(Photo by Universal/courtesy Everett Collection)

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

#40

B.A.P.S (1997)
15%

#40
Adjusted Score: 16481%
Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.
Synopsis: Waitresses at a Georgia restaurant, Nisi (Halle Berry) and Mickey (Natalie Desselle), decide to fly to Los Angeles for a... [More]
Directed By: Robert Townsend

#39
Adjusted Score: 21124%
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 this sequel, Las Vegas performer Deloris Van Cartier (Whoopi Goldberg) is surprised by a visit from her nun friends,... [More]
Directed By: Bill Duke

#38

Breakin' (1984)
33%

#38
Adjusted Score: 33047%
Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.
Synopsis: Kelly (Lucinda Dickey) is a classically trained jazz dancer who's tired of warding off her amorous teacher and hungry for... [More]
Directed By: Joel Silberg

#37

The Wiz (1978)
42%

#37
Adjusted Score: 45633%
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: When Harlem schoolteacher Dorothy (Diana Ross) tries to save her dog from a storm, she's miraculously whisked away to an... [More]
Directed By: Sidney Lumet

#36

Krush Groove (1985)
43%

#36
Adjusted Score: 32602%
Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.
Synopsis: Russell Walker (Blair Underwood) has started a new hip-hop and rap label called Krush Groove, which features a stellar list... [More]
Directed By: Michael Schultz

#35

Life (1999)
50%

#35
Adjusted Score: 52109%
Critics Consensus: Entertaining if not over-the-top humor from a solid comic duo provides plenty of laughs.
Synopsis: During Prohibition, loudmouth Harlem grifter Ray (Eddie Murphy) and the no-nonsense Claude (Martin Lawrence) team up on a bootlegging mission... [More]
Directed By: Ted Demme

#34

The Last Dragon (1985)
55%

#34
Adjusted Score: 56205%
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: Leroy Green (Taimak), a young martial artist living in New York City, trains tirelessly to attain the same level of... [More]
Directed By: Michael Schultz

#33
#33
Adjusted Score: 62572%
Critics Consensus: Solid performances and a steady directorial hand help The Preacher's Wife offer some reliably heartwarming - albeit fairly predictable - holiday cheer.
Synopsis: A cleric begins to doubt himself and is visited by an angel. The heavenly emissary is supposed to help the... [More]
Directed By: Penny Marshall

#32
#32
Adjusted Score: 76648%
Critics Consensus: Eddie Murphy was in full control at this point, starkly evident in Coming to America's John Landis' coasting direction.
Synopsis: Prince Akeem (Eddie Murphy) is the prince of a wealthy African country and wants for nothing, except a wife who... [More]
Directed By: John Landis

#31

About Last Night (2014)
69%

#31
Adjusted Score: 71620%
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: While out with loudmouthed pal Bernie (Kevin Hart), Danny (Michael Ealy) meets successful businesswoman Debbie (Joy Bryant), who's as leery... [More]
Directed By: Steve Pink

#30
#30
Adjusted Score: 81327%
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: Bullied as a teen for being overweight, Bob Stone (Dwayne Johnson) shows up to his high school reunion looking fit... [More]

#29

Love Jones (1997)
73%

#29
Adjusted Score: 73238%
Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.
Synopsis: Two urban African-Americans, Darius (Larenz Tate), an aspiring writer, and Nina (Nia Long), an aspiring photographer, share an instant connection... [More]
Directed By: Theodore Witcher

#28

Crooklyn (1994)
77%

#28
Adjusted Score: 78780%
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: As her teacher mother, Carolyn (Alfre Woodard), and her jazz musician father, Woody (Delroy Lindo), worry over monthly bills, grade-schooler... [More]
Directed By: Spike Lee

#27

Friday (1995)
78%

#27
Adjusted Score: 78354%
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: It's Friday and Craig Jones (Ice Cube) has just gotten fired for stealing cardboard boxes. To make matters worse, rent... [More]
Directed By: F. Gary Gray

#26

Keanu (2016)
78%

#26
Adjusted Score: 87868%
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: Recently dumped by his girlfriend, slacker Rell (Jordan Peele) finds some happiness when a cute kitten winds up on his... [More]
Directed By: Peter Atencio

#25

Soul Food (1997)
81%

#25
Adjusted Score: 82438%
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: When Ahmad Simmons' (Brandon Hammond) diabetic grandmother, Josephine "Big Mama" Joseph (Irma P. Hall), falls into a coma during an... [More]
Directed By: George Tillman Jr.

