“Our story reminds audiences of struggles and triumphs, dreams and aspirations we all share. And it is only by conveying the particulars of African-American life that our narrative become universal,” the late-great John Singleton once declared. He said those words in 2013, when the prospects of a Black cinematic renaissance looked bleak at best, considering important projects like 42 and The Help were siphoned off to white directors. Singleton’s point then concerned the misinterpretation of Blackness, often caused by white Hollywood leaving African Americans on the sidelines. The dilution of Black voices for mainstream consumption still remains prevalent today. Nevertheless, in the list you’re about to read comes plenty of reasons to look back upon the decade with much pride.
Over the course of a week, I watched and revisited 35 films from Black directors made throughout the 2010’s. Most of the entries on this list you’re about to read were released in the second half of the decade, a near-unavoidable arrangement that speaks to the emergence of exciting new voices and the disparity that once existed (though still remains today). Feature-length documentaries, dramas, and comedies, animated films and international releases were included. The 20 works all constitute an assemblage of hopes, fears, and celebrations—with an overriding awareness of history and legacy.
While the omissions will cause some ire, I don’t mind being dragged for whatever films I left out. I prefer it, especially as an alternative to a decade ago. Because during the aughts (and before) a list of Black directed movies filled with Oscar winners and nominees, made up of captivating pictures by men and women, and varied by small and big budgets, only occupied the stuff of dreams. And I’m thankful these debates are now reality’s peace.
Here are the 20 best films of the 2010s by Black directors…
20. Girls Trip (2017)
I’ve always found it too simple to describe Malcolm D. Lee’s Girls Trip as a raunchy comedy. The film navigates friendship with greater refinement than the description would denote. Instead the narrative expresses a universal scope, where a group of once-close college friends known as the Flossy Posse spend the weekend together in New Orleans. Refreshingly, these four Black female leads: Regina Hall, Queen Latifah, Jada Pinkett Smith, and Tiffany Haddish—are not reduced to maudlin punchlines or a baiting laugh track in order to negotiate white peace of mind. They’re unashamedly Black, proud Black women. In fact, while watching I’m always reminded of my two younger sisters, both finding their way in the world but expressing themselves without judgment. It’s our everyday joy—not just our trauma—made cinematic.
19. Straight Outta Compton (2016)
“It plays like a Marvel superhero movie had Marvel been run by Suge Knight,” once opined Odie Henderson in his review for RogerEbert.com. While we do follow the formation of the legendary group NWA: Eazy E (Jason Mitchell), Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr.), DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr.), MC Ren (Aldis Hodge), and D.O.C. (Marlon Yates Jr.) in F. Gary Gray’s Straight Outta Compton—what we’re really playing witness to is the birth of cultural superheroes. To these ends, Gray elevates NWA to mythic heights—easily crafting timeless yet controversial statements of intent like “Fuck Da Police”—and enlargens their opposition to purveyors of power and greed: Suge Knight (R. Marcos Taylor) and manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti).
Nevertheless, for every scene the members of NWA are portrayed as the voices of a generation, they’re also uniquely human. They experience real heartbreak; Eazy E succumbs to AIDS while Dr. Dre loses his younger brother to the violence he’s mostly escaped. Even so, Straight Outta Compton never loses its voice, not only in recreating the violence of the gangster rap scene, but the crucible of racism and oppression from law enforcement felt by the genre’s greatest heroes. Inspirational and fierce, Straight Outta Compton remains one of the most unique takes on the biopic.
18. Widows (2018)
I don’t think any film has ever better encapsulated Chicago. Steve McQueen’s Widows—a star-studded politically-layered action-packed heist flick— ultimately deserved a better box office fate. Filmed on the city’s south and west sides, in Widows the Black residents of the 18th ward are caught between two forces: the established and racist Mulligan family and the equally corrupt former gang leader Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry) and his ruthless brother Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya). To the Irish Mulligans, the Black residents of the 18th ward aren’t constituents. They’re animals in need of control, only made necessary every couple of years during a new election.
