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10 Movies Where Black People Actually Get to Be the Main Character

Did you know that Black characters can be more than just stand-ins for white guilt?

There is something about racism that makes people want to watch movies. 

With August marking almost two months of continual protests in small communities as well as major cities, the racial reality of the U.S. is no longer a debated and mythical topic for white Americans, but rather an ever-present and complicated issue knocking on their front door. 

In the past several months, lists of “The Best Black Movies” have inundated our social feeds, dredging up cinematic stills of famous artists acting their hearts out as historical figures; teachers/mothers/any white character “refusing to give up” on our scrappy and often perfectly capable protagonist; an overabundance of Black trauma; and the general feel-good factor that only comes with a movie about racial tension that has the audacity to “fix” everything in a 1:40 runtime. 

It’s what got The Help to reach No. 1 on Netflix in June — to the chagrin of most Black people. It’s even what made Get Out a physical representation of the movie’s funniest trope. It’s what made 12 Years a Slave a gut-wrenching Oscars masterpiece that I was physically unable to watch a second time and what lost If Beale Street Could Talk the chance at Best Picture. But while the average viewer is now mostly aware of the “white savior” trope, another problem emerges: If our go-to movies don’t actually fix racism, which movies will?  

The tendency to retreat to Black-trauma and white-savior films is a multifaceted but understandable issue. When white people watch these movies, often set in the past with easily identifiable and visually cruel villains, the triumph at the end of the film feels like it belongs to white viewers as much as it does to the protagonist. They want comfort, physical confirmation that regardless of what their conscience says, they aren’t the problem. They aren’t the mob yelling slurs, or the scientist degrading Taraji P. Henson, or the white master showing unmitigated cruelty. They aren’t racist. After all, they think, they’re the ones streaming Selma.

But just like it’s not your Black friends’ jobs to teach you about racism, the purpose of Black films isn’t to make white people feel better. Films that feature Black people aren’t monolithic. So if we don’t ask white films to assuage our guilt, to show violence for the sake of violence, to act as stand-ins for our current situations, why do we demand the same from Black cinema?

While films where Black people are the true main characters aren’t as common as white-savior epics, there have been plenty of movies in recent history where Black individuals star front and center in their own stories. So if your parents want to watch Green Book this weekend, you could offer up a few movies where Black people actually run the show… 

Selah and the Spades (2019)

This Amazon Prime original movie tells the tale of warring social groups in the fictional Haldwell boarding school. Starring Lovie Simone as Selah Summers, leader of the Spades, this coming-of-age drama gives its young stars a chance to live, laugh and love their way through the treacherous times of high school. And regardless of the consequences, Selah is determined to rule it all. 

Hearts Beat Loud (2016) 

While most people will recognize Nick Offerman as lovable dad Frank, the true star of Hearts Beat Loud is his daughter Sam. Played by Kiersey Clemons, Sam’s path of discovering who she is as a Black woman with a white father, and her love life as a Black lesbian, makes the movie incredibly intimate. Paired with Offerman’s funny charm, Hearts Beat Loud is a future indie classic that artfully displays this father-daughter relationship.

Miss Juneteenth (2020) 

Set in a sleepy suburb in Texas, Miss Juneteenth explores the deep and nuanced world of scholarship beauty pageants. Turquoise Jones (Nicole Beharie) is determined to enter her headstrong daughter Kai (Alexis Chikaeze) into the same pageant she won as a teenager. This Sundance premiere is a gorgeous film that showcases the highs, lows and in-betweens of a mother-daughter relationship. 

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)

If you haven’t seen Spider-Man: Into the Spider Verse, I give you full permission to stop what you’re doing (yes, even reading this) and immediately watch it. You may think you know the story of everyone’s favorite neighborhood Spider-Man, but you’ve never seen it like this. 

Sorry to Bother You (2018)

In this absurdist Boots Riley film, telemarketer Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield) is given the golden ticket in an alternate San Francisco, where his perfect “white voice” opens up a world of possibilities, a dark consequence for corporate greed. I’d watch this movie for Tessa Thompson’s earrings alone. 

Widows (2018) 

I will never forgive the state of affairs that let Widows flop at the box office, but that doesn’t mean you can’t watch this kick-ass action film right now as an apology. Starring Cynthia Erivo, Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez and Liam Neeson in what might be his smallest role in decades, Widows is an aptly named film, as it shows the late wives of three bank robbers trying to pull off the heist that killed their husbands. Other than being an incredibly fun woman-led action film, Widows is also proof we should really start calling Meryl Streep the white Viola Davis.

Fast Color (2018) 

Unless you’re a film-festival aficionado, you may not have seen this indie-superhero flick, which debuted to a limited release in 2018. Luckily, anyone with a Hulu subscription can watch this incredible film, which depicts a multi-generational family of Black female superheroes. Starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw in a role actually worthy of her acting prowess, Fast Color absolutely turns the sci-fi genre on its head, using the lives of three powerful women to tell the story of a not-so distant future, and the love between mother and daughter that goes beyond all bounds, even (and maybe especially) physics. 

Burning Cane (2019)

Want to feel just a tiny bit bad about yourself? Director Phillip Youmans was only 19 when he made Burning Cane, making him the youngest director in Tribeca Film Festival history. With support through Ava DuVernay’s ARRAYNOW film fellowship, Youmans’ debut film tells the story of an elderly black woman living on a Louisiana cane field, and the fight between keeping her son alive and keeping her faith intact. Burning Cane is now streaming on Netflix, so there’s no excuse for you not to watch. 

Clemency (2019)

Starring Alfre Woodard, which should let you know its god-tier status immediately, Clemency deals with a female prison warden’s doubt about the efficacy of her job, as she watches a proclaimed innocent man fight to escape death row. Based on the real-life death row case of Troy Davis, Clemency is a powerful and all-encompassing film that personalizes the abstract horror of the prison system in a unique and heartbreaking way. 

The Last Black Man in San Francisco (2019)

Oh, you like A24 films? Name 10 of their Black characters. While you’re stumbling around in the dark for characters that aren’t in Moonlight, let me introduce you to The Black Man in San Francisco. This California odyssey tells the tale of San Fran native Jimmy and his constant ally Monty, as they try to reclaim the ancestral home Jimmy’s grandfather built by hand. With breathtaking cinematography and a truly show-stopping cast, The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a secret A24 gem that I want the world to scream about. 

Look, movies aren’t intended to be public service announcements. Like any other art form, they’re created with purpose, imbued with the filmmaker’s intent and exist as a viewpoint into a life or story. While they often feature lessons, the best ones rarely deliver answers. So for white moviegoers to truly support Black art, the key lies in supporting Black films that actually feature Black experiences, rather than just star Black characters as a stand-in for white guilt.

Movies that do justice to Black people are out there — you just have to be willing to watch them.