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40 Movies That Celebrate Black Joy

This year for Black History Month, Rotten Tomatoes is celebrating “Black Joy” in cinema.

Though there are thousands of exceptional films from Black filmmakers and storytellers, those on the receiving end of critical and awards attention are frequently rooted in pain, violence, or oppression. (It is not a coincidence that the vast majority of Black actresses who have been nominated for an Oscar were lauded for performances where they played a slave, maid, or a woman in abject poverty.) In an effort to turn the page and highlight cinema that focuses on the celebration of the Black experience, Rotten Tomatoes’ editor Jacqueline Coley has curated a varied list of films that explore the vast diaspora of Black culture – and will make you feel good.

As our list plainly illustrates, those who have borne the yoke of oppression are often the same people who can smile, laugh, and celebrate most wholly, and the films that live in the intersection of that phenomenon are oftentimes the best of what Black Cinema has to offer. These are the movies that celebrate and chronicle that giddy and infectious emotion: Black Joy.

Titles like Ryan Coogler’s Oscar-winning, billion-dollar blockbuster Black Panther and Gina Prince-Bythewood’s seminal star-making romance, Love and Basketball, made our list – as you would expect. But we have also included lesser-known titles like Rick Famuyiwa’s Dope, the moving family drama, Queen of Katwe, and the hip-hop cult-classic Krush Groove. Recent films like Malcolm D. Lee’s Girls Trip, which made a star out of comedian Tiffany Haddish – and introduced the world to “grapefruiting” – are also on our list. As are seminal classics we revisited, like Richard Pryor’s beloved stand-up comedy feature Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip and Sidney Poitier’s Lilies of the Field. 

And not everything had to be Fresh – because there was no way we weren’t including Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit.

In curating this list, we included films that may touch on sensitive or serious topics, as is the case for dramas like Soul Food and Crooklyn, but as those films primarily focus on the joyful side of life, love, and family, we have included them here. Our list also has a few choices from off the beaten path, too – entries like Beyonce’s history-making live concert feature Homecoming and her visual album for Disney+, Black Is King.

We hope you enjoy the selection ranked below by Tomatometer, and if you want to tell us what you think of the list – think we’ve missed a title, or want to shout out a film that didn’t quite make our list – let us know in the comments. – Jacqueline Coley


B.A.P.S. (1997)

Adjusted Score: 17.293%
Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.
Synopsis: Two waitresses from Decateur, Georgia hit Tinseltown in hopes of fulfilling their dream of opening a restaurant/beauty salon and instead... [More]
Directed By: Robert Townsend

Adjusted Score: 21.342%
Critics Consensus: Sister Act is off-key in this reprise, fatally shifting the spotlight from Whoopi Goldberg to a less compelling ensemble of pupils and trading its predecessor's sharp comedy for unconvincing sentiment.
Synopsis: In the sequel to the hit comedy Sister Act, Whoopie Goldberg reprises her role of Deloris Van Cartier, a Las... [More]
Directed By: Bill Duke


Breakin' (1984)

Adjusted Score: 27.339%
Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.
Synopsis: The first major breakdancing film, Breakin' stars Lucinda Dickey as a dancing student who dislikes the hidebound regimen of her... [More]
Directed By: Joel Silberg


The Wiz (1978)

Adjusted Score: 44.951%
Critics Consensus: This workmanlike movie musical lacks the electricity of the stage version (and its cinematic inspiration), but it's bolstered by strong performances by Diana Ross and Michael Jackson.
Synopsis: Dorothy, a young African-American kindergarten teacher leaves a large family dinner one night to chase after her dog during a... [More]
Directed By: Sidney Lumet


Krush Groove (1985)

Adjusted Score: 26.274%
Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.
Synopsis: The rap music craze provides the subject and the soundtrack for this musical about a young record producer (Blair Underwood)... [More]
Directed By: Michael Schultz


Life (1999)

