New Line Cinema/Columbia Pictures
While Black people have a long history of shining on film—even in the midst of racism and bigotry—the 1990s were a special time for Black actors and directors. From action films and thrillers to comedies to dramas, Black media in the 1990s grew to levels that hadn’t been seen before.
In 1991, The New York Times Magazine reported that by the end of that year, several studios including Warner Brothers, Columbia, Goldwyn, New Line and Island World, would have released 19 films predominately featuring Black actors and/or directors, which was more than what was released in the previous decade.
And while the ’90s boom led to a drought in the 2000’s, many of these ’90s directors recently spoke with The New York Times to explain that they think the coming years will be different. “I would also add that there are a lot of African-Americans who are in power positions right now, even on the financing level. That didn’t really exist in the ’90s,” Matty Rich, director of 1991’s Straight Out of Brooklyn, explained. “People like Byron Allen — an African-American who is the head of a film distributor and a financier.”
However, we can’t look forward without looking back, and the movies below are the some of the best released in the ’90s, and each film uniquely centers on the Black experience in its own way. So without further ado, here are the 30 best Black movies of the 1990s.
The movie follows friends Craig and Smokey (played by Ice Cube and Chris Tucker, respectively) during one Friday in South Central LA. Throughout the day, different situations arise, but the duo’s main dilemma is figuring out how to pay back drug dealer Big Worm by the end of the day. The 1995 comedy launched a successful franchise with two sequels titled Next Friday and Friday After Next, and a third one is reportedly on the way.
The 1992 film stars Omar Epps, Tupac Shakur, Jermaine Hopkins and Khalil Kain as a group of friends growing up in Harlem, but things take an unexpected turn when they decide to rob a corner store. The movie’s director, Ernest R. Dickerson, went on to direct episodes of The Wire, House of Cards, and Dexter.
What do you get when you put a lounge singer in a convent after she’s placed in a witness protection program? Movie magic. Whoopi Goldberg stars as said nun, and she’s joined by Maggie Smith, Kathy Najimy, and Harvey Keitel. Sister Act grossed $231 million worldwide in 1992, and it launched a sequel and musical adaptation, with Sister Act 3 due to be released on Disney+ in the coming years.
The 1993 sports film is loosely based on the true story of Jamaica’s bobsled team in the 1988 Winter Olympics. While the movie mainly features fictional characters and situations, a number of the film’s events are real, including the crash that eliminated the Jamaican team from the competition. Cool Runnings‘ soundtrack also became popular, and Jimmy Cliff’s cover of “I Can See Clearly Now” reached the top 40 in several countries.
Menace II Society
The 1993 movie marked Allen and Albert Hughes’ directorial debut, and it stars a super talented cast that includes Tyrin Turner, Jada Pinkett, Larenz Tate and Samuel L. Jackson. The film is set in Watts, a neighborhood in southern Los Angeles, and it follows the life of a young man named Caine and his group of close friends.
The action comedy film stars Will Smith and Martin Lawrence as two Miami detectives investigating $100 million of seized heroin that was stolen from a secure police vault. The 1995 film was the first in the Bad Boys franchise, which includes 2003’s Bad Boys II and 2020’s Bad Boys for Life. And fun fact: Bad Boys was Michael Bay’s directorial debut.
1997’s Eve’s Bayou follows a Louisiana family over the course of one summer in 1962 through the eyes of 10-year-old daughter Eve, and themes of betrayal, bayou traditions, and coming-of-age are present throughout the film. Eve’s Bayou also features an amazing cast that includes Lynn Whitfield, Samuel L. Jackson, Jurnee Smollett, Debbi Morgan, Meagan Good, and Diahann Carroll. In 2018, the movie was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry.
Based on the Marvel comic superhero of the same name, the 1998 movie saw Wesley Snipes expertly play Blade, a human vampire slayer with the strength of a vampire—but not their weaknesses. The movie led to two sequels.
1990’s House Party is a movie that will make you want to get up and do just that, and the movie’s leads—Kid and Play of the hip hop duo Kid ‘n Play—are charismatic as two high schoolers that just want to throw an epic party. The film also stars Martin Lawrence, Tisha Campbell, Daryl “Chill” Mitchell and John Witherspoon, with a cameo by George Clinton. The movie also led to two sequels, with House Party 2 following in 1991 and House Party 3 premiering in 1994.
The Nutty Professor
Eddie Murphy shined in his role as university professor, Sherman Klump, a smart and kind man that develops a weight loss serum that makes him lose weight instantly. He then feels emboldened enough to go after the girl of his dreams but 1. the effects of the serum are temporary and 2. Klump’s slimmed-down alter ego Buddy Love starts to take on a life of his own. A sequel, Nutty Professor II: The Klumps, was released in 2000, and but many do not know that the films were actually based on a remake of the 1963 film of the same name, which starred Jerry Lewis.
Spike Lee’s semi-autobiographical 1994 movie follows nine-year old Troy and her family, which includes her four brothers, her struggling musician father Woody and her loving but strict schoolteacher mother Carolyn.
Belly was music video director Hype Williams’ film directoral debut, and the 1998 crime drama follows street criminals Tommy Brown (DMX) and Sincere (Nas) as they begin to realize that their lives are headed in two different directions.
