There’s a funny recurring moment in Keenan Ivory Wayans’s 1996 parody film, Don’t Be A Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood. It’s when Wayans—dressed up as a mailman—randomly pops up during moments of sobering dialogue and shouts, “MESSAGE!”
That sentiment was a silly commentary on a defining but frequently used element of many of the “hood movies” that came out from the late ’80s and throughout the ’90s, where some character would offer some simple but profound commentary as a moral indictment on society. Movies like Boyz N the Hood, Juice, Straight Outta Brooklyn, and more were all brilliant in their depictions of what American street life could be like for Black youth, but they were also depressing. Don’t Be a Menace provided a fun break in the monotony of sadness of those types of movies.
These days, we’re starring in our own depressing version of every dystopian novel, TV show, and film ever created.
COVID-19 is still raging, and the recent deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery have sparked a series of protests to remind the world that #BlackLivesMatter. Life is a lot, especially when you still have to show up for it. You may still have to work, or be out of work and worried about that, or have to parent on top of everything else, and now you might be out protesting, too, because in 2020 people still need to be reminded that they should recognize Black people’s humanity.
But don’t forget that #BlackJoy matters, too, and it’s okay to get some joy in when you can.
On May 27, Aquaman actor Yahya Abdul-Mateen II tweeted the importance of taking a breather, just in case you forgot.
Black Family, don’t feel guilty for laughing and feeling joy today. We need that too! ????????
— Yahya Abdul-Mateen 2 (@yahya) May 27, 2020
Movies are a great way to escape, and while streaming services like Netflix, for example, have been curating movie selections related to educating the world about Black life and racism, there are also movies that celebrate Black people without the heaviness of all the above—and they are just as important. There’s no way we can fit all of them into one list, but take a look below for your guide to movies that celebrate Black joy.
Cabin in the Sky (1943): This film is based on the 1940 musical about Little Joe, a husband who can’t seem to stay on the straight path. However, his pious wife, Petunia (Ethel Waters), does what she can to keep him in line. He gets mixed up with some shady gamblers, begins an extramarital affair with Georgia Brown (Lena Horne), and drags his wife down with him when the gamblers come to collect. But the angels that watch over both Little Joe and Petunia—and the power of Petunia’s faith—lead to a happy ending. The musical talent alone is worth it.
The Wiz (1978): This soulful remake of The Wizard of Oz is one for the culture. It’s impossible to watch the Emerald City sequence in this film and not sashay around your living room.
You Got Served (2004): David (Omarion Grandberry) and Elgin (Marques Houston) are the have-nots in this classic dance movie. Their lives in Los Angeles are complicated by the pull of street life, but they prevail through dance, especially when a crew of rich kids challenges them to the ultimate battle. The acting is terrible, but the dance sequences more than make up for it.
The Five Heartbeats (1991): The Five Heartbeats rise and fall as they deal with the drama that comes with fame amid the R&B group explosion. The group is fictional, but many of the stories in the film aren’t far off from real-life accounts from the music business during the rise of groups like the Temptations, The Drifters, and more.
Paris Blues (1961): In this classic love story, Sidney Poitier plays Eddie Cook, an American jazz saxophonist who expatriates to Paris where he escapes the turmoil of American racism. Then, he falls for Connie (Diahann Carroll), an American tourist who wishes he would return to America. Eventually, he does return to the United States to fight for civil rights, but the movie is a fun musical ride with tunes provided by Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington.
Love and Basketball (2000): Two childhood friends share a mutual love for basketball and each other. They take separate paths to basketball stardom and end up growing apart, but the pull of their love for each other, and their passion for ball, is strong enough for them to overcome their differences.
Hav Plenty (1997): Lee Plenty, a struggling writer, is secretly in love with his rich friend Havilland Savage. She invites him to her family home for New Year’s Eve and they strike up a romance, but complications arise by way of her meddling relatives. This is a true story from the life of director, writer, and star Chris Cherot.
Soul Food (1997): Siblings come together following the loss of their matriarch and confront old rivalries and share memories as they continue to maintain their family tradition of bonding over Sunday dinners.
The Best Man (1999): Rockstar author Harper Stewart (Taye Diggs) is the best man in Lance Sullivan’s (Morris Chestnut) wedding. They come together with their tight-knit group of friends from college to celebrate the wedding, but tensions peak when the secrets spill out about Stewart’s past with the bride-to-be.
