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

Black voices have always been essential to American cinema, but they’re especially potent this summer, with two exciting upcoming releases: Boots Riley’s “Sorry To Bother You” and Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman” have impressed critics and magnified the beating pulse of black identity politics, while skewering those persons and institutions that hinder black social and economic advancement. Though vastly different in tone and technique, they echo similar themes: Black American political disillusionment, the struggle for higher standards, and the pressure to maintain an authentic version of oneself.

With these potent ideas playing out at movie theaters across the country, we’ve arrived at a perfect opportunity to examine the best black American films of the 21st century.

From renowned stories and landmark performances to culturally relevant comedies and iconic directors, each of these movies have molded the landscape of black cinema into what it is today. Dee Rees, Ava DuVernay, Ryan Coogler, Barry Jenkins, and Jordan Peele are just a few of the filmmakers our critics singled out for recognition; read all our ranked picks below. We applied a broad criteria, including both films with black directors as well as others that feature black characters. —Jacqueline Coley

25. “Ray”

Jamie Foxx in “Ray”

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In the world of biopics, there are often impressions, accents, and performances inspired by or mirroring the real individuals. Then there are a handful of transformations in which actors become synonymous with their subjects. When the mannerisms, dialogue, and movements become so indistinguishable, it’s no longer just acting; it’s a possession —  as if the person’s soul was conjured from the heavens and the actor provided the physical embodiment to retell the story here on earth.

This was the case for Jamie Foxx’s turn as legendary crooner Ray Charles in Taylor Hackford’s “Ray.” Modern-day music biopics can come off as jukebox-driven highlight reels with no resonance or nuance about the multifaceted artists at their center. Hackford’s direction and James L. White’s script crafted a symphonic ode to Ray Charles’ life and legacy. Foxx’s heartbreaking and at times hilarious performance is the haunting refrain. There was no question as to who was walking home with the Best Actor trophy at the 77th Oscar ceremony, but no one could have predicted how Foxx would bring everyone watching to tears with his heartfelt acceptance speech. —JC

24. “Fences”

Denzel Washington and Viola Davis in “Fences”

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For his third directorial outing (after “The Debaters” and “Antwone Fisher”), Denzel Washington skirted the hazards of “opening up” a play by chasing honest emotions. The two-time acting Oscar-winner took on the film adaptation of August Wilson’s ’50s Pittsburgh family drama “Fences” both as director and disgruntled former baseball player Troy Maxson, rejoining his fellow Tony-winning 2010 Broadway revival costar Viola Davis as his beleaguered wife Rose. Washington told Davis two things on the Pittsburgh location: “Don’t forget the love,” and “Trust me.” So Davis went big, letting Troy have it when he tells his wife of 18 years that he has been unfaithful. Debuting film actor Jovan Adepo (“The Leftovers”) shines in a key scene as high school football player Cory, who is crushed when his father tells him to quit the team and take back his job at a grocery store. “How come you ain’t never liked me?” he asks his father. “Liked you?” responds Troy. “Who the hell say I got to like you?” —Anne Thompson

23. “Straight Outta Compton”

Aldis Hodge, Neil Brown Jr., Jason Mitchell, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Corey Hawkins in “Straight Outta Compton”

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To tell the story of the rise (and fall) of one of the biggest rap groups in history — N.W.A., whose members included Eazy-E, Ice Cube, and Dr. Dre— there was no better person than director F. Gray Gray. After all, not only did he grow up in South Los Angeles area where the group started, but also he began his career as music video director, and had worked with Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, and other artists during that era. So when the film came out, it had everything the fans wanted to see and more. It had the original group’s blessing to use their music, great performances from the three leads — relative newcomers Jason Mitchell, Corey Hawkins, and Ice Cube’s son O’Shea Jackson, Jr. — and an energy level so high that audiences resonated with each scene and song.

