movies & entertainment

17 Must Watch Films Led By Black Women Featuring Powerful Characters

Karthika S Nair | Jun 24 2020
Image credits: BP creatives

Cinema is the most popular form of entertainment for people. Regardless of their work or background, everyone likes to watch a movie. Due to the immense popularity, cinema is also the most powerful medium when it comes to giving out a message. 

Just like how it is in every other sphere, cinema has been dominated by men. In the world's biggest and most popular film industry, Hollywood, the media was dominated by white men.

In 1903, the film 'Uncle Tom's Cabin', directed by Edwin S. Porter, showed the first black character on-screen. But the main role was played by a white actor in blackface and black people were reduced to extras in the film. 

The racial prejudice, discrimination, and dehumanisation of black people, regardless of country of origin, were reflected in films as well.

In Hollywood, it took decades for African Americans to come to the forefront. 

The first lead actor to gain prominence was Sidney Poitier who was also the first black man to win an Oscar for the best actor in the leading role. Before him, Hattie McDaniel won the best-supporting actress Oscar for her role in 'Gone with the Wind' but even then, black people were expected to sit in the back of the theatres. 

While it was hard for men to come forward in a white-dominated industry, it was more difficult for black women because they have to face two forms of discrimination; racism and sexism. 

When it comes to white women, the films mostly focused and invested in their beauty based on the socially constructed standards backed by stereotypes, therefore, black women were deemed as "not pretty enough."

That began to change with more films and stories about women's personalities, abilities, achievements, charisma, and storylines.

Eventually, despite being less in number, the film industry started seeing the change through talented and persistent African-American women who fought for their voices. They redefined black womanhood, beauty standards, and achievements by playing powerful roles backed by strong filmmakers and allies. 

Amidst the 'Black Lives Matter' movement and reckoning, it is important to recognise some of their achievements. 

Here are 17 films with African-American women at the forefront:

1. Widows (2018)

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Oscar-winner Steve McQueen presented four women with a feminist voice, in a dangerous world, in this 2018 film. Viola Davis led the cast as Veronica who recruits widows of their dead husbands, who were part of a criminal gang, to pull off a heist. Their husbands left them in deep debt and that was their way of paying back. 

The film did well at the box office and Viola Davis received a BAFTA nomination. The film also entered the top ten list of several media platforms such as Huffingtonpost, The Atlantic, Screen Daily, Roger Ebert, Los Angeles Times, etc. 

2. Hidden Figures (2017)


Karl Zielinski: "Let me ask you if you were a white male, would you wish to be an engineer?"

Mary Jackson: "I wouldn't have to. I'd already be one."

'Hidden Figures' is the 2017 biographical film based on a book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly. The film covered the lives and achievements of three African-American women who were mathematicians working at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) during the Space Race. Taraji P Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe play Katherine Goble Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson respectively, mathematicians who played a pivotal role in the Mercury-Atlas 6 (MA-6), the first American orbital spaceflight.

Apart from that, three brilliant women's work was recognised beyond gender stereotypes and segregation due to race. 

4. Black and Blue (2019)

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Oscar-nominated actress Naomie Harris played the lead role in this nail-biting thriller helmed by Deon Taylor. The film follows a police officer Alicia West (Naomie Harris) who goes on the run after she witnesses a murder committed by corrupt police officers. 

West sticks to her morale throughout and believes that everyone deserves justice. More than anything else, she reiterates that murder is murder no matter who is at the receiving end of the gun. 

The film ends up being relevant amid the 'Black Lives Matter' movement because it also shows the racial profiling of African Americans by Caucasian police officers and misuse of their power. 

4. Harriet (2019)

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Abolitionist Harriet Tubman's story finally made it to the big screen in 2019. Actress and singer Cynthia Erivo played the lead role as Harriet Tubman in this film directed by Kasi Lemmons. Erivo received the best actress Oscar-nomination for her performance as the slave abolitionist who fought the confederate to free and to inspire the enslaved black people. 

As per the reports, a film on Harriet Tubman was planned earlier with actress Julia Roberts essaying the role. The news was slammed today as a horrifying form of racism in the film industry. 

5. Us (2019)

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Oscar-winning filmmaker Jordan Peele directed this creepy horror film about a family haunted and attacked by a group of menacing doppelgängers. Oscar-winner Lupita Nyongo leads the film about a mother who struggles to keep her children alive and to fight off the doppelgangers. 

The film was well-received critically and grossed $255 million worldwide against a budget of $20 million, breaking stereotypes about black women's ability to draw in the audience. 

6. Gothika (2003)

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'Gothika' was both critically and commercially successful at the time of its release. Oscar-winner Halle Berry played the lead role as a psychiatrist who wakes up one day on the other side of the cell in the penitentiary, where she used to work and can't remember how she ended up there.

This horror-mystery will keep one at the edge of their seats. 'Gothika' covers topics such as violence against women and how men in powerful positions exploit and kill them. 

7. Colour Purple (1985)

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'The Color Purple' is a coming of age period drama film released in 1985, directed by Steven Spielberg which is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name by Alice Walker.

Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey play major roles in this film that cover difficulties faced by African-American women in a world backed by systemic racism and misogyny. Both actresses received Oscar nominations for their performances. Whoopi Goldberg won a golden globe for best actress, for her spectacular performance. 

 'The Color Purple' ended up garnering eleven Oscar nominations and was a commercial success. 

