Great Black drama movies come in all shapes and sizes, from the serious and painful ones like “12 Years a Slave” and “Precious” to the more light-hearted such as “Soul Food.”
No matter what you’re in the mood for, just know that there are countless dramas with Black actors, directors, and writers that are more than worth watching.
Based on the semi-autobiographical play by Tarell Alvin McCraney called “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue,” “Moonlight” is a film about coming of age. It explores the early life of a young Black boy as he ventures from childhood to becoming a young man.
The drama explores the main character, Chiron, who deals with living in an abusive household and attempts to come to terms with his sexuality and identity.
“Moonlight” was a hit when it came out and was the first LGBT film to win the Oscar for Best Picture. It was the first black movie to do that too.
The movie stars Trevante Rhodes as the adult Chiron.
Another movie based on a true story, the premise of “BlacKkKlansman,” comes from the 2014 memoir written by Ron Stallworth with a similar title.
The movie takes place in the 1970s as the first Black detective (played by John David Washington) of the Colorado Springs police department attempts to infiltrate the local Ku Klux Klan chapter. By using a white man (Adam Driver) as his spy, they can gain information on the group.
The Spike Lee-directed film earned six Academy Award nominations, and the American Film Institute considered it one of the top ten movies of the year.
Also, interestingly, the film’s theatrical release coincided with the first anniversary of the Unite the Right rally that took place in Charlottesville, Virginia.
12 Years a Slave (2013)
“12 Years a Slave” is a harrowing accurate account based on the 1853 memoir of the same name written by Solomon Northup.
In this film, two white Washington DC-based conmen kidnap Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free-born Black man, in 1841 and sell him into slavery. From this point, Northup ends up on a plantation in Louisiana, where his enslaver forces him to work for 12 years.
Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave” also stars Lupita Nyong’o, Sarah Paulson, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Brad Pitt.
Considered one of the best Black drama movies of the decade, “12 Years a Slave” received nine separate Academy Award nominations and won in the category of “Best Picture.” Nyong’o also won Best Supporting Actress.
Based on Sapphire’s novel “Push” in 1996, “Precious” follows a 16-year-old girl named Claireece ‘Precious’ Jones (Gabourey Sibide) as she attempts to overcome poverty and abuse in Harlem in the late 1980s.
The movie focuses on the teenager as she learns to read and tries to rebuild her life despite being pregnant with her father’s baby. Precious’s story is both heart-wrenching and inspiring as she deals with the reality of a traumatic and challenging life.
Supported by Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry, the film quickly racked up $63 million at the box office. “Precious” also won the Audience Award at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival as well as the Grand Jury Prize for best drama.
Lee Daniels produced the film, and it also starred Mo’Nique and Mariah Carey.
Malcolm X (1992)
“Malcolm X” is a Spike Lee film that follows the main events in the life of the famous Black activist Malcolm X (played by Denzel Washington), from his childhood until he died in 1965. The 1965 book, called “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” by Alex Haley, provides most of the basis for the movie.
The early 90s biopic shows Malcolm X’s life as he dealt with an unstable childhood, lengthy incarceration as a young man, his time as a minister for the Nation of Islam, and his eventual separation from the institution after his pilgrimage to Mecca. The movie ends with his assassination during a speech in New York City.
The film won Washington the New York Film Circle Award for Best Actor. Additionally, the Library of Congress has preserved the movie in the United States National Film Registry, which holds culturally or historically significant films.
Boyz n the Hood (1991)
“Boyz n the Hood” is without doubt one of the most famous Black drama movies of its time. The story comes from a movie created by the film’s director, John Singleton, who made a version of the movie in 1986 as his application for film school. Singleton drew on moments of his own life and other people he knew to write the movie.
“Boyz n the Hood” focuses on the traumas and complications of living in the Los Angeles and Compton area during the 1980s. Gang violence was booming, especially with the Crips and the Bloods rivalry. The movie examines the young people who are caught up in the middle of the violence and trying to come of age in an unstable neighborhood.
However, the film is famous not only for its powerful story but also for launching the careers of Ice Cube and Cuba Gooding Jr. In 2002, “Boyz n the Hood” became a part of the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry, which recognizes movies that are culturally or historically important.
City of God (2002)
“City of God,” initially released in Brazil under the name “Cidade de Deus,” explores organized crime and drug dealing in the Cidade de Deus neighborhood on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro.
The movie begins with the building of the favela (the name for a non-government neighborhood in Brazil) in the late 1960s and how some residents deal with their poverty by resorting to crimes like robbery. “City of God” followed the rise of crime during the 1970s and ended with the drug war that consumed the area in the early 1980s.
Considered one of the best films of all time by many critics, “City of God” confronts racism, poverty, and crime in Brazil’s most significant tourist destination.
The Color Purple (1985)
According to the Alice Walker novel of the same name, which won a Pulitzer Prize, “The Color Purple” examines the life of a Black woman named Celie Harris (Whoopi Goldberg) as she grapples with issues such as incest, poverty, sexism, and racism.
In the movie, Celie must deal with the issues that plagued many Black women in the rural south in the early 20th century. After dealing with sexual abuse at the hands of her father and having to marry an unloving man, she becomes weak and submissive. However, she eventually meets other women who help her pick up the pieces of her life.
