that captures a snapshot of one family’s struggles and life in the 50s, a decade when the Civil Rights movement was setting the baseline for their eventually success in the 60s. “Fences” dares to dream of days when no black man will suffer as Troy did in their own search for the American Dream.
6. “Sorry to Bother You”
God, I love this movie so much. A sci-fi, fantasy, comedy, drama blend “Sorry to Bother You” lives up to its name by blatantly making an effort to bother viewers with all kinds of harsh truths of our capitalist society and while it touches on many themes relating to that idea one of its most prominent is its criticisms of racism in the United States. The main crux of lead character Cash Green’s story is that he becomes a telemarketer and, being a black man, finds it impossible to make a sale until he develops a “white voice” to which customers seem more accepting. Eventually Cash finds himself having forsaken his identity and his values for a chance at success providing great commentary on racial identity as well as the still-prevalent racial tendencies of the average consumer in America. “Sorry to Bother You” is a tremendous film with a lot to say about so many things in our world, but its outcries against racism in capitalist society is one of its most poignant and significant.
5. “12 Years a Slave”
This is the only film on this list that actually tackles the slave trade in the United States and rode its powerful story all the way to a Best Picture win in 2014. Telling the real-life story of free-man-turned-captive-slave Solomon Northup and based on his 1853 memoir, “12 Years a Slave” is an unflinching look at one man’s journey back to freedom after he is kidnapped and sold into slavery in the American south. Directly showcasing the mistreatment of slaves and the terror African Americans endured during a divisive time in American history “12 Years a Slave” isn’t just important for tackling themes relating to racial inequality, it’s significant for reminding everyone of a very uncomfortable reality from many years in the past that should never be forgotten. A lot of films have attempted to capture the horrors of slave life in America, but few have ever proven to be quite as powerful and urgent as director Steve McQueen’s immortal modern classic.
Spike Lee has long been a seminal director of black cinema with his films, often called “joints”, usually tackling controversial political issues often revolving around black characters. He nearly (and in the eyes of many should have) won a Best Picture award for “BlacKkKlansman”, a feature based on the real life story of Ron Stallworth, a black cop who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan with the help of a white officer. Mixing drama with comedy and plenty of social commentary “BlacKkKlansman” was spectacular upon release but has aged like a fine wine in only about two years’ time by delving deep into the lasting racial tensions that survived past the Civil Rights Movement into the 1970s. As with many of Lee’s works, “BlackKklansman” deftly uses history, with a bit of creative liberty, to comment on current events with historical context shamelessly touting an anti-racist message that feels right at home in today’s political and social climate.
3. “Get Out”
It’s no secret that “Get Out” is one of the most respected and influential films of the latter half of the 2010s. Comedian-turned-horror director Jordan Peele’s debut film is a striking satire of modern American racism as it focuses on a black man who visits his white girlfriend’s family for the first time. When he arrives he finds them to be maybe too welcoming before discovering a devious plot taking place behind the scenes. The twists and turns this movie presents provide a not-so-subtle but not-too-obvious examination of passive racism and white privilege serving as a very special mix of ideas that challenge viewers to take a look in the mirror and reassess what they believe qualifies them as an ally to African Americans. Provocative, entertaining, insightful and fearless, “Get Out” skillfully balances tones, themes and genres to create a full package and force viewers to reassess their own actions and perspectives.
“Blindspotting” is one of the most underappreciated films of the 2010s. Starring and written by real-life friends Rafael Casal and Daveed Diggs, “Blindspotting” starts with a pretty standard modern topic as a black man witnesses an unarmed black man gunned down by white police officers. Instead of just focusing on this event however “Blindspotting” evolves into a engaging, humorous and impactful examination of cultural appropriation and identity as well as the meaning behind its title which is the idea that we as people limit our perspectives by remaining blind to alternate outlooks. It’s an idea that litters our society today especially when it comes to race relations and social politics. The highlight of this film is when Diggs’ Collin and the white cop come face to face resulting on one of the most brilliant, poignant and captivating cinema moments of the decade. For that moment alone this film is worth the viewing, but overall it’s just an absolutely awesome movie that attempts to open viewers minds without ever feeling too self-important.
“Moonlight” is not only one of the best drama films of the 2010s, but one of the best movies of the decade, period. Focusing on the growth of black man Chiron from childhood to adulthood in Miami, “Moonlight” isn’t just an examination of the black experience, the bonds between child and father figure, and masculinity, it’s also a powerful examination of sexual identity. Powerful performances and uncompromising direction from screenplay writer Barry Jenkins carried “Moonlight” to a deserving Oscar victory for Best Picture and made history for being the first LGBTQ film and first all-black-cast film to win the highest honor at the Academy Awards. In a lot of ways “Moonlight” is a snapshot of a generation and the timeless struggle with self-identity. It’s truly a work of art which seamlessly mixes numerous social themes that were prominent throughout the decade into a story that I believe will remain timeless.