It’s extremely powerful and affirming to be able to relate to an incredible character. For a long time, the predominant whiteness of the movie industry had failed to accurately reflect the real experiences and identities of Black audiences, which is why Black cinema is a necessary corrective to a century without diverse representation.
A Black film can be defined as a movie created by Black filmmakers and centered on their lives and stories, something which has been a real rarity throughout history, and in doing so connects to people who have otherwise felt marginalized. Spike Lee has told Vulture, “People of color have a constant frustration of not being represented, or being misrepresented, and these images go around the world,” which is why it’s so important for Black films to exist.
Updated July 2022: MovieWeb is always on the lookout for the best films and series so that our lists can be as authoritative and comprehensive as possible, and so this article has been updated with new entries as a result. Please enjoy this collection of the best movies from 2021 about the Black experience.
This strong, human desire has been present in cinema since its inception. ‘Race films,’ as they were called, were made by early Black cinematic trailblazers like Paul Robeson and Oscar Micheaux outside the studio system, as the Hollywood machine would never allow them to be produced. Beloved by Black audiences, the movies were largely ignored and forgotten by an industry which couldn’t have cared less, and only a hundred of these survive. It wasn’t until the 1970s that Black cinema truly hit the mainstream, but even then it was denigrated by the term “Blaxploitation,” referring to the landmark films of Gordon Parks and Melvin Van Peebles, amongst others.
Ultimately, Black stories and characters in mainstream culture were usually shaped by white directors, screenwriters, and producers until fairly recently, which is why Rotten Tomatoes has “The 115 Best Black Movies of the 21st Century” but no similar article for the 20th. Finally, thanks to the stories and struggles of brilliant artists, some of the most successful and acclaimed films of 2021 were birthed from the minds and efforts of Black creators, and the opportunity is developing where Black directors are vital to a film’s authenticity and delivery.
Ryan Coogler has stressed how important it was to have a Black director for Black Panther, saying, “Perspective is so important in art. It’s an important thing.” Black cinema is about having people of color tell their own stories rather than reenacting them through the lens of white filmmakers; it’s about storytelling from an honest perspective, one with the potential to change the stories of others. These are the best Black films of 2021.
12/12 The United States vs. Billie Holiday
Andra Day’s intense portrayal of the legendary Billie Holiday inserts so much empathy and humanity into the gritty, upsetting film The United States vs. Billie Holiday. A great singer herself, Day plays Holiday from the gut, winning a Golden Globe and receiving an Oscar nomination for tapping into the classic artist’s brilliance and despair with incredible honesty. Lee Daniels has been a hero in Black cinema ever since he became the first African-American to solely produce an Oscar-winning film (Monster’s Ball) back in 2001, and also through his work on Precious and The Butler; here he laments the tragedy of a great musician who was dealt a bad hand. The film is dark and graphic in its depiction of addiction and violence, but Day shines amidst the misery in one of the year’s best performances.
11/12 Concrete Cowboy
It’s genuinely weird that Netflix made two Black Westerns starring Idris Elba this year, and almost weirder that they were both great. Concrete Cowboy is more of a Western hybrid, with Elba playing one of the historically recent ‘urban cowboys‘ of Philadelphia who hold on to a fading way of life. The film captures the beauty of Westerns as seen through modern eyes, and while it’s jarring to juxtapose inner-city life with horseback traditionalism, the film nevertheless retains a tonal consistency. One of the best aspects of Ricky Staub’s film are the local non-actors who inhabit Philadelphia and add a sense of realism to this already authentic slice-of-life film.
10/12 The Killing of Kenneth Chamberlain
David Midell received NAACP Image Award and American Black Film Festival Awards nominations for his film The Killing of Kenneth Chamberlain, a film produced by Morgan Freeman about the real-life police shooting of the titular character in New York. Chamberlain was a retired Marine with bipolar disorder who had served as on officer at corrections facilities for two decades; at 68-years old, Chamberlain’s medical alert necklace was accidentally triggered.
