The 1950s saw black cinema take off, with a slew of films featuring black actors and creators. From biopics to dramas, adaptations of famous books, and more, there are various films to choose from for anyone looking for a great black movie from this era. The list below summarizes the best 50s black movies, allowing you to find your favorite quickly.
The Jackie Robinson Story (1950)
Jackie Robinson won the hearts of America as the first major league baseball player of color. Born in 1919, he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. He went on to become one of the best-known names in baseball history. This movie stars the man himself, sharing the story of his rise to fame with the world. Ruby Dee plays Rae Robinson, and Alfred E. Green directs.
Native Son (1951)
Richard Wright’s novel Native Son made a big splash in the cultural scene with its troubling tale of Bigger Thomas. In the story, Bigger takes a job driving for a white family in 1940s Chicago. His new gig gets complicated when he accidentally kills the family daughter and tries to cover his tracks. This adaptation stars Richard Wright himself in the title role as Bigger Thomas.
The Harlem Globetrotters (1951)
The Harlem Globetrotters gained worldwide fame as an all-black professional basketball team in the 1930s. In this story, the team’s manager hires a newbie, Billy Townsend (played by Billy Brown), to join the team. The movie follows Billy’s rise to stardom and the troubles he encounters on his journey upwards. This is a fun flick, thanks to cameos by the real team.
Cry, the Beloved Country (1951)
If you enjoy adaptations of books into movies, Cry, the Beloved Country is another one to add to your list. This story is based on the novel by Alan Paton. Set in South Africa, it tells the story of a black minister who goes to the big city of Johannesburg to find his missing son. There, he finds a scene of squalor and that his son has become a criminal.
Bright Road (1953)
Bright Road earns bonus points for being based on a true story. It tells the tale of a fourth-grade teacher in the South and her efforts to help a young boy, C.T. Young, find success. The movie was based on a story published in The Ladies’ Home Journal in 1951, “See How They Run.” Get ready for an emotional ride, as this one is sure to tug at your heartstrings.
New Faces (1954)
Do you love musicals? Then New Faces is for you. This is technically a filmed performance of a Broadway show. It features songs, dances, skits, and sketches blended into a somewhat cohesive plot. The story itself revolves around a Broadway producer who has trouble getting the money he needs for opening night. Expect some laughs and hijinks along the way.
Carmen Jones (1954)
For a little bit of romance—and a lot of drama—look to Carmen Jones. The movie is a modern retelling of the Bizet opera, featuring a black cast and lyrics updated for modern times. Stars include familiar faces like Harry Belafonte and Dorothy Dandridge. The story itself follows the downfall of a soldier who the fiery Carmen seduces. It’s a fresh take on a dramatic classic.
Rio, 40 degrees (1955)
Take a step beyond the U.S. and check out Rio, 40 degrees. A dramatic, semi-documentary, it’s set in Rio de Janeiro. The story follows boys’ lives in Rio’s famous shantytowns (favelas) and how they get by. The narrative provides a very different view from other more glamorous depictions of the Brazilian metropolis seen in Hollywood cinema at the time.
Rhythm and Blues Revue (1955)
Here’s another one for the music lovers. Rhythm and Blues Revue is a roundup of musical legends from the 1950s, featuring Count Basie, Herb Jeffries, Lionel Hampton, Bill Bailey, Faye Adams, and others. The movie offers an opportunity to discover new music beyond the mainstream, making it a sure favorite among blues fans. Get ready to turn the volume up!
Edge of the City (1957)
Edge of the City stars one of the most notorious names in black cinema, Sidney Poitier. Poitier remains famous as the first black man to win an Oscar in the Best Actor category. In this film, he stars as a New York City longshoreman. He and another longshoreman, played by John Cassavetes, form a budding friendship. However, their connection is threatened by a punk.
Moi, un noir (1957)
Moi, un noir (translation “I, a negro”) is a French film by writer and director Jean Rouch. It depicts the life of a Nigerian immigrant who leaves his country to work in Abidjan, the Ivory Quote. The film spans a single week, providing in-depth insights into the immigrant life—working hard by day and dreaming big dreams of escape by night. Expect a harsh look at reality.
The Mark of the Hawk (1957)
The Mark of the Hawk is another flick featuring the famous Sidney Poitier. Famed singer Eartha Kitt accompanies him. The narrative follows the story of a man named Obam, who gets stuck amid a hostile confrontation between African villages and British colonial forces. Obam takes on the responsibility of saving his country, along with the help of his wife (played by Kitt)
St. Louis Blues (1958)
Here’s another one for the music lovers. If you’re interested in blues music and the history around it, this is a can’t-miss flick. It stars famed blues stars Nat King Cole and Eartha Kitt, providing a treat of musical talent. The story itself is biographical, depicting the life of W.C. Handy, whom many consider as the father of blues music. It’s a must for music history buffs.
The Defiant Ones (1958)
The Defiant Ones features Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier, starring two escaped convicts—one white and one black. The duo manage to escape their confinement, but there’s one hitch in their plan: They’re chained together. The narrative follows their hijinks as they grapple with the physical proximity and the inevitable emotional closeness that it brings them.
Anna Lucasta (1958)
Anna Lucasta stars Eartha Kitt as a young woman with a troubled and dubious past. Trying to get away from her demons, she ends up getting into even more trouble. This flick also features Sammy Davis Jr., starring opposite Kitt. Famous for playing a part in the “Rat Pack” later, this earlier film helped to establish the singer’s career and get him a spot in the group later.
The World, the Flesh and the Devil (1959)
Here’s one for science fiction fans. The World, the Flesh, and the Devil is a wild story about a miner trapped in a mine collapse. When he finally escapes and returns to the earth’s surface, he discovers that a nuclear event has wiped out humanity. The movie follows his exploits as he looks for other survivors. Harry Belafonte and Inger Stevens star.
Porgy and Bess (1959)
This classic tale is a well-known musical. The dramatic romance follows a young woman scorned by all around her—until one man comes along and changes it all. It’s a complicated love story that will definitely tug at your heartstrings. You’ll see significant stars like Sidney Poitier, Dorothy Dandridge, and Sammy Davis Jr.
Top 50s Black Movies, Final Thoughts
If you’re looking for the best 50s black movies, this list has you covered. The era showed significant change, with the number of firms released later in the decade increasing. Some also address more socially complex topics, showing growth beyond making movies just for fun.
The 1950s paved the way to the more productive eras of black cinema in the 1960s and 1970s. However, the list of flicks above can be credited for starting the cultural shift. Grab your popcorn, dim the lights, kick your feet up, and enjoy!