24 Essential Works of Black Cinema Recommended by Black Directors

24 minute read

Calls for greater inclusion in Hollywood have been at the forefront of recent cultural conversations, after decades upon decades of resistance to change. But even as the barriers to entry have been great and opportunities for Black filmmakers less available due to the larger forces of systemic racism, Black artists have been creating remarkable and culturally significant work since the early days of filmmaking, across many genres and styles.

The importance and beauty of Black cinema lies not only within its storytelling, but also in the visibility of its creators, both on- and off-camera, as models of what is possible. The ability to tell a story from one’s own perspective and on one’s own terms is freeing, and it has proven essential to the legacy of Black film.

“When you see others doing it, it gives you the confidence that you can do it too,” director and screenwriter Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love & Basketball, The Old Guard) tells TIME, pointing to the work of trailblazing Black female directors like Euzhan Palcy and Julie Dash as major influences on her career. “It inspires you to get into the position to do it. It’s also the fact of seeing ourselves up on screen that’s so important to me about my work—to put ourselves up on screen so we can see ourselves reflected.”

With this rich history in mind, TIME asked 14 Black directors—including Prince-Bythewood, Julie Dash, Nia DaCosta, Lee Daniels, and Dawn Porter—to share the works of Black filmmakers that have most influenced their own movies and careers. From groundbreaking features like Oscar Micheaux’s silent film Within Our Gates to experimental documentaries like Marlon Riggs’ Tongues Untied, here are 24 essential works of Black cinema, presented in order of their release, recommended by Black directors in their own words.

Within Our Gates (1920), selected by Julie Dash

“I saw Within Our Gates in the late ‘60s—it was a silent film, black and white, and it just had so many different things in it that I had never seen depicted onscreen before as an old movie,” says director Julie Dash, whose 1991 film about a multi-generational Gullah family, Daughters of the Dust, became the first feature by a Black woman to have a wide release in theaters.

The 1920 silent movie is a seminal film that addressed the painful racial violence of the time; Micheaux actually wrote and directed the movie as a response to D.W. Griffith’s racist, Ku Klux Klan propaganda film, The Birth of a Nation. “I was able to see it again as a film student at UCLA,” Dash said. “And I could appreciate all that he was able to incorporate in that film, like themes of miscegenation, migration, a Black woman taking off on her own, trying to fundraise for a school. You name it, it was in there.”

Where to watch: Amazon Prime, Library of Congress

Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One (1968), selected by Garrett Bradley

William Greaves’ 1968 documentary-turned-narrative feature, Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One is as much about the process of making a movie as it is about the cultural upheaval of the 1960s. “It’s really an experiment, and as a filmmaker, he’s illuminating the filmmaking process,” says director Garrett Bradley, who earlier this year became the first Black woman to win Sundance’s directing award for documentaries for her movie Time, due to release on Oct. 9. “In a way, that really shows how the artistic process cannot be disconnected from the political and social complexities when you’re on set.”

Bradley also recommends Greaves’ other work, including Ali, The Fighter, his 1974 documentary about Muhammad Ali’s return to boxing, and Wealth of a Nation, a 1966 short documentary short about individualism as a key part of America’s strengths. She considers Greaves one of the most important filmmakers in history, “not only for his sheer breadth of work—I think he made over 200 documentary films over the course of his career—but also for his real experimentation of the form, which carried over several decades.”

Where to watch: Criterion

I Am Somebody (1970), selected by Dawn Porter and Garrett Bradley

“It’s this remarkable verité, beautifully-filmed piece about Civil Rights activists,” says director Dawn Porter, whose recent documentary, John Lewis: Good Trouble, about the late civil rights legend, premiered in July. Madeline Anderson’s 1970 short documentary film tells the story of a labor strike by Black female hospital workers in South Carolina. “It’s just so bold, because she lets the film speak for itself, the storytelling is the main event,” Porter says. “There’s no bells and whistles, just the purity of the story, of human beings pushing for something that they believe in. The purity of that film is really inspiring to me.”

Bradley also points out that Anderson’s film helped to “link, in a really visual way, the role that Black women had in the Civil Rights movement, which for the most part was visually illustrated as being predominantly male.” Bradley adds, “Stylistically and from a cinematic standpoint, she has a really astounding way of creating something that at first appears to be very straightforward in terms of its structure and approach. She’s narrating it…but there are also these really beautiful, almost experimental elements throughout her films.”

Anderson is recognized as the first Black woman to produce and direct a televised documentary with her 1960 short, Integration Report 1, which followed the fight for civil rights and the events that led up to the first attempt at a March on Washington. Anderson was also a trailblazer in other aspects of her industry; she was the first Black woman to produce and direct a syndicated TV series (Black Journal) and one of the first Black women to join the film editors’ union.