With three straight weekends as the U.S.’s number one film and over $200 million at the global box office, the film was more than a commercial success: it’s the highest-grossing music biopic ever. Sadly, Gray’s feature didn’t receive deserved Oscar nominations for Best Picture or its performances, an oversight that helped popularize #OscarSoWhite. —Wilson Morales

22. “Barbershop”

Ice Cube in “Barbershop”

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This comedy-drama, featuring Ice Cube, Cedric the Entertainer, Eve, and Michael Ealy, resulted in a humorous and pleasurable film, one that put forth a dialogue with a high sense of realness that folks could relate to. Long before talk shows like “Meet the Press,” there was always a barbershop where people would go and get in on any topic of conversation. Cube plays Calvin, owner of his father’s former Chicago barbershop. Those who work there for a family, even though some are not pulling their weight. Throughout the non-stop jokes and money drama, Calvin has to find within himself whether he has the strength to keep the business afloat when selling out sounds easier. Its $77 million finish at the box office led to a franchise: two sequels (“Barbershop 2: Back in Business,” “Barbershop: The Next Cut”) and a spinoff (“Beauty Shop”) for Queen Latifah. —WM

21. “Precious”

Mo’Nique in “Precious”

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When discussing comedians who became dramatic actors, Oscar winners Robin Williams and Jamie Foxx come to mind, as do nominees Jim Carrey and Steve Carell. But none had a more extreme transformation than Mo’Nique for “Precious.” Based on Sapphire’s 1996 novel “Push” and directed by Lee Daniels, the film cast her as Mary, a hellish Harlem mother who sexually abuses her illiterate teen daughter (newcomer Gabourey Sidibe). Always-bullied Precious has lived a life of continuous trauma, culminating when she learns that her father has given her HIV. But through the kindness of a teacher (Paula Patton), social worker (Mariah Carey), and hospital employee (Lenny Kravitz), she begins to acquire her own agency, eventually severing ties with Mary to become a responsible parent herself.

The jarring film’s production team included Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry, each vocal survivors of sexual assault. Mo’Nique won an Academy Award, while a thriving television career (“The Big C,” “American Horror Story,” “Empire”) awaited Sidibe. Today, her self-possessed characters are rarely ever the victims. —JM

20. “Tangerine”

Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriquez in “Tangerine”

Magnolia

Sin-Dee Rella dragged that girl by her hair from the flophouse to the West Hollywood Donut Time with one shoe on Christmas Eve. I have to confess, the first time I saw that moment, I screamed. It was so hood, yet so real. That authentic flavor is why such a simple film like “Tangerine” can leave an indelible mark on audiences. Katina Kiki Rodriguez’s Sin-Dee Rella is one of the most fearless females I’ve seen onscreen, and it still shocks me she was not more prevalent in that year’s awards conversation. I know a transgender sex worker would not strike some as such, but for me, she is just that: fearless.

On the surface, Sean Baker’s film is a simple slice of life story low on female empowerment: a protagonist fresh from jail, trying to track down her wayward boyfriend and the cis-gender woman he has been cheating with doesn’t seem like a vehicle to champion anyone. But underneath that is a story about friendship and a rare glimpse into genuinely invisible margins of the urban landscape. Shot entirely on an iPhone using primarily unknown and first-time actors for less than $100,000, the film is a testament to Baker’s brilliance. —JC

19. “Beyond the Lights”

Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Nate Parker in “Beyond The Lights”TK

Suzanne Tenner/Relativity Media/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

One of the few black romantic dramas of the past 20 years stars Gugu Mbatha-raw as troubled up-and-coming singer Noni. The movie explores the cost of fame — losing your voice, losing your identity, and losing out on real connections because of how others perceive you. After a suicide attempt, Noni is able to find all of those things again with the help of the cop (Nate Parker) who saved her from her nearly fatal fall.

