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From historical drama to comedy and documentary.
From thought-provoking documentaries to mournful historical dramas, there are plenty of Black movies on Netflix. If you’re looking for movies created by, for, or aimed at African-American viewers—and those looking to learn more about the Black experience in America—Netflix is a good place to start. The streaming giant, however, isn’t immune to Hollywood’s shortcomings.
Though this best-of list is suitable, Netflix could make significant headway by either producing or streaming straightforward comedy and non-historical drama features. Notably lacking are films by and for Black women. Not to give what’s available short shrift, but Netflix still has some work to do. In the meantime, we compiled a list of the best Black movies on Netflix right now.
The best Black movies on Netflix
A long overdue biopic, the dutiful Roxanne, Roxanne tells the early ‘80s beginnings of Lolita Shante Gooden, known to the hip-hop world as Roxanne Shante, rap’s first female superstar. Serviceable as a straightforward film, the project suffers from lack of depth as it tries to cover as many real-life events as it can. However, the accurate time-period placing, expert editing, and dazzling performances of Chante Adman, Nia Long, and Mahershela Ali cover most of the film’s tangles. —Kahron Spearman
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Adapted by Rees and co-writer Virgil Williams from Hillary Jordan’s novel, Mudbound traces the stories of two families during WWII, one white, one Black. They intersect when the McAllan clan buys the farm the Jackson family has worked on as sharecroppers for years. It’s worth watching Mudbound for its devastating ending alone. It’s impossible to deny that Hollywood is better for taking a chance on filmmakers like Dee Rees and stories like this. —Chris Osterndorf
Netflix’s first major foray into film distribution, at least in terms of narrative filmmaking, was this child soldier drama. Upon its release, Beasts of No Nation immediately declared that, in addition to giving you daily doses of ‘90s nostalgia, the streaming giant was committed to socially engaged stories too. Directed by True Detective’s Cary Joji Fukunaga and starring Idris Elba in what should’ve been an Oscar-nominated performance, Beasts of No Nation is an intense watch but also a rewarding one. If nothing else, it’ll make you aware of how few depictions of Africa we really see onscreen, and how much that needs to be corrected. —Chris Osterndorf
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The Incredible Jessica James opens on something many of us are all too familiar with: a very bad Tinder date. Jessica Williams plays an aspiring playwright, working through her failures in New York. She’s not above stalking her ex on Instagram or lying to her parents. But Williams gives us a performance that reminds us that we’re all human and that falling down is nothing to be ashamed of. In the process, she breathes life into the tired rom-com genre. —Sarah Jasmine Montgomery
5) First Match
Netflix is putting a lot of time and money into young adult content, but First Match escapes the genre and leaves an impression that’s often rare for a debut film. Monique (Elvire Emanuelle) is teen from Brooklyn’s Brownsville neighborhood who’s searching for acceptance and direction after being cycled through foster homes. In an effort to define herself in the chaos, Mo joins the all-male high school wrestling team. This dovetails with reconnecting with her estranged father Darrel (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), who is trying to make ends meet after his release from jail. Their relationship gets a tentative restart once he starts helping her train. Like Mo, Darrel is a complex character, and Abdul-Mateen plays his many sides beautifully. He ropes Mo into illegal fighting to earn money. She’s hesitant about getting involved but is pulled along by that need for her father and his guidance, however fleeting. —Audra Schroeder
6) Fruitvale Station
Given the country we live in, any drama about the shooting of an unarmed Black man by a law enforcement is sure to stir up emotions. This one, based on the 2008 killing of Bay Area citizen Oscar Grant, is no different from any other—except it is. Like all stories of police violence against the Black community, Fruitvale Station’s details are unique while also fitting into a larger pattern. What makes the film work is that director Ryan Coogler (who was just 26 when Fruitvale Station debuted at Sundance) chooses to focus on the last few hours of Oscar Grant’s life, rather than just the moments surrounding his death. In that way, the movie becomes equal parts celebration and indictment.
