Black female role models used to come from families, communities, and from local churches.
This was because, for a long time, black representation in the movie world was defined by the largely white male demographic that controlled the industry.
They were portrayed as domestic servants, victims, or minor token characters.
It goes without saying that black female role models are still found at home, in black communities, and in churches.
But the world has changed a lot.
We now have a black former First Lady of the United States in the White House, we currently have a black female Press Secretary to the President, and a black female MP was a contender for UK Prime Minister and is likely to hold a serious role in the future UK Government.
Even better, Hollywood and the movie world have changed beyond all recognition.
Black women are now playing leading roles, defining whole movies, and quite rightly winning the biggest awards the industry has to offer.
In this article, we will outline our pick of the 20 Best Strong Black Women Movies.
Beyond the Lights
Beyond the Lights is a classic Hollywood rom-com directed by Gina Prince Bythewood and starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Noni Jean (Mbatha-Raw), a young black singer on the brink of stardom.
The pressures of the music industry take their toll on Noni and Kaz Nichol (Nate Parker), a young police officer who has political ambitions has to pull her back from the brink.
They embark on a relationship but face obstacles from all sides as both face pressure to keep their respective careers on track.
Beyond the Lights has a terrific support cast featuring the likes of Minnie Driver, Danny Glover, and Machine Gun Kelly.
But the star of the show is Mbatha-Raw who puts in a landmark performance as Noni and creates a leading role for a black female that is at the same time vulnerable and yet remarkably resilient.
Set It Off
Set it Off stars Jada Pinkett Smith, Queen Latifah, Vivica A. Fox and Kimberley Elise as four black women struggling to make ends meet who make the proactive decision to become bank robbers to support themselves and their families.
Initially, everything goes well with their crime spree. But, as with all bank robbers, there is a dogged cop on their trail. In this case, it just happens to be a detective who shot one of the lady’s brothers in a previous incident.
The loot starts to build, but so too do the tensions before the four friends ending in one final climactic heist and a thrilling conclusion.
The four black actresses in the leading roles all deliver barnstorming performances of characters showing tremendous strength in adversity.
The Princess and the Frog
The Princess and the Frog is an animated movie made by Disney. But it was also a seminal movie because it featured the first black Disney princess.
The role in question, Princess Tiana is voiced superbly by Anika Noni Rose supported by the likes of Keith David, Oprah Winfrey, Michael-Leon Wooley, and John Goodman.
The movie is a modern day retelling of the classic fairytale, The Frog Prince.
It tells the story of Tiana, a hardworking waitress who crosses paths with Prince Naveen, an arrogant Prince who is the opposite of her.
Naveen is turned into a frog by a voodoo magician and when Tiana kisses him, she too becomes an amphibian.
Cue a riotous adventure as, with the help of a trumpet-playing alligator, a Cajun firefly, and a blind lady who lives in a boat in a tree, Naveen and Tiana try to break the spell.
This is the movie that gave young black women and girls a role model in a genre that they have never been represented before. The importance of that cannot be overestimated.
It also happens to be one of my daughter’s favourites.
The Hate U Give
The Hate U Give is a dark American drama based on the young adult novel by Angie Thomas.
It tells the story of Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg) who witnesses the fatal shooting of Khalil (they were childhood friends) by police officers. It becomes a major news story, but Starr’s role as chief witness is kept quiet.
Starr is trapped between two worlds: the black community in which she lives and the mostly white wealthy prep school which she attends.
She will have to find her own voice and her own identity. Can Starr cope with keeping these two sides of her life separate and still do the right thing?
The Hate U Give highlights all the pressures young black women can face in a multicultural society. But in Starr, they are also given a morally upstanding role model they can all learn from.
Girls Trip is a high-energy, funny yet powerful movie which revolves around four black women going on a trip together.
The movie tells the tale of Ryan Pierce (Regina Hall) who is a lifestyle guru and is invited to speak at the Essence Festival. She decides to invite her former group of girlfriends, dubbed the Flossy Posse, and who have grown distant in recent times, on a girls trip to the event.
The rest of the group are Sasha (Queen Latifah), a former journalist who runs a struggling gossip site, Lisa (Jada Pinkett-Smith) a divorced nurse, and Dina (Tiffany Haddish), a party animal who has just been fired for assaulting a co-worker.
When Sasha gets a tip that Ryan’s husband is having an affair, the group ends up being thrown out of their plush hotel and forced to stay in a one star model frequented by prostitutes.