Jumping the Broom (2011): Sabrina Watson (Paula Patton) and Jason Taylor (Laz Alonso) can’t wait to get married after a brief but intense love affair. However, the class division between their families becomes abundantly clear when Sabrina’s rich parents meet Jason’s postal worker mother at the Watson Family Martha’s Vineyard estate. Sabrina miraculously maintains her sanity and faith even as Jason’s mother attempts to sabotage their union with her petty behavior.
Two Can Play That Game (2001): Shanté is so good at playing dating games that she has become the love guru in her circle of friends. However, when her boyfriend gets caught hanging out with her nemesis, she puts into action a 10-day plan full of silly devices to get him in line. Obviously, her plans backfire as battle-of-the-sexes shenanigans ensue.
Mo’ Better Blues (1990): Stunning images of pre-gentrified Brooklyn Heights serve as the backdrop to this sultry tale, underscored by jazz. The story centers around Bleek (Denzel Washington), a talented musician who is caught between two women who love him, as well as the business woes between his band’s sax player, Shadow (Wesley Snipes), and financially irresponsible manager, Giant (Spike Lee).
I Think I Love My Wife (2007): A bored family man (Chris Rock) is almost tempted to cheat on his wife when an old flame comes back into his life. But after a series of awkward events reminds him that he has outgrown his freewheeling early adult life, he realizes that the past is best left behind him.
The Photograph (2020): Sparks fly unexpectedly when journalist Michael Block (Lakeith Stanfield) interviews Mae Morton (Issa Rae), the daughter of a deceased celebrity photographer. Not surprisingly, the cinematography is as stunning as the love story.
Coming to America (1988): Prince Akeem (Eddie Murphy) wants to break the tradition of arranged marriages in his fictional African country of Zamunda, so he embarks on a journey to Queens, New York, in search of his true queen. Cross-cultural exchanges provide hilarious moments and fodder along the way.
Brown Sugar (2002): Sidney (Sanaa Lathan) and Dre (Taye Diggs) became childhood friends while witnessing the birth of hip-hop. Their mutual love of the music has carried them through friendship and adulthood, but at some point they have to confront the fact that it’s not just hip-hop they’re in love with.
Deliver Us from Eva (2003): Eva (Gabrielle Union) and her three sisters are extremely close, because she raised them from when she was 18, following the death of their parents. However, her sisters’ significant others think their mates are too close with their big sister. They get so tired of Eva interfering in their relationships that they hire playboy Ray (LL Cool J) to keep Eva busy. Eva is a tough nut to crack, but when Ray gets to know her, he develops real feelings—and complications arise as the entire plan backfires.
Why Did I Get Married (2007): This is Tyler Perry’s comedic take on marriage and the work that couples have to put in, either to remain happy or figure out what the breakup plan is. There is no Madea here, but the wild personalities encountered make up for her absence.
The Wedding Party (2016): Have you ever seen a Nollywood movie? No, seriously. Nigerian cinema is an event. If you should ever watch one to get the gist of the spectacular, campy hallmarks that are signatures of the genre—from over-the-top acting to extremely exaggerated storylines—then you should watch The Wedding Party. You’ve already guessed what it’s about based on the title. It centers around drama and unresolved issues that arise when two families come together. In this case, the bride learns some dubious things about the groom’s previous life, and she has a decision to make on her big day, but not before managing wacky bridesmaids and over-the-top relatives. The African print clothing and bright colors are spectacular, too.
The Brothers (2001): Lifelong friends tackle friendship, love, and the most terrifying prospect of dating—commitment. They support each other through relationship ups and downs as they engage in the battle of the sexes.
The Inkwell (1994): Larenz Tate stars as Drew, an awkward teen who spends a Fourth of July weekend in 1976 with his parents at his aunt and uncle’s house in Martha’s Vineyard. While there, Drew goes to therapy, falls in love with a snotty popular girl, befriends a troubled married woman, and tries to cope with his own issues as his parents attempt to save their own marriage. Drew learns a lot that summer about heartbreak and how to play it cool.
Car Wash (1976): At first glance, this flick might seem like a random assortment of chaos. It is frenetic, and there is no solid storyline, but that’s the point. It’s simply about a day in the lives of a group of coworkers at a Los Angeles car wash as they encounter scores of eccentric customers such as a looney cab driver, an ex-con, and a slick-talking preacher—over a disco and funk soundtrack.
The Wood (1999): Childhood friends Mike (Omar Epps), Roland (Taye Diggs), and Slim (Richard T. Jones) are reunited as adults at Roland’s wedding. But when Roland goes missing due to wedding jitters, Mike and Slim locate their scary drunken friend and sober him up by recounting fond memories of growing up in Inglewood, California, the lessons they’ve learned along the way, and assuring him that they have his back.
