Some of the things I love about Bushwick are her murals. They often tell stories of the little-known or spotlight known stories in another light. Social media and camera phones have changed how we all tell and receive stories. With that, there’s a renewed call for accountability in how the stories of people of color are being told in mainstream media circles.

In 1940, Hattie McDaniel was given an Academy Award for her portrayal of a slave maid in “Gone with the Wind.” She was given Hollywood’s greatest golden statue for playing a role that still to this day, more often than not, is meant to define and confine Black people. When we weren’t slaves, maids or mammies, in old Hollywood, we were clownish rascals, thieves, drug czars, pimps, dope boys or gangstas.  

Recently, I came across a movie list on the internet titled, “How Many of these Black Movies Have You Seen?” There were 50 films in all. After reading it, I felt the same angry rise I did while marching through the streets of New York City during the summer protests of 2020. In those moments, I didn’t need to look at the cops lined up block after block to know what they were thinking. I could hear their eyes moving. They saw slaves and mammies. They saw runaways turned “yo-s”. They beat their batons into their cupped hands as a response to the chants for justice.

With that, I put out a call to family and friends to come up with a list of Black films where Black people didn’t play the submissive or the criminalized. While there are important stories, even vital stories, in that narrative, including “Amistad” (1997), “Twelve Years a Slave” (2013), “A Long Walk Home” (1990), “Boyz in the Hood” (1991) and “American Gangster” (2007), to name but a few, the point of the list here is to look beyond the eyes of how the media typically tells the stories of Brown and Black people. As Malcolm X once said, “Media has been a tool that has proven to influence the minds, ideas, behaviors and attitudes of the masses.”

This list has 80 films, one film for every year since 1940 up through George Floyd’s death in 2020. An 80-year journey that started when Black artists were told they were best playing maids and such. 

Sidney Poitier is a genius!

1. “Lilies of the Field” (1963. This film netted Poitier an Academy Award for Best Actor, some 23 years after McDaniels. It would be another 38 years before another Black actor did the same. Watch: VUDU.)

2. “A Raisin in the Sun” (1961. Watch: VUDU.)

3. “In the Heat of the Night” (1967. Watch: YouTube.)

4. “To Sir with Love” (1967. Watch: Amazon Prime.)

5. “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” (1967. Watch: YouTube.

Why Hollywood gets it wrong.

6. “Bamboozled” (2000. A “Spike Lee Joint” Watch: Netflix.)

7. “Hollywood Shuffle” (1987. Robert Townsend’s satire epitomizes the struggles of Black creatives trying to tell stories while trying to pay the rent. Watch: Amazon Prime.)

 James Baldwin

8. “I Am Not Your Negro” (2016. Watch: Netflix.)

9. “If Beale Street Could Talk” (2018. Based on Baldwin’s 1974 novel of the same name, this movie should have won the Academy Award for Best Picture. “The Green Book” won instead. I remember reading a critic describe “The Green Book” as a movie about Black people written for white people. Available: Hulu.)

Innovators, scholars and advocates 

 10. “Hidden Figures” (2017. Behind every man and every great deed is a Black woman, uhm Stacey Abrams. Watch: Disney+.)

 11. “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind” (2019. A must for Black boys. Watch: Netflix.)

 12. “Marshall” (2017. Chadwick Boseman plays a young Thurgood Marshall, both alum of Howard University. Watch: Amazon Prime.)

 13. “The Great Debaters” (2007. Watch: YouTube.)

 14. “Finding Forrester” (2000. Watch: Amazon Prime.)

 15. “The Queen of Katwe” (2016. Watch: Disney+.)

The revolution is televised

16. “The Spook Who Sat by the Door” (1973. Watch: YouTube.)

17. “Do the Right Thing” (1989.  Spike Lee is a visionary. Watch: Hulu.)

18. “Malcolm X” (1992. Watch: HBO Max.)

19. “Selma” (2014. Men in shirts and ties stood up to clubs and rifles. Watch: Hulu.)

20. “Judas and the Black Messiah” (2021. Daniel Kaluuya portrays the legendary Fred Hampton.)

21. “Rosewood” (1997. Watch: HBO Max.)

22. “Higher Learning” (1995. Watch: Hulu.)

23. “See You Yesterday” (2019. The messages sent out in this little-known film hit new depths. A must-watch for our youth. Eden Duncan Smith and Dante Crichlow are remarkable. Watch: Netflix.)

24. “Crash” (2005. Academy Award for Best Picture. Watch: Amazon Prime.)

25. “Cornbread, Earl & Me” (1975. Watch: Youtube.)

26. “The BlacKKKlansman” (2018. Watch: Youtube.)

More than a prince 

27. “Ali” (2001. Will Smith doesn’t get enough credit for how he has moved the needle in telling magnificent stories. Watch: Hulu.)

28. “Pursuit of Happyness” (2006. Watch: Hulu.)

29. “Hancock” (2008. Watch: sling).

30. “I Am Legend” (2007. Watch: Amazon Prime.)

31. “Karate Kid” (2010. Watch: sling.)

“Show him who you are!” Angela Bassett as the Queen Mother in “The Black Panther”

32. “The Black Panther” (2018. Wakanda Forever! Watch: Hulu.)

33. “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” (2018. An Afro-Latino teen from Brooklyn, with a ‘fro saves multiple universes and wins an Academy Award. Mic drop. Watch: Netflix.)

