Malcolm X

Spike Lee and Denzel Washington in Malcolm X. Photo via IMDb

A List of ’90s Films that Impacted American Culture and the Black Community

The 1990s brought a surge of films that impacted or drew focus to the Black experience. From blockbuster hits to fan favorites, these films are worth rewatching again and again. While some explore the struggles of African American life in the 20th century, others are breakthroughs in film as they portray women’s sports, black romance, and other Black narratives rarely told.

Today, we have the aid of social media to spread awareness about a wide swath of films. Back in the 1990s, this was not the case. So, we’re bringing you 20 movies from the ’90s era that featured narratives about the Black experience. We broke down the films into four categories: Blockbusters, Cult-Classics, Fan Favorites and Critically Acclaimed. While this list is not exhaustive, we think it’s a solid place to start.

“I think that it is very important that films make people look at what they’ve forgotten.” — Spike Lee.


’90s Blockbusters


Sister Act I and II

1992 and 1993

Sister Act I: Directed by Emile Ardolino. Starring Whoopi Goldberg, Kathy Najimy and Maggie Smith.

When a worldly singer witnesses a mob crime, the police hide her as a nun in a traditional convent in California where she has trouble fitting in. The original Sister Act made a good amount of money at the box office in 1992. So good, that the sequel was released a year later.

Sister Act II: Directed by Bill Duke. Starring Whoopi Goldberg, Kathy Najimy, Maggie Smith and Barnard Hughs.

The sisters are back, as Deloris (Whoopi Goldberg) becomes a music teacher to help a parochial school doomed for closure. If Deloris can shape the rowdy kids into a real, respectable choir, maybe they can save their school from closing at the hands of a cold-hearted administrator.

While not critically acclaimed, Sister Act II is a feel-good movie about the power of music and community. Highlighting music from some of the great Black performers of the 20th century, like Aretha Franklin, it pays homage to a set of music important to the Black community and all of America alike.


Bad Boys

1995

Bad Boys: Directed by Michael Bay. Starring Will Smith, Martin Lawrence and Lisa Boyle.

Two detectives are given five days to track $100 million dollars worth of heroin that was taken from station headquarters. The story gets even messier as they are also tasked with protecting a murder witness.

Bad Boys was Michael Bay’s directorial debut in feature films, and it’s easy to see his fingerprints all over it. While Bay’s presence is important, it’s really the chemistry between the two leading actors (Smith and Lawrence) that made it smash hit and prompted two sequels.


Men in Black

1997

Men in Black: Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld. Starring Tommy Lee Jones, Will Smith and Linda Florentino.

Unknown to most people, the MiB is an agency tasked with surveillance of extraterrestrials on earth. Agent “K” (Jones) recruits an NYPD Officer, now Agent “J” (Smith) to join the MiB. They track down an alien in New York who is trying to steal an energy source called “The Galaxy” from earth.

Another popular Will Smith movie of the ’90s, Men in Black has been deemed the “best New York Movie of the ‘90s.” It doesn’t take itself too seriously, but the special effects were stellar for the time.


Blade

1998


Blade:
Directed by Stephen Norrington. Starring Wesley Snipes, Stephen Dorff and Kris Kristofferson.

If you like superhero movies, this one is for you. Blade is a half-mortal, half-immortal vampire hunter out to avenge his mother’s death. He becomes a “protector of the human race” as he tries to rid the world of vampires.

If you thought Black Panther was the first Black, Marvel superhero to hit the cineplex, guess again. Blade is considered the first really successful Marvel feature film. As we know, Marvel has since taken over the universe (well, almost) and Blade was its beginning.


Cult-Classics


Candyman

1992

Candyman: Directed by Bernard Rose. Starring Virginia Madsen, Xander Berkeley and Tony Todd.

Two grad students researching superstitions in Chicago end up with a lot more than they bargained for. Helen Lyle (Madsen) learns about an urban legend of a “hook-wielding figure” who many believe is responsible for a local murder. Helen begins to believe them when a mysterious man matching the Candyman’s description begins stalking her.