Adjusted Score: 51.763%
Critics Consensus: Entertaining if not over-the-top humor from a solid comic duo provides plenty of laughs.
Synopsis: Comedians Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence team up for a story that wouldn't appear to have many immediate humorous possibilities... [More]
Directed By: Ted Demme


The Last Dragon (1985)

Adjusted Score: 58.659%
Critics Consensus: The Last Dragon is a flamboyant genre mashup brimming with style, romance, and an infectious fondness for kung fu, but audiences may find the tonal whiplash more goofy than endearing.
Synopsis: The TV prints of this entertaining melange whittled down the film's original self-serving title (Motown king Berry Gordy was the... [More]
Directed By: Michael Schultz

Adjusted Score: 62.036%
Critics Consensus: Solid performances and a steady directorial hand help The Preacher's Wife offer some reliably heartwarming - albeit fairly predictable - holiday cheer.
Synopsis: An angel wonders if love can be Heaven on Earth in this family-themed romantic fantasy. Rev. Henry Biggs (Courtney B.... [More]
Directed By: Penny Marshall

Adjusted Score: 75.639%
Critics Consensus: Eddie Murphy was in full control at this point, starkly evident in Coming to America's John Landis' coasting direction.
Synopsis: Coming to America casts comedian Eddie Murphy as pampered African prince Akeem, who rebels against an arranged marriage and heads... [More]
Directed By: John Landis


About Last Night (2014)

Adjusted Score: 72.353%
Critics Consensus: About Last Night wanders even further from the David Mamet play that inspired the original, but it benefits from an engaging cast and a screenplay that smartly balances romance and comedy.
Synopsis: A modern reimagining of the classic romantic comedy, this contemporary version closely follows new love for two couples as they... [More]
Directed By: Steve Pink

Adjusted Score: 78.034%
Critics Consensus: Kevin Hart and Dwayne Johnson make for well-matched comic foils, helping Central Intelligence overcome a script that coasts on their considerable chemistry.
Synopsis: The story follows a one-time bullied geek, Bob, who grew up to be a lethal CIA agent, coming home for... [More]


Love Jones (1997)

Adjusted Score: 73.075%
Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.
Synopsis: What do you do after love at first sight? That's the question posed in this romantic comedy-drama set in Chicago.... [More]
Directed By: Theodore Witcher


Crooklyn (1994)

Adjusted Score: 78.364%
Critics Consensus: A personal project that warmly reflects on director Spike Lee's childhood, Crooklyn is an episodic celebration of family and the indelible facets of one's hometown.
Synopsis: Spike Lee and his siblings Cinque Lee and Joie Lee co-wrote this nostalgic but unglamorized look at a family growing... [More]
Directed By: Spike Lee


Friday (1995)

Adjusted Score: 79.046%
Critics Consensus: What Friday might lack in taut construction or directorial flair, it more than makes up with its vibrant (albeit consistently crass) humor and the charming, energetic performances of its leads.
Synopsis: Hard-core rapper Ice Cube, after appearing in such hard-hitting films as Boyz 'N the Hood and Higher Learning, played his... [More]
Directed By: F. Gary Gray


Keanu (2016)

Adjusted Score: 84.65%
Critics Consensus: Keanu's absurd premise and compulsively watchable starring duo add up to an agreeably fast-paced comedy that hits more than enough targets to make up for the misses.
Synopsis: Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele star in this comedy as two friends posing as drug dealers to get back a... [More]
Directed By: Peter Atencio


Soul Food (1997)

Adjusted Score: 83.01%
Critics Consensus: Much like the titular cuisine, Soul Food blends a series of savory ingredients to offer warm, generous helpings of nourishment and comfort.
Synopsis: This hit domestic comedy-drama concerned the fortunes of an extended African-American family recalled through the eyes of young narrator Ahmad... [More]
Directed By: George Tillman Jr.