#24

Drumline (2002)
82%

#24
Adjusted Score: 84290%
Critics Consensus: Essentially a sports movie with drums, the energetic Drumline somehow manages to make the familiar seem fresh.
Synopsis: Set against the high-energy, high-stakes world of show-style marching bands, "Drumline" is a fish-out-of-water comedy about a talented street drummer... [More]
Directed By: Charles Stone

#23
#23
Adjusted Score: 86350%
Critics Consensus: Confident directing and acting deliver an insightful look at young athletes.
Synopsis: Monica (Sanaa Lathan) and Quincy (Omar Epps) are two childhood friends who both aspire to be professional basketball players. Quincy,... [More]
Directed By: Gina Prince

#22
Adjusted Score: 86065%
Critics Consensus: If you want lots of laughs and don't mind some profanity, The Original Kings of Comedy can deliver.
Synopsis: A cultural phenomenon for our time: Spike Lee captures the comic geniuses behind the successful "Kings of Comedy" tour. In... [More]
Directed By: Spike Lee

#21

Barbershop (2002)
83%

#21
Adjusted Score: 85943%
Critics Consensus: Besides bringing on the laughs, Barbershop displays a big heart and demonstrates the value of community.
Synopsis: A smart comedy about a day in the life of a barbershop on the south side of Chicago. Calvin (Ice... [More]
Directed By: Tim Story

#20

Fame (1980)
84%

#20
Adjusted Score: 86010%
Critics Consensus: Just because Fame is a well-acted musical doesn't mean it flinches against its surprisingly heavy topics.
Synopsis: Young men and women audition for coveted spots at the New York High School of Performing Arts. Those who make... [More]
Directed By: Alan Parker

#19

Cooley High (1975)
85%

#19
Adjusted Score: 84835%
Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.
Synopsis: Richard "Cochise" Morris (Lawrence-Hilton Jacobs), a local basketball hero, and Leroy "Preach" Jackson (Glynn Turman), who dreams of a career... [More]
Directed By: Michael Schultz

#18

Top Five (2014)
86%

#18
Adjusted Score: 92749%
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: Though he began in stand-up comedy, Andre Allen (Chris Rock) hit the big-time as the star of a trilogy of... [More]
Directed By: Chris Rock

#17
Adjusted Score: 88144%
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: A 13-year-old boy is thrown out of the school he loves when his family can no longer afford the fees.... [More]
Directed By: Chiwetel Ejiofor

#16
Adjusted Score: 91723%
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: Jessica, an aspiring playwright in New York City, is trying to get over a recent break-up when she meets Boone,... [More]
Directed By: Jim Strouse

#15

Dope (2015)
88%

#15
Adjusted Score: 94154%
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: High-school senior Malcolm (Shameik Moore) and his friends Jib (Tony Revolori) and Diggy (Kiersey Clemons) bond over '90s hip-hop culture,... [More]
Directed By: Rick Famuyiwa

#14
#14
Adjusted Score: 93584%
Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.
Synopsis: When traveling African-American handyman Homer Smith (Sidney Poitier) stops by a farm in rural Arizona, he is welcomed by a... [More]
Directed By: Ralph Nelson

#13

Girls Trip (2017)
92%

#13
Adjusted Score: 103704%
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: Best friends Ryan, Sasha, Lisa and Dina are in for the adventure of a lifetime when they travel to New... [More]
Directed By: Malcolm D. Lee

#12
#12
Adjusted Score: 100491%
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: Future U.S. President Barack Obama (Parker Sawyers) and lawyer Michelle Robinson (Tika Sumpter) go on a fateful first date in... [More]
Directed By: Richard Tanne

#11

House Party (1990)
93%

#11
Adjusted Score: 94843%
Critics Consensus: House Party is a light, entertaining teen comedy with an infectious energy.
Synopsis: Play's parents are out of town, and he's planning the house party to end all house parties. His best friend,... [More]
Directed By: Reginald Hudlin

#10

Hidden Figures (2016)
93%

#10
Adjusted Score: 116930%
Critics Consensus: In heartwarming, crowd-pleasing fashion, Hidden Figures celebrates overlooked -- and crucial -- contributions from a pivotal moment in American history.
Synopsis: Three brilliant African American women at NASA -- Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson -- serve as the brains... [More]
Directed By: Theodore Melfi

#9

Queen of Katwe (2016)
94%

#9
Adjusted Score: 104393%
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: Living in the slum of Katwe in Kampala, Uganda, is a constant struggle for 10-year-old Phiona (Madina Nalwanga) and her... [More]
Directed By: Mira Nair

#8
#8
Adjusted Score: 93656%
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: Two teenage science prodigies spend every spare minute working on their latest homemade invention: backpacks that enable time travel. When... [More]
Directed By: Stefon Bristol

#7

Stormy Weather (1943)
95%

#7
Adjusted Score: 102933%
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: Bill Williamson (Bill Robinson), a struggling performer, meets a beautiful vocalist named Selina Rogers (Lena Horne). Bill promises her that... [More]
Directed By: Andrew L. Stone

#6

Black Is King (2020)
94%

#6
Adjusted Score: 96751%
Critics Consensus: Beyoncé is King.
Synopsis: ... [More]
Starring: Beyoncé
Directed By: Beyoncé

#5

Soul (2020)
95%

#5
Adjusted Score: 119000%
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: Joe is a middle-school band teacher whose life hasn't quite gone the way he expected. His true passion is jazz... [More]
Directed By: Pete Docter

#4
Adjusted Score: 120840%
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: Bitten by a radioactive spider in the subway, Brooklyn teenager Miles Morales suddenly develops mysterious powers that transform him into... [More]

#3
Adjusted Score: 100561%
Critics Consensus: Beychella forever.
Synopsis: ... [More]
Starring: Beyoncé
Directed By: Unknown Director

#2
Adjusted Score: 106503%
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: A struggling New York City playwright finds inspiration by reinventing herself as a rapper.... [More]
Directed By: Radha Blank

#1

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