The typical Hollywood depiction of black men has not traditionally been a positive one.
In the old days, black actors would generally portray either villains or servants. Fortunately, the world has changed and Hollywood, perhaps a little begrudgingly, has changed with it.
That’s not to say things are perfect. Far from it. Even today, Hollywood movies have a habit of portraying black roles as drug dealers, thieves, or rappers.
Fortunately, not every movie is guilty of falling into this same habit of racist tropes and crass stereotypes.
There is now a thriving black cinema scene which sees black movies starring largely black casts, being made by black filmmakers, and telling stories about black lives and communities.
And these black movies are not niche and low budget. They are frequently blockbusters and they are going mainstream.
The result has been a swathe of black films featuring African Americans that have revolutionised the way black men, and black women, are seen. We have already profiled prominent black female movies like Girls Trip and prominent actresses like Queen Latifah and Jada Pinkett Smith.
In this guide, we are focusing on movies that portray black men in leading roles and in a positive light. And we are going a little deeper than the tropes typically exploited by the likes of Eddie Murphy and Chris Rock.
Here is our rundown of the 25 Best Positive Black Male Role Model Movies.
King Richard is the movie which brought Will Smith his long overdue Best Actor Academy Award – just the fifth black actor to win the award.
But the movie itself is the inspiring story of the Williams Sisters’ ascent to the very top of the tennis world, a world in which African American representation was largely non-existent.
Smith plays Venus and Serena’s father, Richard, who dedicates his life to turning his daughter into tennis stars. He is their coach, their doctor, and their mentor. But as well as instilling a near maniacal desire to win in both of them, he also always stressed the need to be humble.
The Williams sister’s tennis successes are well documented, but their father often gets a bad press as the ultimate pushy parent. Pushy he may have been, but this movie shows him as a committed family man determined to do his best to help his daughters achieve the American dream.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
This film, based on a play by August Wilson, tells the tale of a recording session by black blues singer Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) who is contracted to record for white producers.
Her backing band was made up of Georgia Jazz Band members Toledo (Glynn Turman), Cutler (Coleman Domingo), and Slow Drag (Michael Potts) with trumpeter Levee Green (Chadwick Boseman) arriving later.
What follows is a tumultuous session which reveals the challenges black musicians faced in the 1920s and 1930s.
In Levee, the film has created a larger-than-life character who cares passionately about what he does and getting everything he can out of life.
The stellar performance by Boseman rightly earned him a posthumous Oscar nomination for best actor (Viola Davis won one too) and sealed his place as a generation-defining actor.
This searing bio-pic of the African-American activist Malcolm X tells the story of his entire life and offers a powerful message of redemption and success against the odds.
It covers childhood issues such as his father’s death and mother’s mental illness, his criminal career and incarceration, his conversion to Islam and his role in the Nation of Islam, and his pilgrimage to Mecca.
It then looks at his falling out with his church, his evolving views on white people and his activism, and finally his assassination in 1965.
Malcolm X was always a name that resonated within the black community in the USA, but this amazing movie, directed by one of the best black writer-director of all time, Spike Lee, and starring an Oscar-nominated Denzel Washington brought his amazing life to a whole new audience.
Da 5 Bloods
Another Spike Lee classic, Da 5 Bloods is a war film which follows a group of Vietnam Veterans on a search for the remains of their fallen squad leader and the treasure they left behind.
Starring Delroy Lindo, Chadwick Boseman, Jonathan Majors, and Clarke Peters, the movie is a classic war tale of old soldiers reuniting, coming to terms with the past, and coping with the dangers that still exist in post-war Vietnam.
What makes this film special is the fact that the characters are black is not the focus. The same tale could be told about a white troop, which illustrates how the devastation of war affects all people the same, regardless of their colour and ethnic background.
This low-budget movie from 2000 focuses on a group of young black kids in rural North Carolina. It was the feature debut of David Gordon Green.
The hero of the piece is George Richardson, an introverted boy who attracts the attention of 12-year-old Nasia after she breaks up with her boyfriend, Bubby.
But when George accidentally kills Buddy, the group of friends band together to try and hide his body. Then the redemption story, as George looks to make amends and becomes the hero of the town.
Unlike some of the blockbusters in this list, George Washington went very much under the radar, but is a powerful story about loyalty and childhood friends that definitely warrants your time.
Straight Outta Compton
Straight Outta Compton is a musical biopic directed by F Gary Gray telling the story of the rise and fall of the groundbreaking new group N.W.A and its members Eazy-E, Ice Cube, Dr Dre, MC Ren, and DJ Yella and how the group revolutionizes music.
It is a performed film rather than a documentary but the surviving members of the group played a full role in its making. It is a strong and powerful story, with the death of Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell) shown alongside the challenges of the Compton neighbourhood they grew up in.
But many of these rappers are icons for the black Los Angeles community and the story of how these young men rose from inner city life to influencing hip hop forever is one of the great black stories.
This is a slice of African American history and a pivotal moment in the black music scene in the USA. Essential viewing.
The Book of Eli
Denzel Washington is a Hollywood great and just the second black actor to win the Best Actor Oscar after the legendary Sidney Poitier.
