In the 1980s, black cinema found a strong voice, and the decade saw a wide range of movies written, starring, and directed by black men and women.
From over-the-top comedies starring Richard Pryor and Keenan Ivory Wayans to serious dramas about slavery and gangs, no matter what you’re in the mood to watch, you’ll find tons of awesome options.
Here are the eighteen best 80s black movies:
The Color Purple (1985)
Heart-wrenching but hopeful, The Color Purple is the story of a young black woman named Celie Harris and her experiences in early 20th century North Carolina.
While it deals with dark themes such as racism, sexism, poverty, and violence, it also presents an objective view of the uglier aspects of American history, making this a film older kids and parents can watch together.
There are films with impressive pedigrees, but The Color Purple takes it to a whole new level. It’s based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book of the same name, directed by Steven Spielberg, and stars Whoopi Goldberg, Danny Glover, and Oprah Winfrey.
Stir Crazy (1980)
The 1980s were filled with comedies starring a black lead, a type of movie arguably kicked into gear by Stir Crazy. It’s a buddy comedy starring the legendary duo of Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor, who play best friends framed for a crime and on the run from the law.
With a total domestic gross of over $101,300,000, Stir Crazy is the most successful movie Wilder and Pryor made together, and it’s easy to see why. Their hilarious chemistry is genuinely something to behold, while the outlandish story delivers tons of classic comedic moments.
See No Evil, Hear No Evil (1989)
After Stir Crazy, Wilder and Pryor reunited in 1989 for their third movie together (the first being 1976’s Silver Streak). In this movie, Pryor plays a blind man named Wally, and Wilder is his deaf friend Dave.
Framed for murder (a common occurrence in their movies), the duo must work together to unravel a mystery and catch the bad guys. While not every joke about being blind or deaf likely adheres to modern sensibilities, the movie remains good-natured and hilarious.
After this movie, Wilder and Pryor got back together in 1991 for Another You. Unfortunately, that movie was a bomb among critics and audiences alike, and the duo never worked together again.
Lean On Me (1989)
Before he played God (and Batman’s Best Buddy), Morgan Freeman starred as real-life principal Joe Clark. It tells the tale of Clark, often arrogant but never unwavering, as he attempts to clean up Eastside High from drugs and gangs while also battling city officials and local bureaucracy.
Freeman’s performance is the main draw here, as he creates a complex picture of a man desperately trying to make a difference. Although some aspects of the story can feel a bit formulaic, overall, it’s an uplifting movie about the power of education.
As you’ve undoubtedly noticed by now, Morgan Freeman was a big deal throughout the 80s. In Glory, he was part of an all-star cast that included Denzel Washington, Andre Braugher, Matthew Broderick, and more.
Glory tells the true story of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw (Broderick), who led the first all-black volunteer company during the Civil War. Aside from fighting the Confederates, they also have to battle intense racism and a lack of support from their fellow Union soldiers.
While the movie is violent and gets dark at times, it’s also an uplifting story about heroism and standing together in the face of adversity.
If you’re old enough, you might remember this movie’s classic theme song, performed by Ice-T. Colors tells the story of a rookie cop (Sean Penn) and his veteran partner (Robert Duvall) as they navigate the intricate and violent world of gangs in 1980’s East Los Angeles.
While some elements of the film haven’t aged great, it still stands up for the most part as a serious examination of gang life, with themes that resonate even today. Plus, it boasts an impressive array of performances from a cast that includes Don Cheadle, Glenn Plummer, Maria Conchita Alonso, and even Damon Wayans in a supporting role.
Directed by Dennis Hopper, Colors is gritty, raw, and violent. While it’s not necessarily inappropriate for younger teens, you might want to watch it yourself first.
Harlem Nights (1989)
Harlem Nights is just as famous for who stars in it as what it’s about. The film is written and directed by Murphy, who wanted to make the film so that he could work with his comedy-hero, Richard Pryor.