“Beyond the Lights” was a return to form for Gina Prince-Bythewood, who wrote and directed 2000’s “Love and Basketball.” Ahead of the film’s 2014 release, she told IndieWire that the film’s key crew was also very purposefully women — from the cinematographer to the production and costume designers — a move that sounds familiar in the age of shows like “Queen Sugar” committing to all women directorial teams. The movie takes audiences from loud, sexy, music videos to the quietness of two people falling in love over a box of old song lyrics, all without missing a beat. —Constance Gibbs

18. “Girls Trip”

Regina Hall, Jada Pinkett Smith, Queen Latifah, and Tiffany Haddish in “Girls Trip”

Michele K. Short/Universal/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

Last year, it took more than seven months for a live-action comedy to score $100 million at the domestic box office. The triumphant film was neither a remake nor sequel, but an original script about a quartet of 30-and-40-something ladies, who visit The Big Easy in bedazzled jackets. Three members of the “Flossy Posse” were onscreen regulars — Jada Pinkett Smith, Queen Latifah, and Regina Hall — while the fourth, Tiffany Haddish, was unknown to most but instantly beloved by all.

Her combined physicality, relatability, and fearless drew comparisons to Melissa McCarthy in fellow R-rated hit “Bridesmaids” (2011). Yet Haddish seems even more fun when she’s not acting, remarkable because she was living out of her car not too long ago. She got away with both a “Jimmy Kimmel Live” anecdote that made Will Smith sound horribly out-of-touch with his ticket-buyers, and an 18-minute speech at the New York Film Critics Circle Awards. In addition to recent appearances in Jay-Z and Drake music videos, this year she’ll star in a TV show and four more films, not to mention host this month’s MTV Movie & TV Awards (a sequel to her breakout is now in development).

Directed by Malcolm D. Lee and co-written by “Black-ish” creator Kenya Barris, “Girls Trip” is an utter delight, even with archetypal characters facing familiar life junctures. But the bond between the four women — and occasional lack thereof — demands repeat viewing much more than the sporadic shocks of gross-out (and grapefruit) humor. —JM

17. “Beasts of the Southern Wild”

Quvenzhane Wallis in “Beasts of the Southern Wild”

Cinereach/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

The brilliant, original four-hankie dystopian family drama from New Orleans newcomer Benh Zeitlin far surpassed any expectations for a scruffy $1.5 million effort from an unknown film collective, cast and crew, even after it took home the Sundance Grand Jury Prize. The actors were mostly non-pros who workshopped their roles. Nine-year-old discovery Quvenzhane Wallis’s winning personality carries the film as Hushpuppy and earned an Oscar nomination; Dwight Henry was working as a baker before playing her father. No one could have predicted that a movie about the end of the world, shot in a chaotic run-and-gun cinema verite style with handheld digital cameras on a constantly flooding abandoned delta island below the New Orleans levees — complete with homemade non-CGI special effects like the film’s titular Aurochs — would score four Oscar nods, including director (knocking out Ben Affleck), adapted screenplay and picture. Yet again, a rooted homegrown story conjured up emotions that were universal. —AT

16. “Django Unchained”

Jamie Foxx in “Django Unchained”

Columbia/The Weinstein Company/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

While it’s not exploitative like its predecessor “Mandingo,” Tarantino designed this revisionist western to blow people’s gaskets. Packed with physical comedy, bloody action and hell-bent revenge, it looks like a classic widescreen Sergio Leone western, even if the setting is New Orleans and Mississippi two years before the Civil War. When a sophisticated German bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz) approaches a chain gang and attempts to buy one of the slaves, he’s forced to shoot the guards, and releases Django (Jamie Foxx) from his chains; he then trains him to ride and shoot so that he help him to identify some nasty slave drivers he’s chasing. Tarantino takes the revenge western to a new level as the two bounty hunters shoot their way through the unsuspecting South. Watching Django stalk across a plantation to shoot one of the men who once abused him is chilling. He whips another to death. He’s looking for his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), who is owned by plantation owner Candie (Leonardo Di Caprio). It’s about fighting injustice, except that this time it’s not Brad Pitt against the Nazis in World War II–it’s an angry black man getting his own back from racist ante-bellum white southerners. —AT

15. “Ali”

Mario Van Peebles and Will Smith in “Ali”

Frank Connor/Columbia/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

With Will Smith playing the iconic and legendary boxer Muhammad Ali, the stakes were high for him to deliver a career-defining performance, and boy did he ever. With Michael Mann’s direction, Smith showcased a different range of acting from the action-packed films we had previously seen him in. Embodying Cassius Clay meant charting his deepening religious beliefs, plus mixing politics and sports with some marital woes. Smith packed on the pounds, unleashed some great boxing moves, and displayed a level of emotional pull that compelled audiences to see him as The Greatest.