Petey Wheatstraw: The Devil’s Son in Law (1977): This quirky comedy/horror movie is unintentionally hilarious, which is possibly the point given that Rudy Ray Moore is the star. Moore plays Petey Wheatstraw, a man who makes a deal with the devil. The deal is, Petey will marry the devil’s grotesque daughter in exchange for powers that allow him to get revenge on his enemies. But when Wheatstraw double crosses Lucifer, the devil sends his minions to collect.
Girls Trip (2017): Four friends from college reunite during a girls trip to the Essence Fest. It has been a while since they all got to hang out like this, so they spend time reconnecting and having fun like they did in the good old days. The fun really starts when they band together to fight back against one of the crew’s philandering husband and his mistress, whose scandalous affair almost puts a damper on their excursion.
B.A.P.S. (1997): Two unapologetically southern—and country—black women who wear loud clothes and the biggest weaves possible fly to L.A. to audition for a music video. Their goal is to raise enough money to open their dream salon, but when that doesn’t work out, they end up at the estate of the rich Mr. Blakemore, and form a close bond with the ailing man that changes all of their lives.
Friday (1995): The adventures of Craig and Smokey in South Central, Los Angeles, find them dealing with Craig’s overbearing girlfriend, the beautiful Mrs. Parker, and more as they dodge Big Worm, the neighborhood drug dealer to whom Smokey owes a debt. They also take on Deebo, the neighborhood bully.
House Party (1990): Play plans to throw the party of all parties when his parents head out of town. His best friend, Kid, gets grounded after a fight at school but is determined to make it so that he can see his crush. He sneaks out of the house on the big night on a mission to make it to the epic affair but getting to Play’s party becomes an amusing misadventure.
Dope (2015): High school seniors Malcolm (Shameik Moore), Jib (Tony Revolori), and Diggy (Kiersey Clemons) love ’90s hip-hop, and they are also a punk band. They’re proud nerds and defy stereotypes about Black children living in the hood. The real adventure begins when a local drug dealer hides ecstasy in Malcolm’s backpack after a night at a birthday party goes awry. A chase ensues as the youths try to outrun the goons who want the stash.
Roll Bounce (2005): A group of teenagers in Chicago are skating stars at their local roller rink. But when it closes down, they are forced to hang out at the more upscale Sweet Roller Rink in a different part of town for the summer. There, they navigate teen angst as they attempt to prove themselves to the already established reigning champions.
Barbershop (2002): This is all about community and the colorful days in the lives of a people who work at a barbershop in the South Side of Chicago. It’s complete with zany staff and eccentric customers who make things entertaining as the owner works hard to keep his shop open.
Top Five (2014): Andre Allen (Chris Rock) is a New York City-based comic, movie star, and recovering alcoholic. He is stuck in a career rut but believes that starring in a movie about the Haitian Revolution will be the key to resparking his career and showing people that he can be a serious actor. This is a move that has been met with criticism, especially from New York Times reporter Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson), who has long given his work negative reviews. Allen is sensitive to criticism but forced to spend a day with Brown for a story about his newest endeavor, and the pair ends up wandering around New York, discussing his life and other philosophies on what transforms from business to a quirky date.
This Christmas (2007): Christmas movies are nothing if they don’t center around the love of family. In this case, family matriarch Ma’Dere Whitfield (Loretta Devine) gathers her cubs for their first reunion in four years. Their bonds are tested when they come together—and family secrets begin spilling out—but they are all reminded of how much they love and support each other in the end.
The Preacher’s Wife (1996): In this Oscar-nominated musical, Reverend Henry Biggs (Courtney B. Vance) is the pastor of a struggling church in New York City. He begins to doubt himself as he feels himself succumbing to the pressure of his demanding life. Biggs prays to God for help, which comes in the form of Dudley (Denzel Washington), a witty angel sent to assist. However, Dudley gets distracted by Biggs’s wife, Julia (Whitney Houston), and almost loses sight of the original task at hand.
Black Nativity (2013): When Baltimore teen Langston (Jacob Latimore) visits his grandparents in New York City, he struggles to follow their strict rules. He decides to embark on his own journey back to his single mother, who is estranged from her parents, but discovers faith and family healing along the way.