Police arrived at his home and demanded that he open his doors to them, and when he refused they broke down the door. Police tased and then shot him to death, alleging that Chamberlain charged at the police with a knife, but the autopsy suggested otherwise, and the officers’ body camera were shut off for the shooting. Midell’s film captures his last hours with heartbreaking acuity, and delivers a tender character study (with a remarkable performance from Frankie Faison) before becoming a righteously angry indictment of institutional failures. While the film premiered at festivals in 2019, the COVID pandemic pushed its theatrical release back to 2021.
1992’s Candyman has long been considered one of the most interesting horror films from the perspectives of race and gentrification, so updating it to 2021 was a brilliant decision on the part of director Nia DaCosta and co-writer/producer Jordan Peele. The tagline of the new Candyman, “Say his name,” boldly references the killing of George Floyd and subsequent Black Lives Matter protests, and is just one area in which the film is topically on point.
Beautifully directed with expressionistic, chiaroscuro lighting and sets which situation the film in the great pantheon of horror, DaCosta creates a masterpiece of Black horror and social allegory. Though some reviews of Candyman may disagree, this version may even surpass the first film’s greatness, at least in stylization and sociopolitical urgency.
8/12 Night of the Kings
Night of the Kings is a fascinating and intricately complex film from Côte d’Ivoire (the Ivory Coast), directed by the great Philippe Lacôte. The film is set in a prison, the dark confines of the La Maca prison, and tells stories within stories as inmates with their own rituals and systems choose a ‘griot,’ or African storyteller, to tell a tale on the night of the red moon; if he stops telling the mythical story, they’ll kill him. The inmates listen to and sometimes act out the story about an African king and queen. The movie is a strange and dark meditation on ancestry, ethnicity, and the importance of storytelling to culture.
Artfully and quietly directed by Rebecca Hall (whose mother ‘passed’ as white), Passing follows the intersecting lives of two light-skinned Black women after a chance encounter in the 1920s, one who is a vibrant member of the Harlem community and another (played by Ruth Negga) who is actually married to a white man and has passed as white most of her life. Negga is absolutely phenomenal as Claire, a strong woman who wants so badly to be a part of society and have a good life that she alters her identity to do so.
Hall adapts Nella Larsen’s moving, landmark 1929 novel into an art film of sorts — shot in gorgeous and extremely high-contrast black-and-white, in silent film’s old 4:3 aspect ratio with strange stretches of blurred photography and a distant unbiased perspective, the movie is less a realist piece of social commentary than it is a breathtaking experiment in observation and what it means to really see somebody.
Another of the great biographies this year comes from Liesl Tommy, the first woman of color to receive a Tony award nomination for direction, who perfectly casts Jennifer Hudson as Aretha Franklin in Respect. Hudson is a soulful singer but also a great actress, becoming the youngest Black actor to win an Oscar for her star-making turn in Dreamgirls, and she is equally phenomenal here.
Like The United States vs. Billie Holiday, it’s sad to see biographies of brilliant Black artists overwhelmed with addiction, domestic violence, and sexual assault, but the film is honest in exploring the awful things Franklin was subjected to as a child and then throughout her career. The film is very concise and efficient in telling her story, but Hudson is uncontainable in her committed, poignant performance.
5/12 The Harder They Fall
Jeymes Samuel wrote, directed, and scored The Harder They Fall, one of the most purely entertaining films of the year during a time when Westerns seem to be dominating the industry. Bloody, bold, romantic, and utterly cool, Samuel’s film has learned some tricks from past Western masterpieces and assembled them in this wonderfully acted ensemble, piecing together real-life figures (Stagecoach Mary, Cherokee Bill, etc.) into a quasi-mythological epic. Stunning cinematography that puts the ‘wide’ in widescreen keeps the film feeling epic, and the Revisionist Americana on display here is a powerful reminder that history is shaped by the (usually white) victors. Reviews for The Harder They Fall have been glowing, and the film is one of the most thrilling revisionist Westerns of recent years.
