Black Cinema Gems

by Abyss47 | created - 10 Aug 2012 | updated - 3 months ago | Public

In chronological order.

Ever wonder why you rarely hear about "iconic" or "classic" black films? Ever wonder why black cinema is so marginalized and rarely talked about? Ever wonder why most black films are so hard to find or lost forever? Well, I'll tell you why.....

Because very few people care about black films, unfortunately. Likely not you, not your mother, not your father, and most likely not your friends either. The majority of white films, on the other hand, have pretty much been preserved forever, and people usually go to extra lengths to ensure that many of the lost white films don't stay lost for long. Far too many black films, specifically classic black films, have been ignored altogether because the people of that time likely figured that future generations wouldn't care to see such films, and thus, most classic black films are lost for all eternity. You can read about them, but you can't touch them, feel them, see them, or even get close to them. Instead, the people who truly want to see everything black cinema has to offer have to search ten times as hard compared to if they were trying to find any other type of film. This can become incredibly frustrating for cinephiles who make it their goal to see nearly everything from everybody all around the world. But, it's most frustrating to black movie fans who want to get closer to their own culture through the films their own people have made. Even such filmmakers as Ousmane Sembene and Charles Burnett, who have a couple of films widely available to the public, also have a bunch of films they've made that aren't available anywhere to see unless you do some serious digging.

It's definitely the fault of society as a whole, and history's blatant marginalization of black film........well, let's be honest, anything black. A lot of people, whether in power or not in power, simply don't value black films much. It's not just black films made by black filmmakers either, it's black films, period. You can't even see 50 percent of them if you tried, really. Many of these films likely lacked support from their own people as well when they were released in theaters, so those same folks aren't safe from some of the blame either.

One question that often lingers in my mind is, "Why does Criterion only have less than a handful of black titles in their collection?" Why haven't they tried restoring Burnett's more obscure titles, or Souleymane Cissé's, or Bill Gunn's (Stop!)? They more than deserve it. I've actually enjoyed some of their films more than any of the ones Criterion has already released. Plus, I'm pretty sure cinephiles really want to see these films, as well as many others who are passionate about film. We're being neglected important pieces of film history.

With that said, I present to those of you who do care my personal list of black cinema gems; some of these are relatively well known and others are practically unknown, but my main intention was making a list of pretty much all the ones I consider at least good, so that includes favorites and non-favorites. I haven't seen everything, so this is just a reflection of what I have seen, which is more than the average person but still a lot less than I want to see.

The main criteria was, the film had to be at least decent and deal with some sort of black theme or have a black sensibility. But, here's the catch: Any film made by a black filmmaker that I felt was decent and worthy automatically went on the list even if the cast was white. The ones made by non-black filmmakers obviously had to fall in line with the first rule of my criteria.

Like I said above, most black films, specifically early black films, are impossible to find and not available anywhere to the public, and even many of the newer black independent films become incredibly difficult to see unless you go to black film festivals, which I highly recommend doing since they usually contain some real gems. The Pan African Film Festival in particular is wonderful. Every black person or person in general interested in black film should make it their duty to go to that festival whenever it's nearby. I was lucky enough to go recently since it was in my hometown of Los Angeles, and it was very refreshing and exciting seeing all the unique and diverse films from all kinds of new black talent, and participating in the Q&A sessions afterwards. Back to my first point: that's why there are only a few pre-60's entries on the list. I don't count on that changing anytime soon, but hey, miracles happen, don't they?

I included guilty pleasures as well, because films I consider to be guilty pleasure may be considered legitimately good by other folks. I found all of the films on this list to be semi-entertaining, at the very least. Then again, I'm very open-minded and choose not to criticize every film I watch to death. Watching movies shouldn't be a critical exercise, it should be effortlessly enjoyable, like listening to music.

To those who disagree with my selections, I say this. There's no such thing as a be-all-end-all list, so I didn't set out to make one. I mainly made this list for myself, so I can easily manage my favorite black films in a non-complicated way. You are always welcome to make your own.

