Our Black History Month Movie Marathon List: 30 Films You Need to See


11. The Color Purple (1985)

Who Made It: Directed by Steven Spielberg, produced by Steven Spielberg, Frank Marshall, Kathleen Kennedy & Quincy Jones, written by Menno Meyjes, based on the novel The Color Purple by Alice Walker
Who’s In It: Whoopi Goldberg, Danny Glover, Oprah Winfrey, Margaret Avery, Rae Dou Chong
Where You Can See It: DVD, Blu-Ray, iTunes
Why You Should Watch It: Because if you don’t, it’s gon’ rain on yo’ head.

Many people balked at the idea of Steven Spielberg helming this adaptation of Alice Walker’s literary modern classic, but with this film, Spielberg proved he was more than just “the blockbuster kid”. The film made stars out of Whoopi Goldberg, Danny Glover, and Oprah Winfrey, and though it did take some liberties in adapting Walker’s novel (many of them to make the story PG-13 appropriate), it’s emerged as one of the most quotable Black films of all time (“Harpo, who dis woman?”, “You shol’ is ugly!”, etc.). The Color Purple was nominated for an astounding 11 Academy Awards, and – even more astounding – was shut out in every category.


12. She’s Gotta Have It (1986)

Who Made It: Written, produced & directed by Spike Lee (40 Acres & a Mule Filmworks), distributed by Island Films
Who’s In It: Tracy Camilla Johns, Redmond Hicks, John Canada Terrell, Spike Lee
Where You Can See It: DVD, Amazon Instant
Why You Should Watch It: Spike Lee’s first film

Sheldon “Spike” Lee was thirty years old when he made She’s Gotta Have It, his first production out of graduate film school. Not only did it introduce the world to Lee’s unique and groundbreaking style of filmmaking (and his nerdy Mars Blackmon character, one of the suitors of protagonist Nola Darling), it also marked the entrance of his cinematographer Ernest Dickerson – who became a noted filmmaker in his own right – into the film industry. The small ($185,000) production made $7 million upon its release, leading to Lee evolving to producing studio films – most of them with majority-Black casts, and three of which are on this list.


13. Hollywood Shuffle (1987)

Who Made It: Produced & directed by Robert Townsend, written by Townsend & Keenan Ivory Wayans (Conquering Unicorn), distributed by The Samuel Goldwyn Company
Who’s In It: Robert Townsend, John Witherspoon, Anne-Marie Johnson, Keenan Ivory Wayans, Helen Martin
Where You Can See It: DVD, Blu-Ray, iTunes
Why You Should Watch It: It‘s the only film that was on everyone’s list

Hollywood Shuffle – made by Robert Townsend independently with the use of a lot of credit cards and a lot of hope – encompases a lot of the lessons one can learn from surveying the history of African-Americans in cinema. Centered around the story of an actor trying to get stereotypical parts in Hollywood films (and featuring some classic vignettes depicting what some of these roles would look like, nevermind the infamous “Black Acting School” sequence), the film is a minor masterpiece of wit and social relevance. It’s cast full of past, present, and future Black sitcom stars handles the material ably, and Townsend himself shows off a lot of acting versatility and launched himself into a career as a self-made filmmaker in his own right with follow-ups such as The Five Heartbeats.


14. Coming to America (1988)

Who Made It: Directed by John Landis, produced by George Folsey, Jr. & Robert D. Wachs, story by Eddie Murphy (and Art Buchwald), screenplay by David Sheffield & Barry W. Blaustein, distributed by Paramount Pictures
Who’s In It: Eddie Murphy, Arsenio Hall, James Earl Jones, Madge Sinclair, John Amos
Where Can You See It: DVD, Blu-Ray, Amazon Instant, iTunes, YouTube, Netflix, Google Play
Why You Should Watch It: It’s hysterical

Easily one of the best comedies ever made, Coming to America features Eddie Murphy as an African prince who wants to “sew his wild oats” in the great land of New York City, and Arsenio Hall as his valet and best friend, Sumi. Murphy and Hall also play quite a few other roles in the film, of all races and genders, the most famous of which probably being Murphy’s trashy R&B singer character Randy Watson (with his band, Sexual Chocolate). Featuring great performances from James Earl Jones, Madge Sinclair, and John Amos, and great scenes featuring then-up and comers Samuel L. Jackson and Vanessa Bell Calloway, Coming to America remains the most popular film to star Murphy – at one time the most successful Black leading man in Hollywood history.


15. I’m Gon’ Get You Sucka (1988)

Who Made It: Written & directed by Keenan Ivory Wayans, produced by Eric L. Gold & Raymond Katz, distributed by United Artists
Who’s In It: A lot of Wayanses: Keenan Ivory, Kim, Damon, Shawn, and Marlon, as well as David Alan Greer, Kadeem Hardison, Bernie Casey, Ja’net DuBois, and a lot more
Where Can You See It: DVD, Blu-Ray, Hulu Plus
Why You Should Watch It: It introduced the world to the Wayans family.

Keenan Ivory Wayans had already appeared in Hollywood Shuffle and other films, but with this farcical parody of blaxploitation films, he brought his siblings Kim, Damon, Shawn, and Marlon along for the ride. The Wayans of course would later go on to create the FOX sketch series In Living Color, the less-heralded but still loved The Wayans Bros, and the first two films in the Scary Movie franchise. Here, however, they – and an amazing cast that includes David Alan Greer, Kadeem Hardison, Bernie Casey, Ja’net DuBois, and more – send up the 1970s action films they grew up on through the story of Jack Spade, out for revenge after his brother died from an overdose of gold chains.


