Play Hard

Films that changed the representation of black culture in Hollywood

Written by High Life North
Published 11.06.2020

By Christopher Kingston

Inspired by the Black Lives Matter protests happening around the world, we decided to take a look at some inspirational movies past and present that contributed to the visibility and representation of black culture in Hollywood.

The Color Purple -1985 

Based on the book of the same name by Alice Walker and directed by Steven Spielberg, The Color Purple follows Celie Harris, played by the brilliant Whoopi Goldberg, through her life in Georgia in the 1940s. Spanning 40 years of her life, the film shows the many problems faced by black women at the time, and Celie has to deal with racism, domestic violence and poverty and must overcome this while holding onto the hope that she will one day be reunited with her sister in Africa. 

Boyz N The Hood – 1991

Directed by the late John Singleton, this is a coming of age drama following the lives of three young boys as they turn into young adults. Set in South Central L.A, Boyz N The Hood looks at growing gang culture, drugs and crime. Starring Ice Cube as Doughboy, a drug dealer with no ambitions, Morris Chestnut as Ricky, Cuba Gooding Jr as Tre and Laurence Fishburne as Tre’s Father who attempts to teach the young generation about racial bias. This is a powerful story, decades after its release it still casts a light on the struggles the black community faces to survive.

Precious – 2009

Adapted from the 1996 novel Push by Sapphire, Precious (Gabourey Sidibe) is a young woman struggling against poverty and abuse, who becomes pregnant by her own father for the second time. Unable to read or write, Precious takes the chance to turn her life around and escape the abuse she’s suffered. Starring Mariah Carey as Precious’s social worker who supports her during her struggles, and directed by Lee Daniels, this is a story of finding courage in the face of despair. 

The Help – 2011      

Based on the book of the same name by Kathryn Stockett, the story is about a young white woman and journalist (played by Emma Stone) and her relationship with two black maids played by Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer. Set during the Civil Rights Movement in 1963, she decides to write a book from the maid’s point of view and expose the racism they are faced with working for white families. 

Fruitvale Station – 2013

Waking up on New Year’s Eve 2008, 22-year old Oscar Grant attempts to make a head start on his New Year’s resolutions as he crosses paths with his family and friends on a quest to be a better man, but after boarding a train home it leads to a shocking tragedy that is about to shake his community. The debut film from Black Panther director Ryan Coogler.

Selma – 2014

Ava DuVemay’s third film she tackles the subject of Martin Luther King, Jr. (David Oyelowo) as he leads a campaign to secure historic rights for the black community in Selma, Alabama, in 1965. Special attention is given to his supporters who aided him in his battle during the march on Edmund Pettus Bridge, which gets worse when they are attacked by the police. Powerful and as relevant today as ever given the similar protests that are happening, Selma illustrates just how little has changed in the last 60 years.  

Straight Outta Compton – 2015

This biopic follows the lives of members of rap group N.W.A. as they draw a spotlight to the gang violence and police brutality that affects the black members of communities around the country. One of the most recognisable ‘gangsta rap’ groups in the world, N.W.A. became famous when their song “F**k tha Police” provoked the FBI to contact their record label, citing it misleading about police officers and police brutality. Straight Outta Compton gives a raw and honest look at the struggles the black community faced in the 80s and bears an uncomfortable similarity to today’s treatment of them.

Hidden Figures – 2016

Another incredible true story that went untold, we follow three black women working for NASA played by Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae, who were the brains behind the greatest operation in history – sending an astronaut into space. This amazing achievement inspired the world to dream big and shows how the three women had to fight to get the recognition they deserved. 

Black Panther – 2018 

Black Panther is one of the first black superheroes. Based on the Marvel Comic character and first introduced in the movie Captain America Civil War, Chadwick Boseman plays T’Challa, who’s crowned the king of Wakanda after his father’s death. Challenged for the throne by Killmonger (Michael B Jordan), this is the first Marvel film with a predominantly black cast which includes Daniel Kaluuya, Lupita Nyong’o, Angela Bassett and Forest Whitaker. Directed by Ryan Coogler, this made history as the first-ever superhero film nominated for best picture at that year’s Oscars – even though it didn’t win, it does raise the debate about what needs to be done for equality at the Oscars, which has been under fire over the last few years for being a mainly white affair.

Harriet – 2019 

Based on the inspirational life of Harriet Tubman (played by Cynthia Erivo, who was nominated for best actress at the 2020 Academy Awards) and her escape from slavery. She went on to become a freedom fighter, freeing hundreds of slaves changing the course of history. There is such strength on display in this film and the cinematography is stunning – a must-watch if you haven’t seen it.  

 When They See Us – 2019 

 We’ve broken the rules here and included a four-part miniseries that aired on Netflix. When They See Us tells the story of the Central Park Five – now known as the Exonerated Five – and focuses on the lives of five black teenagers accused of a rape they hadn’t committed as white police officers coerce false confessions from them and put them on trial. Powerful and provocative, this is another must-watch.


Just Mercy – 2019

Based on a powerful true story, Michael B Jordan plays young lawyer Bryan Stevenson and follows his battle for justice as he defends Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), a man sentenced to death despite evidence that proves his innocence.

Queen & Slim – 2020

A young black couple are on the run after shooting a white police officer in self-defence. Starring rising stars Daniel Kalunya and Jodie Turner Smith, this film takes a look at how the world chooses to view black people – some call them monsters and others a modern Bonnie & Clyde – and you find yourselves rooting for Queen & Slim.

Other stories by High Life North
A month in the life of Laura KIngston - editor of High Life North magazine

A month in the life of our editor – November

High Life North
Bistro Greggs Fenwick Newcastle Pop Up Fine Dining Restaurant

Bistro Greggs launches at Fenwick Newcastle

High Life North
Three Mile Gosforth

Christmas is coming at Three Mile, Gosforth. Here are the dates for your diary

High Life North
Pizza Dough Co at Three Mile in Gosforth

Pizza Dough Co at Three Mile in Gosforth is the family-friendly neighbourhood eatery with a new menu to check out

High Life North
Derwent Manor Hotel

A Christmas market, baking with elves and NYE in a Tipi – the festive events at Derwent Manor Hotel this 2023

High Life North
Rest at the Nest County Durham Staycation Lodges

Rest at the Nest – a perfect couple’s staycation in County Durham

High Life North