This comedy-drama stars Murphy and Pryor as co-owners of a nightclub in 1930s Harlem dealing with gangsters, corrupt cops, and other troubles. Aside from the two leads, the cast includes Danny Aiello, Della Reese, and Redd Foxx in his final film role. In an interesting twist, Redd Foxx was a significant influence on Richard Pryor.
Although critically panned upon release, the film has turned into a cult classic in the coming decades. Even if it’s slightly uneven at times, Harlem Nights offers the unique opportunity to see three comic legends on screen together.
I’m Gonna Git You Sucka (1988)
A parody of 70s blaxploitation movies, I’m Gonna Git You Sucka helped introduce the world to the humor of Keenen Ivory Wayans and his troupe. Wayans directs and stars along with a terrific cast that includes Jim Brown, Bernie Casey, and Isaac Hayes.
You’ll spot more than a few folks who went on to star in In Living Color, such as Damon Wayans and David Allen Grier. The film shares the same outlandish sense of humor, although interestingly, the title and general concept were created by Eddie Murphy during a conversation with Keenan.
Even if you’ve never heard of this movie before, you might be familiar with the viral clip of a young Chris Rock ordering “one rib.” If that scene makes you laugh, the entire flick will likely have you in stitches.
Coming to America (1988)
Eddie Murphy was at the peak of box office popularity throughout the 80s, releasing several classics during the decade, including Coming to America. Far from a cult hit, Coming to America was popular upon release and finds new fans every year.
It’s a classic fish-out-of-water tale starring Murphy as Prince Akeem, heir to the throne of his wealthy African country. Wanting to flee from an arranged marriage, the Prince arrives in New York, where he must navigate a whole new world while he finds himself falling in love with his co-worker Lisa.
When you’ve finished watching, check out the 2021 sequel, Coming 2 America, which reunites much of the original cast.
Krush Groove (1995)
Krush Groove is a bit of an oddity. It’s a musical comedy-drama based on the real-life story of Def Jam Records and Russell Simmons, who co-produced and served as a story consultant. The movie follows “Russell Walker,” head of the fledgling Krush Groove record label, as he attempts to navigate the world of early 80s hip-hop and rap.
Interestingly, even though both Russel Simmons and Def Jam get pseudonyms in the movie, most of the major Def Jam artists play themselves. Watch for appearances from LL Cool J, New Edition, the Beastie Boys, Chaka Khan, and others. The movie is also the feature film debut of Blair Underwood.
Is Krush Groove a great movie? With a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 43%, many critics didn’t seem to think so. But it’s worth a watch anyway, simply for the unique place it has in hip-hop history. Plus, the soundtrack will rock the house.
Brewster’s Millions (1985)
Brewster’s Millions is a classic Richard Pryor 80s comedy. It stars Pryor as a minor league baseball player presented with an unusual inheritance. He must spend $30 million in 30 days in order to inherit $300 million.
The catch? He can’t destroy the money, give it to charity, or even tell anyone what he’s doing. As you’d expect from the premise, the movie is definitely wacky but anchored by engaging and heartfelt performances from both Pryor and co-star John Candy.
It’s a fun movie with a message about wealth inequality that resonates today. While there are some risqué moments, it’s still a good time for the whole family.
Crisis at Central High (1981)
Crisis at Central High is a made-for-TV movie that aired in 1981. While made-for-TV movies back then weren’t always known for their quality, Crisis at Central High stands out for its strong performances and attention to detail.
The movie is based on the memoir of Elizabeth Huckaby, the assistant principal of Central High during the Little Rock Integration Crisis of 1957. Joanne Woodward stars as Huckaby while Charles Durning plays the principal.
The movie creates some composite characters, and many critics wished the story had focused more on the nine black children instead of the white principal.
However, the film is well-told overall, and acts as an accessible introduction for anyone who might not know much about the original event, such as younger audiences.