16. School Daze (1988)

Who Made It: Written, produced & directed by Spike Lee (40 Acres & a Mule Filmworks), distributed by Columbia Pictures
Who’s In It: Laurence (ok, “Larry”) Fishburne, Tisha Campbell, Giancarlo Esposito, Spike Lee, Kyme
Where Can You See It: DVD, iTunes, Google Play
Why You Should Watch It: It’s an ode to the HBCU. And because you’re not a jiggaboo or a wannabe.

Spike Lee’s first studio picture centers around Mission College, a historically black college in Atlanta, Georgia where the student body deals with class and colorism issues, as well as rifts between the campus’ Greek-letter organization members and the activists who see them as a problem. This musical comedy-drama is, admittedly, all over the place story-wise, but it’s intensely enjoyable, still feels unique after all these years, and features great performances (some of them fairly scenery chewing, but it works) from Laurence Fishburne, Tisha Campbell, Giancarlo Esposito, and three actors – Kadeem Hardison, Jasmine Guy, and Daryl Bell – who, after finishing this film, hopped into the cast of another HBCU-related property, the Cosby Show spin-off sitcom A Different World (which debuted on NBC before School Daze was released)


17. Do the Right Thing (1989)

Who Made It: Written, produced & directed by Spike Lee (40 Acres & a Mule Filmworks), distributed by Universal Pictures
Who’s In It: Spike Lee, Giancarlo Esposito, Bill Nunn, Danny Aiello, Joie Lee, Rosie Perez
Where Can You See It: DVD, Blu-Ray, iTunes, Google Play
Why You Should Watch It: It’s one of Spike Lee’s two masterpieces

With his second studio film, Spike Lee was determined to set American social commentary on fire – and he did. Literally and figuratively. A tense, carefully-paced work centering around the hottest summer day on a block in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, New York City, Do the Right Thing addresses race relations, the generation gap, materialism, and so much more in a very tightly packed 120 minutes. The film was met with concern and protest when it was released due to its charged content and its use of Public Enemy songs to make up its soundtrack. Today, Do the Right Thing is considered one of the best motion pictures ever made, is part of the Criterion Collection, has a place in the National Film Registry – but only garnered two Oscar nominations when it was released: Best Supporting Actor for Danny Aiello and Best Original Screenplay for Lee himself.


18. House Party (1990)

Who Made It: Written & directed by Reggie Hudlin, produced by Warrington Hudlin & Gerald Olsen, distributed by New Line Cinema
Who’s In It: Kid & Play, Tisha Campbell, A.J. Johnson, Full Force, Robin Harris, Martin Lawrence
Where Can You See It: DVD, iTunes, Google Play
Why You Should Watch It: It’s a whole lot of fun.

If you can believe it, House Party was Reggie Hudlin’s thesis film for his Masters in Film degree, and he clearly got an “A”. Taking the long-dormant format of the teenage dance party film (popular in the 1960s) and applying it to hip-hop culture, Hudlin created a minor masterpiece in House Party. Its stars, Christopher “Kid” Reid and Christopher “Play” Martin, parlayed their success in this film – about a teenager who sneaks out of the house to attend his buddy’s house party (naturally) and avoid the neighborhood bullies – into a full career as comedic actors. It boosted the careers of its co-stars, comedians Robin Harris and Martin Lawrence and School Daze’s Tisha Campbell, and steered Lawrence and Campbell into their now-classic sitcom Martin. Multiple other House Party films followed, including one without Kid or Play, but the first remains easily the best and a great film in its own right.


19. To Sleep With Anger (1990)

Who Made It: Written & directed by Charles Burnett, produced by Thomas S. Byrnes, Caldecot Chubb & Darin Scott, distributed by The Samuel Goldwyn Company
Who’s In It: Danny Glover, Paul Butler, Mary Alice, Richard Brooks, Sheryl Lee Ralph
Where Can You See It: DVD, iTunes, Google Play
Why You Should Watch It: Charles Burnett

By the time Charles Burnett had made To Sleep With Anger in 1990, he’d made a number of films, including two full-length features – Killer of Sheep (1978) and My Brother’s Keeper (1983) – that went largely unseen (in the case of My Brother’s Keeper, not seen at all) for many years. To Sleep was most of the general audience’s introduction to the talented and innovative director, with its story of a man (Danny Glover) whose presence as a visitor to his friend’s family begins to pull said family apart. The highly intimate film won several Independent Spirit Awards, and aside from Glover (who used his star power to help get the film made) gave opportunities for Paul Butler, Mary Alice, and Sheryl Lee Ralph to hine.


20. Paris Is Burning (1990)

Who Made It: Produced and directed by Jennie Livingston (Academy Entertainment, Off-White Productions), distributed by Miramax Films
Who’s In It: Dorian Corey, Pepper LaBeija, Willi Ninja, Octavia St. Laurent, Angie Xtravaganza
Where Can You See It: DVD, iTunes, Google Play, Netflix
Why You Should Watch It: It’s fierce.

Today’s youth may not even be aware that there was a time when Black gay culture was completely underground and separated from the mainstream, but this documentary reflects the ballroom/voguing culture of the 1980s as well as the private lives of its participants. Producer-director Jennie Livingston captures a number of ball and drag legends – Dorian Corey, Pepper LaBeija, Angie Xtravaganza, and many others – both on and off the stage and the runway, reflecting the multiple walks of live these largely Black and Latino gay men had to persevere through.

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