The history of black cinema is a long and storied journey that stretches back to the birth of modern filmmaking at the tail end of the 19th century.
Today we will review some of the most celebrated black films of all time, from transformative black films of the 1950s to the rich cultural tapestry of 1970s black cinema and beyond.
So sit back, relax, and munch on some popcorn while you discover the best classic black movies to watch in 2022.
Classic Black Movies of the 1940s
The 40s saw a shift in black character portrayals in major Hollywood films.
Traditional stereotypes began to give way to well-rounded black characters and storylines. Suddenly there were starring roles for black entertainers and films with all-black cast lists.
More black people began working behind the scenes in Hollywood as well. That helped to increase black representation in the film industry.
Stormy Weather (1943)
The film shares a name with a 1933 song called Stormy Weather. The movie centers on the life of famed dancer Bill Bojangles Robinson. Robinson stars as Bill Williamson in this dramatic rendition of his past.
The story is narrated in flashbacks as Williamson recounts his glory days. From his return home after World War I to his time in swinging New Orleans, the audience gets a front-row seat for the action and the drama of this fascinating story.
Aside from Lena Horne and Bill Robinson, Stormy Weather also starred Dooly Wilson, Emmett Wallace, Fats Waller, Cab Calloway, Ada Brown, and more.
The shared dance routines between Lena Horne and Bill Robinson serve as one of the most memorable highlights from the film.
There are also plenty of memorable musical performances from Horne, Cab Calloway, and Fats Waller.
Cabin in the Sky (1943)
An American musical film adapted from a 1940 Broadway musical that shares the same title, Cabin in the Sky is director Vincente Minnelli’s debut picture. Stars of the original Broadway adaptation Ethel Waters and Rex Ingram reprised their roles of Petunia and Lucifer Jr. for the theatrical release.
The film also stars Eddie Rochester Anderson as Little Joe and Lena Horne as Georgia Brown. It features performances from the famous jazz musicians Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong.
Cabin in the Sky is a story about Little Joe, who gets a miraculous second chance at life after his death by murder over a large gambling debt. He has only six months to prove that he has changed his ways. If not, Little Joe’s will get a first-class ticket straight to hell.
Hounded every step of the way by the son of the Devil himself, Joe must work hard to prove he is a changed man and make up for all his wicked ways, especially with his long-suffering wife Petunia.
Cabin in the Sky was chosen by the Library of Congress for preservation in the United States National Film Registry in 2020.
Classic Black Movies of the 1950s
As black representation in the film industry grew beyond the 1940s, the succeeding decade would witness the emergence of all-black casts in Hollywood regularly.
Major studios began to work more regularly with talent from different backgrounds and races, and roles for black actors and performers were now more complex and nuanced.
More and more Hollywood films rebelled against societal norms like segregation and systemic racism. They also began to shed many negative racial stereotypes surrounding black people in America at the time.
Native Son (1951)
This Argentinian drama, directed by a French filmmaker named Pierre Chenal, is based on a novel of the same name by Richard Wright. Wright starred in the film as the main character, Bigger Thomas.
The controversial storyline centers on a young, black protagonist named Bigger Thomas. He works as a personal driver for a wealthy family in Chicago in the early 1940s.
Bigger makes many mistakes throughout his journey and has to face the consequences, though he does meet some surprising allies along the way that try their best to help him through to the other side.
Native Son also stars Willa Pearl Curtis, Gloria Madison, Lidia Alves, Leslie Straugh, George D. Green, and George Rigaud.
Carmen Jones (1954)
Released in 1954 by 20th Century Fox, Carmen Jones is an American musical based on work by Oscar Hammerstein II for the 1943 stage musical of the same name.
The screenplay was adapted by Harry Kleiner and is set to music from George Bizet’s world-famous 1875 opera called Carmen. The opera itself was based on an 1845 novel by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy.
The film was produced and directed by Otto Preminger and stars Harry Belafonte and Dorothy Dandridge in the leading roles.
The musical is set during World War II and focuses on the main character Carmen Jones. Carmen works in a North Carolina parachute factory until she is fired and arrested for assaulting one of her co-workers.
Afterwards, a handsome Corporal named Joe is assigned to deliver her to the authorities and the two of them embark on a forbidden romance that proves to be nothing but trouble for poor Joe.
Dorothy Dandridge plays the irresistible vixen Carmen, while Harry Belafonte plays Corporal Joe. The film also stares Pearl Baily, Olga James, Joe Adams, Brock Peters, and Diahann Carroll.
