Sometimes, it can be a cathartic experience to witness trauma. These nine best black trauma movies aren’t always comfortable. But their examinations of the black experience are in some ways a means to cope with tragedy, both collective and individual.
The Color Purple (1985)
This movie explores the struggles of a young woman named Celie (Desreta Jackson). In 1909, at the age of only fourteen, she gives birth to a daughter, conceived through incest. Her family forces her to conceal the pregnancy, as she has done once before. Her sister Nettie (Akosua Busia) is there to support Celie as she deals with the trauma of the situation.
But when a local bigshot named Albert (Danny Glover) takes Celie to live with him as his wife and servant. The two sisters are briefly separated, and though they reconnect, the abuse that they each suffer continues, and their circumstances remain uncertain. Years pass without any contact, as a much older Celie (now played by Caryn Elaine Johnson) strives to improve her lot in life by learning to leave and escaping Albert’s clutches.
Things get even more complicated when Albert’s son Harpo (Willard Pugh) arrives to live at the farm with his pregnant fiance (Oprah Winfrey). Things continue to get more complicated and more painful, as this Steven Spielberg film explores thirty years of black trauma.
Cooley High (1975)
To many, Cooley High sets the standard for African-American films. Debuting in 1978, this movie explores the story of a group of teens living in the Near-North Side of Chicago. Without a care in the world, these brash high-schoolers soon confront the wider world. When two of them make a bad decision, they go on a ride that will change their lives forever.
A stolen Cadillac, unbridled passions, teenage angst, and the weight of racism all swirl through this film that explores the complexity of relationships as boys grow into men. Perhaps it is then no surprise that the song from the movie’s tragic final scenes, It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday, was remade years later by the group Boyz II Men, who were clearly influenced by the film.
Denzel Washington produced and directed this film adaptation of the book of the same name, written by August Wilson. Washington also stars as Troy Maxson, a garbageman in 1950’s Pittsburgh. Viola Davis won an Academy Award for her portrayal of Rose Lee Maxson, Troy’s wife.
The movie is grounded in the events of the past. World War II looms over the family, as Troy’s brother bears permanent scars of battle and his payouts from the government help sustain the family. Troy struggles to meet his financial obligations when he moves across the street and stops paying rent.
Troy is no stranger to hardship, having left home at a young age to escape an abusive father, serving time in prison, and failing to reach Major League Baseball due to its color barrier, despite having enough talent to play in the Negro Leagues.
When Troy and Rose’s son Cory indicates he wants to play football professionally, it drives a wedge between father and son, and a simple project to install a fence around their home serves as a metaphor for the way real and perceived trauma creates a prison for all of us.
Precious is a film by Lee Daniels that explores the struggles of a morbidly obese Black teenager growing up in Harlem during the late 1980s. Not only is she the victim of constant abuse, but she’s also trapped in the cycle of welfare and poverty that’s all too common in America’s inner cities, especially within BIPOC communities.
Gabourey Sibide is the star, but Mo’Nique steals much of the spotlight as Precious’s mother. Their relationship is marked by physical and emotional torture, set against the backdrop of incest, welfare fraud, and a failed education system. Even when a sympathetic teacher shows Precious that there might be a road to a better life through education, her journey to learn to read and write isn’t straightforward.
Much of this movie is hard to watch, but it’s a reminder of the struggles that remain all too common.
When Ron Stallworth is hired as the first black police officer in the Colorado town of Colorado Springs, he anticipates a bit of resistance and turmoil. Based on a true story, this movie takes the audience along for the ride as Stallworth (John David Washington) tries to escape the racist taunts he heard working in the police records room by volunteering to go undercover.
His assignment: Infiltrate the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. With a steady stream of racial epithets, this Spike Lee film’s story is alternately funny, sad, engaging, and jarring. It’s also among the best black trauma films.
Get Out (2017)
Jordan Peele directed and wrote the screenplay for this movie that touches on the interplay and family dynamics at work when a white woman brings a black man home to meet her family.
When Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) and Rose Armitage (Allison Williams) take a trip upstate to her family home for the weekend, the family’s behavior seems to indicate frayed nerves due to deep reservations about a black suitor for their daughter. Awkward attempts at humor and graciousness offer some light moments of comedy, but as the weekend unfolds, a feeling of unease develops.
When a sequence of disturbing events occurs, what seemed to be a strained family weekend develops into something much darker. Viewed through a much wider lens, this horror film may be making much more of a statement about the evils of racism than a simple thriller or slasher flick.
Boyz in the Hood (1991)
John Singleton’s masterclass on the experiences of growing up in Crenshaw, an LA ghetto, takes the viewer along for a ride following Tre (Cuba Gooding Jr.) and his two friends Doughboy (Ice Cube) and Ricky (Morris Chestnut) as they make their way through young adulthood.
Each young man’s life represents a different strategy or coping mechanism, though they are all victims of circumstance and trapped within a cycle that is hard to escape. Ricky’s dreams of escaping the ghetto through success as an athlete diverges from Doughboy’s criminality, drunkenness, and apathy. This schism stretches the fabric of the bond between the brothers.
The protagonist of the story, Tre, is lucky enough to have a strong father in his life (Larry Fishburne). But will that powerful influence be enough of a force to keep Tre from getting caught up in the drama?
12 Years a Slave (2013)
Slavery has been a stain on humanity throughout our history. The collective trauma of the experience of America’s slave trade pervades much of black culture to this day. Through this film based on a true story, the viewer is confronted by the realities of antebellum life and one man’s struggles to find salvation and dignity, while survival isn’t even guaranteed.
The extraordinary life of Solomon Northrop (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is both captivating and shocking. Follow his journey from freedom in New York to abduction and slavery in the deep South. What will happen in the twelfth year of his struggle?
If you’re looking for a movie that explores the trauma of the black experience during the tumult of the Civil War, you cannot find a better specimen. But Glory, directed by Edward Zwick, is also quite simply a powerful movie. It explores the formation of a Civil War army unit with all black soldiers, led by white officers.
While some scenes are brutal, the development of the characters through shared pain, injustice, and struggle reveals something that’s often forgotten. We must all confront prejudice, and we can overcome great obstacles when we do. Though not all will live to see it, the world will be a better place for it.
This movie isn’t an abstract study. It’s the story of the volunteer fighting men of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, as led by Colonel Robert Gould Shaw.
Best Black Trauma Movies Ever, Final Thoughts
Viewing a black trauma movie can leave you feeling a bit depressed. The subject matter is often pretty rough. But even though the struggle continues in many ways, we have come a long way. There are reminders of progress throughout these best black trauma movies, and they offer insight into the development of our modern society.
These powerful movies are a reminder of all that we have endured, as well as the ongoing fight. They’re not meant to be comfortable, but they might be inspirational.