Hollywood has long loved heartwrenching dramas centered on slavery or the Civil Rights struggle when it comes to movies that portray the Black experience. In recent years, however, there has been increased scrutiny on Hollywood’s tendency to focus on the trauma of Black history and not Black joy, with a number of critics (and audiences) arguing that more attention needs to be paid to the fullness of the Black experience and not just the struggle. It’s a sentiment that has been echoed by professional Black critics, like this piece in The Independent from Shakeena Johnson, to aspiring student journalists, like this piece in Indiana University’s student newspaper, the Indiana Daily Student, by staff writer Jaicey Bledsoe.
While it’s important to not minimize or look away from the horrors of history or to downplay the systemic racism that still permeates our social fabric today, it’s equally as important that entertainment reflects the more uplifting moments and all the spectrum in between, to truly capture Black lives lived in fullness. If you’re curious to watch a movie that makes room for Black joy, here are a few great ones to get you started.
1. Black Panther (2018)
Though set in a fictional location populated by fictional characters, Black Panther is nonetheless one of the best examples of a joyful Black experience in movies, if not the best. From its predominantly Black cast standing behind the MCU’s first Black superhero to headline his own movie, Black Panther was a trip across the African diaspora, envisioning a world in which Black excellence might have thrived had white colonizers not disrupted their nations’ natural evolution. From the accents to the exquisitely detailed costumes designed by Black costume designer Ruth E. Carter to seeing a young Black man presented as a warrior and king, the movie is a love letter to Africa and the roots of so much of the culture. Black audiences’ excitement over its release only served to drive home what a joyful experience Black Panther was, with audiences turning up in droves on opening night dressed in full African ancestral garb or cosplay, with the “Wakanda Forever” cross-armed salute becoming a calling card and greeting for Black fans everywhere who finally felt recognized by a superhero movie.
2. The Wiz (1978)
It’s true Michael Jackson was in The Wiz and Michael Jackson is a complicated topic. But setting him aside, the Black take on The Wizard of Oz is a life-affirming musical. Songstress Diana Ross plays Dorothy, an uptight and reserved young woman living with her aunt and uncle in Harlem. When she gets pulled into the magical realm of Oz, she meets a whole host of quirky and colorful characters who slowly teach her to lighten up and to have fun. By the end of the movie musical, Dorothy is literally jumping for joy as she sings her heart out. Women, in particular Black women, are often taught to worry about how the world views us and to focus on being responsible, so seeing Dorothy cut loose and shake off the shackles of those emotional constraints is a cathartic viewing experience, indeed.
3. House Party (1990)
The hairstyles and clothes might be dated, but the pure fun of the House Party movies, never. Famed director and producer Reginald Hudlin’s first feature film featured hip-hop duo Kid ‘n Play in a story about a house party that turns into the wildest night of their lives when the school bullies show up. The soundtrack is infectious, featuring old-school hip-hop, much of it from Kid ‘n Play themselves, that keeps the party bumping, and it has some of the most memorable dance sequences in movies. The dance-off is still recreated to this day. Yeah, the moves are a little corny now, but just watch this and tell me you don’t bop your head and smile:
4. Moonlight (2016)
There are certainly scenes in Barry Jenkins’ masterpiece that are emotionally difficult, and the entire movie isn’t an entire joyburst on the lines of House Party. But Moonlight explores Black queerness, a topic rarely portrayed in Hollywood, with a sense of fierce urgency that still feels so poignant. Love and desire, Black masculinity, and the ties of family are all touched upon in Jenkins’ sensitive portrayal that centers on the young boy Chiron at three stages of his life as he grows up and grapples with his identity and sexuality and the film shines brightest in the quiet, intimate, joyful moments when Chiron feels safe enough to be who he is. Mahershala Ali’s Best Supporting Oscar for his turn as Juan, a drug dealer who becomes a father figure of sorts to Chiron, is well-deserved, as is Best Adapted Screenplay for Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney, who wrote the original book it was based on. But mostly, it deserves the Best Picture Oscar it won for its gentle, heartfelt storytelling highlighted with flawless camera work.
5. Beauty Shop (2005)
There’s a special kind of bond that exists between Black people and their barbers and hairdressers, a bond that’s been portrayed in everything from Marvel’s Luke Cage to 2002’s Barbershop. 2005’s Beauty Shop focuses on the female side of that equation, with the ultra-talented Queen Latifah starring as Gina Norris, who moves from Chicago to Atlanta to set up her own beauty shop. Along the way, she has to compete against her former boss, played by Kevin Bacon, in order for her business to thrive. The beauty shop is full of gossip, laughter, jokes, and even some tough love in the way only Black women know how to do. It’s an underrated gem with an all-star cast and deserves to be put into the rotation.
6. Drumline (2002)
There are few things that showcase Black excellence than the precision movements and rhythm of the competitive high school and college drumlines and Drumline captures it all. A young Nick Cannon plays Devon Miles, a Black teenager and talented drummer from Harlem who moves to Atlanta to attend the fictional HBC Atlanta A&T University to join the school’s marching band. It’s a high-energy, coming-of-age movie that deals with the challenges of young adulthood like relationship drama and clashes with his bandmates, in a way that doesn’t focus squarely on trauma and struggle. It’s worth it for the drumline competitions alone.
7. Love & Basketball (2000)
Rising filmmaking star Gina Prince-Bythewood’s early film is held up by the two tentpoles in its title and centers on one of the greatest black Love stories ever told in film. Omar Epps and Sanaa Lathan are astonishingly good as two childhood friends, Monica and Quincy, whose purely platonic relationship blossoms into something more as they grow up. As they navigate life’s challenges through adolescence and into adulthood, their other great love, basketball, is there to ground them and keep them striving for their shared dream to play pro ball. The poignant, beautiful story is full of moments of tenderness and joy as the young couple goes from the silly fights of childhood to the very real roadblocks adult life throws in their way, but through it all, Monica and Quincy’s love for one another shines through.