The Book of Eli is Denzel at his best in a rip-roaring action epic set in a post-apocalyptic world. His character Eli is told by a voice to deliver a book to a safe location on the west coast of North America.
As we follow Eli on his quest, we learn about the history of this reality and why the world has collapsed.
It is a proper action flick with a black hero doing a remarkable job against the odds, not because he is black, but because he is a hero.
Do the Right Thing
This Spike Lee comedy-drama is about the Brooklyn feud between the African American and Italian American communities in a Brooklyn suburb.
It stars Martin Lawrence, in his first film, alongside an all-star cast including the likes of Samuel L Jackson and John Turturro.
Spike Lee himself plays Mookie, a black pizza delivery guy who clashes with the racist son of his boss in a conflict that gets way out of hand.
But Mookie is a sympathetic character, a family man trying to make ends meet and at the same time standing up for his community. The black characters in this movie are diverse and colourful and while it does touch on themes of racial injustice, it does so sympathetically and with a realistic portrayal of black life.
Tangerine touches on one thing which tends to be largely missing from black cinema; LGBTQI+ issues.
This movie is about Sin-Dee Rella and Alexandra. Both are Transgender sex workers from LA and Sin-Dee Rella has just got out of jail and discovered that her boyfriend and pimp has been cheating on her.
She confronts the woman but they reconcile and the movie then follows the relationship as Sin-Dee and Alexandra have their own issues.
But their friendship endures and while this movie doesn’t always portray its leading characters in a positive light, it does shine a light on the challenges faced by the black transgendered community and the qualities they need to survive.
The Tragedy of Macbeth
It might surprise some to see a Shakespeare movie on this list, but The Tragedy of Macbeth is different because it stars Denzel Washington in the title role.
The plot of Macbeth is well-known and this movie doesn’t deviate too much, but it does strip the play down to its key visual and narrative essentials.
Why is it on this list? Well, Denzil as a Shakespearean lead is an inspirational sight for all young black actors. But the fact that the movie retains the original Shakespearean dialogue is vital too.
Denzil leads an all-star cast with aplomb and is a true Shakespearean leading actor in a very impressive movie directed by the legendary Joel Coen that proved an unexpected box office hit.
The Harder They Fall
This is a landmark black film because it is a classic American Western in which all of the leading actors are black.
It stars Idris Elba, Jonathan Majors, Zazie Beats, Regina King and a whole host of famous black actors.
Elba plays Rufus Buck, an outlaw that kills Nat Love’s (Majors) parents when he was young. Love becomes an outlaw himself intent on revenge and what follows is a rip-roaring all-action western with a powerful and unexpected climax.
This is a great feature film but it matters because it is in a genre where black filmmakers have traditionally never had a role.
The Harder They Fall changes that and puts a young black man in the role of the cowboy hero. That matters.
Judas and the Black Messiah
Judas and the Black Messiah is a crime drama about the betrayal of Black Panther Party Illinois Chairman Fred Hampton in the 1960s.
Hampton is played by lauded British actor Daniel Kaluuya while Lakeith Stanfield plays William O’Neal, the FBI informant who betrays him.
The film was made with the blessing of Hampton’s family and tells how O’Neal was tasked with infiltrating the Black Panther Party by the FBI, but rose through the ranks himself, all the while reluctantly handing it over to the Feds.
At the orders of J. Edgar Hoover, O’Neal is told to drug Hampton’s drink and he is assassinated. O’Neal is forced to keep working with the FBI and ends up committing suicide.
The first Marvel universe movie to have, not only a largely black cast but a black superhero too.
It’s that man Chadwick Boseman again who plays T’Challa/Black Panther alongside the likes of Daniel Kaluuya, Angela Bassett, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Forest Whitaker, and Martin Freeman.
T’Challa is crowned king of Wakanda following his father’s death, but he is challenged by Killmonger (Jordan), who wants to begin a global revolution.
What follows is a classic Marvel action adventure with fights, tech, and everything else you’d expect. But with a black leading man, finally, there is a superhero for young black folk everywhere to look up to.
Another Spike Lee movie on this list, (he really is the pre-eminent black movie director of his generation and a huge influence on the likes of Boots Riley that followed him), BlacKkKlansman is a biographical crime drama telling the story of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), a black police officer who goes undercover to infiltrate the KKK.
Stallworth is posted to the protection detail of KKK Grand Master David Duke and what follows is a fascinating real-life story of racism and heroism in the 1970s and modern-day America.
The KKK and its burning cross symbols are a powerful image of hatred and the notion of a simple black detective taking on such a symbol and outwitting it makes for one of the most memorable black movies on this list.
Moonlight is a classic coming-of-age drama telling the childhood, adolescence, and early adult life of Chiron (played by three actors at different stages of his life) and his battle to come to terms with his identity and his sexuality.
It is a difficult movie to watch at times, with no lack of emotional and physical abuse being meated out on our hero. But he can be a tough hero to like too, dealing drugs and often using violence to get his own back.
But it deals with a topic that a lot of black movies avoid and sends a clear message that a better life is possible. Moonlight won the Oscar for Best Picture in 2016 and is undeniably one of the best movies in this guide.