Where to watch: Icarus Films

Ganja & Hess (1973), selected by Julie Dash

“There are pieces of films that have swept me away, like Ganja & Hess,” says Dash of Bill Gunn’s gory experimental horror flick that took home the critics’ choice award, when it premiered at Cannes, for its smart, slyly hilarious inversion of the Blaxploitation genre. In particular, Dash has paid specific visual homage to the film with a scene in Daughters of the Dust. “There’s this scene where Dr. Hess or somebody is sitting up in a tree and you just see his legs hanging down, and he’s having an argument with someone down on the ground. That’s my tree scene in Daughters of the Dust—that’s the inspiration for Trula sitting in a tree with her legs dangling.”

Where to watch: Amazon Prime

Killer of Sheep (1978), selected by RaMell Ross

“To me, Killer of Sheep is one of the first Black films, in the sense that it was responsive to the problem of imagery, by means of its sheer banality,” says director RaMell Ross, whose 2018 documentary film about the intimate moments shared in an Alabama community, Hale County, This Morning, This Evening, won a Special Jury Award at Sundance and was nominated for an Oscar. Charles Burnett’s groundbreaking 1978 film centers on the seemingly mundane, yet actually significant, everyday experiences of a Black man in Los Angeles through a series of interconnected events. It was originally written, filmed, edited, directed and produced by Burnett as his graduate thesis film at UCLA.

“It’s a mind-blowingly simple conceit, which is that life is enough and it should be represented often, at least, in its purest observational form,” Ross says. “I think I’ve used it to take a look at the trend of representation and the consequences of representational aesthetics of the past. And to use what happens in the majority of one’s life and the simplicity of waking up in the morning and going through your daily routines as a measure for the way in which cinema sensationalizes and builds narrative for the sake of entertainment.” Killer of Sheep also, he adds, highlights the problem filmmaking presents when it comes to “building narrative and convincing lives into smaller fragments of time.”

Where to watch: Milestone Films

Suzanne, Suzanne (1982), selected by Janicza Bravo

Suzanne Suzanne really shook me to my core,” says Janicza Bravo, who directed the 2017 breakup dramedy Lemon and the hotly anticipated upcoming feature Zola. The 1982 semi-autobiographical short documentary was directed by artist Camille Billops and her husband James Hatch and centers on the story of Billops’ niece, who is dealing with the aftermath of longtime physical and psychological abuse. “It’s quite powerful,” Bravo says. “It’s a piece about her own family, and I was left floored. It’s one of the strongest pieces I’ve ever seen…it will be with me forever.”

Where to watch: Criterion

My Brother’s Wedding (1983), selected by Channing Godfrey Peoples

My Brother’s Wedding gave me such a strong specificity of place, set in the 1980s in South Central Los Angeles,” says Channing Godfrey Peoples, whose critically acclaimed 2020 film, Miss Juneteenth, tells the story of a resilient former beauty queen and single mother. Peoples points to the realism and beauty of My Brother’s Wedding as the standout elements of Charles Burnett’s 1983 tragicomedy about complex family dynamics thrown into flux with the return of a black-sheep son.

“It’s a film that felt raw and let you just live in the world as you go on a journey with the characters,” she says. “It’s a beautiful, detailed view of Black life happening. I saw people that I normally did not get to see onscreen,” she says. “It also highlights class differences in the Black community. It’s heartfelt and has a timeless quality that is magnified by Charles Burnett’s poetic storytelling.”

Where to watch: Criterion

Sugar Cane Alley (1983), selected by Gina Prince-Bythewood

“If I’m to speak on what’s influential on my career, I just remember watching the work of Euzhan Palcy, and Sugar Cane Alley was the first thing I saw from her,” says director Gina Prince-Bythewood, whose 20-year career includes her 2000 debut feature, Love and Basketball; the 2014 romantic dramedy Beyond the Lights; and 2020’s action thriller for Netflix, The Old Guard. Prince-Bythewood notes that Palcy’s coming-of-age film set in Martinique was formative to her work as a filmmaker particularly because it was directed by a Black woman.

“It was pretty phenomenal to see a Black woman back then, making a film like that,” she says. “It was also such a powerful film and a powerful subject, and the fact that she got to tell that story really meant a lot to me. She was doing it way before any of us and absolutely an inspiration.”