Not on IMDb:

"Digitopia" by John Akomfrah

"The Drive-by" by The Hughes Brothers

"Colette Vignette" by Wendell B. Harris Jr.

"You Know Leadbelly" by Wendell B. Harris Jr.

"Gil Scott-Heron: The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" by Don Letts

"First World Festival of Negro Arts" by William Greaves

"Kichwateli" by Muchiri Njenga

"Swirl In Bamako" by Dominique Philippe

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1. Within Our Gates (1920)

Not Rated | 79 min | Drama, Romance

Abandoned by her fiancé, an educated black woman with a shocking past dedicates herself to helping a near bankrupt school for impoverished black youths.

Director: Oscar Micheaux | Stars: Evelyn Preer, Flo Clements, James D. Ruffin, Jack Chenault

Votes: 1,722

2. The Symbol of the Unconquered (1920)

TV-PG | 54 min | Drama

Racists learn that the land a negro owns lies over a vast oil field, and threaten his life when he refuses to sell.

Director: Oscar Micheaux | Stars: Iris Hall, Walker Thompson, Lawrence Chenault, Mattie Wilkes

Votes: 227

3. Body and Soul (1925)

Not Rated | 102 min | Drama

A minister is malevolent and sinister behind his righteous facade. He consorts with, and later extorts from, the owner of a gambling house, and betrays an honest girl, eventually driving ... See full summary »

Director: Oscar Micheaux | Stars: Paul Robeson, Marshall Rogers, Lawrence Chenault, Chester A. Alexander

Votes: 552

4. Hallelujah (1929)

Passed | 109 min | Drama, Musical

In a juke joint, sharecropper Zeke falls for a beautiful dancer, Chick, but she's only setting him up for a rigged craps game. He loses $100, the money he got for the sale of his family's ... See full summary »

Director: King Vidor | Stars: Daniel L. Haynes, Nina Mae McKinney, William Fountaine, Harry Gray

Votes: 1,331

5. Borderline (1930)

Not Rated | 63 min | Drama

A negro woman having an adulterous affair with a white man causes his wife to go mad and re-enforces the towns-folk's prejudice against Negroes.

Director: Kenneth MacPherson | Stars: Paul Robeson, Eslanda Robeson, Hilda Doolittle, Gavin Arthur

Votes: 348

6. Imitation of Life (1934)

Approved | 111 min | Drama, Romance

A struggling widow and her daughter take in a black housekeeper and her fair-skinned daughter; the two women start a successful business, but face familial, identity, and racial issues along the way.

Director: John M. Stahl | Stars: Claudette Colbert, Warren William, Rochelle Hudson, Ned Sparks

Votes: 3,342

7. Sanders of the River (1935)

Not Rated | 85 min | Adventure, Drama, Music

British District Officer in Nigeria in the 1930's rules his area strictly but justly, and struggles with gun-runners and slavers with the aid of a loyal native chief.

Director: Zoltan Korda | Stars: Paul Robeson, Leslie Banks, Nina Mae McKinney, Robert Cochran

Votes: 433

8. Underworld (1937)

95 min | Crime, Drama

A young college student falls under the influence of a murderous gambler.

Director: Oscar Micheaux | Stars: Bee Freeman, Sol Johnson, 'Slick' Chester, Ethel Moses

Votes: 17

9. God's Step Children (1938)

Not Rated | 105 min | Drama

A young light-skinned Negress struggles to find her place in both the black and the white worlds.

Director: Oscar Micheaux | Stars: Jacqueline Lewis, Ethel Moses, Alice B. Russell, Trixie Smith

Votes: 60

10. Swing! (1938)

69 min | Musical, Drama

Ted Gregory is trying to be the first black producer to mount a show on Broadway, but he has trouble with his star singer.

Director: Oscar Micheaux | Stars: Cora Green, Larry Seymour, Hazel Diaz, Alec Lovejoy

Votes: 110

11. The Blood of Jesus (1941)

Approved | 57 min | Drama, Fantasy

An atheist accidentally shoots his Baptist wife. She dies and goes to a crossroads, where the devil tries to lead her astray.