The drama was also aided by the performances of Jamie Foxx, Jon Voight, Jeffrey Wright, and Smith’s wife, Jada Pinnkett Smith, in their only film together. Smith received his first Oscar nod for Best Actor, and rightly so. While films such as “The Fighter,” “Rocky,” “The Champ,” and more recently “Creed” have their fair share of fans, “Ali” ranks alongside “Raging Bull” as one of the few satisfying boxing biopics. —WM

14. “Fruitvale Station”

Ariana Neal and Michael B. Jordan in “Fruitvale Station”

Forest Whitaker's Significant Prods./Og Project/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

This Sundance Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award winner opens security footage of the real Oscar Grant – shot in the back and killed by a police officer in an Oakland, Calif. train station in 2009 – and closes with a clip of his now-fatherless daughter. For his first full-length film, writer-director Ryan Coogler cast Michael B. Jordan as the slain 22-year-old. The role was complicated, not just because there were surviving relatives to think of, and mounting statistics about how black men fare worse in the criminal justice system than their white counterparts, if they even make it to a court room. In the film, Grant is full of flaws. He’s been to jail, he’s cheated on his girlfriend, he’s been fired from the grocery store where he works. But he’s young, dynamic, and – aware of his family responsibilities – trying to make good choices. That’s how he wound up riding the BART on the last night of his life: it was New Year’s Eve, and he didn’t want to drink and drive. “Fruitvale Station” offers no social remedies, but by recreating Grant’s final hours, it actualizes him as a man, not just a rally cry.—JM

13. “Hustle & Flow”

Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson in “Hustle & Flow”

Snap Stills/REX/Shutterstock

When “Hustle & Flow” first premiered at Sundance in 2005, no one knew what to expect. We had a new director (Craig Brewer) on the scene with Terrence Howard — after over 30 films to his credit — finally attempting to break out in a lead role. Most of the rap films we had seen at the time were set either in New York or LA, but this entertaining story takes place in the South, specifically Memphis, Tenn.

Howard, sporting a James Brown perm, plays an aspiring drug dealer and pimp named Djay looking to change his game and become a rapper. With Anthony Anderson acting as his producer/sound man and Taraji P. Henson, Taryn Manning and Paula Jai Parker as his workabee/backup singers, Djay has to deal with the daily grinds of making ends meet while putting together a demo for his hopeful meeting with a local legend who made it out of the hood. Along with a song (“It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp”) that the won the Academy Award and Howard’s show-stopping performance — which netted him a Best Actor nod — “Hustle & Flow” certainly is among the emotional, uplifting feel good films that folks love to watch more than once. —WM

12. “Hidden Figures”

Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae, and more in “Hidden Figures”

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The top-earning Best Picture nominee of 2017 ($236 million), “Hidden Figures” presented three brilliant black women who just wanted to do their jobs. And they did: their expertise at a NASA field center helped send the first Americans into orbit, an extra-amazing feat since each was hobbled by segregation laws still in effect in the early ’60s. Mathematician Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson) had to trek a half-mile to use the bathroom at work; Dorothy Vaughan was reprimanded for conducting research in a library’s whites-only section; and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) went to court seeking enrollment in an off-limits engineering program.

Rated PG, the film aimed to be widely accessible, including a love story (between Henson and her previous “Curious Case of Benjamin Button” co-star Mahershala Ali), friendship excursions, historical context, and countdown drama. Budgeted at just $25 million, writer-director-producer Theodore Melfi delivered the first live-action, non-franchise film in six years that featured multiple female leads and registered successive victories at the weekend box office (its predecessor: “The Help”). The source material was Margot Lee Shetterly’s eponymous book, optioned before publication by 20th Century Fox. Beyond acknowledging the accomplishments of this trio and their peers, and the continued need for women in STEM jobs, “Hidden Figures” produced perhaps the most scholarly Barbie doll to ever sell out.—JM

11. “Pariah”

“Pariah”

Chicken And Egg/Mbk/Northstar/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

So many black LGBTQ pioneers have enacted social change in the queer community. Marsha P. Johnson was one of the first transgender activists in America. She threw the first stone that kicked off the Stonewall riots. But establishing LGBTQ identity in African American families has always been a complicated endeavor. To this day, far more black youth face stigmatization and ostracization for coming out as gay than their peers in white communities. Dee Rees’ “Pariah,” a raw and intimate look at a young girl’s path to identity and sexuality, is what first introduced audiences to her unflinching lens of examination.