Where to watch: DVD available on Amazon

She’s Gotta Have It (1986), selected by Cheryl Dunye

“One of the most important films to me, that made me start making work, was She’s Gotta Have It, by Spike Lee,” says trailblazing director Cheryl Dunye, whose identity-probing, Black lesbian-centric films like her 1996 feature debut, The Watermelon Woman, have become an important part of the queer canon. Dunye says She’s Gotta Have It, Lee’s first feature film, released in 1986, which he produced, directed, wrote, edited and starred in, had an outsize influence on the beginning of her career as a filmmaker.

“Why? Because I was at a post-talk back when it came out, at the University of Pennsylvania. Spike was onstage and there was a sort of rumble at the screening among the women who were upset about [protagonist] Nola’s portrayal,” she said. “I was a budding filmmaker, I hadn’t decided what I was going to do with my career. I was at Temple University and I was already queer, I was political, but I hadn’t committed to filmmaking as the form of expression that I was going to have. A woman went up, got the mic and said, ‘Why did you make Nola like that, such a weak woman? Why couldn’t she have choices? Your portrayal of her was wrong.’ And Spike’s only response to her was, ‘You know, I wanted to make this movie. If you want to go make movies that answer all those things, then go make your own movie.’ And upon that, I figured it out. I was going to make movies.”

Where to watch: Netflix

Do the Right Thing (1989), selected by Amma Asante

“One film that is always consistent for me is Do the Right Thing,” says director Amma Asante, who directed the 2013 drama Belle, which was inspired by the true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle, the illegitimate mixed race daughter of a British admiral. Asante said that Spike Lee’s landmark 1989 movie about racial tensions unfolding on a hot summer day in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn is a film that she often revisits.

“I was about 19 when it came out. I remember the first time I saw it in the movie theater,” she says. “I remember going back to it when I made my first film and really studying it. I just find it the perfect movie in many ways and perfectly relevant at any year that you watch it. It strikes me on all levels—artistically, emotionally, and from a filmmaking point of view. Every aspect of it, I have always loved.”

Where to watch: YouTube, Vudu, Google Play, iTunes, Amazon Prime

Tongues Untied (1989), selected by Roger Ross Williams

“The film that most affected me is Tongues Untied by Marlon Riggs,” says Life, Animated director Roger Ross Williams, who was the first Black director to win an Oscar, for his short doc Music by Prudence. Williams says Riggs’ 1989 experimental documentary on Black gay communities was hugely influential in helping him determine that he wanted to make documentaries himself.

“As a young, Black, gay man, when I first saw that film, I was almost shocked to see images of myself and my community depicted in a documentary,” he said. “It’s the film that gave me the confidence to make documentaries myself, but I specifically remember just the shock of how honest and open that documentary was about self-hatred that Black gay men have for themselves. It was just mind-blowingly powerful for me.”

Where to watch: Kanopy

Daughters of the Dust (1991), selected by Channing Godfrey peoples and Roger Ross Williams

“Daughter of the Dust is poetic, lyrical and took me to a place that I hadn’t experienced on film before,” says Peoples of Dash’s 1991 film. “Beautifully directed with stunning cinematography, it’s a layered and complex portrait of Black life set in the early 1900s on the Sea Islands,” she adds. “Visually beautiful, it was an early inspiration for me to experience cinema that so authentically captured Black people on film with intimacy and specificity.”

For Roger Ross Williams, the film held special significance because of his family’s ties to the culture. “Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust was [important to me] because my family is Gullah,” he says. “I’m from Pennsylvania, but my mother was born in Charleston, South Carolina. It was a film that showed a world that I knew from my family, but to see it on the big screen, depicted in those images of Black women who were like my mother, who were familiar to me, from a sort of culture that was familiar to me—to see that on the screen was a sort of liberating and powerful moment for me as a filmmaker.”

Where to watch: Amazon Prime, YouTube, Vudu, iTunes, Google Play

The Watermelon Woman (1996), selected by Janicza Bravo

“I am so grateful that I got [to see] Watermelon Woman now, but I wish that I had seen it when I was in college, because it would have totally changed my wiring,” says Janicza Bravo of Cheryl Dunye’s iconic 1996 lesbian rom-com. “It would have also made me think that I could [become a filmmaker], that there was a chance for me to arrive at it much sooner and I just didn’t have that. There was not a version of myself that could see that there was room for me. The roadmap was like 10, 15, 20 years and maybe I’ll get there. To me, this is required viewing. Every film school when they’re playing filmmakers like George Lucas, Spielberg—you need to be playing Cheryl, she needs to be on that list. It was experimental and funny and sexy—most of all, it was bold.”