The Last Dragon (1985): Berry Gordy’s campy delight is a kung fu cult classic. Leroy is a young martial artist living in New York City who trains around the clock in order to achieve the same skill level as Bruce Lee. His life changes after a series of events lead him to a rising TV star that he ends up protecting from an evil Harlem businessman. It all boils down to a battle with a Harlem gang leader and shogun named Sho’Nuff, and Bruce Leroy must find his inner glow if he is going to win the fight.
Akeelah and the Bee (2006): Akeelah (Keke Palmer) is an 11-year-old South Los Angeles girl who discovers that she has a talent for spelling. She embarks on an exciting journey to winning the National Spelling Bee and sees a lot more of the world than she knew existed.
Crooklyn (1994): A Black family in Bed-Stuy Brooklyn bond amid the hustle and bustle of their busy neighborhood. Troy—the only girl of her four siblings—is sent to her aunt’s home in the south for a summer visit against her will. Her cousin keeps her company and helps to ease the culture shock of rural life. When she returns to the busy city, she discovers that her mother is ill and learns quick lessons about loss and the love of family.
Dancehall Queen (1997): A single mother in Kingston, Jamaica, can’t catch a break. On one hand, her street-vending business is being extorted by a local thug. On the other, the cash-strapped woman accepts money from a shady man who is actually interested in her teenage daughter. However, she’s not as naive or timid as either man believes. She comes up with a plan to compete in a dance competition with a major cash prize at stake. That plan also involves pitting both men against each other in the process.
Black Panther (2018): This one is obvious, but with part two on the way in a couple of years, it would be fun to revisit Wakanda, the futuristic African society that has reignited the discussion about Afrofuturism in pop culture.
I’m Gonna Git You Sucka (1988): Keenan Ivory Wayans wrote and directed this Blaxploitation movie era parody, hilariously nailing all the quirks of many of the popular Black action movies in the 1970s. Jack Spade (Wayans) has a score to settle with “The Man,” and he taps some OGs to help him along the way. Actual Blaxploitation movie-era legends Antonio Fargas, Bernie Casey, and more join the fun.
Don’t Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood (1996): Marlon Wayans and Shawn Wayans take the lead on the screenplay for this poignant parody of ’90s hood movies. This comical story finds Ashtray, a naive young Black man, being forced to move in with his father in a tough L.A. neighborhood. Eventually, Ashtray’s gangster cousin Loc Dog comically shows him the ropes of hood life.
Undercover Brother (2002): This Blaxploitation movie-era spoof involves the “Undercover Brother” who is recruited to take down an underground criminal syndicate headed by—you guessed it—The Man. He partners with the sassy “Sistah Girl” to execute the master plan. There is actually a sequel that came out last year and it’s worth checking out for a quick escape and some laughs too.
Black Dynamite (2009): The Blaxploitation era has obviously been impactful on Black pop culture, because here we are with yet another spoof movie of the genre. Michael Jai White starred as Black Dynamite and co-wrote the screenplay. This wacky adventure finds kung fu master Black Dynamite seeking revenge after The Man kills his brother and poisons his neighborhood with tainted liquor. This war takes Black Dynamite up the ranks of a criminal syndicate that leads to Nixon’s White House.
Historically Black Colleges and Universities
School Daze (1988): This Spike Lee Joint/musical portrays the lives of ambitious students at the historically Black mission college. Each student explores various elements of who they are becoming in life from politics, to Greek life, to where they fit into the social pecking order.
Drumline (2002): A talented drummer from Harlem enrolls in a southern HBCU and experiences culture shock while adjusting to life outside of the city, as well as having to prove his worth as a drum major in his high-pressure marching band.
Dave Chappelle’s Block Party (2005): Dave Chappelle’s 2004 block party—held at a then-secret location in Brooklyn—is still legendary as far as the millennials and Gen X-ers who got to be there are concerned.The documentary follows Chappelle through the summer of 2004 leading up to the block party in September, where his insanely talented friends such as The Roots, The Fugees, Kanye West, Jill Scott, Erykah Badu, and more performed.
Homecoming (2019): Beyonce’s Homecoming is a tribute to historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and working moms. The film depicts her journey toward becoming the first Black woman to headline Coachella, with marching bands and other talent from various HBCUs around the country—in addition to her family and friends—joining her for the epic adventure.
Kiki (2016): New York City-based LGBTQ+ youth gather at the Christopher Street Pier to practice the art of Ballroom/vogue. The mostly Black youth in the film are able to use this time to gather safely and express themselves creatively without the judgment of the outside world. The amount of creativity and perseverance here is astonishing.