Carmen Jones won a Golden Globe for Best Picture and was nominated for the BAFTA Award for Best Film from any Source.
Dorothy Dandridge was also nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress, marking the first time in history a black actress was nominated in the category. She was also nominated for the BAFTA Award for Best Foreign Actress.
The film was selected for preservation in 1992 by the Library of Congress and included in the United States National Film Registry.
Edge of the City (1957)
This 1957 film-noir classic was directed by Martin Ritt. Edge of the City was Ritt’s directorial debut. The screenplay was based on a finale episode of the Philco Television Playhouse that aired in 1955 called A Man is Ten Feet Tall.
The movie features the talents of Sidney Poitier and John Cassavetes as the lead roles and was ahead of its time in the portrayal of interracial friendship featured on screen.
Set on the west side of Manhatten’s waterfront district, the story follows a drifter named Axel North who finds work as a longshoreman and befriends one Tommy Tyler. He meets another man named Charlie Malick, played by Jack Warden, who resents Tyler because he is black and in a position of power.
Despite this, Axel and Tommy strike up a healthy camaraderie. But Axel is hiding a secret, one that could ruin his newfound sense of stability and belonging.
Edge of the City also stars Jack Warden, Kathleen Maguire, Ruby Dee, Robert F. Simon, and John Kellogg.
The release date was initially delayed due to MGM’s reluctance about the film’s racial themes but was eventually released because of acclaim from early audiences and critics alike.
Classic Black Movies of the 1960s
The 1960s changed the face of black cinema forever, marked as they were by the sweeping changes that accompanied the Civil Rights Movement in America.
Black voices and perspectives were becoming more important than ever as more and more people began to cry out against the injustices faced by black Americans of that period.
Stereotypical black representations were being rejected and more authentic portrayals of black life were being produced on the big and small screens.
Black cinema in the 1960s marked an era of greater character development and more involvement of black voices as directors, producers, and on-screen talent as well.
Paris Blues (1961)
This 1961 romantic, musical drama was shot on location in the City of Lights and stars both Sidney Poitier and Paul Newman as two ex-pat Jazz musicians. It is based on a Harold Flender novel of the same name.
Newman plays Ram Bowen and Poitier plays Eddie Cook. The two men meet two American tourists named Connie and Lillian, played by Diahann Carroll and Joanne Woodward respectively.
Louis Armstrong makes a cameo as a musician named Wild Man Moore and Aaron Bridgers plays jazz piano for the film’s soundtrack. It also stars Barbara Laage, Marie Versini, Serge Reggiani and Roger Blin..
A Raisin In the Sun (1961)
This film by Lorraine Hansberry was adapted from a 1959 play which went by the same name. A Raisin in the Sun is a classic American drama that was released by Columbia Pictures in 1961.
The story follows the Younger family on their journey to start a new life away from the hustle and bustle of the big city and features Sidney Poitier in the lead role of Walter Lee Younger. Walter’s family is waiting for a life insurance payment of $10,000, though they all have different ideas about what should be done with the money.
As time goes on we see the trials and tribulations of the Younger family but through it all, they rely on each other and their strength as a family to persevere. A Raisin in the Sun also stars Ruby Dee, Diana Sands, Stephen Perry, Claudia McNeil, John Fielder, Ivan Dixon, and Louis Gosset Jr.
Ruby Dee would go on to win the Award for Best Supporting Actress from the National Board of Review while McNeil and Poitier were both nominated for Golden Globes. The Library of Congress selected the film for preservation in the United States National Film Registry in 2005.
A Man Called Adam (1966)
Leo Penn directed this American musical drama in 1966. It stars the beloved Sammy Davis Jr. as the main character, a brilliant Jazz musician who lives a tumultuous, chaotic life full of dramatic highs and lows.
Davis plays Adam Johnson, a jazz cornetist whose life is marred by alcoholism, racism, and bouts of ill health. He has a short temper and harbors survivor’s guilt from the long-ago death of his wife and child.
Adam pushes away anyone who might be able to help him and wallows in his bad habits and miseries. Soon Adam meets two Civil Rights Movement activists that change the trajectory of his depressing life forevermore.
The film also stars Cecily Tyson, Louis Armstrong, Ossie Davis, Peter Lawford, Frank Sinatra Jr., George Rhodes, and Johnny Brown.
