1. Fruitvale Station (2013)
Writer: Ryan Coogler
Director: Ryan Coogler
What it’s about: The film follows the last day in the life of Oscar Grant III (Michael B. Jordan), a 22-year-old Bay Area resident who was murdered by police on New Year’s Day 2009.
Why you need to see it: By giving such a tight 24-hour look at Grant’s life, Fruitvale Station really forces audiences to see him as a whole person and not just another headline — an important message in a world where black men are murdered so often that people seem to become numb to the fact that they are human beings who have families, dreams, and fears just like everyone else.
2. Straight Outta Compton (2015)
Writers: Jonathan Herman, Andrea Berloff, S. Leigh Savidge, Alan Wenkus
Director: F. Gary Gray
What it’s about: The biopic follows N.W.A’s trajectory from Compton to hip-hop legends in the mid-1980s.
Why you need to see it: Newcomers O’Shea Jackson Jr., Corey Hawkins, and Jason Mitchell play Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, and Eazy-E so well, you’ll forget that they’re not actually them (and that this wasn’t the way it all really happened).
3. Ray (2004)
Writers: Taylor Hackford, James L. White
Director: Taylor Hackford
What it’s about: The biopic follows the life and career of music legend Ray Charles (Jamie Foxx) from his childhood in the South to his rise to fame amid his battle with addiction in the 1950s and ’60s.
Why you need to see it: Because THIS is how you do a legend justice! Foxx’s transformation into Charles will give you chills. Kerry Washington and Regina King also give stellar performances.
4. 12 Years a Slave (2014)
Writer: John Ridley, based on the novel by Solomon Northup
Director: Steve McQueen
What it’s about: The story follows a free black man, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), as he struggles to adapt to the horrors of slavery after being kidnapped and sold in the South.
Why you need to see this: A rough but necessary reminder of this country’s horrid relationship with black people.
5. For Colored Girls (2010)
Writers: Tyler Perry, Ntozake Shange
Director: Tyler Perry
What it’s about: The film follows a group of women, most of whom live in the same Harlem apartment building, as they deal with different issues that impact women.
Why you need to see it: It’s rare that you’ll see rape, STDs, infertility, abuse, and more addressed in ONE movie. Some might say there are too many stories going on, but at least one is bound to touch your heart on a personal level. Also, when’s the next time you’re going to see Kimberly Elise, Janet Jackson, Loretta Devine, Thandie Newton, Anika Noni Rose, Kerry Washington, Tessa Thompson, Phylicia Rashad, AND Whoopi Goldberg in the SAME DAMN MOVIE!?
6. Dear White People (2014)
Writer: Justin Simien
Director: Justin Simien
What it’s about: Black Ivy League students try to find their way while dealing with growing racial tensions on their campus. Things come to a head when students throw a blackface-themed Halloween party.
Why you need to see this: This critically acclaimed film manages to tackle modern-day racism and microaggressions in a smart and funny way, with nuanced characters who aren’t afraid to clap back when necessary.
7. Baby Boy (2001)
Writer: John Singleton
Director: John Singleton
What it’s about: A coming-of-age film that follows Jody (Tyrese Gibson) as he struggles to become the man his family needs him to be while living everyday life in South Central LA.
Why you need to see this: I could sit here and talk about how the film adds depth to a character that’s usually depicted as a flat stereotype, blah blah blah, but the real reason you really need to watch this is TARAJI P. HENSON! The life and heart she brings to her portrayal of Jody’s girlfriend Yvette will have you rooting for her (and even his trifling behind) by the end of the movie.
8. 42 (2013)
Writer: Brian Helgeland
Director: Brian Helgeland
What it’s about: The biopic tells the story of baseball all-star Jackie Robinson, from signing with the Brooklyn Dodgers to his historic rookie season when he integrated Major League Baseball in 1947.
Why you need to see it: This is a love story disguised as a sports film. Believe me when I say the story of Jackie and Rachel Robinson will remind you how much more you can conquer when you have the right person by your side.
9. Love & Basketball (2000)
Writer: Gina Prince-Bythewood
Director: Gina Prince-Bythewood
What it’s about: In Prince-Bythewood’s debut film, a little girl dares to dream of being the first female to play in the NBA. There’s a strong “girl power” message here, but even more than that, this undeniably black film is set in an all-black, upper-class neighborhood.
Why you need to see this: Listen, we all love this movie and you know it. Stop fighting it and watch it for nostalgia’s sake.
10. Brown Sugar (2002)
Writers: Michael Elliot, Rick Famuyiwa
Director: Rick Famuyiwa
What it’s about: Childhood friends (played by Sanaa Lathan and Taye Diggs) who have bonded over their love of hip-hop struggle when feelings arise as one of them gets ready to walk down the aisle.
Why you need to see this: All the characters in this film have such amazing chemistry it will be hard for you to believe they all aren’t friends in real life. And the movie’s music focus will have you reminiscing about when you first fell in love with hip-hop.