Adepero Oduye stars as Alike, who while seeking love discovers the most elusive love to story fulfill – falling for yourself. From the opening shot, where Alike shyly ogles exotic dancers grinding before her eyes, there is no doubt about her sexuality. Though it takes her longer to admit it to her family, the consequences of her coming out to her religious mother are dire. Still, she remains defiant in the final frames. Reciting her poetry, she proclaims: “I am not broken, I am free,” a universal sentiment for anyone, gay or straight, who remains unapologetic of their truth. —JC

10. “Inside Man”

Denzel Washington and Chiwetel Ejiofor in “Inside Man”

Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock

In working with Denzel Washington for the fourth time, Spike Lee had the makings of a hit with the satisfying heist film “Inside Man.” Co-star Jodie Foster was coming off her blockbuster hit “Flightplan,” while Clive Owen was breaking out as an A-list actor. To date, this is the only film where Lee came on board as a hired director; he didn’t write or produce in any capacity. Yet it’s his highest-grossing title, as well as his only film to hit number one at the box office during its opening weekend. Lee has always wanted to make the sequel.

Set in New York, Owen plays a bank robber looking to pull off the perfect theft. He’s thought of every scenario that could go right and wrong, and has to play chess with Washington’s detective. Foster’s slick performance as “fixer” Madeleine White adds to the intrigue and suspense, along with the supporting characters (Willem Dafoe, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Christopher Plummer). —WM

9. “Training Day”

Denzel Washington in “Training Day”

Robert Zuckerman/Outlaw/Warner Bros/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

When “Training Day” came out, Denzel Washington didn’t have much left to prove, beyond winning a Best Actor Oscar (he had a supporting trophy for “Glory”). His 1999 performance in “Hurricane” had been overlooked, but then came his four collaborations with Antoine Fuqua. In the first, urban classic “Training Day,” Washington reinvented his persona. As corrupt Detective Alonzo Harris, he finds himself paired with a new partner, Officer Jake Hoyt (Ethan Hawke). During their drives through crime-infested pockets of Los Angeles, Hoyt sees the dirty underworld that Harris loves, and is reluctant to join. He doesn’t know if Harris is his friend or foe. Fuqua made sure this wasn’t your ordinary buddy-buddy action-thriller cop film. In the most memorable scene, Harris proclaims, “King Kong ain’t got shit on me!” We hadn’t seen Washington play the bad guy before, and with his ferocious, dominating, and charismatic performance, the Oscar was his. —WM

8. “Dear White People”

“Dear White People”

Code Red/Duly Noted/Homegrow/REX/Shutterstock

Tessa Thompson, lately of a Marvel tentpole (“Thor: Ragnarock”) and a hit show (“Westworld”), spent almost a decade as a working actor before filming her breakout role in “Dear White People” (2014), writer-director Justin Simien’s Sundance award-winning film that inspired the namesake Netflix series. As Sam White – an acerbic black college student/author who unnerves the white administration with her radio show – she broadcast missives such as, “The minimum requirement of black friends needed to not seem racist has just been raised to two,” and, “Dating a black person to piss off your parents is a form of racism.”

But her narrative is just one of several that forces members of the Winchester University community (and viewers) to question internalized angst about how they are perceived by strangers. Like “Atlanta,” the film explores how two members of the same race can have vastly different experiences depending on how dark their skin is, as well as why certain people can say and act one way, but not others. The racially-tinged hostilities build to a squirm-inducing party where the white school president’s son invites all attendees to wear blackface.—JM

7. “12 Years a Slave”

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”

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

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”

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”

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”

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”

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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