Kathryn Bigelow’s period crime drama, Detroit, is definitely one of her best works to date, featuring some of her best direction. Indeed, despite being a box office disappointment, the movie was very successful with critics and was particularly praised for its screenplay and ensemble cast. Moreover, the movie is fairly historically accurate, which isn’t always the case with films of its kind.
Detroit is just one example of many amazing Black-led films being released in the past two decades. Such period dramas don’t only help increase the representation of Black historical events and figures, but also bring more variety to the kinds of movies made in this genre.
10 Notorious (2009) – Available On Sling TV
Despite having a mixed reaction from critics (that nevertheless believed it to be a good introduction to the life of the iconic artist), Notorious was well-received by audiences and was commercially successful.
The period biopic focuses on the life and death (or rather, murder) of rapper Christopher Wallace, also known as the Notorious B.I.G. The cast includes such big names as Angela Bassett and Anthony Mackie, alongside Derek Luke and Jamal Woolard.
9 Marshall (2017) – Available On Sling TV & The Roku Channel
The biographical legal drama Marshall was a box office failure but was praised by critics, with the late Chadwick Boseman’s performance particularly admired.
Boseman portrays Thurgood Marshall, who was the first Black Supreme Court Justice. The movie focuses on one of the most prominent and earliest cases he worked on – the State of Connecticut v. Joseph Spell.
8 Fruitvale Station (2013) – Available On Netflix
Ryan Coogler’s directorial debut, Fruitvale Station, was also one of the earliest prominent roles of actor Michael B. Jordan. A critical and commercial success, the movie won multiple awards, including Best First Film at the Cannes Film Festival.
Jordan plays Oscar Grant, a young Black man who was killed by a BART police officer in 2009. The film depicts the events leading up to Grant’s death, which occurred at the Fruitvale district station in Oakland.
7 Selma (2014) – Available On FXNow
Ava DuVernay’s award-nominated Selma was a critical and financial success. However, the film was criticized for its historical inaccuracies, so it can be viewed as a way to get acquainted with the topic on the surface rather than actually getting the full picture.
The movie depicts the 1965 Selma to Montgomery voting rights marches. The event was initiated by James Bevel and led by such prominent figures as Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis, and Hosea Williams.
6 BlacKkKlansman (2018) – Available On Spectrum On Demand
Spike Lee’s historical drama BlackKklansman uses black comedy to add humor to its narrative. Starring John David Washington and Adam Driver, it was a critical and box office success, getting multiple award nominations and winning the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.
Taking place in the 1970s in Colorado Springs, it follows the first Black detective in the local police department and his partner, who decide to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan chapter located in the area.
5 Just Mercy (2019) – Available On HBO Now, HBO Max, & DirecTV
Starring Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx, among others, Just Mercy was co-written directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, who previously directed the acclaimed Short Term 12 and is the director of Marvel’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.
Based on Bryan Stevenson’s memoir, it tells the real story of Stevenson, who was a young attorney helping Walter McMillan appeal his murder conviction case.
4 Judas And The Black Messiah (2021) – Available To Rent On Prime Video, Google Play, & YouTube
The recent award winner Judas and the Black Messiah was praised by critics, with performances of Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield getting most of the attention. Both Kaluuya and Stanfield were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, which Kaluuya won.
Set in the late 1960s Chicago, it follows the story of William O’Neal, an FBI informant, who joined the ranks of Fred Hampton’s Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party and subsequently betrayed him.
3 Malcolm X (1992) – Available On HBO Max & Hulu
Another iconic movie from director Spike Lee, Malcolm X stars such big names as Denzel Washington and Angela Bassett, as well as Delroy Lindo in his first collaboration with the director (Lindo would become known for his roles in Lee’s movies and recently played a prominent role in Da 5 Bloods).
Washington plays Malcolm X, with the movie depicting several important events in his life: his life in crime, incarceration, conversion to Islam, his history with the Nation of Islam organization, marriage to Betty X, pilgrimage to Mecca, and others.
2 Straight Outta Compton (2015) – Available On FXNow, FuboTV, & DirecTV
The critically and commercially successful Straight Outta Compton had a troubled production mired in controversy and it then ended up having historical inaccuracies. Nevertheless, it was well-received even by regular viewers and can definitely be considered one of the best Black musician biopics of recent years.
The film follows the iconic gangsta rap group known as N.W.A. as they rose on the hip hop scene and then eventually fell from grace. The group included such members as Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, and Easy-E.
1 American Gangster (2007) – Available On Peacock, Sling TV, & TNT
Ridley Scott’s American Gangster is by far one of the most well-known Black-led movies of the 21st century, even though it does make a lot of changes to the historical events it is based on. Nevertheless, it was successful in every way and was nominated for multiple awards. The absolutely stellar cast includes Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe, Chiwetel Eljiofor Jr., Cuba Gooding Jr., Josh Brolin, Ted Levine, and others.
Washington plays a fictionalized version of the North Carolina gangster Frank Lucas, who smuggled heroin into the U.S. during the Vietnam War.
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