Director: Spencer Williams | Stars: Cathryn Caviness, Spencer Williams, Juanita Riley, Reather Hardeman

Votes: 368

12. The Quiet One (1948)

65 min | Documentary, Drama

A documentary account of the rehabilitation at the Wiltwyck School of an emotionally disturbed Black boy who is unwanted, misunderstood, and inwardly tortured.

Director: Sidney Meyers | Stars: Gary Merrill, Donald Thompson, Clarence Cooper, Sadie Stockton

Votes: 149

13. No Way Out (1950)

Approved | 106 min | Crime, Drama, Film-Noir

A black doctor is assigned to treat two white racist suspects who are brothers, and when one dies it causes tension that could start a race riot.

Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz | Stars: Richard Widmark, Linda Darnell, Stephen McNally, Sidney Poitier

Votes: 3,425

14. Bright Road (1953)

Approved | 68 min | Drama, Music

Based on the story "See How They Run," which ran in the June 1951 issue of "The Ladies' Home Journal" and subsequently won that year's Christopher Award. The story was written by Mary ... See full summary »

Director: Gerald Mayer | Stars: Dorothy Dandridge, Philip Hepburn, Harry Belafonte, Barbara Randolph

Votes: 394

15. Carmen Jones (1954)

Approved | 105 min | Drama, Musical, Romance

Contemporary version of the Bizet opera, with new lyrics and an African-American cast.

Director: Otto Preminger | Stars: Harry Belafonte, Dorothy Dandridge, Pearl Bailey, Olga James

Votes: 3,807

16. Edge of the City (1957)

Approved | 85 min | Drama

Two New York City longshoremen Axel Nordmann, an Army deserter and Tommy Tyler, an easy-going freight car loader whose growing friendship is threatened by Charles Malik, a notably repellent punk.

Director: Martin Ritt | Stars: John Cassavetes, Sidney Poitier, Jack Warden, Kathleen Maguire

Votes: 2,040

17. Moi, un noir (1958)

Not Rated | 70 min | Drama

"I, a Negro" depicts young Nigerien immigrants who left their country to find work in the Ivory Coast, in the Treichville quarter of Abidjan, the capital. These immigrants live in squalor ... See full summary »

Director: Jean Rouch | Stars: Oumarou Ganda, Gambi, Petit Touré, Alassane Maiga

Votes: 593

Ousmane Sembene's favorite film.

18. The Defiant Ones (1958)

Approved | 96 min | Crime, Drama

Two escaped convicts chained together, white and black, must learn to get along in order to elude capture.

Director: Stanley Kramer | Stars: Tony Curtis, Sidney Poitier, Theodore Bikel, Charles McGraw

Votes: 11,063

19. The Cry of Jazz (1959)

Not Rated | 34 min | Documentary, Short, Music

Discussion of jazz and the role of African-Americans in the United States.

Director: Edward Bland | Stars: George Waller, Dorothea Horton, Linda Dillon, Andrew Duncan

Votes: 148

20. Imitation of Life (1959)

Not Rated | 125 min | Drama

An aspiring actress befriends a black widow, but trouble arises when the latter is rejected by her daughter, who tries to pass for white.

Director: Douglas Sirk | Stars: Lana Turner, John Gavin, Sandra Dee, Susan Kohner

Votes: 12,666 | Gross: $13.99M

21. The World, the Flesh and the Devil (1959)

Not Rated | 95 min | Drama, Romance, Sci-Fi

A miner trapped in a cave-in resurfaces, and upon discovering mankind has been wiped out in a nuclear holocaust, sets out to find other survivors.

Director: Ranald MacDougall | Stars: Harry Belafonte, Inger Stevens, Mel Ferrer

Votes: 2,118

22. The Young One (1960)

96 min | Drama

A jazz musician seeks refuge from a lynch mob on a remote island, where he meets a hostile game warden and the young object of his attentions.

Director: Luis Buñuel | Stars: Zachary Scott, Bernie Hamilton, Key Meersman, Crahan Denton

Votes: 2,111

23. A Raisin in the Sun (1961)

Approved | 128 min | Drama

A substantial insurance payment could mean either financial salvation or personal ruin for a poor black family.