4/12 King Richard
Afro-Latino director Reinaldo Marcus Green impressed Will Smith enough with his honesty and work on Monsters and Men, inspired by the tragic murder of Eric Garner, that Smith got him hired to direct King Richard, the touching biopic about Richard Williams, father and coach of the famous Venus and Serena Williams. With his Joe Bell also released this year, and a Bob Marley biography he’s set to direct, Green is quickly becoming one of the best and most ambitious contemporary Black filmmakers.
“We have to challenge ourselves to tell stories in ways that haven’t been done before,” Green told IndieWire. “That’s where I’m looking to go — positive images of Black folks.” King Richard tells the inspiring story without resorting to the tendency to tell Black stories by focusing on poverty or desperation, and instead presents a truly sweet look at fatherhood, sports, and perseverance, with Smith’s most vulnerable performance to date.
3/12 Judas and the Black Messiah
The first Best Picture Oscar nominee with all-Black producers, Judas and the Black Messiah was released in February 2021 to wide aclaim. Since the Academy Awards ceremony was postponed from February to late April due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the film (like The United States vs. Billie Holiday) was included in the race and won an Oscar for Daniel Kaluuya and Best Original Song by H.E.R.
Kaluuya deserved that win, as his portrayal of legendary Black Panther chairman Fred Hampton is truly one of the best of the year, but the entire cast (especially LaKeith Stanfield and Jesse Plemons) commits to the film entirely. Placing Black Lives Matter in a historical context, the film is righteously angry and timely, a rallying cry for action. As Kaluuya told USA Today, “It’s not the time for [hope], it’s the time for action. Let’s get [things] done.”
2/12 Summer of Soul
While Woodstock has been celebrated as one of the most cultural events of the past century, it took Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s directorial debut for people to see the deep significance of The Harlem Culture Festival from the same year. Questlove assembles nearly 50 hours of obscure and forgotten footage from 1969, combined with news footage and interviews to tell a quintessential story about that cultural moment from a Black perspective.
The musicians in the film (who often watch and comment upon themselves with 60 years of hindsight) are brilliantly spirited — Gladys Knight, Mavis Staples, Stevie Wonder, Mahalia Jackson, Nina Simone, Sly Stone, B.B. King, and Billy Davis, Jr. perform emotional renditions of classics, and it’s incredible to see them all in one place. While much of Black cinema is rightfully focused on racism and the fight for equity, Summer of Soul captures a delirious sense of joy missing from many important films; it’s the block party of the year.
1/12 Patrice O’Neal: Killin’ is Easy
Patrice O’Neal, who sadly passed away at the young age of 41, was one of the funniest people in the world, but he was more interested in being true to himself. “Killing is easy,” his friend says, “but that’s not what he wanted. He wanted the truth.” Combing through the years of O’Neal’s stand-up career with extremely direct interviews with family, friends, and a fiancé, Killing Is Easy documents one of the greatest but also troubled and complicated comedians of all time. Though he was hilarious, he was also arrogant, sexist, rude, and hard to work with. His friends in the comedy scene may have loved him, but they’re brutally honest; “he was a f***ing a**hole,” as one comic says.
O’Neal would hardly disagree, often saying “I’m a complete misogynist” and wondering why anyone would want to be with him. Watching this film, it’s easy to understand — putting aside the ego and his own bizarre brand of chauvinism, the result is a beautiful human being who was deeply impacted by racism and yet able to overcome it and talk about it in humorous and insightful ways. He was a good dad to a child he didn’t father, he loved his dogs, he helped his friends, and he made the world laugh and think in equal measure, all while being defiantly, almost aggressively himself.
The price of authenticity is on display here, with the extremely genuine O’Neal alienating so many industry professionals around him by never compromising his identity. “Stand-up is dissecting humanness and the flaws of being a human,” one woman says in Killin’ Is Easy, and by that characterization the film is as beautifully human as O’Neal himself.
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