#10 BROTHER TO BROTHER (2004) – This Sundance audience pleaser about a young gay brother (played with heart by Anthony Mackie) from Harlem who befriends an elder who recounts his salad days during the Harlem Renaissance is remarkable because it breathes life into the much-written about black literati scene of the time and deals with art, literature, masculinity, homophobia, and race in ways no modern Black film ever has.
#9 HIP-HOP: BEYOND BEATS & RHYMES (2006) – This groundbreaking documentary premiered on public television and then set the college campus circuit on fire as it deconstructed the state of hip hop be examining the misogynistic, hyper-masculine Black male images represented in the industry. Director Byron Hurt challenges entertainment insiders and rappers about where they stand when it comes to perpetuating negative stereotypes.
#8 LOVE AND BASKETBALL (2000) – Number eight really could be number seven too. Why? Because of one person: Gina Prince-Bythewood, the director of both “Love and Basketball” and “Disappearing Acts.” It’s almost a toss-up but L&B makes the list because the story’s emotional engine, a new spin on the battle-of-the-sexes, is super-charged by the high-stakes acting of Saana Latham and Omar Epps. Honorable Mention: “Disappearing Acts.”
#7 THE PURSUIT OF HAPPYNESS (2006) – The one-two punch of Will Smith’s all-or-nothing performance and the rarely told, uplifting story of a Black man who wants to raise his child (what a notion?) is what earned this film a spot on the list.
#6 THE BLACK LIST: VOLUME ONE (2008) – The makers of this HBO doc gambled on the ability of Black celebrities, politicians, and public figures to just sit in front of the camera and tell stories that would mesmerize. They won. Predating Obama’s historic election, the film offers rare truths about being Black in America that are both racial and post-racial.
#5 LIFE AND DEBT (2003) – This little-known documentary about Jamaica’s under-developed economy is based on a novel by Jamaica Kincaid and is a rallying cry against the unfair lending policies of the IMF, the desperation of the farmers who can’t sell crops, poverty, and perpetuation of neocolonialism.
#4 CITY OF GOD (2002) – What’s most striking about this film are the sounds, colors, images, and original filmmaking style. It transports you to daily life in Brazil’s favelas. But what you come away with is that the greatest violence of all is poverty.
#3 WHEN THE LEVEES BROKE (2006) – When all is said and done this will go down as Spike Lee’s great elegy to black pain. A better documentary filmmaker than a feature film director, Lee captures the sweep of human emotion felt by the survivors of Hurricane Katrina.
#2 ANTWONE FISHER (2002) –
Up until the time I saw this film. I must say I trusted Hollywood to produce an honest, sensitive portrayal of a young, Black male about as much as I trusted a “Rocky” sequel to be worth watching. I was happily proved wrong. Forget all the feel-good, stereotype-countering stuff in the film, it was great to see the film’s uplifting effect on black males raised in foster homes.
#1 HOTEL RWANDA – And the number one black film of the decade is “Hotel Rwanda.” Why? Because not only does it compellingly portray a real, historic tragedy of global proportions, it also has a narrative through-line that surely forced both actors and filmmakers to summon the courage to tell the story. Too bad the Academy didn’t exhibit enough courage to award the Best Actor Oscar to Cheadle that year.
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For most readers, every “best of” list has a few near misses and at least one curious “WTF?” item that suggests the reviewer was either high or phoning the piece in from a café in Istanbul – or both. I was neither. This list, which covers nearly a decade of black films, is a result of screening, researching, and discussing films with a monthly community film club that I’ve hosted over the years.
When is comes to our films, a lot has changed since 2000. For example, according an NAACP-compiled list of black films spanning the last century, there were approximately 50 more black films made during the last decade than were made in the previous decade. There have also been more black actors nominated and awarded Academy Awards during the last decade than in years past. And if our ability to get a film green-lighted that ultimately is a critical flop is a sign of progress or a true leveling of the playing field, than movies like “Pluto Nash,” “She Hate Me,” and “Diary of a Mad Black Woman” (although props to Tyler for his box office skills) all screamed, “We’re moving on up!”
Of course, some homework and rule setting is required for any list making. I basically had three criteria to form the list: (1) Overall influence or ability to shift perceptions, reveal truths; (2) Originality and excellence in filmmaking (i.e. acting, story-telling, directing); (3) Shelf-life or ability to remain timeless.
One other point we can’t forget: What makes a film a “black film?” For me, the director, writer, or lead actors had to be of African descent to make it onto the Top Ten List. Also, unlike most lists that only rate films produced by major studios, I considered independent and documentary films in my list.