The world knows the power of Black athletes – from Usain Bolt’s wild speed to Jackie Robinson’s revolutionary performance in Major League Baseball, Black athleticism dominates all over the world.
With all these stories, it’s little wonder that there are so many impactful Black sports movies. Here, we have compiled some of the best ones ever made.
Remember the Titans
Denzel Washington’s powerful, award-winning performance as Herman Boone, the head coach of T.C. Williams High School, is unforgettable.
The story of the 2000 film follows him as he takes charge of the football team of a newly racially-integrated high school in the South in 1971. The challenges of this are clear right off the bat, as Boone must navigate the difficulties of an antagonistic school board and town, a reluctant (and often racist) assistant coach, and a white school body that is deeply resistant to any change.
While Washington provides the dramatic force behind the movie, Will Patton’s presentation of the complex assistant coach Bill Yoast acts as a beautiful complement.
The flick also features early performances from now-prominent actors like Ryan Gosling and Hayden Panettiere. Gosling takes up the role of Alan Bosley, the team’s cornerback who loves country music, while Panettiere takes on the role of Sheryl Yoast, Bill Yoast’s racist daughter.
The movie was an incredible success at the box office, grossing approximately $115 million in the U.S. and $137 million worldwide. Critics responded to it with general positivity, though some found it a little too schmaltzy and predictable for their tastes. That said, the same critics nearly universally praised Denzel Washington’s performance.
Creed is a unique sort of sports movie. It’s undoubtedly a Black sports movie, as it stars the incomparable Michael B. Jordan in the titular role of Adonis “Donnie” Creed. But Creed is also both a sequel and a spin-off to the Rocky franchise – notably not a Black franchise.
Donnie Creed is the son of Apollo Creed, Rocky Balboa’s famed opponent (and sometimes teammate) from the whole span of the original Rocky series. The movie portrays Donnie’s experiences as he tries to forge his own path in the boxing world, independent of his father’s name and influence.
In this pursuit, Donnie recruits Rocky Balboa as a trainer, a role reprised by the unforgettable Sylvester Stallone. Throughout the story, Balboa takes Donnie through much of the same harsh training that the original Rocky series was known for, all while they both explore their relationships with Donnie’s late father Apollo.
The flick ended up being a box office success in every direction, receiving wide praise from critics and earning over $173 million throughout its run.
The Express: The Ernie Davis Story
Ernie Davis isn’t one of the better-known sports figures on this list, but his movie certainly deserves a spot here. He was the first Black person to win a Heisman trophy, and The Express: The Ernie Davis Story follows his journey from high school through his Heisman-winning season and on to his professional career.
Rob Brown takes on the role of the protagonist in the story, with Dennis Quaid portraying Ben Schwartzwalder, Syracuse University’s head football coach, and Charles S. Dutton portraying Willie ‘Pops’ Davis, Ernie’s grandfather, and mentor.
The flick focuses both on Ernie Davis’s athletic excellence as well as the racism that he had to face and overcome throughout his journey. Unlike many of the other films on this list, The Express is notable for how Davis’ team and coach support him unquestioningly amid the racism of the system and their opponents throughout the whole story.
While the film was a box-office flop, only earning about $10 million worldwide compared to its $40 million budget, many critics had strong praise for its screenwriting, cinematography, and performances.
Jackie Robinson is a legend, period. And Chadwick Boseman’s portrayal of him in the movie 42 is undeniably one of the best performances of his career.
The movie follows Robinson’s journey through the Major League of Baseball, from his time in the Brooklyn Dodgers’ minor league farm system to the rest of his record-making career.
The story focuses especially on the racist challenges that Robinson had to face throughout his time in the league. The Dodgers’ management, his teammates, and the athletes on the opposing team all prove to be immense obstacles for Boseman’s Robinson. But, he remains a steadfastly persevering presence through it all.
42 had the strongest-ever box office debut for a baseball movie, earning $27.3 million in its first weekend. Overall, it grossed $97.5 million.
Critics received it largely positively, though some found it a little too unchallenging. Reviewers had particular praise for Boseman’s performance, which was compelling despite the unique challenge of portraying a character who was noted for being reserved in life.
Speaking of legends, this list would be woefully incomplete if it didn’t include anything about one of the greatest boxers of all time: Muhammad Ali.
Ali takes an in-depth look at the famed boxer’s life and career. It focuses on his start in the sport as Cassius Clay, Jr., his developing friendships with Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad, his conscientious objecting to the Vietnam War, and consequent exile from boxing, all the way to his triumphant comeback in the 1974 Rumble in the Jungle.
It’s a star-studded picture with rock-solid performances all the way down. Will Smith stars as Muhammad Ali, embodying with skillful nuance all the flash, sincerity, and complexity of the boxer’s fascinating personality. Jon Voight takes on the role of Howard Cosell, a prominent sportscaster of the time who publicly supported many of Ali’s controversial decisions (especially his conscientious objection to participating in Vietnam).
Jamie Foxx, Giancarlo Esposito, Jada Pinkett Smith, and LeVar Burton also put on outstanding supporting performances in roles big and small.