Fruitvale Station was a monumental debut on Coogler’s part, as well as a turning point for Black Panther star Michael B. Jordan (who had previously appeared on such TV shows as The Wire, Friday Night Lights, and Parenthood). Fruitvale Station is still a devastating breakout. —Chris Osterndorf
When accepting the Golden Globe for The Iron Lady in 2012, Meryl Streep slurred Adepero Oduye’s name. But inebriated or not, Meryl knows what’s up. Directed by Dee Rees, making her debut, Pariah offers a fresh take on the coming-out story. Giving a star-is-born performance, Oduye plays Alike, a Black teenager experiencing her queer coming of age on the streets of Brooklyn, New York. The girl she likes (Aasha Davis) only views their relationship as a “youthful experimentation.” Meanwhile, her parents force her to choose between her sexuality and her family. For Rees, the little-seen film was the beginning of a promising career. She went on to direct HBO’s Emmy-winning Bessie in 2015 and helmed the network’s Stonewall drama, When We Rise. —Nico Lang
8) Jackie Brown
Jackie Brown is probably Quentin Tarantino’s subtlest work, and thus, his most underrated. Adapted from an Elmore Leonard novel, Tarantino tones down his usual barrage of references here. Jackie Brown is a sly, funny, surprisingly touching tale about a flight attendant moonlighting as a money carrier for an arms dealer. Pam Grier is transcendent in the titular role, while the supporting cast. Other stellar performances include Chris Tucker, Bridget Fonda, Michael Keaton, Robert De Niro, Robert Forrester, and Samuel L. Jackson. —Chris Osterndorf
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Although not as formally inventive as I Am Not Your Negro, nor as narratively ambitious as O.J.: Made in America, 13th is the third in a trifecta of great Oscar-nominated documentaries about race in America we got in 2016. From Selma director Ava DuVernay, this film builds off of works such as Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow to explore mass incarceration in the U.S. and eventually ask the difficult question: What if slavery in this country never ended, just transformed? Bound to become an instructional text in liberal schools all over, the biggest criticism one can level against 13th is that at an hour and 40 minutes, there might not be enough of it. —Chris Osterndorf
The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson explores the tragic 1992 death of a legendary gay rights activist, officially ruled suicide but which many suspect to be a murder. Director David France uses the film to explore the larger scope of Johnson’s life and impact on both the landscape of LGBTQ rights and those closest to her. —David Wharton
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11) What Happened, Miss Simone?
Did you know her real name was Eunice Kathleen Waymon? “Nina Simone” was a stage name, adopted because she didn’t want her mother knowing she was performing in saloons at the start of her career. This Netflix-produced documentary opens with the iconic performer’s less-than-humble start in 1930s North Carolina. The film progresses through Simone’s journey across the country to become a pioneering all-timer. With archived footage and priceless family photos, Simone’s identity as a Black political activist during the civil rights era and her struggles with mental illness are brought front and center. (Her alluring, timeless performances? Plenty of that too.) –Nia Wesley
12) Strong Island
In April 1992, William Ford Jr. was shot and killed during a dispute. An all-white grand jury did not indict the white man who killed William, a Black man. Strong Island, directed and produced by William’s sister Yance Ford, is a searing look at a family’s loss. It’s also a way for Yance to reclaim her brother’s name. She dictates the narrative of his life rather than letting the courts have the final say. Strong Island is an intimate, angry documentary that is also one of 2017’s best. —Eddie Strait
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13) Dave Chappelle, Equanimity/The Bird Revelation
Dave Chappelle returns with two new specials that are a bit more timely than his previous two. Here he does a bit of atonement for those comments on Trump and tries to expand his thoughts on trans issues. He also takes a swipe at the sexual assault allegations flowing through Hollywood and offers a hint about why he left comedy. —A.S.
Chris Rock’s first special in 10 years finds the comedian in a more contemplative mood. He offers up his thoughts on police brutality and racism, but these bits have a different weight now. Rock is a father, and the jokes filter through that lens. Tamborine is a more intimate special, and while not all his insights hit, he does open up about his life and his past mistakes in a way that balances comedy with vulnerability. —A.S.
15) DeRay Davis, How To Act Black
DeRay Davis’ long-overdue streaming special places the raw and unapologetic comedian on a course for stardom. Refreshing and honest, the comic takes on his Hollywood adventures and breaks down race, police violence, the nuances of relationships, and even Harambe. —Kahron Spearman
Need more ideas? Here are our Netflix guides for the best war movies, documentaries, anime, indie flicks, true crime, food shows, Westerns, gangster movies, and movies based on true stories streaming right now. There are also sad movies guaranteed to make you cry, weird movies to melt your brain, and standup specials when you really need to laugh. Or check out Flixable, a search engine for Netflix.
Kahron Spearman is a music and film critic whose work can also regularly be regularly found in the Austin Chronicle.