11. The Secret Life of Bees (2008)
Writers: Gina Prince-Bythewood, Sue Monk Kidd
Director: Gina Prince-Bythewood
What it’s about: Based on the best-selling novel by Sue Monk Kidd, the film follows 14-year-old Lily Owens (Dakota Fanning) as she runs away from her abusive father with her caregiver (Jennifer Hudson). The pair is taken in by the Boatwright sisters (Queen Latifah, Alicia Keys, and Sophie Okonedo), who are more connected to Lily’s past than it might appear.
Why you need to see it: The stellar cast does an amazing job of making this soulful story come alive. You’ll leave the movie with a few solid lessons to carry with you through life. (PS: You should read the book too!)
12. The Great Debaters (2007)
Writers: Robert Eisele, Jeffrey Porro
Director: Denzel Washington
What it’s about: It’s based on the true story of a professor at Wiley College who in 1935 formed the school’s first student debate team, which went on to make history when it challenged Harvard in the national championship.
Why you need to see it: This criminally under-told story is something the entire family can and should enjoy. Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Nate Parker, and Denzel Whitaker will leave you inspired. By the end of the movie, you’ll be giving them a standing ovation.
13. The Pursuit of Happyness (2006)
Writer: Steve Conrad
Director: Gabriele Muccino
What it’s about: Also based on a true story, The Pursuit of Happyness follows single father Chris Gardner as he fights to survive after he and his son are evicted from their home right when he is set to begin an internship that has the potential to change both of their lives for the better.
Why you need to see this: This film will make you believe in the power of your dreams and cry a river of tears at the same damn time, and you’ll be better for it. Also, real-life father and son Will and Jaden Smith give outstanding performances in their first film together.
14. Love Jones (1997)
Writer: Theodore Witcher
Director: Theodore Witcher
What it’s about: One of the greatest modern romances — Nina Mosley (Nia Long), Darius Lovehall (Larenz Tate), and their gang of friends attempt to figure out one of life’s biggest mysteries: love. But it’s not as easy as they would’ve hoped, because dating.
Why you need to see this: It’s a grown and sexy love story that will leave you reciting poetry and longing for romance. Plus, Long and Tate have amazing chemistry.
15. ATL (2006)
Writers: Tina Gordon Chism, Antwone Fisher
Director: Chris Robinson
What it’s about: The city of Atlanta is basically a main character in this movie about four friends learning how to deal with and overcome different obstacles as they prepare for life after high school.
Why you need to see this: We’ve seen similar movies set in New York, LA, and Chicago, but ATL gives the city its much-awaited turn to showcase what it’s like to be a black teen growing up in the South.
16. Precious (2009)
Writers: Geoffrey Fletcher, Sapphire
Director: Lee Daniels
What it’s about: An abused, illiterate teen (Gabourey Sidibe) who is pregnant with her second child (by her own father) is invited to enroll in an alternative school in hopes that her life can head in a new direction.
Why you need to see it: Listen, this is definitely the kind of movie that breaks your heart so bad you can only watch it once — but you still need to watch it once, because it forces everyone to take a hard look at just how damaging a lot of issues we sweep under the rug as a community can be. Also, Gabourey and Mo’Nique give the performances of their lives.
17. Dreamgirls (2006)
Writers: Bill Condon, Tom Eyen
Director: Bill Condon
What it’s about: A soul trio teams up with an ambitious manager as they try to make it big during the Motown era.
Why you need to see this: The soundtrack in this musical will have you wanting to sing along to the entire movie. Jennifer Hudson’s “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” performance alone is enough to give this a watch.
18. Two Can Play That Game (2001)
Writer: Mark Brown
Director: Mark Brown
What it’s about: A woman (Vivica A. Fox) plays a series of mind games with her boyfriend (Morris Chestnut) in an effort to teach him a lesson after catching him having dinner with another woman. But things backfire when he starts to play back.
Why you need to see this: Let’s be honest, we’ve all played a mind game or two on a significant other. This film will have you laughing from beginning to end at how ridiculous things can get in this game called love. It’s relatable, it’s funny, and Bobby Brown is in it.
19. This Christmas (2007)
Writer: Preston A. Whitmore II
Director: Preston A. Whitmore II
What it’s about: Various secrets come to light as the Whitfield family reunites for its first Christmas together in four years.
Why you need to see it: It’s rare that we get a relatable, well-done, not straight-to-TV holiday movie about us. (Note that This Christmas is the only one on this entire list.) Plus all of the Whitfield siblings are fine.
20. Hustle & Flow (2005)
Writer: Craig Brewer
Director: Craig Brewer
What it’s about: A Memphis pimp (Terrence Howard) attempts to become a rapper with the help of his friends.
Why you need to see it: What the film may lack in plot, the cast makes up for with great acting. You’ll also get to witness the beginning of the major chemistry between Cookie and Lucious, er, I mean Taraji P. Henson and Terrence Howard.
21. Soul Plane (2004)
Writers: Bo Zenga, Chuck Wilson
Director: Jessy Terrero
What it’s about: After winning a lawsuit against an airline for an especially horrible flight, Nashawn Wade (Kevin Hart) decides to start his own that caters to black clients. However, the airline’s maiden flight has more than a few obstacles thanks to some last-minute passengers.
Why you need to see this: OK, hear me out — I know this is one of those ridiculously loud comedies, but it’s really, really funny. Also it launched Kevin Hart’s career; we at least owe it a watch for that.