In the Heat of the Night (1967)
Norman Jewison’s In the Heat of the Night is a mystery drama film released in 1967. The film is based on John Ball’s novel of the same name from 1965 and stars Sidney Poitier as Virgil Tibbs.
Tibbs is a black detective from Philadelphia who gets mixed up in a small town Mississippi murder investigation. He is arrested on suspicion of killing a wealy industrialist named Phillip Colbert.
Soon the town’s Police chief learns about Tibbs’ work as a homicide detective and releases him, expecting Tibbs to leave town first thing. Instead, Tibbs remains in Mississippi at the behest of his boss to help with the investigation.
Though the chief is a known bigot, the two unlikely allies are forced to work together to solve Colbert’s murder.
Aside from Poitier, the film stars Rod Steiger, Lee Grant, Warren Oates, James Patterson, Peter Whitney, Beah Richards, and Larry Gates.
Classic Black Movies of the 1970s
In the 1970s more opportunities for black entertainers, writers, producers, and directors began to crop up in Hollywood than ever before.
A new genre of film that would come to be known as Blaxploitation cinema signified a new evolution in the black film world that would leave an indelible mark on American culture for decades to come.
The dramatic shift in representation of black people in mainstream films served to introduce American audiences to new ideas about the black experience and black representation in the media.
Perhaps the most famous of the 1970s Blaxploitation films, Shaft is an American crime thriller directed by Gordon Parks. It was based on Ernest Tidyman’s novel of the same name and marks the first film in the Shaft feature film series.
The story centers on a private investigator named John Shaft. He is hired on by a New York mob boss to rescue his kidnapped daughter from the Italian mafia.
Shaft touches on themes about masculinity, race, the Black Power movement, and sexuality. It was filmed on location in New York City and features a soundtrack that was recorded by the legendary Isaac Hayes.
In 2000, Shaft was chosen by the Library of Congress for preservation in the United States National Film Registry. It stars Richard Roundtree as the title character along with Moses Gunn, Christopher St. John, Gwenn Mitchell, Charles Cioffi, Lawrence Pressman, and Sherri Brewer.
Black Ceasar (1973)
This crime drama was written and directed by Larry Cohen. Black Ceasar features a score by James Brown and Frew Wesley and spawned a sequel called Hell Up In Harlem that was also released in 1973.
Black Ceasar tells the story of Tommy Gibbs, played by Fred Williamson, who grew up in Harlem and was introduced early to a life of violence and crime.
Gibbs eventually joins the New York Mafia and heads up his black crime syndicate out of Harlem. The black gangster soon finds himself at odds with New York’s Italian mafiosos as he carves out a criminal empire of his very own.
The classic crime thriller also stars Gloria Hendry, Omer Jeffrey, Art Lund, D’Urville Martin, Minne Gentry, Julius Harris, and Philip Roye.
Foxy Brown (1974)
Yet another blaxploitation crime thriller, Foxy Brown was released by American International Pictures and was written and directed by Jack Hill. It stars Pam Grier as the title character of Foxy Brown, a vigilante hero.
Foxy is out for revenge after her boyfriend, a government agent, is shot in cold blood by members of a drug syndicate and dies just outside her front door. Foxy Brown works the case in search of justice and goes undercover to find answers.
Grier’s turn as the lead in Foxy Brown would net her six more roles in future blaxploitation films released by American International Pictures. The film also stars Antonio Fargas, Peter Brown, Kathryn Loder, Terry Carter, Sid Haig, and Harry Holcombe.
Car Wash (1976)
Directed by Michael Schultz, Car Wash is an American comedy film released by Universal Pictures in 1976. The film is an episodic look into the everyday lives of employees at a Los Angeles car wash.
Car Wash explores the mundane adventures of a group of multiracial employees at an LA carwash throughout a single Friday in July.
The car wash employees have to deal with all sorts of zany adventures, including the threat of a potential domestic terrorist called the “Pop bottle bomber.”
The film stars Franklin Ajaye, Richard Brestoff, Sully Boyar, Irwin Corey, Ivan Dixon, Bill Duke, and features cameos from George Carlin, Lorraine Gary, Richard Pryor, and The Pointer Sisters.
In 1977, the Car Wash soundtrack won a Grammy for Best Score Soundtrack Album.
Best Classic Black Movies Ever, Final Thoughts
That brings us to the end of our classic black movies to watch list, featuring some of the most celebrated classic black films in all of Hollywood’s long history.
This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it’s a great place to begin on your very own black cinema journey