Drumline (2002)

Adjusted Score: 83.809%
Critics Consensus: Essentially a sports movie with drums, the energetic Drumline somehow manages to make the familiar seem fresh.
Synopsis: Drumline brings the world of "show-style" marching bands (popular at traditionally black, Southern colleges) to the big screen for the... [More]
Directed By: Charles Stone III

Adjusted Score: 85.908%
Critics Consensus: Confident directing and acting deliver an insightful look at young athletes.
Synopsis: A young African-American couple navigates the tricky paths of romance and athletics in this drama. Quincy McCall (Omar Epps) and... [More]
Directed By: Gina Prince-Bythewood

Adjusted Score: 86.282%
Critics Consensus: If you want lots of laughs and don't mind some profanity, The Original Kings of Comedy can deliver.
Synopsis: A selection of concert highlights from two nights of the long-running "Original Kings of Comedy" tour, featuring the talents of... [More]
Directed By: Spike Lee


Barbershop (2002)

Adjusted Score: 86.213%
Critics Consensus: Besides bringing on the laughs, Barbershop displays a big heart and demonstrates the value of community.
Synopsis: An ensemble comedy about a day in the life of a barbershop on the south side of Chicago. It's Calvin's... [More]
Directed By: Tim Story


Fame (1980)

Adjusted Score: 86.232%
Critics Consensus: Just because Fame is a well-acted musical doesn't mean it flinches against its surprisingly heavy topics.
Synopsis: Fame is set at New York's High School of Performing Arts, where talented teens train for show-business careers. The film... [More]
Directed By: Alan Parker


Cooley High (1975)

Adjusted Score: 85.577%
Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.
Synopsis: Michael Schultz directed this deeply felt recollection of adolescent life on Chicago's near North Side in 1964. Like American Graffiti,... [More]
Directed By: Michael Schultz


Top Five (2014)

Adjusted Score: 92.179%
Critics Consensus: As smart, funny, and trenchant as writer-director-star Chris Rock's best standup work, Top Five is a career highlight for its creator -- and one of the comedy standouts of 2014.
Synopsis: Pulsing with the rhythm of his greatest stand-up, Chris Rock's TOP FIVE takes things to the next level, reveling in... [More]
Directed By: Chris Rock

Adjusted Score: 87.915%
Critics Consensus: The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind earns its predictably uplifting arc through strong performances and impressive work from debuting director Chiwetel Ejiofor.
Synopsis: Against all the odds, a thirteen year old boy in Malawi invents an unconventional way to save his family and... [More]
Directed By: Chiwetel Ejiofor

Adjusted Score: 89.74%
Critics Consensus: The Incredible Jessica James makes its standard storyline feel new, almost purely on the strength of a captivating, potentially star-making performance from Jessica Williams.
Synopsis: An aspiring NYC playwright (Jessica Williams) gets over a painful breakup by bonding with a man who was also recently... [More]
Directed By: James C. Strouse


Dope (2015)

Adjusted Score: 93.762%
Critics Consensus: Featuring a starmaking performance from Shameik Moore and a refreshingly original point of view from writer-director Rick Famuyiwa, Dope is smart, insightful entertainment.
Synopsis: A critical hit and audience favorite out of the Sundance Film Festival, in DOPE, Malcolm (Shameik Moore) is carefully surviving... [More]
Directed By: Rick Famuyiwa

Adjusted Score: 93.046%
Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.
Synopsis: In this film, a traveling laborer meets five nuns in the Arizona desert. The appearance of Homer Smith convinces the... [More]
Directed By: Ralph Nelson


Girls Trip (2017)

Adjusted Score: 97.946%
Critics Consensus: Girls Trip is the rare R-rated comedy that pushes boundaries to truly comedic effect -- and anchors its laughs in compelling characters brought to life by a brilliantly assembled cast.
Synopsis: When four lifelong friends-Regina Hall, Queen Latifah, Jada Pinkett Smith and Tiffany Haddish-travel to New Orleans for the annual Essence... [More]
Directed By: Malcolm D. Lee