What might like look a typical horror film, Candyman is actually a racially charged film with a deep commentary on Black American culture. Set in the Cabrini-Green housing project, Candyman focuses on the aversion to blackness and dismissal of Black urban poverty in America. The actual Candyman is the undead son of a former slave. It has stood a testament to the demonization of Black men in America.


Poetic Justice

1993

Poetic Justice: Directed by John Singleton. Starring Janet Jackson, Tupac Shakur and Regina King.

After her boyfriend is murdered, Justice (Jackson) deals with her grief and pain by writing poetry. Her friend, Iesha (King), gives her a ride to Oakland so she can attend a convention and get her poetry the recognition it deserves. Along the way, Justice falls for Lucky (Shakur).

While its stars were well-known in the 1990s, the supporting cast of Poetic Justice was not. Though we know Regina King and Joe Torry’s names now, their breakout roles in this romantic drama served as stepping stones for greater success in their careers.


Posse

1993

Posse: Directed by Mario Van Peebles. Starring Mario Van Peebles, Stephen Baldwin and Charles Lane.

A group of Buffalo Soldiers is sent on a suicide mission to intercept gold from enemy troops during the Spanish American War, but the mission is a farce, an attempt by a white officer to betray them. They end up shooting their way to justice, protecting a small town from a corrupt white sheriff.

Westerns are generally characterized by all-white heroes in typical cowboy garb. Posse challenges those conventions, taking the African American perspective on the Wild West. Posse tells a story that is often forgotten in the history of the West, but it wasn’t done with much style, most critics claim, earning it a cult following but not much favor by most audiences.

Mario Van Peebles carries on the family tradition his artist father, Melvin Van Peebles, started with the acclaimed blaxploitation Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, which heralded a new era of black-focused films.


Jackie Brown

1997

Jackie Brown: Directed by Quentin Tarantino. Starring Pam Grier, Samuel L. Jackson and Robert Foster.

Jackie Brown (Grier) is caught smuggling money for an arms dealer. The two detectives tell her she can skip jail time if she helps them bring down her boss, but she has other ideas. She attempts to double-cross both the detectives and her boss and make off with the money herself.

Known as Tarantino’s most underrated film, Jackie Brown is called a “misunderstood movie.” After following Pulp Fiction, it seemed like a departure because of its lengthy emotional characterizations, but it has claimed enough loyal followers to make it a cult classic.


Fan Favorites


Bebe’s Kids

1992

Bebe’s Kids: Directed by Bruce W. Smith. Starring Faizon Love, Vanessa Bell Calloway and Robin Harris.

An animated film about everyone’s idea of a terrible first date, Robin Harris (Love) invites the beautiful Jamika (Calloway) and her well behaved son (Collins) to go to an amusement park. But when they meet the next day, Harris is surprised to find three more children—the rambunctious and ill-behaved children of Jamika’s friend, Bebe.

While most critics gave it meh reviews at best, Bebe’s Kids drew a lot of laughs and was a favorite among fans. The story is actually based on the comedy sketches of Robin Harris. This film was just the beginning for director Bruce Smith, who would later create Disney’s The Proud Family and animate The Shadow Man in The Princess and the Frog.


Set It Off

1996

Set It Off: Directed by F. Gary Gray. Starring Jada Pinkett Smith, Queen Latifa and Vivica A. Fox.

After a bizarre connection with a bank robber, four women down on their luck organize their skills to start robbing banks and create the lives they dream of. If he can do it, so can they, right? But mistrust begins to break apart their relationships, and with a detective on their heels, the women must decide what really matters most.

While advertised as a thriller, the character development of these women brings a level of drama that sets it apart. An honest look at the economic struggles of its characters makes it a study on real life and more than just another bank heist movie.


Love Jones

1997

Love Jones: Directed by Theodore Witcher. Starring Larenz Tate, Mia Long and Isaiah Washington.

In this love story set in the middle of Chicago, two African Americans meet at a club and instantly hit it off. But despite their mutual interests and romance, Nina (Long) moves to New York and tries to mend her relationship with her ex. With their future as a couple in jeopardy, Darius (Tate) does his best to win her back.

One of the first successful films to feature a Black romance, the story was unique in that its characters were not in the middle of struggle and strife, like most movies featuring Black characters.