She’s Gotta Have It (1986)
Spike Lee burst onto the scene in 1986 with She’s Gotta Have It, a black-and-white film made on a small budget. It’s the story of Nola Darling, a young woman living in the Bronx juggling three boyfriends. As she attempts to follow her heart, she ends up with a series of romantic entanglements.
She’s Gotta Have It showcased Lee’s original style as a writer, director, and actor. Plus, Nola’s desire to be seen as a free, sexual being was a revolutionary theme for the time and one many black women could relate to.
Lee released two more films in the 80s, School Daze in 1988 and Do the Right Thing in 1989. With bigger budgets and more famous casts, they’re both excellent 80s black movies in their own right. But if you want to see why this filmmaker became so famous so quickly, start here with his debut.
Beat Street (1984)
Beat Street takes the classic “kids put on a show to save the day” story and adds a hip-hop twist. It’s about young guys and girls in the South Bronx attempting to find fame and love. Although not packed with famous names, Rae Dawn Chong plays the lead, and the supporting cast has some superb dance moves.
Is the movie dated? Absolutely, but that’s part of its charm. The world of 80s hip-hop is the real star here, with some type of breakdancing, rapping, tagging, or DJing in practically every scene. You’ll catch appearances from Afrika Bambaataa, Kool Moe Dee, Melle Mel, and other icons.
It’s a fun and funky movie for anyone who lived through the era or those born later who just want to check out what it was like back in the day.
Beverly Hills Cop (1984)
Beverly Hills Cop introduced the world to Axel Foley, Eddie Murphy’s classic Detroit cop who must navigate the world of Beverly Hills. The movie delivers winning performances from Murphy as well Judge Reinhold and John Ashton as the Beverly Hills detectives he befriends.
It’s considered one of the greatest action comedies of all time, with not just solid comedy but also a gripping plot and high-octane action.
Beverly Hills Cop spawned two sequels, including 1987’s Beverly Hills Cop II. The second film kept the humor while upping the action significantly, perhaps not surprising considering director Tony Scott was now at the helm as the director.
Jumpin’ Jack Flash (1986)
Even though 80s black movies were male-dominated, Whoopi Goldberg also spent the decade quietly establishing herself as both a dramatic and comedic legend. In Jumpin Jack Flash, she stars as a computer whiz working for a New York bank who finds herself in the middle of an espionage plot.
This movie is fun, funny, and exciting. Whoopi – relatively unknown to audiences at the time – delivers an energetic, engaging performance as Terry Doolittle.
Directed by Penny Marshall from a screenplay by Nancy Myers, Jumpin’ Jack Flash is a comedy-adventure that more than holds up for modern audiences.
Starring the late Gregory Hines, Tap is a crime caper story about Max Washington, a tap dancer, and burglar who was just released from prison and is forced back into his criminal lifestyle.
It’s a tightly wound thriller that also happens to have some fantastic tap dancing sequences. Aside from Hines, the film also stars the one-and-only Sammy Davis, Jr. in one of his final film roles.
Tap is often overlooked among 80s African American films. While the premise might sound a bit odd on paper, it’s a well-executed character study with plenty of suspense and some truly masterclass acting.
Purple Rain (1984)
Just as there was no one else like Prince, there’s no other movie quite like Purple Rain. A star vehicle for the famous musician, Purple Rain is about a young, aspiring musician and his ups and downs both professionally and in matters of the heart.
Is Purple Rain a good movie? With a Metacritic score of 55, it’s safe to say that reception has always been mixed. But what it might lack in story, it more than makes up for with outstanding musical performances from a true legend.
Top 80s Black Movies, Conclusion
80s black movies were dramatic, comedic, and groundbreaking. They spoke directly to black viewers while also helping to broaden the views of other audiences. Whether you were alive in the 80s and want to relive some of your favorite films, or you’re younger and want to check out the styles and ideas of the decade for yourself, a vast range of amazing options are available to watch.