The 1997 family drama follows the Joseph family, a close-knit clan that gets together to have Sunday dinner every week in Chicago, and the story is told through the eyes of 11-year-old Ahmad. The ensemble cast includes Vanessa Williams, Vivica A. Fox, Nia Long, Mekhi Phifer, Michael Beach, and Brandon Hammond.
White Men Can’t Jump
Waiting to Exhale
Forest Whitaker’s 1995 directorial debut starred Whitney Houston, Angela Bassett, Lela Rochon, Loretta Devine, and Dennis Haysbert, and the film was actually adapted from the 1992 novel of the same name by Terry McMillan. The movie follows four friends in Phoenix, Arizona area through the highs and lows of their romantic pursuits.
Boyz n the Hood
Boyz n the Hood was John Singleton’s first film, and the 1991 coming-of-age drama follows a boy named Jason “Tre” Styles that’s sent to live in Crenshaw with his father. Cuba Gooding Jr. plays adult Tre, while Angela Bassett, Laurence Fishburne, Ice Cube, Morris Chestnut, Nia Long, and Regina King fill out the rest of the cast.
New Jack City
The 1991 film sees Wesley Snipes play Nino Brown, a powerful drug lord in New York City who gets rich during the crack epidemic, while Ice-T plays Scotty Appleton, a detective who goes undercover in Nino’s gang in order to stop him.
While fans are excited for the 2020 version of Candyman, the 1992 original is still a classic. Tony Todd played the title role, and the legend of the hook-handed Candyman is that he’ll appear when someone says his name five times in a mirror. It’s considered to be one of the greatest slashers of all time, and two sequels followed.
This 1997 romantic comedy stars Larenz Tate as Darius Lovehall, a poet that meets photographer Nina Mosley (played by Nia Long) right before his set, and he falls head over heels for her. However, their ensuing relationship is a lot more complex than either of them thought it would be.
Denzel Washington stunned as civil rights leader Malcolm X in this 1992 film, and it follows Malcolm throughout his life, including his conversion to Islam, his human rights and social justice work, his pilgrimage to Mecca, and his assassination on February 21, 1965. The movie landed Washington an Academy Award nomination, and in 2010, the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry.
1999’s Life tells the story of two friends (played by Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence), as they’re wrongfully convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison, and the film takes place over 65 years.
Set it Off
Starring Jada Pinkett, Queen Latifah, Vivica A. Fox and Kimberly Elise (in her film debut) as the leads, the 1996 movie follows the Los Angeles foursome as they plan to rob a bank in order to get some money and better their lives.
What’s Love Got to Do With It
The 1993 American biographical film is based on the life of Tina Turner, with Angela Bassett starring as Tina and Laurence Fishburne starring as Ike Turner. Both Bassett and Fishburne received Academy Award nominations for their roles in the film.
This 1996 pick is seen through the eyes of Justice, a poet that uses her art to cope after her boyfriend is killed in a shooting. Janet Jackson stars as Justice, while Tupac Shakur plays Lucky, her love interest later in the film. Queen Latifah, Regina King, Joe Torry, and Q-Tip round out the cast. The movie reached number one at the box office on opening weekend, Jackson received an Academy Award nomination for her acting, and Golden Globe Award nomination for Best Original Song.
The Best Man
The Best Man follows a group of friends before one of them gets married, but things get crazy when the groom finds out that his friend’s new book is based on past with his bride-to-be. The 1999 ensemble film stars Nia Long, Taye Diggs, Morris Chestnut, Harold Perrineau, Terrence Howard, and Regina Hall in her film debut.
This crime thriller follows a man named Anthony Curtis, and it goes from his life as a teenager to a soldier fighting during the Vietnam War. When he returns home to The Bronx, he has trouble finding a job, so he turns to a life of crime. The 1995 film stars Larenz Tate, Keith David, Chris Tucker, N’Bushe Wright, and Bokeem Woodbine.
Daughters of the Dust
1991’s Daughters of the Dust is the first first feature film directed by a Black woman to distributed theatrically in the United States (an amazing and sad fact), and it tells the story of three generations of Gullah women from Saint Helena Island, South Carolina, as they prepare to migrate off the island and into the North. In 2004, the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry.
The Preacher’s Wife
This 1996 film is actually a remake of the 1947 film The Bishop’s Wife, and it follows the story of an angel that comes to Earth to help a preacher save his church and his family. Starring Denzel Washington, Courtney B. Vance, Whitney Houston, Lorette Devine, Jenifer Lewis, and Gregory Hines, the movie was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Music.
Directed by John Singleton, 1995’s Higher Learning follows the changing lives of three incoming college freshmen, one of which is Malik Williams (played by Omar Epps) a track star who struggles with academics. Laurence Fishburne won an NAACP Image Award for his supporting role in the movie, and Ice Cube was also nominated for the award. The film also marked Tyra Banks’ first role in a theatrical release.
Don’t Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice In the Hood
This comedic parody film comes from none other than the Wayans brothers, with Keenen Ivory Wayans producing, and Shawn and Marlon Wayans both writing and starring in the lead roles. The 1996 movie was directed by Paris Barclay in his feature film directorial debut, and it parodies a number of movies on this very list, like Higher Learning, Poetic Justice, Friday, Boyz n the Hood and Menace II Society.
Temi Adebowale is the Editorial Assistant at Men’s Health.
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