8. The Help (2011)

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'The Help' starred Viola Davis in the main role along with a strong cast of Octavia Spencer, Jessica Chastain, Emma Stone, and Bryce Dallas Howard. The film is directed by Tate Taylor, based on a book by  Kathryn Stockett, published in 2009.

The film is about the friendship of two African-American maids Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis) and Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer), during the Civil Rights Movement in 1963 Jackson, Mississippi. They are both haunted by racism, notably through Hillary Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard). 

Viola Davis received the best actress Oscar nomination while Spencer won the best-supporting actress. 

'The Help' ended up becoming one of the most-watched films amidst the 2020 'Black Lives Matter' movement following the police killing of George Floyd. 

9. Precious (2009)

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Oscar-nominated film 'Precious' received widespread acclaim and was a commercial success. The 2009 film was directed by Lee Daniels based on a novel named 'Push' by Sapphire, published in 1996. 

Gabourey Sidibe made her debut in Hollywood in the lead role as a young woman struggling against poverty and abuse.

Actress Mo'Nique who played her mother won the Oscar for best-supporting actress. 

10. Girls Trip (2017)

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'The Girl's Trip' is a 2017 buddy comedy directed by Malcolm D Lee, starring an ensemble of Regina Hall, Queen Latifah, Tiffany Haddish, and Jada Pinkett Smith.

The film is about four friends who go to New Orleans to attend the Essence Music Festival in order to reconnect. 

The film was a big success critically and commercially. African-American screenwriter Tracy Oliver broke the glass ceiling with this film which earned over $100 million at the domestic box office. They are also considering making a sequel to the film. 

11. Black Panther (2018)

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It is impossible to talk about African-American women in Hollywood films and not mention Oscar-nominated blockbuster 'Black Panther.'

The film is led by Chadwick Boseman who essayed the lead role as T'Challa (Black Panther) pitted against N'Jadaka played by Michael B Jordan. 

But the women ended up becoming the main attraction of their film with their charisma, intellect and strength. 

Lupita Nyongo played Nakia, a spy who fought for enslaved women in Nigeria. She also played crucial roles in terms of fighting for T'Challa and Wakanda. 

Danai Gurira stole the show as Okoye, Wakandan traditionalist from the Border Tribe, the head of the Dora Milaje, which is Wakanda's all-female special forces. The scene where she fights off armed men in a restaurant was well received and she used her wig as a weapon.  

Shuri (Letitia Wright) is shown as the brains behind the technology used by T’Challa, who might very well be an equal of Bruce Banner or Tony Stark, owing to her education qualification.

12. If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)

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Oscar-winning filmmaker Jenkins made 'If Beale Street Could Talk', based on James Baldwin's 1974 novel. Kiki Layne essays the lead role as Clementine, who is a young woman who seeks to clear the name of her wrongly charged lover and prove his innocence before their child is born.

Actress Regina King, who plays Clementine's mother Sharon Rivers in the film, won the Oscar for best-supporting actress. 

The film throws light on wrongful incarceration and racial profiling faced by African Americans. 

Released in 2018, 'If Beale Street Could Talk' was chosen by the National Board of Review and the American Film Institute as one of the Top 10 Films of the year. 

13. The Call (2013)

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'The Call' is a nail-biting thriller starring Halle Berry in the lead role as Jordan, Los Angeles Police Department veteran 9-1-1 operator, who gets entangled in a case involving a serial killer who targets and kills young women for their hair. Another girl named Casey (Abigail Breslin) gets kidnapped but manages to call 911. Jordan instructs her to do what she can to overcome and survive the situation. The movie was received well in terms of thrills and became successful at the box office. 

14. American Son (2019)

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Kerry Washington, who made it big on American television with her role in ABC series 'Scandal', essayed the lead role in this drama-thriller 'American Son', directed by Kenny Leon.  

The movie follows a mother who is looking for her son who disappeared one day, only to face devastating revelations. 

The film deals with racism and growing up in an environment of racial tension where African Americans are the receiving end of violence and discrimination. The film was released on Netflix and critics pointed out the heavy-handed social commentary on race.

Though the film was criticised, it is more relevant today amid the ongoing racial attacks directed against African Americans over the years.

15. Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)

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Actress Quvenzhané Wallis received her Oscar nomination for best actress in the leading role for her outstanding performance in the film 'Beasts of the Southern Wild,' directed by Benh Zeitlin.

With this achievement, at the age of nine, she became the youngest ever actress to receive an Oscar nomination for best actress. The film is about a girl named Hushpuppy who grew up in a community called Bathtub, which braces for a storm. The film was a critical and commercial success. 

16. Juanita (2019)

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'Juanita' is the 2019 Netflix film directed by Clark Johnson and starring Alfre Woodard in the lead role as Juanita.

As someone fed up with her stereotypical life, Juanita steps out searching for a new start. The movie was well-received commercially and Woodard was lauded for her flawless performance. 

17. Breaking In (2018)

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'Breaking In' is an American thriller directed by James McTeigue and written by Ryan Engle. The film stars Gabrielle Union in the lead role as a mother who fights hard for her children who were both held hostage by a group of men who broke into their homes. 

Union's role as a badass and intelligent mother who fought for her children was well-received and the film was a hit at the box office. 

It is also one of the trending films on Netflix amid the 'Black Lives Matter' movement. 

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