Adjusted Score: 97.838%
Critics Consensus: Southside With You looks back on a fateful real-life date with strong performances and engaging dialogue, adding up to a romance that makes for a pretty good date movie in its own right.
Synopsis: Inspired by Barack and Michelle Obama's first date, SOUTHSIDE WITH YOU recounts the eventful summer day in 1989 when a... [More]
Directed By: Richard Tanne


House Party (1990)

Adjusted Score: 94.324%
Critics Consensus: House Party is a light, entertaining teen comedy with an infectious energy.
Synopsis: House Party is an infectious, engaging comedy starring the rap duo Kid 'N Play. Kid (Christopher Reid) decides to throw... [More]
Directed By: Reginald Hudlin


Hidden Figures (2017)

Adjusted Score: 106.521%
Critics Consensus: In heartwarming, crowd-pleasing fashion, Hidden Figures celebrates overlooked -- and crucial -- contributions from a pivotal moment in American history.
Synopsis: HIDDEN FIGURES is the incredible untold story of Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary... [More]
Directed By: Ted Melfi


Queen of Katwe (2016)

Adjusted Score: 100.991%
Critics Consensus: Queen of Katwe is a feel-good movie of uncommon smarts and passion, and outstanding performances by Lupita Nyong'o and David Oyelowo help to elevate the film past its cliches.
Synopsis: "Queen of Katwe" is the colorful true story of a young girl selling corn on the streets of rural Uganda... [More]
Directed By: Mira Nair

Adjusted Score: 95.851%
Critics Consensus: See You Yesterday marries a novel sci-fi premise with urgent social relevance and forges something excitedly new from the union -- providing an impressive showcase for star Eden Duncan-Smith and debut writer-director Stefon Bristol.
Synopsis: High school best friends and science prodigies C.J. and Sebastian spend every spare minute working on their latest homemade invention:... [More]
Directed By: Stefon Bristol


Stormy Weather (1943)

Adjusted Score: 103.128%
Critics Consensus: Stormy Weather's depiction of the Black community is disappointingly facile, but its delightful musical numbers drown out any missed narrative notes.
Synopsis: Built around the premise of a Big Stage Show, Stormy Weather affords rare "mainstream" leading roles to some of the... [More]


Black Is King (2020)

Adjusted Score: 96.877%
Critics Consensus: Beyoncé is King.
Synopsis: The voyages of Black families, throughout time, are honored in a tale about a young king's transcendent journey through betrayal,... [More]
Directed By: Beyoncé Knowles


Soul (2020)

Adjusted Score: 109.708%
Critics Consensus: A film as beautiful to contemplate as it is to behold, Soul proves Pixar's power to deliver outstanding all-ages entertainment remains undimmed.
Synopsis: A music teacher who dreams of performing jazz live finally gets his chance, only to have an accident separate his... [More]
Directed By: Pete Docter

Adjusted Score: 113.938%
Critics Consensus: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse matches bold storytelling with striking animation for a purely enjoyable adventure with heart, humor, and plenty of superhero action.
Synopsis: Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, the creative minds behind The Lego Movie and 21 Jump Street, bring their unique talents... [More]

Adjusted Score: 99.545%
Critics Consensus: Beychella forever.
Synopsis: Homecoming presents an intimate look at Beyoncé's historic 2018 Coachella performance that paid homage to America's historically black colleges and... [More]
Starring: Beyoncé Knowles
Directed By: Beyoncé Knowles

Adjusted Score: 102.991%
Critics Consensus: The Forty-Year-Old Version opens a compelling window into the ebbs and flows of the artist's life -- and announces writer-director-star Radha Blank as a major filmmaking talent with her feature debut.
Synopsis: Radha, a down-on-her-luck NY playwright, is desperate for a breakthrough before 40. But when she foils what seems like her... [More]
Directed By: Radha Blank

Adjusted Score: 100.358%
Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.
Synopsis: Just recovered from his notorious free-basing accident, Richard Pryor made a notable return in the much-acclaimed Live on the Sunset... [More]
Starring: Richard Pryor
Directed By: Joe Leyton, Joe Layton

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