This is a movie packed with familiar faces and tells a story about tested friendships and loyalty with four nuanced and diverse characters and performances.
Cleopatra Jones is a blaxploitation movie from 1973 starring Tamara Dobson in the titular role.
Jones is a supermodel by day but also works as an undercover US Special Agent whose work involves trying to disrupt the drug trafficking industries in the US and overseas.
But after she burns a poppy field in Turkey, Jones finds she has an angry drug lord with a thirst for vengeance on her tail and is determined to get her revenge.
She uses corrupt cops to attack Jones’ partner’s home for recovering drug addicts. But Jones continues to chip away at her empire leading to a final showdown between the two.
This movie is an action film but it is also funny and moving in equal parts.
James Bond: Die Another Day
Die Another Day was the first film in this franchise in which the Bond girl, the vital role of James Bond’s love interest, was played by a black lady.
Halle Berry was the actress who became the first black girl to win Bond’s heart. Berry’s character, Jinx Johnson, is not just a bit of totty, but a strong American agent who helps Bond defeat the baddie rather than getting in the way.
Die Another Day was released in 2002, but the first black Bond girl could have been so much earlier. Diana Ross was slated to play the character of Solitaire in Live and Let Day, which was released back in 1973, but producers got cold feet and the role went to Jane Seymour.
Instead, the movie did feature Bond kissing a black woman (causing it to be banned in apartheid South Africa) but she wound up betraying him, meaning she was hardly a role model to black audiences.
Waiting to Exhale
Waiting to Exhale is a seminal 90s movie starring Angela Bassett and Whitney Houston in the leading roles.
It follows the lives of four African-American women from Pheonix, Arizona, as they try to deal with their lives and all the challenges they throw up.
They are pulled apart by everyday challenges but are united by their strong friendship and shared desire to find a good man.
When Bernadine (Bassett), who has given up her career to raise a family with her husband finds out that he is leaving her for a white woman he works with, she has a meltdown and destroys all his things. In retaliation, he drains their bank accounts.
Houston’s character Savannah realises that she is waiting for her married lover to leave his wife, but he never will.
Of the other two leads, Robin has dumped her married partner and is struggling to replace him while Gloria is dealing with the fact that her husband has come out as gay.
It is an emotional rollercoaster but with a happy ending and offers an insight into the suburban lives and lets you celebrate black women for their strength and indefatigability.
Monsters Ball is a hugely powerful tale, set in the Deep South, of a racist white man who falls in love with a black woman.
Hank Grotowski (Billy Bob Thornton) is a corrections officer who falls out with his son, Sonny (Heath Ledger) over the execution of convicted murderer Lawrence Musgrove (Sean ‘P Diddy’ Coombs).
Sonny dies and Hank quits and starts running a gas station where he meets single mother Letitia (Halle Berry) after a road accident in which her son dies.
They console each other and although Hank realises that she is the widow of a man he helped execute, they begin a relationship.
But there is turmoil when she finds out the truth and in the unaccepting community they live.
Berry’s portrayal of Letitia rightly earned her an Oscar nomination and the Academy Award for best actress, the first black woman to win the award in what is one of the best movies on this list.
The Jacksons: An American Dream
The Jackson family is a controversial topic for a film these days.
This TV mini-series (which is usually shown as a two-part film, so makes it onto this list) is based on the autobiography of the Jackson family Mum, Katherine, and so gives a compelling female view on the musical dynasty.
The role of Katherine was played by Angela Bassett (Black Panther) alongside a terrific ensemble cast.
The film tells the true story of how the Jacksons met and their family rose from entering talent shows and dreaming big to a recording contract with Motown records, Michael Jackson and his stratospheric fame, his relationship with his brothers and his fathers, and even a bit on the emergence of younger sister, Janet Jackson.
It’s compelling viewing but all of the focus that Joe Jackson has received over the years, good and bad, it is the fresh perspective of the Jackson’s Mum Katherine that makes this movie so special.
A Ballerina’s Tale
This movie is based on real life events around the rise to superstardom of Misty Copeland, the first prominent African American female soloist in the ballet world.
It is a documentary film which uses real footage of Copeland as a young girl in ballet classes all the way up to the top of the industry.
It tells the tales of the challenges she faced the reach the top and the injuries that ultimately ended her career.
There is no personal stuff in this movie, so we focus on the strength and determination that Copeland had to show to triumph in the face of adversity.
