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The Best Black American Films of the 21st Century, From ‘Straight Outta Compton’ to ‘Black Panther’

In the year of "Black Panther" and a summer movie season with two highly anticipated black movies, the time is right to celebrate the last two decades of black cinema in the U.S.

"Barbershop," "Black Panther," "12 Years a Slave," "Moonlight," "Django Unchained," "Love & Basketball"

“Barbershop,” “Black Panther,” “12 Years a Slave,” “Moonlight,” “Django Unchained,” and “Love & Basketball”

Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock, Marvel/Disney/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock, Snap Stills/REX/Shutterstock, David Bornfriend/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock, Columbia/The Weinstein Compaany/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock, Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock

7. “12 Years a Slave”

No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover UsageMandatory Credit: Photo by Snap Stills/REX/Shutterstock (3196865e) Chiwetel Ejiofor 12 Years a Slave - 2014

Chiwetel Ejiofor in “12 Years a Slave”

Snap Stills/REX/Shutterstock

“12 Years a Slave” is powerful and excruciating to watch at the same time. Steve McQueen’s vision of 19th century slavery, emboldened by first-rate performances by Chiwetel Ejiofor (Solomon Northup), Lupita N’yongo (Patsey), and Micheal Fassbender (Edwin Epps) allowed audiences to witness the degradation of humanity that couples institutionalized oppression. Solomon Northup’s story of adduction and bondage is especially painful today; modern African American viewers can’t help but think, “Is this what would happen to me? Would I attempt to escape? Or would I, like Solomon, eventually bend to my oppressors and try to forget myself as a means of self-preservation?”

The slow dismantling of will is just like a wound, one that throbs with the pain until it eventually heals. Watching Solomon and Patsy fester in the pain Epps inflicts on them leaves little room for solace, but the healing balm of Solomon’s eventual liberation eventually remove the sting. Though not a film many revisit, the final moments — when Solomon reunites with his family — is one that will reverberate for ages. —JC

6. “Selma”

No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover Usage.Mandatory Credit: Photo by Atsushi Nishijima/Paramount/Pathe/Harpo/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock (5885141al) Andre Holland, Colman Domingo, David Oyelowo, Omar Dorsey Selma - 2014 Director: Ava Duvernay Paramount/Pathe/Harpo Films USA Film Portrait Drama

Andre Holland, Colman Domingo, David Oyelowo, and Omar Dorseyin “Selma”

Atsushi Nishijima/Paramount/Pathe/Harpo/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

Ava Duvernay picked up a camera for the first time at the age of 32. By 40, she was onset with Oprah Winfrey, directing her and David Oyelowo in the Martin Luther King biopic “Selma.” Though this may seem a meteoric rise, one can’t help but assume if her race and gender had been different, her talent would have her holding a few Oscars (she did get nominated, for documentary “13th”), and helming a Star Wars or Marvel-type franchise. Nevertheless, “Selma” catapulted her into the stratosphere of modern filmmakers.

The most impressive thing about “Selma” is its transformative nature. It turned King into a man with complexities and flaws that are often glossed over in hagiographic Hollywood biopics. More than that, it transformed DuVernay into one of the most talented African American directors of our time. As Spike Lee did with “Malcolm X,” Duvernay forced the audience to look at King from all angles — a luminary whose politics still ignite the black community, but also a man, with personal failings and moments of ungoverned indiscretion. It must have been a daunting challenge to embody all of that, but Oyelowo cleared it with room to spare. When April Reign tweeted in 2015, “#OscarsSoWhite they asked to touch my hair,'” she was making a joke that went viral — but the Academy’s snub of both Duvernay and Oyelowo was anything but funny. The ensuing firestorm sent shockwaves throughout the industry, which still reverberate to this day. —JC

5. “Mudbound”

Mudbound Netflix

“Mudbound”

Netflix

In one early scene in Virgil Williams and Dee Rees’ sprawling adaptation of Hillary Jordan’s post-World War II southern novel, Ronsel Jackson (“Straight Outta Compton” star Jason Mitchell) leaves home to join the Army as his mother Florence (Mary J. Blige) turns her back as he departs. Rees was inspired by her paternal grandmother, who thought it bad luck to watch someone going away. Looking to her grandmother’s diaries, writer-director Rees shifted the script’s focus from the white family of Memphis imports Henry and Laura McAllan (Jason Clarke and Carey Mulligan) to a balanced two-family drama with “Pariah” star Rob Morgan and a reluctantly makeup-free Blige as the parents whose family has worked the land for generations. Rees embraced the book’s multiple narrators, lacing the two families into a complex tapestry. For a period epic of scale and scope, the $11.8 million budget was tight — especially when it had to accommodate two days in Hungary, complete with tanks and airplanes. The rest of the 26-day shoot was filmed on location in Louisiana. The film earned four Oscar nominations including Supporting Actress, Adapted Screenplay, Original Song, and the first ever for a woman cinematographer, Rachel Morrison.—AT

4. “Black Panther”

No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover UsageMandatory Credit: Photo by Marvel/Disney/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock (9360960cz) Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan "Black Panther" Film - 2018

Chadwick Boseman and Michael B. Jordan in “Black Panther”

Marvel/Disney/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

Ryan Coogler was just 29 years old — with two features to his name — when he was announced as the director of “Black Panther.” “Fruitvale Station” (see above) heralded him as an indie darling, an unapologetic new talent who confronts divisive issues and calls out injustice. Then “Creed” proved he could enhance a franchise that pre-dated him (while upending an iconic character for the better), engineer a commercial/critical hit, and earn The Academy’s attention.