Get Out is a US horror movie starring Daniel Kaluuya as Chris Washington, a young black photographer who uncovers some dark secrets when he goes to meet the family of his white girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams).
She assures him they aren’t racist, but there are comments and some behaviour from the black domestic staff that puts Chris on edge. When a party is held and Chris recognises one of the black men there is a missing person, he tries to escape but is kidnapped.
He is held in the basement and learns about the family’s habit of brain transplanting and what follows is a thrilling escapade as he tries to escape and save the families, and other victims.
Get Out casts a black character against a white enemy in another genre where black characters tend to be stereotyped and generally cast as baddies.
A classic blaxploitation comedy action film with Michael Jai White, Tommy Davidson, and Salli Richardson in the leading roles and revitalising a genre of black cinema that generally require viewers to seek out a forty-year-old version of a flick.
The film follows former CIA agent Black Dynamite, who needs to avenge his brother’s death while at the same time battling a new drug that is ravaging his community.
It is both a parody of the classic blaxploitation movies of the 1970s and a homage to them and features all the action sequences, classic characters, and comedy moments that you would expect.
Love and Basketball
Sports play a major part in the lives of an awful lot of black people so a basketball film that combines the talents of Spike Lee’s production and Gina Prince-Bythewood’s direction is always likely to trump a silly Eddie Murphy comedy.
This movie tells the tale of Monica Wright, a beautiful black woman, and Quincy McCall who both want to be professional basketball players. They are two childhood friends but as they grow up and chase their dream they begin to fall in love.
The movie is innovatively structured in four quarters, just like a basketball game and not only tells a love story but also gives valuable life lessons about hard work and dedication.
Romantic comedies are another genre largely unrepresented in the best movies starring black men. There are lots of films starring black actresses like Queen Latifah and Jennifer Hudson (Girls Trip is one example).
But Brown Sugar gives viewers a black male romantic lead in Andre (Taye Diggs) whose relationship with Sidney (Sanaa Lathan) is built on a single moment when they discovered hip hop together.
The film follows the ups and downs of their relationship before the pitch-perfect ending of all of the best movies in the rom-com drama specialise in.
Soul Food is a classic movie that is told through the eyes of an 11-year-old boy, Ahmad, who tells the story of his family who meet for Sunday lunch every week.
There are successes and failures, dreamers and realists, but the loss of the family matriarch changes everything and the family begins to fall apart.
In the end, it is down to the youngest member of the clan, Ahmed, to bring everyone back together again in a powerful ending.
Family means so much in so many black communities that this is a movie everyone can relate to and one in which the most unlikely family member turns out to be the hero.
The first in a series of comedy dramas set in a barber shop on the south side of Chicago.
The shop is up against it financially and owner Calvin Palmer Jr (Ice Cube) is more interested in get-rich quick schemes and sells up to a loan shark who wants to turn it into a strip club.
But Palmer has second thoughts and tries to buy back the shop. Cue a riotous adventure involving false accusations of theft, gangland arguments, and a police reward.
But the movie ends with the barber shop back in business and once more at the heart of its community.
I Am Legend
Will Smith is once more in the lead as the sole survivor of a zombie plague in post-apocalyptic New York.
Smith’s character, US Army virologist Robert Neville is immune to the virus but needs to get samples to create a cure. At the same time, he has to defend himself from zombies that want to eat him.
For large parts of the movie, Smith is the sole actor on screen and he carries it in the same way Tom Hanks did in Castaway, but with much more action.
The movie was a smash hit at the box office, is an established part of pop culture and is one of the best movies Smith has done.
12 Years a Slave
The incredible civil war era movie by black directors icon Steve McQueen starring Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup a free black man from the north who is kidnapped, taken from his family and put into slavery in the south.
It is a shocking and upsetting film, not least because it is based on a true story. But Ejiofur’s Northup is an incredibly strong character, coping with his lot, escaping his captivity, and eventually making it back to his family before playing a role in the abolition of slavery.
This is the abomination of slavery laid brutally bare and in Northup, there is a lead black character that everyone, from all racial backgrounds, can look up to. It is quite simply one of the best movies ever made.
Selma is another civil rights movie telling the tale of the 1965 Selma to Montgomery voting rights marches.
The icon that is Martin Luther King is played perfectly by David Oyelowu while the largely British cast includes the likes of Tim Roth, Tom Wilkinson, and Cuba Gooding Jr.
The march was a vital step towards voting rights for black people but it was also a brutal and bloody affair which is brought powerfully to life in this incredibly moving film.
A must-watch for anyone who wants to understand why Martin Luther King really matters to all black Americans.
Get on Up
A biopic of the legendary soul singer James Brown seems a fitting place to end.
Starring the late Chadwick Boseman as Jim Brown, this movie tells the story of his life in a non-linear structure which is exactly how Brown would have wanted it.
We follow his childhood, his rise to fame, and his time at the top. Brown is not always the easiest character to like and he has his problems with drugs and in the band.
But he is an icon bought to life incredibly realistically in this fantastic biopic.