Ironically, I love how McQueen captures the lesser-seen Chicago. Beyond downtown. Especially during the shocking car-mounted tracking shot, where downtrodden neighborhoods dissolve into affluence. Widows could have easily been made by someone from the west side, and as someone born and raised there, I wouldn’t know the difference. That’s how much McQueen understands the locale, the system of patronage, and the city’s segregated layout.
On the other hand, in the foreground is the heist conducted by four women—played by Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, and Cynthia Erivo—after three of their husbands die in a botched robbery. I’m continually caught off guard by how seamlessly McQueen balanced the commercial with the socio-political: the action with female daring: and the ugly political legacy of a city with its gleaming towers. No matter the box office result, McQueen’s Widows remains incredible in its ambition and success.
17. Little Woods (2018)
Nia DaCosta’s Little Woods thoughtfully operates as a tale of women empowering women. Set in North Dakota, Tessa Thompson stars as Ollie: a former-drug runner with ten days left on her probation. While Ollie wants to become legitimate—she consistently checks in with her parole officer and applies for a job in Spokane—extenuating circumstances pull her back into dealing. In fact, she is everyone’s lone support system, especially her family. For example, when Ollie’s sister Deb (Lily James), already a single mother, seeks an abortion, no moral judgment comes from Ollie. Instead, the concern lies in safely getting medical care. Ollie and Deb make impossible decisions because of difficult circumstances: sexism and poverty. “Money is money when you ain’t got it,” remarks Deb.
During Little Woods, DaCosta carefully portrays Ollie and Deb’s hardships: partly through a production design that calls for messy and disarrayed homes and cramped trailers. In these spaces, DaCosta mixes close-ups with deep depths of field to absorb Ollie’s quaint surroundings. And despite the trash men in their world, these sisters triumph because of each other, spurred by Ollie’s “You’re brave” mantra. Every element of Little Woods develops, conjuring a swooning final act that declares Ollie and Deb’s autonomy in heartfelt fashion.
16. Luce (2019)
Even though several 2019 films (Waves and Queen & Slim) provocatively engaged with the pressures of Black Excellence, I found Julius Onah’s relentless Luce the most potent exploration of that suffocating box. Kelvin Harrison Jr. (who also stars in Waves) plays the eponymous teenage boy adopted from a war-torn country by a white couple. From the first scene, when he’s giving a speech, we know Luce is special: a top athlete and stellar student. But when he’s accused by his teacher Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer, in a career-best performance) of possessing radical and violent intentions, he reveals unknown shades of his character.
Onah adapted Luce from JC Lee’s play of the same name, and through its melodramatic twists he examines mental health, rape culture, and especially Black Excellence. He expresses the fears of performing to perfection: to be lesser means destruction by an unforgiving white society—but to be more is a forfeiture of identity. A conforming. Onah expresses the sometimes unwinnable choice with unflinching nerve as a bombastic score imbues every tenuous note with dread. Never providing an easy answer to its multiple queries: Is Luce a manipulative monster or a victim of how we as Black individuals pin our self-worth to our successes? Onah bravely forces the debate.
15. Black Panther (2018)
“What’s interesting when you see Black Panther is you realize it couldn’t have been directed by anybody else but Ryan Coogler,” the late John Singleton once observed. Indeed: from Ruth E. Carter’s resplendent and vibrant costumes to Killmonger’s nearly unimpeachable radicalism, to the world-building of thriving African cultures not whipped to genocide by an antebellum western hemisphere—in all of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, no film is as artfully conceived by an overriding creative vision as Coogler’s Black Panther.
Frustratingly, the film’s singularity has bequeathed a temporarily obscured legacy. Now used exclusively as a cudgel to defend Marvel in the Scorsese cinema debate, it’s ironic that 2019’s theme of Black Excellence also pervades the conversation around the $200 million adaptation.
Elevated with the necessary budget and given nearly full creative freedom—Coogler’s brilliant film has been reduced into the lone person of color amongst a sea of white students in a college pamphlet. The picture’s mainstream sociopolitical significance: empowerment and autonomy, remain hostage because of white audiences unsure of how to defend it from the misuses of their best intentions. But for Black audiences, there remains no confusion. The symbol of Black Panther remains as crushingly necessary as when he first sprung from the pages decades ago. And ultimately, we’re continually reminded that the importance of Black heroes need not be judged by colonizers.