Director: Daniel Petrie | Stars: Sidney Poitier, Claudia McNeil, Ruby Dee, Diana Sands

Votes: 5,652

24. The Intruder (1962)

PG-13 | 84 min | Drama

A man in a gleaming white suit comes to a small Southern town on the eve of integration. He calls himself a social reformer. But what he does is stir up trouble--trouble he soon finds he can't control.

Director: Roger Corman | Stars: William Shatner, Frank Maxwell, Beverly Lunsford, Robert Emhardt

Votes: 2,139

25. Niaye (1964)

35 min | Drama, Short

The pregnancy of a young girl scandalizes her community.

Director: Ousmane Sembene

Votes: 23

26. The Cool World (1963)

105 min | Crime, Drama

Filmmaker Shirley Clarke ("The Connection") directs this powerful, stark semi-documentary look at the horrors of Harlem ghetto slum life filled with drugs, violence, human misery, and a ... See full summary »

Director: Shirley Clarke | Stars: Rony Clanton, Carl Lee, Yolanda Rodríguez, Clarence Williams III

Votes: 362

27. One Potato, Two Potato (1964)

83 min | Drama

Study of interracial marriage in the 1960's. A white divorcée falls in love with and marries an African-American man. When her ex-husband sues for custody of her child, arguing that a mixed... See full summary »

Director: Larry Peerce | Stars: Barbara Barrie, Bernie Hamilton, Richard Mulligan, Harry Bellaver

Votes: 493

28. Nothing But a Man (1964)

Not Rated | 95 min | Drama, Romance

87 Metascore

A proud black man and his school-teacher wife face discriminatory challenges in 1960s America.

Director: Michael Roemer | Stars: Ivan Dixon, Abbey Lincoln, Julius Harris, Gloria Foster

Votes: 1,032 | Gross: $0.01M

29. A Patch of Blue (1965)

Unrated | 105 min | Drama, Romance

A blind, uneducated white girl is befriended by a black man, who becomes determined to help her escape her impoverished and abusive home life by introducing her to the outside world.

Director: Guy Green | Stars: Sidney Poitier, Shelley Winters, Elizabeth Hartman, Wallace Ford

Votes: 6,159

30. Black Girl (1966)

Not Rated | 65 min | Drama

72 Metascore

A black girl from Senegal becomes a servant in France.

Director: Ousmane Sembene | Stars: Mbissine Thérèse Diop, Anne-Marie Jelinek, Robert Fontaine, Momar Nar Sene

Votes: 2,233

31. The Black Klansman (1966)

Not Rated | 88 min | Drama

After a black man's daughter is killed by the KKK, he seeks revenge by becoming a Klansman.

Director: Ted V. Mikels | Stars: Richard Gilden, Rima Kutner, Harry Lovejoy, Max Julien

Votes: 243

32. Oh, Sun (1970)

98 min | Drama

A native of Mauritania is delighted when he is chosen to work in Paris. Hoping to parlay the experience into a better life for himself, he eagerly prepares for his departure from his native... See full summary »

Director: Med Hondo | Stars: Robert Liensol, Théo Légitimus, Gabriel Glissant, Mabousso Lo

Votes: 119

33. Dutchman (1966)

55 min | Drama

A sinister, neurotic white girl Lula, with the provocation of her lovely, half-naked body and of her startlingly lascivious speech, lures to his doom a good-looking young black man Clay, a ... See full summary »

Director: Anthony Harvey | Stars: Shirley Knight, Al Freeman Jr., Frank Lieberman, Robert Calvert

Votes: 324

34. Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967)

Not Rated | 108 min | Comedy, Drama

63 Metascore

A couple's attitudes are challenged when their daughter introduces them to her African American fiancé.

Director: Stanley Kramer | Stars: Spencer Tracy, Sidney Poitier, Katharine Hepburn, Katharine Houghton

Votes: 33,269 | Gross: $56.70M

35. To Sir, with Love (1967)

Not Rated | 105 min | Drama

Idealistic engineer-trainee and his experiences in teaching a group of rambunctious white high school students from the slums of London's East End.