Daughters of the Dust
Daughters of the Dust was written, produced, and directed by Julie Dash.
It tells the story of three generations of the Gullah women as they migrate from Saint Helena to the Deep South and then to the north of the USA.
It is a visually stunning film with a powerful storyline, some standout performances from a terrific ensemble cast, and rightly received widespread critical acclaim.
But for all that, it deserves a place on this list because it was the first feature film made by a black female filmmaker to gain a general theatrical release. Truly a landmark moment for a very special film.
Beloved is a psychological horror movie starring Oprah Winfrey as a formerly enslaved person in the wake of the American Civil War.
It was based on the story written by Toni Morrison and weirdly bombed at the box office despite getting generally good reviews.
It is now highly regarded and Winfrey’s role, alongside Thandie Newton and Danny Glover, is exceptional. It is not a cheery film, featuring dark themes and some stark realities of what life was like for African American girls at this time.
But it is an important film about black womanhood and one everyone should see.
The Color Purple
The Colour Purple is a coming of age movie by Stephen Spielberg about a teenage African American girl (played by Whoopie Goldberg) who is subjected to a barrage of domestic abuse that reshapes her.
She survives thanks to the close bond she has with her sister and childhood friend. But when they meet Shug, a showgirl and her husband’s mistress, things change and the girls start to stand up for themselves, with different consequences for all of them.
This film was a big departure for Spielberg but brought a tale that was familiar to many in the black community, especially black women to the silver screen in a powerful drama.
Beasts of the Southern Wild
Beasts of the Southern Wild is a fantasy drama with a stand-out performance from a black actress starring in a film at an absurdly young age.
Quvenzhané Wallis was just six when she portrayed the role of Hushpuppy who lives in the bayou and has to cope with a hot-headed father with health problems, fire, floods, and a community on the brink of extinction.
It is a wonderous movie made all the better for Wallis’ incredible performance as the film chronicles the challenges many rural black communities face.
Lady Sings the Blues
Lady sings the Blues is a biographical drama about Billie Holliday starring Diana Ross as the famous jazz singer.
It was Ross’s screen debut alongside the likes of Billy Dee Williams, Richard Pryor, and Scatman Crothers.
It tells Holliday’s journey from a housekeeper and prostitute to music sensation as well as documenting her struggle with drugs and the law before her untimely death.
Billie Holliday was already an iconic figure in black pop culture but this film helped cement that place and didn’t do Diana Ross’ career much harm either.
What’s Love Got To Do With It?
Another epic biopic, this one based on the life of iconic singer Tina Turner.
The film stars Angela Bassett as Tina with Laurence Fishburn playing her abusive husband Ike.
It tells the full story from her childhood in rural Tennessee to global superstardom with domestic abuse, drugs, Buddhism, and everything else she encounters along the way, including having to battle to keep her own stage name.
Tina overcomes all the challenges she faces and achieves her dreams while Ike’s attempts to win her back fail.
The Secret Life of Bees
The Secret Life of Bees stars Queen Latifah as August Boatwright alongside Dakota Fanning, Jennifer Hudson, and Alicia Keys in a seminal movie by Gina Prince Bythewood.
It follows 14-year-old Lily Owen (Fanning), the main character, a neglected child whose mother has died and who is not close to her father.
She runs away with her caregiver Rosaleen (Hudson – who also has an Oscar for best actress in a supporting role) to a new life in a small South Carolina town that holds a secret about her late mother and her past.
There she is taken in by the Boatwright sisters and she finds solace in their world of beekeeping.
Quentin Tarantino’s epic crime drama starring Pam Grier and made when Tarantino was at the height of his powers.
But Grier is the star as flight attendant Brown, with a criminal past, who is arrested for drug smuggling and, under pressure to inform against her dealer, has to find a way to stay alive when trapped between the FBI and the underworld.
Grier was described by Tarantino as the first black woman action hero. He’s not wrong.
Hidden Figures tells the remarkable story of Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan, three black female mathematicians who worked at NASA during the space race in the 1960s.
They faced segregation but their abilities earned them the respect of their colleagues and their skills eventually led to them playing a crucial role in the US winning the race to the Moon.
Their roles were largely unknown until well into the 21st century.
Still, this film, starring three terrific black actresses, Taraji Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monae played a huge part in making them the role models for black women they absolutely should be and is one of the best movies in this list.