14. I Am Not Your Negro (2016)
Medgar Evers. Malcolm X. Martin Luther King Jr. James Baldwin. All of them titans. However, much to Baldwin’s sorrow, the older thought-provoking novelist, playwright, and activist did not pass until 1987. The longest survivor of the group. Because of such, prior to his death, he wrote to his publisher about an exciting new autobiographical project he was constructing called Remember This House. In his lifetime, Baldwin only completed 30 pages of the manuscript: a book meant to recount the assassinations of his friends.
In I Am Not Negro, Haitian director Raoul Peck stitches together Baldwin’s incomplete work by framing it through three lenses: the distortion of Black culture by the white-dominated mainstream media, the killings of major African-American voices, and the #BlackLivesMatters movement. These subjects lead to a painful conclusion—expressed by Baldwin himself in archival interviews—”this country does not know what to do with its Black population,” and it hasn’t gotten much better since. For example, while Baldwin never hated whites, white culture still altered his image and views. For him, the mainstream has employed the cyclical strategy of making any Black demands for equality into the thoughtless shoutings of angry men and women. And infuriatingly, the tactic still works to devastating effect today. It’s at once amazing and tragic that I Am Not Your Negro remains prescient no matter the era.
13. Atlantics (2019)
The awash images in Mati Diop’s Atlantics often lack coherence. Nevertheless, the Grand Prix winner from Cannes consumed me. The perilous ghost story from the French Senegalese director (the first Black woman to contend for the Palme d’Or) follows a group of Dakar boys with few economic options. Among them is Souleiman—a young construction worker infatuated with Ada.
Intriguingly, Atlantics is marked by expansive gulfs—like the crippling poverty experienced by Souleiman as opposed to the distasteful wealth of the man Ada is betrothed to Omar. Not only that, but during the narrative, we’re mostly acquainted with Ada, a girl restrained by the patriarchal demands of her religion. Eventually, Ada joins the women of Dakar in the metaphorical reassertion of their independence, by rebelling against her oppressors (the men in her life). In this shift, Atlantics ironically merges ghostly possession with a heartbreaking love story. Made all the more poignant by Fatima Al Qadiri’s entrancing score, cinematographer Claire Mathon’s hypnotic shots of the ocean, and Diop crafting an evocative blend of social realism: the greater migrant crisis, and phantasmic passion, all in haunting fashion.
12. Hale County This Morning, This Evening (2018)
In RaMell Ross’ Hale County This Morning, This Evening, the Black residents of Harlan County (a portion of Selma, Alabama) are more than a tapestry of regionalisms couched in the rarely observed Southern Black country milieu. Without the inhabitants saying much, they’re complex people; their idiosyncrasies arriving in a collage of poetic compositions. And like the citizens of Harlan County, we’re tied to the land—the basketball courts, country roads, and main street become as familiar to us as our own corner stoop. Moreover, their dreams become ours: playing basketball at a great school or raising a family—and their tragedies just as aching.
A photographer, Ross arrived in the area to teach in a job-training high school equivalency program but soon became enamored with the unique and ebullient population. We travel his same path, and along the way, the filmmaker provides intimate yet lyrical warpings of time: fast-motion sunsets and passing stars in the dreamy night sky—combined with mundane happenings like a trip to the hairdresser. Ross often diverts from common cinematic language, refashioning a new grammar. But I think the true brilliance of Hale County This Morning, This Evening is the patience and the importance he gives to every Black subject upon the screen, infusing their natural worth into every frame of the camera.