Director: James Clavell | Stars: Sidney Poitier, Judy Geeson, Christian Roberts, Suzy Kendall

Votes: 13,483 | Gross: $42.43M

36. In the Heat of the Night (1967)

Not Rated | 110 min | Crime, Drama, Mystery

75 Metascore

An African American police detective is asked to investigate a murder in a racially hostile southern town.

Director: Norman Jewison | Stars: Sidney Poitier, Rod Steiger, Warren Oates, Lee Grant

Votes: 56,929 | Gross: $24.38M

37. Mandabi (1968)

Not Rated | 90 min | Drama

A money order from a relative in Paris throws the life of a Senegalese family man out of order. He deals with corruption, greed, problematic family members, the locals and the changing from... See full summary »

Director: Ousmane Sembene | Stars: Makhouredia Gueye, Ynousse N'Diaye, Isseu Niang, Serigne N'Diayes

Votes: 404

38. Uptight (1968)

M | 104 min | Drama, Thriller

Black revolutionaries are betrayed by one of their own. Based on the 1935 classic, "The Informer."

Director: Jules Dassin | Stars: Raymond St. Jacques, Ruby Dee, Frank Silvera, Roscoe Lee Browne

Votes: 316

39. Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One (1968)

Not Rated | 75 min | Documentary

71 Metascore

Filmmaker William Greaves auditioned acting students for a fictional drama, while simultaneously shooting the behind-the-scenes drama taking place.

Director: William Greaves | Stars: Patricia Ree Gilbert, Don Fellows, Jonathan Gordon, Bob Rosen

Votes: 1,175

40. The Story of a Three-Day Pass (1968)

Not Rated | 87 min | Drama, Romance

A black American soldier is demoted for fraternizing with a white girl in France.

Director: Melvin Van Peebles | Stars: Harry Baird, Pierre Doris, Christian Marin, Nicole Berger

Votes: 232

41. City of Contrasts (1969)

22 min | Short

A somewhat-humorous look at the city of Dakar, its people, architecture, politics, social behavior, and even the white French tourists, and especially the influence of France's culture and ... See full summary »

Director: Djibril Diop Mambéty

Votes: 78

42. Borom sarret (1963)

20 min | Short, Drama

Boron Sarret is arguably the first film made by a black African. It illustrates poverty in Senegal, particularly for the working man

Director: Ousmane Sembene | Stars: Ly Abdoulay, Albourah

Votes: 623

43. The Learning Tree (1969)

M | 107 min | Drama

The story, set in Kansas during the 1920s, covers less than a year in the life of a black teenager, and documents the veritable deluge of events which force him into sudden manhood. The ... See full summary »

Director: Gordon Parks | Stars: Kyle Johnson, Alex Clarke, Estelle Evans, Dana Elcar

Votes: 749

44. Several Friends (1969)

Not Rated | 21 min | Short

An improvised late '60's short-subject student film, and debut movie of Director, Charles Burnett; done in the neo-realist, documentary film style. A day-in-the-life South Central L.A. tale... See full summary »

Director: Charles Burnett | Stars: Andy Burnett, Eugene Cherry, Charles Bracy, Cassandra Wright

Votes: 224

45. The Lost Man (1969)

M | 122 min | Drama

A gang of black militants plots to rob a factory to finance their "revolutionary struggle."

Director: Robert Alan Aurthur | Stars: Sidney Poitier, Joanna Shimkus, Al Freeman Jr., Michael Tolan

Votes: 125

46. Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970)

R | 97 min | Action, Comedy

Gravedigger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson are two black cops with a reputation for breaking the odd head. Both are annoyed at the success of the Reverend Deke O'Mailey who is selling trips ... See full summary »

Director: Ossie Davis | Stars: Godfrey Cambridge, Raymond St. Jacques, Calvin Lockhart, Judy Pace

Votes: 1,390

47. Watermelon Man (1970)

R | 100 min | Comedy, Drama