What to watch: Vudu, Amazon Prime, Criterion

Eve’s Bayou (1997), selected by Nia DaCosta and Gina Prince-Bythewood

“I loved the magical realism of that film,” says director Nia DaCosta, who directed the 2018 abortion drama Little Woods and the upcoming Candyman remake, of Kasi Lemmons’ 1997 directorial debut. The movie tells the story of a young girl who is privy to dark family secrets in a small Louisiana town. “The way Kasi created a world that was deeply emotionally true but also magical and dark and eerie at the same time—I thought that was really awesome.”

DaCosta’s sentiments were echoed by Prince-Bythewood, who pointed to Lemmons as an influence for her as a young filmmaker. “Eve’s Bayou just changed the game for me, it was so well-made. It just struck me so emotionally, and I saw that we could make films at this level, this woman did it,” Prince-Bythewood says. “I met [Lemmons] right before I was going to start Love and Basketball and she was so incredibly encouraging and warm and graceful, just made me feel like ‘Yeah, I can do this.’ She absolutely influenced my career.”

Where to watch: YouTube, iTunes, Google Play, Vudu, Amazon Prime, Hulu, HBO Max, HBO Go

Love Jones (1997), selected by Julie Dash

“What a love story, about two young Black people, just very gentle and inspiring and engaging,” says Dash of the 1997 romantic drama written and directed by Theodore Witcher. “I just love films that hold meaning beyond the spectacle of being projected on a large screen. I like films that live in my head for years and years.”

Where to watch: Amazon Prime, YouTube, Vudu, Google Play, HBO Max

Belly (1998), selected by Nia DaCosta

“A movie like Belly, which is problematic in many ways, but also visually very stunning—all those things together showed me that this was such a different way of looking at Blackness and Black experiences,” says Nia DaCosta of Hype Williams’ 1998 crime thriller that starred Nas and DMX. The pair play childhood friends who turn to street crime; their paths diverge when one decides to go straight, while the other falls deeper into illegal activities. While the film was heavily critiqued for its supposed glamorization of violence, drugs, and hedonism, DaCosta points out that Belly was released during a time where there was an abundance of Black cinema being made, allowing her “to have the foundational diversity of the Black experiences on film.”

“Beyond them influencing me, I remember a time when there was a lot of great Black films that were being made,” DaCosta said. “I remember when I was growing up, it didn’t feel like I was missing that and that time period was really special to me. In particular, I think about Eve’s Bayou and Love and Basketball and Set It Off, What’s Love Got to Do With It?, Waiting to Exhale, Belly, all these movies.”

Where to watch: Hulu, HBO Max, Vudu, YouTube, iTunes, Google Play, Amazon Prime

Love & Basketball (2000), selected by Nia DaCosta

“With Love & Basketball being directed by a Black woman, just knowing that it was happening and that it was possible was hugely important to me in retrospect,” DaCosta says of Prince-Bythewood’s debut film about young love, which was produced by Spike Lee. DaCosta noted that the significance of Love & Basketball went beyond the film itself, but in the very fact of its existence and Prince-Bythewood’s direction as a Black woman, which showed her that this path was available to her.

“It felt like there was a lot of opportunities. I knew it was possible, and not in a conscious way. I didn’t have to search or seek out Black films or Black filmmakers in the way that you might have had to a few years ago or you might have to now. And even then, it might not have been enough. But the way that I was brought up, it felt like there was a lot of opportunities. Especially with Eve’s Bayou and Love & Basketball. Just knowing that it was happening and that it was possible was hugely important to me in retrospect.”

Where to watch: YouTube, Google Play, Vudu, iTunes, Amazon Prime

Lumumba (2000), selected by Liesl Tommy

“For me, growing up in South Africa during apartheid, to see a political thriller that tackled big things like colonialism, imperialism, Western interference with Democratic process, the continent of Africa, so elegantly executed, was extremely powerful. It told me that there was a place for my story in filmmaking,” says director Liesl Tommy of Raoul Peck’s 2000 biopic about Congolese politician and independence leader Patrice Lumumba. Tommy directed Respect, the upcoming Aretha Franklin biopic, and is set to direct the film adaptation of Trevor Noah’s memoir, Born a Crime.

“What set it apart is that Peck told the story from the Black gaze,” Tommy said. “He centered Blackness, the Black experience, without it having to be a thing. It wasn’t even a question. There was no pandering, there was no need to make whiteness feel comfortable. And again, coming from an African country where that was my experience and then coming to the United States, where there’s so much accommodation for the white experience that has to happen, it was incredibly liberating to just see that he told the story on his own terms. And just remembering that has power throughout so much of my career. It’s so important for us to tell our stories on our own terms, regardless of who is in charge.”

