(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)
16%

#40
Adjusted Score: 16640%
Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.
Synopsis: Two Georgia waitresses seeking a better life go to Hollywood and meet an ailing millionaire (Martin Landau).... [More]
Directed By: Robert Townsend

#39
Adjusted Score: 21130%
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: A Las Vegas singer (Whoopi Goldberg) teaches a mother superior's flock how to rock and save the school from closure.... [More]
Directed By: Bill Duke

#38

Breakin' (1984)
33%

#38
Adjusted Score: 33047%
Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.
Synopsis: A dancer/waitress decides to audition for a Broadway show with break-dancers from the streets of Los Angeles.... [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: Dorothy (Diana Ross) eases on down the road to see the Wiz (Richard Pryor) with Tinman, Scarecrow (Michael Jackson) and... [More]
Directed By: Sidney Lumet

#36

Krush Groove (1985)
43%

#36
Adjusted Score: 32602%
Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.
Synopsis: Desperate to start his own company, a record producer (Blair Underwood) unwisely borrows from a loan shark (Lisa Gay Hamilton).... [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: Wrongly convicted of murder, two men (Eddie Murphy, Martin Lawrence) become close friends during decades in a Mississippi penitentiary.... [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: Kung-fu master Leroy (Taimak) rescues video-jockey Laura (Vanity) from a mobster (Chris Murney) and a self-styled Harlem shogun.... [More]
Directed By: Michael Schultz

#33
#33
Adjusted Score: 62566%
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 handsome angel (Denzel Washington) saves a New York Baptist (Courtney Vance) and his wife (Whitney Houston) from spiritual doubt... [More]
Directed By: Penny Marshall

#32
#32
Adjusted Score: 76669%
Critics Consensus: Eddie Murphy was in full control at this point, starkly evident in Coming to America's John Landis' coasting direction.
Synopsis: Pampered Prince Akeem (Eddie Murphy) of Zamunda comes to New York with his royal sidekick (Arsenio Hall) to find a... [More]
Directed By: John Landis

#31

About Last Night (2014)
69%

#31
Adjusted Score: 72247%
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: Four Los Angeles singles experience undeniable chemistry and pair off to follow their attraction to its logical conclusion. Afterward, each... [More]
Directed By: Steve Pink

#30
#30
Adjusted Score: 78708%
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: A lethal CIA agent (Dwayne Johnson) and his former classmate (Kevin Hart) encounter shootouts, espionage and double-crosses while trying to... [More]

#29

Love Jones (1997)
73%

#29
Adjusted Score: 73238%
Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.
Synopsis: Emotionally vulnerable Chicagoans (Larenz Tate, Nia Long) carry on a torrid affair but deny their burgeoning love.... [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: The wife (Alfre Woodard) and children of a jobless jazz musician (Delroy Lindo) deal with everyday life in 1970s Brooklyn.... [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: A South Central Los Angeles resident (Ice Cube) hangs out on his front porch with a pal (Chris Tucker) who... [More]
Directed By: F. Gary Gray

#26

Keanu (2016)
78%

#26
Adjusted Score: 85244%
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: A man (Keegan-Michael Key) and his cousin (Jordan Peele) pose as ruthless gangsters to recover a stolen kitten.... [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: Three sisters (Vanessa L. Williams, Vivica A. Fox, Nia Long) deal with romantic crises and their widowed mother's fatal illness.... [More]
Directed By: George Tillman Jr.

#24

Drumline (2002)
82%

#24
Adjusted Score: 84310%
Critics Consensus: Essentially a sports movie with drums, the energetic Drumline somehow manages to make the familiar seem fresh.
Synopsis: A young man from Harlem (Nick Cannon) joins a Southern university's marching band but antagonizes the musical director (Orlando Jones)... [More]
Directed By: Charles Stone

#23
#23
Adjusted Score: 86672%
Critics Consensus: Confident directing and acting deliver an insightful look at young athletes.
Synopsis: From childhood to early adulthood, two friends (Sanaa Lathan, Omar Epps) fall in love while trying to establish basketball careers.... [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: Spike Lee directed this document of an evening of stand-up comedy performed by four prominent black entertainers.... [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: The owner of a popular barbershop considers selling the place to a loan shark who wants to convert it into... [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: Leroy, Coco (Irene Cara), Bruno (Lee Curreri) and others of mixed talents and means attend New York's High School of... [More]
Directed By: Alan Parker

#19

Cooley High (1975)
85%

#19
Adjusted Score: 84835%
Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.
Synopsis: Two high-school pals (Glynn Turman, Lawrence-Hilton Jacobs) hang out, face a teacher and flee the police in 1964 urban Chicago.... [More]
Directed By: Michael Schultz

#18

Top Five (2014)
86%

#18
Adjusted Score: 93912%
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: A successful actor (Chris Rock) is forced to confront his comedic past during a day with a journalist (Rosario Dawson)... [More]
Directed By: Chris Rock

#17
Adjusted Score: 87616%
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: 90208%
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: 95118%
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 high-school senior (Shameik Moore) and his friends have a wild adventure in Los Angeles as they try to stay... [More]
Directed By: Rick Famuyiwa

#14
#14
Adjusted Score: 93584%
Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.
Synopsis: A traveling laborer teaches English to a group of German-speaking nuns while building a chapel for their community.... [More]
Directed By: Ralph Nelson

#13

Girls Trip (2017)
92%

#13
Adjusted Score: 99307%
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: Four best friends travel to New Orleans for the annual Essence Festival. Along the way, they rekindle their sisterhood and... [More]
Directed By: Malcolm D. Lee

#12
#12
Adjusted Score: 98262%
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: 94842%
Critics Consensus: House Party is a light, entertaining teen comedy with an infectious energy.
Synopsis: Kid is grounded by his dad for fighting, but he is determined to sneak out to go to a huge... [More]
Directed By: Reginald Hudlin

#10

Hidden Figures (2016)
93%

#10
Adjusted Score: 108879%
Critics Consensus: In heartwarming, crowd-pleasing fashion, Hidden Figures celebrates overlooked -- and crucial -- contributions from a pivotal moment in American history.
Synopsis: NASA mathematicians Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson cross gender and race lines to help launch astronaut John Glenn... [More]
Directed By: Theodore Melfi

#9

Queen of Katwe (2016)
94%

#9
Adjusted Score: 101760%
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: Missionary Robert Katende (David Oyelowo) mentors young chess prodigy Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga) in the slum of Katwe in Kampala,... [More]
Directed By: Mira Nair

#8
#8
Adjusted Score: 96306%
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: A veteran entertainer (Bill Robinson) recalls his wife (Lena Horne), his colleagues and his career from 1911 to 1936.... [More]
Directed By: Andrew L. Stone

#6

Black Is King (2020)
94%

#6
Adjusted Score: 95635%
Critics Consensus: Beyoncé is King.
Synopsis: ... [More]
Starring: Beyoncé
Directed By: Beyoncé

#5

Soul (2020)
95%

#5
Adjusted Score: 113422%
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: 118126%
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, teenager Miles Morales suddenly develops mysterious powers that transform him into Spider-Man. He must now... [More]

#3
Adjusted Score: 100181%
Critics Consensus: Beychella forever.
Synopsis: ... [More]
Starring: Beyoncé
Directed By: Unknown Director

#2
Adjusted Score: 104275%
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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