34. “Space Jam” (1996. Watch: Amazon Prime.)

Born of the South

35. “The Color Purple” (1985. Another film deserving of a Best Picture award. Watch: Hulu.)

36. “Four Little Girls” (1997. Watch: HBO Max.)

37. “When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts” (2006. Watch: Hulu.)

38. “Mudbound” (2017. Watch: Netflix.)

39. “Fences” (2016. Watch: YouTube.)

40. “Beasts of the Southern Wild” (2012. Watch: Hulu.)

41. “Eve’s Bayou” (1997. Watch: YouTube.)

“Blacks even trained separately from the whites, even though we all worked towards defending the United States of America.”  WWII Veteran

42. “An Officer and a Gentleman” (1982. Lou Gossett Jr.’s performance as Sgt. Foley helped redefine what Black men could be in Hollywood films. The role, as written, didn’t call for a Black character.  Gossett received an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. Watch: Hulu.)

43. “Men of Honor” (2000. This film features Academy Award winner Cuba Gooding Jr. in what is truly a great, but little-known, true story. Watch: Amazon Prime.)

44. “Glory” (1989.  Denzel Washington’s first Academy Award and a top-five film of all time for me. Watch: Amazon Prime.)

“I’m not concerned with your liking or disliking me. All I ask is that you respect me as a human being.” Jackie Robinson, Icon.

45. “Hoop Dreams” (1994. Watch: Hulu.)

46. “Soul of the Game” (1996. Watch: Youtube.)

47. “When We Were Kings” (1996. Watch: HBO Max.)

48. “Glory Road” (2006. Watch: Disney+.)

Lift Every Voice and Sing

49. “Purple Rain” (1984. Watch: Amazon Prime.)

50. “Dream Girls” (2006. Jennifer Hudson, Academy Award winner for Best Supporting Actress + Beyonce + Jaime Foxx + Eddie Murphy = PHENOMENAL. Watch: YouTube.)

51. “Sparkle” (1976. Watch: YouTube.)

52. “Get on Up” (2014. Chadwick Boseman embodies yet another legend, the Godfather of Soul, James Brown. Watch: Hulu.)

53. “Ray” (2004. Jaime Foxx wins both an Academy Award and Screen Actors’ Guild Award for his portrayal of Ray Charles. Watch: Hulu.)

54. “The Wiz” (1978. Watch: Hulu.)

55. “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” (2020. Based on the play of the same name, which was written by the incomparable August Wilson.  This film features Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman in his final film. Instant classic.)

56. “Cadillac Records” (2008.  Watch: VUDU.)

57. “The Five Heartbeats” (1991. Watch: YouTube.)

Protecting our children ~ protecting our love ~ protecting us

58. “Precious” (2009. Watch: Hulu.)

59. “Crooklyn” (1994. Watch: peacocktv.) 

60. “Mahogany” (1975. Watch: Youtube.)

61. “Daughters of the Dust” (1991. Watch: Netflix.)

62. “Black Orpheus” (1959. Watch: HBO Max.)

63. “Losing Ground” (1982. Watch: Vimeo.)

64. “Love Jones” (1997. Watch: Youtube.)

65. “Brown Sugar” (2002. Watch: Youtube.)

66. “Rize” (2005. Watch: Netflix.)

67. “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” (2019. Watch: Amazon Prime.)

68. “Antowne Fisher” (2002. Watch: Hulu.)

69. “The Photograph” (2020. Watch: Netflix.)

70. “Cooley High” (1975. Watch: VUDU.)

71. “Orthello” (1995. Watch: YouTube.) 

72. “Waiting to Exhale” (1995. Watch: YouTube.)

73. “The Best Man” (1999. Watch: YouTube.)

74. “O” (2001. Modern take on Shakespeare’s classic. Watch: VUDU.)  

75. “Coming to America” (1988. Watch: Amazon Prime.) 

76. “Moonlight” (2016. Academy Award for Best Picture.  The moment was nearly stolen, but we rise. Watch: Netflix.)

77. “Imitation of Life” (1959. Classic. Watch: peacocktv.)

“A mind is a terrible thing to waste.” Jordan Peele, writer, director and producer

78. “Us” (2019.  Watch: HBO Max.)

79. “Get Out” (2017. Wait, what? The Black guy lives and the white people die? Get out!   Watch: YouTube.)

80. “Candyman” (1992. He’s not Willy Wonka. Watch: YouTube.)

Writers and editors often say that when making a list you should use certain numbers like, “10 Best,” “The 20 Most” or “The 100 Greatest (blank) of All Time” to pull in readers. So, what films would you add to this list? 

Please, post your nominations in the comments section below to give us all a chance to organize our summertime watch parties around films we haven’t seen that beautify the resilience of the African diaspora.  

Special shout out to those in the aforementioned films who were either born and raised in Bushwick or other parts of Brooklyn, including Eddie and Charlie Murphy, Rosie Perez, Spike Lee, Harold Perrineau, Louis Gossett Jr., Michael Kenneth Williams, Mos Def and Nia Long.

Calvin Z. Heyward is a proud father, poet, writer, social critic and playwright. His work has been published within a number of global platforms. He is an impact-driven educator working on his doctorate in educational leadership at St. John’s University. 

Cover photo courtesy of vizeur photos from Creative Commons.

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