The flick also met a great deal of critical acclaim, nearly sweeping the 2001 Black Reel Awards. It also won the Best Sports Movie ESPY Award and earned high-value nominations at the Golden Globes and Academy Awards.
That said, despite the critical praise and star cast, the film did not end up being very much of a box office success. That was likely due in part to its competition with the monumentally successful Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. Either way, Ali ended up costing the creators $100 million due to its high production costs.
Coach Carter is another true story from this list, but it’s a fairly distinctive one. It doesn’t deal primarily with racism or even primarily with Blackness. Indeed, the Black lead of the film isn’t a player but is the titular Coach Carter, portrayed with power and compassion by the incredible Samuel L. Jackson.
The 2005 flick follows Coach Carter in his unusual and rigorous coaching style that prioritizes the players’ academic performance over anything else. At the beginning of the movie, Carter makes his students sign a contract: they must sit in the front rows of all of their classes and keep up a grade point average of at least 2.3 (C-).
This inevitably causes a series of tense and challenging scenarios, throughout all of which Jackson’s Coach Carter remains steadfast: his players will succeed academically, or they will not succeed at all.
Coach Carter went on to earn $67.3 million domestically, with mixed critical reception but garnering several award nominations and victories. Jackson won the NAACP’s Outstanding Actor in a Motion Picture award, while the film’s director won the Black Reel Awards’ Best Director and the Black Film Awards’ Outstanding Achievement in Directing awards.
He Got Game
Another one of the few purely fictional Black sports films on our list, the 1998 flick He Got Game is one of writer/director Spike Lee’s masterpieces. The complexity of the story and the weightiness of the performances bring a whole new feel to the genre of sports movies.
The story revolves around Jesus Shuttlesworth, the nation’s top recruiting prospect for college basketball, and his father Jake Shuttlesworth, a convicted murderer who had accidentally killed his wife (Jesus’ mother) 6 years before the start of the film.
Denzel Washington plays the father, released on parole by the governor to convince his son Jesus to sign on with the state school. The governor promises him an early release should he prove successful in this effort. That means that Jake’s life depends on his capacity to navigate the complexities of rebuilding a relationship with his son in the wake of having destroyed his family.
The most surprising performance in the film comes from Ray Allen, who plays Jesus Shuttlesworth. Allen was a professional basketball player at the time and had never acted before in his life. Nonetheless, many critics praised his performance as surprisingly genuine and skillful.
He Got Game just barely missed its budget in the box office, falling short by $3.5 million. Even though some critics found it a little scattered, Lee was almost universally praised for his inventive and darkly complex storytelling.
Above the Rim
Above the Rim is a basketball movie, but it isn’t about pro ball, college ball, or even high school ball – it’s about streetball. The flick stars Duane Martin, a former basketball player and a veteran of basketball movies, in the role of Kyle Watson, a recent high school graduate torn towards different sides of a street ball tournament that all of Harlem is watching.
It’s a film filled with surprising star turns. Tupac Shakur plays Birdie, a neighborhood drug magnate who desperately wants the team he runs to win the tournament and isn’t afraid to crack some heads to make it happen. Marlon Wayans takes on the role of Bugaloo, Kyle’s lovably goofy best friend who gets bullied by Birdie’s gang. Meanwhile, Bernie Mac plays Birdie, a former player who’s now homeless, hopelessly addicted to crack, and firmly under Birdie’s thumb.
Kyle Watson has reasons to join both of the best teams in the tournament: Birdie’s gang team and the team run by his universally-beloved high school coach, Mike Rollins. The story focuses on his choices and challenges as he navigates the intense world of high-skill streetball without losing his scholarship to Georgetown.
The movie grossed $16 million in its theatrical run, with many critics especially loving Tupac’s performance as Birdie.
Brian’s Song is a rare film for many different reasons. First of all, it’s a TV movie – the only one on this list – but it’s nonetheless consistently ranked as one of the best sports movies of all time. And even though the arguable protagonist Gale Sayers (Billy Dee Williams) is Black, the story revolves around his close friend Brian Piccolo (James Caan), who is white.
The movie is set in the latter half of the 1960s and explores their surprising friendship as the first two NFL players who were assigned as interracial roommates. In their time together playing with the Chicago Bears, Sayers and Piccolo grew to become very close friends despite differing racial backgrounds and temperaments.
The tension of the movie arises when Piccolo begins losing weight, his in-game performance starts to decline, and is eventually diagnosed with cancer. The story focuses on how the pair navigate that as friends and how Sayers rallies the team around Piccolo’s specific suffering.
This movie is a classic “oldie but a goodie,” and it is widely beloved. It won a whole series of Primetime Emmy Awards, as well as a Peabody Award, a Grammy Award, and an award from the Director’s Guild of America.
Best Black Sports Movies Ever, Final Thoughts
Black excellence is worth reflecting on, and Black sports movies especially have a distinct role to play. They celebrate Black artistic and athletic greatness simultaneously in a world that wants to shoehorn Black culture into one small venue.
These films, even though they all vary significantly in genre, strategy, and story, all succeed in one core goal: being unapologetically and gloriously Black.