11. Field Niggas (2015)
Evocative; poetic; lyrical. They’re only quaint descriptors for the beauty of street photographer Khalik Allah’s Field Niggas: a freewheeling ethnographic expedition of K2 drug addicts and pushers on the corner of 125th and Lexington in Harlem. Allah’s immersive film unfurls the philosophical ramblings of its mostly Black subjects through non-synchronous voiceovers echoing the past: The sounds of slavery and a chain gang ring over these Harlem residents relating their current plight—frustrated with extralegal and abusive cops and the legacy of structural racism—in life’s double track. With a softly swinging camera, Allah eases slow-motion shots, capturing an honesty and openness from his mostly Black nocturnal interviewees. For every hint of sadness on their weathered faces — the mental health patients, the strung-out men and women, and the everyday inhabitants—there are flashes momentary joy. And during his sobering hour-long exploration, Allah asks his viewers to never look away from the melancholy present in the rich but downtrodden humanity of this neglected populace.
10. Pariah (2011)
While Mudbound is brilliant, Dee Rees‘ best film remains her powerful semi-autobiographical debut Pariah. Chronicling a sexual awakening, Pariah follows a 17-year old lesbian Alike or Le (Adepero Oduye) who fearfully hides her sexual orientation. These worries reside in her devoutly religious and homophobic mother who believes “God makes no mistake.” Meanwhile, unbeknownst to her parents, Le frequents a lesbian club with her best friend Laura and begins to explore her attraction to another girl Bina. Rees delicately untangles the still-present religious tension in the Black community against homosexuality: when existing arrives with a warning label of disownership by the family sworn to love you.
To these ends—Le on her way to and from school often swaps her wardrobe—an attempt to appease her mother, and an effort to live in her own skin. Consequently, her sexual exploration provides Pariah with quiet acts of self-expression. Every pan in Rees’ film—with an array of vivid tableaus—trembles with the energy of innocent discovery. The shy Le opens herself to loving Bina, moving from insecure kisses to freeing sex. And though her mother sees her acts as sinful, Le chooses self-love rather than destruction. Which makes Pariah an uplifting story of survival; even when similar stories, in reality, do not end as fortunately.
09. If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)
From the first frame: a crane panning over two lovers, Fonny and Tish, walking through the park—we know Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk only speaks with compassion. Here, Jenkins is a director at full command and ease. Indeed, with the great novels, you can open any page at random and find an immaculate short story. The same goes for films. While the scenes in If Beale Street Could Talk exist in conjunction, they thrive separately, each frame nourishing the next. They’re treatments of memory: the nonlinear musings of the emblems and persecuted friends of our past.
Vibrantly and warmly, Jenkins holds Fonny and Tish in lush primary colors and Nicholas Britell’s kinetic imaginative strings. Jenkins so accurately perceives how Black people are framed: not just cinematically, not just legally, but humanistically. That is, the separation of perception: us as carnal animals to a white authority rather than the intrinsic beings we know we are. I will never understand how If Beale Street Could Talk wasn’t nominated for Best Picture, other than mainstream audiences not accepting an ending where Fonny and Tish weren’t broken and dismantled. But every day I’m thankful for the hope provided by the final shot: a Black family surviving together in the most trying of circumstances.
08. 13th (2016)
Our world spins vastly differently today than it did three years ago. It’s a statement that would usually sound ludicrous, if not for the last three years. The conversations within Ava DuVernay’s 13th: which provided a tidal wave of revelations: connecting the emergence of the prison industrial complex with slavery—hits with greater urgency today. On the other hand, while rewatching 13th, I found myself most returning to its ending, which hosts a conversation between African American historians about what value—if any—comes from showing Black men and women exclusively as victims of trauma. While compiling this list, I struggled between those two minds: The role of escapism and distress in Black cinema, especially in light of the discourse surrounding Queen & Slim. During 13th, the debate was mostly one-sided: the need for brutal realism and memorialization to institute shock and change. Today, I more than wonder if there’s been a shift in that strategy. Nevertheless, such a change isn’t a mark against DuVernay’s thought-provoking film, but a positive sign of our ever-expanding discourse and awareness.