“The Color Purple” earned nominations for eleven Academy Awards, and Whoopi Goldberg won a Golden Globe award for Best Actress in a Drama.
The film also stars Danny Glover and Oprah Winfrey, with Stephen Spielberg as the director.
Remember the Titans (2000)
Based on football coach Herman Boone’s (Denzel Washington) story, “Remember the Titans” relates to his attempt to unite the T.C. Williams High School football team in Virginia.
In 1971, right after T.C. Williams High School became racially integrated, “Remember the Titans” is a story of overcoming racial prejudice by joining the school’s white and Black football teams. Along the way, Boone and his team have to deal with racism from the community and some white players who don’t wish to integrate.
The film was immensely popular when it debuted, making $115.6 million in the United States.
Hotel Rwanda (2004)
“Hotel Rwanda” is a harrowing drama about the atrocities committed during the Rwandan Genocide in the spring of 1994. The film is about a hotel owner, alongside his wife, who attempt to save people who tried to escape from the violence.
In the movie, hotelier Paul Rusesabagina (Don Cheadle) gives over 1,000 people shelter in the Hôtel des Mille Collines hotel. The film explores what life was like for those caught up in the conflict’s ethnic tensions, the hatred and fear that caused it, and how people came together to help each other during such a horrible time.
“Hotel Rwanda” gained three Academy Award nominations, including Best Actor for Cheadle and Best Original Screenplay.
Straight Outta Compton (2015)
“Straight Outta Compton” is all about the rap group N.W.A. and its members. From the group’s origins in Compton in 1986 to the death of Eazy-E from HIV/AIDS in 1995, this 2015 film explores topics like race, friendship, police brutality, and gang violence.
The biopic had input from people such as Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, and Eazy-E’s widow to ensure that the movie realistically portrayed the events. Ice Cube’s depiction on stage comes from his real son, O’Shea Jackson Jr.
“Straight Outta Compton” made $201 million when it came out, and the National Board of Review, who are highly respected, named it one of the top films of 2015. The movie also inspired Dr. Dre’s third solo album, “Compton.”
A new addition to the list of Black drama movies, “Passing”‘s storyline comes from the 1929 novel by Nella Larsen of the same name. The film follows two old friends, who are both light-skinned Black women, attempting to deal with race in 1920s New York.
The central conflict in the story comes from the fact that Irene (Tessa Thompson) discovers that her childhood friend, Clare (Ruth Negga), has decided to ‘pass’ for white. Clare has even married a white man who openly degrades Black people in front of the two since he doesn’t realize that either woman is actually Black.
The film then explores the complications of race and what it means for a Black person to ‘pass’ as white.
The African American Film Critics Association has named the movie one of the best films of 2021. Negga received a nomination from the Golden Globe Awards and the Screen Actors Guild Award for Best Supporting Actress.
Based on the 1987 novel of the same name by the legendary Toni Morrison, “Beloved” is a supernatural drama about a woman, her daughter, and her old friend and lover. They attempt to deal with the aftermath of slavery and its effect on their lives.
After the main character, Sethe (Oprah Winfrey), has escaped from slavery, she must deal with the trauma and the atrocities she had to commit when saving her children. For almost two decades, she refuses to deal with the pain and guilt until a man who was an enslaved person on the same plantation as she comes back into her life, Paul D. (Danny Glover).
Upon the film’s initial release in the late 90s, “Beloved” was a flop and didn’t make much revenue. However, more and more people have come to appreciate the movie and Morrison’s story over time.
Released in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery voting rights marches in 1965, “Selma” tells the story of one of the most critical moments in the history of the Civil Rights Movement.
Beginning with the racial events that occurred in Alabama in 1964, including the bombing of a Birmingham church by the K.K.K. that left four girls dead and a Black man not being allowed to register to vote, “Selma” recounts some of the most crucial moments for civil rights in the U.S.
The Academy Awards also nominated the film for an award in Best Picture, and it got four Golden Globe Award nominations.
Soul Food (1997)
“Soul Food” is a comedy-drama that tells about the Joseph family, who have to learn to come together to honor their mother’s last wish, so they don’t lose their childhood home.
Beginning with the family matriarch’s death, Big Mama (Irma P. Hall), the Joseph family begins to collapse as Big Mama’s three daughters fight with each other constantly without their mother there to break up the tension. The bond between the sisters continues to fall apart, resulting in the end of the weekly dinners they’ve had in their childhood home for 40 years.
As the movie progresses, it becomes more and more evident that the sisters either have to reconcile or risk losing each other and their mother’s house.
Although the movie didn’t become a massive moneymaker upon its release, many still adore the film about the love and tension that can develop within a close-knit family.
Best Black Drama Movies Ever, Final Thoughts
Over the years, there have been tons of incredible Black drama movies written, directed, and performed by mostly Black people. However, some have stood out more than others as the best Black dramas ever created.
Thus, from classics like “The Color Purple” to newer releases such as “Passing” and “BlacKkKlansman,” Black dramas run the gamut from historical stories and biopics to those that examine current racism or just the bonds in a family.