BAPS

1997

BAPS: Directed by Robert Townsend. Starring Halle Berry, Natalie Desselle Reid and Martin Landau.

Two aspiring young waitresses fly to Los Angeles to raise money for their dream business—a salon that brings in soul-food dining—through a music-video audition. Through a series of unusual events, the two become friends with the video director who teaches them how to become a Black American Princess (BAPS).

While critics called it “trashy chic,” this comedy was popular with audiences in the late ’90s. It was bashed in reviews for “leaning into stereotypes about Black women,” but for the audience, it was intended for—it was hilarious and just the right amount of goofy.


Love and Basketball

2000

Love and Basketball: Directed by Gina Prince-Blythewood. Starring Sanaa Lathan, Omar Epps and Glenndon Chatman.

This film doesn’t technically fit into our ’90s list since it released in April of 2000, but it’s definitely a fan favorite.

After meeting at a playground game of basketball, Monica (Lathan) and Quincy (Epps) form a deep friendship and eventual love. They’re both recruited by USC, where they encounter their own challenges as athletes and in their relationship. They both end up playing pro-basketball and, in a typical ending for a romantic movie, end up together.

On the outside, it looks like a simple movie about love and basketball. The plot is often described as bland and dry, but it was a breakthrough in the world of women’s sports and films. The story is seen mostly from the female perspective, and it’s less about winning and more about the skill and drive it takes to be a real athlete.


Critically Acclaimed


Boyz N the Hood

1991

Boyz N the Hood: Directed by John Singleton. Starring Cuba Gooding Jr., Laurence Fishburne and Hudhail Al-Amir.

Tre (Gooding) is sent to live with his father in the toughest part of central Los Angeles. Although his father instills good values and respect in Tre, the neighborhood he grows up in quickly leads him to kids without the same values. Tre and his friends are drawn into drug and gang culture, where they are confronted with violence, difficult questions of race and relationships, and the loss of future prospects.

A close look at the tragedies facing teens in inner-city life, Boyz N the Hood is a film about choices and their consequences. But it’s also a beautiful coming of age story where a teen must decide what his future will be and make tough decisions to give himself the best chance at success.


Malcolm X

1992

Malcolm X: Directed by Spike Lee. Starring Denzel Washington, Angela Bassett and Delroy Lindo.

The biography of one of America’s most well known black activists, Malcolm X follows the compelling and inspiring story of a man who hit rock bottom before becoming a Black Muslim and then a leader in the Nation of Islam. The film begins with Malcolm Little’s early life, then follows his career as a gangster to his conversion to Islam and his fight for justice and equality.

With a powerful story and a fantastic cast, Malcolm X is still known as one of the best biopics of the ’90s. Denzel Washington’s performance of Malcolm X was deemed “as complex as its subject.” Lee’s ability to deftly shift tones and genres within a single film is a tribute to his chops as a filmmaker and historian.


Friday

1995

Friday: Directed by F. Gary Gray. Starring Ice Cube, Chris Tucker and Nia Long.

Everything seems to be going downhill for Craig Jones (Ice Cube) on an unbelievably bad Friday. He’s fired for stealing cardboard boxes. His rent is due. He hates his girlfriend, and his best friend owes the local drug dealer money.

Though a comedy, this film borders on tragedy as its characters must deal with all of life’s hardballs in one day. Critics and audiences alike found the plights of a single Friday hilarious, making it a successful movie about how bad days can turn into a good laugh.


Eve’s Bayou

1997

Eve’s Bayou: Directed by Kasi Lemmons. Starring Samuel L. Jackson, Jurnee Smollett and Meagan Good.

Eve (Smollett) is just 10 years old in the summer of 1962, when she sees her father (Jackson), a respectable doctor in Louisiana’s Black community, having an affair with a family friend. Her older sister (Good) tries to convince her she misunderstood. Their psychic aunt thinks that Eve has the “second sight” and encourages her to explore her abilities.

A story of the unreliability of memory and family conflict, Eve’s Bayou is a tale of “astonishing maturity and confidence” making it one of the best films of 1997.


What are your favorite Black films of the ’90s?

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