But the task of helming Marvel’s first black-led superhero film brought gargantuan expectations, and much room for error. The first moments of “Black Panther” cover thousands of years of history, set to a Kendrick Lamar-curated soundtrack. Soon, the audience meets the five tribes of Wakanda, an African nation others failed to bring to the screen for 25 years. Each man and woman — from Oscar-winners Lupita Nyong’o and Forest Whitaker; to stars Chadwick Boseman, Daniel Kaluuya, and Coogler-requisite Michael B. Jordan — is resplendent in Ruth Carter’s traditional costumes. Indigenous dialects are spoken amid the space flights, museum heists, and car chases. To date, the film has earned more than $1.3 billion worldwide, and inspired a forthcoming awards campaign. Serena Williams, Zendaya, and Octavia Spencer are among those who treated kids to free screenings. Representation-spells-good-business is a refrain that’s become harder to ignore. —JM

3. “Love & Basketball”

No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover Usage.Mandatory Credit: Photo by Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock (1583067a) Love And Basketball, Omar Epps, Sanaa Lathan Film and Television

Omar Epps and Sanaa Lathan in “Love & Basketball”

Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock

UCLA grad Gina Prince-Bythewood ran track in college. At the center of her first feature, developed at the Sundance Institute’s directing and writing lab and produced by Spike Lee, she put into romantic conflict two L.A. athletes who are childhood sweethearts (Sanaa Lathan and Omar Epps). Over the years, as they play basketball through high school, college and into the professional leagues, they wrestle with complicated issues of love and friendship, competitiveness and gender identity, as they date other people and struggle with making it in the sport they adore. The sports romance broke out its two leads and writer-director, scoring over $27 million at the domestic box office. —AT

2. “Get Out”

'Get Out"

Daniel Kaluuya in “Get Out”

Universal Pictures

Rookie writer-director Jordan Peele laid the groundwork for his $4.5 million crossover movie by producing, writing, and acting in multiple sketches on Comedy Central’s “Key & Peele” that found the humor in racism. Peele learned, over and over, how to creatively break beyond limitations and play an audience. From the unsettling opening frames accompanied by a series of warning music cues (“Run rabbit run!”), Peele seduces, subverts and manipulates audience expectations — as the masters Alfred Hitchcock, John Carpenter, and Stanley Kubrick did before him. And he uses camera moves to build dread. “Get Out” is both admonition and warning, but it’s also what Peele wants the audience to scream at his frightened everyman hero (Daniel Kaluuya). The rule Peele broke: every movie about race has to have one good white person. Credit producer Jason Blum (who was nominated in 2015 for “Whiplash”) for making sure Peele rejiggered a more satisfying upbeat ending, rather than send his beleaguered hero to jail. Finally, this timely racial thriller, started during the Obama administration and completed in the age of Trump, landed Peele a win for Best Original Screenplay. —AT

1. “Moonlight”

No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover UsageMandatory Credit: Photo by David Bornfriend/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock (7734188a) Alex R. Hibbert, Mahershala Ali 'Moonlight' Film - 2016

Alex R. Hibbert and Mahershala Ali in
“Moonlight”

David Bornfriend/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

When Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight” premiered on the fall film festival circuit in 2016, audiences were stunned — unable to fathom what they’d seen, but knowing that it was something that would warrant further examination for years to come. The gay, alienated Chiron was a character never portrayed before in American cinema. Up to that point, the range allowed for black men in American movies could barely span the width of a teaspoon. Though there were outliers, few black characters actually struggled with masculinity, the complexity of identity, love, and oppression with such nuance. It’s not surprising that Jenkins admitted Naomi Harris’ character was a composite of his and co-screenwriter Tarell Alvin McCraney’s mothers, both of whom struggled with drug addiction in South Miami. The narrative transforms an undercurrent of emotional frustration into deep, lyrical beauty. Harris’ vicious-yet-vulnerable turn as Paula, and Mahershala’s Ali masterful, Oscar-winning portrayal of Juan, provide a foundation of support in Chiron’s world that complicates his relationship to it even as darker forces creep in. But it’s the script and overarching aesthetic that made “Moonlight” worthy of its most apt description — a masterpiece. —JC

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