Where to watch: Tubi, Vudu, Amazon Prime, iTunes

White Chicks (2004), selected by Lee Daniels

“Maybe because I have such a profound respect for anybody that can do comedy, I just felt that Keenan Ivory Wayans did Black comedy on a level of excellence,” says Lee Daniels, the Oscar-nominated director of Precious, of White Chicks. Wayans’ 2004 comedy confronted stereotypes and racial performance with satire and whiteface and was recently included as part of BAMcinématek and Claudia Rankine’s The Racial Imaginary Institute 2018 film series On Whiteness, which explored the social and political power of being white in America.

“He was able to nuance the humor,” Daniels said. “Black people laughing—he was able to capture the magic of Black comedy. He was really able to tap into how we interact with each other in a comedic way, and that’s a specific skill that’s hard. I don’t think he gets the credit that that he deserves for things like In Living Color and his discovery of talent, of knowing how to make you laugh.”

Where to watch: Vudu, Amazon Prime, YouTube, Google Play, iTunes, Hulu

Hunger (2008), selected by Lee Daniels

“I was blown away by Steve McQueen when I saw his movie Hunger,” says Daniels of McQueen’s 2008 historical film about the 1981 Irish hunger strike. “We’re talking about somebody that took cinema, not just African-American cinema, but cinema, to another level. I was inspired by his work. After watching Hunger, I had to up my game, because he went deep into the human condition in a way that I hadn’t seen before. He was able to articulate pain and he wasn’t afraid let that camera sit on you.”

Twelve Years a Slave (2013), selected by Dawn Porter

“The cinematography, the bravery, the unflinching kind of creativity—I was really inspired, because it’s beautifully done,” Dawn Porter says of McQueen’s Best Picture-winning film based on the memoir of a former slave named Solomon Northup. “And to take a subject that we all feel that we know and to see it brought to life that way, in such an elegant way, I would say I think about quite often.”

Where to watch: YouTube, iTunes, Vudu, Google Play, Amazon Prime

(T)ERROR (2015), selected by Terence Nance

“Lyric R. Cabral’s (T)ERROR is a really profound document of entrapment by the FBI of a man that practices Islam and [whom] they use as an informant,” says Terence Nance, who directed the 2012 semi-animated film An Oversimplification of Her Beauty and created, wrote, directed, starred and executive produced the HBO sketch comedy series, Random Acts of Flyness, which debuted in 2018. (T)ERROR was the first film to document a covert terrorism sting as it unfolded, and Cabral directed alongside co-director David Felix Sutcliffe.

Nance notes that the power of the film rests in Cabral’s ability to parse out nuance and compassion within a complex situation. “It’s a really sort of tragic, intimate and honest and painful portrait of how our ideals of revolution and Black power can operate on a personal level and how they can be corrupted,” he says. “Just what human beings will do in their livelihood that they feel trapped. Also, how violent the state is and how it’s become even more violent, in terms of quashing out human beings, movements, ideas that are messy, ideas that aren’t perfect, ideas that are alternative. I’ve never seen or heard of a documentary like that. It doesn’t engage in the concept of a political binary: good, bad, left, or right. It’s really transformative.”

Where to watch: Unavailable

I Am Not Your Negro (2016), selected by Dawn Porter

“It’s exhilarating to feel like people are out here being creative and innovative,” Porter says of Raoul Peck’s acclaimed documentary about James Baldwin, I Am Not Your Negro. The film uses archival footage to illustrate a narration inspired by Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript, Remember This House. “It just pushes you to challenge yourself, to take on different topics. I’m always reminded of the importance of the gaze,” she says. “It just reaches and grabs your soul. It’s so unflinching and creative. Just exhilarating. So often, Black filmmakers have been marginalized. To see these really bold, powerful, uncompromising works is exhilarating.”

Where to watch: YouTube, Tubi, Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, Google Play, Vudu, iTunes

SHAKEDOWN (2018), selected by Terence Nance

Terence Nance calls Leilah Weinraub’s nonfiction art film SHAKEDOWN “transformative.” The documentary, about an underground Black lesbian strip club, took over a decade to make, debuted at the 2018 Berlinale and made history when it was distributed on Pornhub in 2020 as the first non-adult film to grace the platform. “It’s a document of several characters who created a kind of mobile Black lesbian strip club night, created this space for artistic expression, for sociality, for this particularly Black, particularly queer, particularly expressive, particularly transcendent [expression]. It has this style—audio-visually, the graphic design of it—that is really, to me, what the audio-visual modality of Black cinema is at present, even though it took a decade to make. Even though it’s not born of the moment, it is the omnipresent present, in a way.”

Where to watch: Criterion

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Write to Cady Lang at cady.lang@timemagazine.com