07. BlacKkKlansman (2018)
It’s fitting that in a decade featuring new Black voices that Spike Lee would return with one of his best films in over a decade. BlacKkKlansman leans familiarly into Spike’s best work. It’s bold, direct, and ambitious. But unlike his previous pictures, BlacKkKlansman seemingly features a protagonist uncomfortable with their Blackness. John David Washington plays Ron Stallworth; a new recruit in the Colorado Springs police force who infiltrates himself into the Klu Klux Klan. The concept, based on a true story, is provocative on multiple fronts: At one point, Stallworth spies on Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins), and in others, defends cops as not inherently bad. Not as controversially, Spike also fuses together clear connections between the KKK and Trump.
But I find his examination of what constitutes Blackness the most compelling. Can one remain proudly Black but work to maintain the legal system that unfairly targets our race? What constitutes activism: loud marches or quiet subversion? How much of Stallworth’s growth is a war within himself? Through rendering soul train lines, Ture’s beautiful and empowering speech, Stallworth’s blooming relationship with an Angela Davis stand-in Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), and a bonding between Stallworth and Adam Driver’s Flip Zimmerman—Blackness isn’t assumed. However, the varying affirmations aren’t demonized either. Such open questions speak to what’s always made Spike special, his knowing that art always arrives from the uneasy.
06. Fruitvale Station (2013)
I know more and more Black audiences are beginning to find such narratives draining today. We do need greater escapism and stories that do not succumb to tragedy. Nevertheless, Fruitvale Station: the story of Oscar Grant’s cruel murder at the hands of authorities, and Ryan Coogler’s debut, still feels as devastatingly necessary today as in 2013. Like many other films on this list, the frustrating reality of glacial change debilitates the soul as much as the narrative’s events—especially as Grant once lived and breathed. In this portrayal, Coogler offers humanizing and authentic expressions of Grant that softly warms the heart: birthday parties, horseplay with his daughter Tatiana, and random acts of kindness. Yet on the flip side, these scenes also welcome anger due to his fate. Octavia Spencer as Grant’s mother and Michael B. Jordan as the subject himself, softly show the multiple ways the young father wanted to turn his life around. And while Oscar Grant wasn’t perfect, why should perfection ever matter?
05. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse (2018)
Reliant upon a diverse cast, adorned with gorgeous and extravagant animation, and written as a meta-conversation upon the web slinger’s cultural legacy—Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is probably the best comic book film ever made. It’s also the fearless rebranding of a hero. Though nerdy and neurotic, Spider-Man actualizes the image of the everyman. “The costume he wears covers him completely. You see no skin at all. Now, because of that, any youngster can imagine that he is Spider-Man. It could be a black kid, it could be an Asian kid, it could be anybody of any skin color,” Stan Lee told Comic Book Resources. The malleability of Spider-Man’s all-Americanism made it easier for Miles Morales (Shameik Moore)—an Afro-Latin teen—to seamlessly swing into the title of web-slinger. Furthermore, Spider-Man’s racial change is a metaphorical reconfiguration of the prototypical American, reflecting the country’s increasing diversity and awareness of what ethnicities we see as heroic.
04. OJ: Made in America (2016)
At the age of five, I heard whispers; I felt the discord, but I never knew the toll. Nevertheless, we still bear the legacy today. With OJ: Made in America, told over the course of five parts to the tune of 467 minutes, Ezra Edelman crafted not only a thriller in documentary form, but explored the plethora of extenuating circumstances and reverberating aftermaths surrounding the most famous murder trial in U.S. history. “The result is a fuller sense of the carnage—of what we, collectively, have lost,” as K. Austin Collins observed in his review for The Ringer. And we’ve lost much.
Edelman deconstructs the tragedies — the assassination of King, the tradition of police brutality by the LAPD, the unjustified killing of Latasha Harlins — to startling effect. O.J. personified an American dream rarely open to African Americans, yet he seemed unmistakably separated but inextricably connected to the racial battle lines excavated over generations. And through the documentary’s rigorously researched retelling, OJ: Made in America reveals how our present can never be independent of America’s racial past.
03. Get Out (2017)
No film better untangles the symbolism and realism of Blackness than Jordan Peele’s Get Out: a horror flick that watches Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) become ensnared by his girlfriend Rose Armitage (Allison Williams), in her family’s plot to extend the lives of affluent white Americans by snatching the bodies of Black people. While Peele furnishes Get Out with a host of micro-aggressions that have become part of the lexicon (“I would’ve voted for Obama for a third term”), and subtly exhibits how these fits of prejudice are often deescalated by African Americans to avoid confrontation with our white counterparts, its brilliance lies in the picture’s most controversial scene: the ending.
Because while Chris’ photography encapsulates brutal and melancholy subjects—as observed by Jim Hudson (Stephen Root) an art dealer waiting to purchase Chris’ body—Get Out doesn’t wallow in those themes. Instead, it quietly tracks the assimilation of Blackness into the American mainstream and dramatizes itself through the theme of false allyship. And in the narrative’s final shot, when police sirens pull into view after Chris has just escaped the Armitages’, Peele makes the fateful decision not to make his protagonist into a martyr or symbol. Instead, Chris breaks free to live. A conclusion that I still find revolutionary.
02. 12 Years a Slave (2013)
“Well, I don’t want to survive. I want to live,” Solomon Northup whispers desperately. Adapted from Northup’s autobiographical narrative, his plaintive words are only more elusive in British director Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave: a film about a free man kidnapped into slavery—a picture where Sean Bobbitt’s stirring and rustic cinematography—shot on 16mm and filmed in widescreen—offers a striking reconstruction of antebellum America on an epic scale.
In 2013, the awards triumph of 12 Years a Slave felt like a victory in empathy. Nevermind, that it somehow took 150 years and an elevated cinematic lens for a mainstream audience to engender us with compassion. But while Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) does survive, on my rewatch I wondered if we ever see him live. In fact, the snapshots of his prior and afterlife beyond slavery’s brutality arrive with awful brevity. When is Solomon allowed to just exist, in film or otherwise? This weighs even heavier considering Lupita Nyong’o role as Patsey—who receives the brunt of the narrative’s hyper-realistic viciousness and violence. A burdensome emotional load to carry.
Much of my reticence probably doesn’t stem from the film itself but from my changing expectation of the varieties of Black stories that could be told. Furthermore, it’s telling that we’ve not received many films detailing slavery since. That speaks to the picture’s honesty, realism with a point of no return. And as the earliest Best Picture winner directed by a Black filmmaker, like many firsts, 12 Years a Slave unfairly lies in opposition to the expansive breath it begot, when it really exists as the first beautiful inhale of what was to come.
01. Moonlight (2016)
I grew up with a Chiron, from the bald head down to the torn apart soul struggling to understand his undiscovered sexuality and why the other boys were so mean to him. That’s my personal connection, but I doubt if any character in Barry Jenkins’ gorgeous Moonlight doesn’t populate the lives of many others.
There’s Juan, who isn’t your cliche drug dealer. Or Paula (Naomie Harris), Chiron’s mother, not relegated to an empty vessel of urban addiction. Jenkins—through adapting Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue”—re-crafts the pusher and the user from cinematic caricature to people with provocative and nuanced identities. He does so by following Chiron (or Little) and his friends, as they regress from innocent children to the new bearers of violence. We also witness Juan confronting his contradictory roles as mentor to Little but dealer to Little’s mother. And we look on as Chiron and his best friend Kevin furtively explore one another but remain affixed to their performative actions among hyper-masculine friends and enemies.
Like Dee Rees’ Pariah, Jenkins gives voice to the still taboo subject of homosexuality in the Black community—how religiosity and conceptions of toughness discard gay men and women into fear and suicide. To this day, I don’t know what happened to my Chiron. The bullying became too much. He went off to juvie. And though he briefly returned—and we all knew something terrible happened to him in there—he was never the same and left. I’ve always wondered where he ended up. His guardian was Baptist. He seemed depressed. She seemed rude. Like life, truly great art allows for realism and escapism in equal measure. In Moonlight, Chiron does find love. He finds it in Kevin. And every time I watch Jenkins’ incredible film, I vicariously hope the Chiron I knew found it, too.