Twenty Twenty-One was a great year for films. In the face of an ongoing pandemic, the movie industry managed to still release a number of films across genres that were well-received, whether critically and/or commercially. Some of those films happened to be sequels to beloved ’90s horror movie franchises, while others were documentaries that uncovered an important historical moment in Black American music. Whether you watched some of these safely in the confines of your home or socially-distanced in a movie theater, these were the 10 best films of 2021.
Audiences had been waiting for a long time for Nia Decosta and Jordan Peele’s Candyman after its original June 2020 release date was delayed three times because of the COVID-19 pandemic — and it was well worth the wait. A sequel to the 1992 slasher film, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II stars as Anthony McCoy, an artist struggling to find his next inspiration while living with his art gallerist girlfriend (the always-charming Teyonah Parris; bonus points for two dark-skinned leads!) in a gentrifying Chicago. The couple live in a community that was once terrorized by Candyman, a paranormal, hook-handed murderer who was said to appear and kill his victims if they said his name five times. When Anthony begins to channel the legend of Candyman into his work, he unintentionally becomes his next vessel. The movie is more gruesome than scary and it can be easy to get lost among all its twists and turns and flashbacks. But its strengths lie in how it blends real-life issues of gentrification, white gate-keeping, and police violence with all the guts and gore you’d expect from a horror film.
For years, Black audiences have pushed for movies that didn’t rely on Black trauma: more sci-fi, more romcoms, and fewer slave narratives. Their calls were answered in 2021 with Concrete Cowboy, Netflix’s family drama about a rebellious teenager who is sent to live with his estranged father. Concrete Cowboy premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 13, 2020, but wasn’t available to stream until 2021. The movie takes its title from the communities of Black urban cowboys across the U.S., and even calls on real members of Philadelphia’s Fletcher Street riding community to play supporting characters. Idris Elba and Caleb McLaughlin are sincere and heartbreaking as a father and son duo struggling to understand each other and heal past wounds. The final act is weighed down by a somewhat stereotypical plot development involving a “friend-from-the-wrong-side-of-the-tracks” (a mistake in writing to no fault of actor Jharrell Jerome, whose star power shines as bright as ever), but it’s a moving, family-friendly movie about the power of community that’s a refreshing change of pace.
Although this film had a limited release in 2020, One Night in Miami graced most screens at home in 2021 from Amazon Studios. It’s a fictionalized retelling of a meeting between Muhammad Ali (Eli Goree), Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), and Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) in 1964. The men, real-life friends, are celebrating Ali’s win over Sonny Liston at the Hampton House in Miami, guarded by Nation of Islam security. In her directorial debut, Regina King wisely keeps this film in a time capsule, focusing on each man on the precipice of a major change: Malcolm X leaving the Nation of Islam, Muhammad Ali changing his name from Cassius Clay, Jim Brown retiring from the NFL to pursue acting, and Sam Cooke releasing “A Change Is Gonna Come.” Each performance here is stellar, with the actors finding their way around the sometimes stagey limitations of a film adapted from a play. As the men bicker like siblings and make up as fast as they fight, they push the audience to ask ourselves what we expect from our idols, heroes, and leaders, and what is their responsibility to us?
A quick weekend getaway goes wrong when a waitress accompanies an exotic dancer, her boyfriend, and a mysterious “roommate” on a money-making trip to Florida, only to quickly realize the trip is much more than she signed up for. Another 2020 film that was pushed because of COVID-19, Zola is based on the viral Twitter story that invented threads before threads were a thing. It’s equal parts hilarious and visually stunning with creative editing, and good pacing and story structure. Zola feels like a mix between a Tyler Perry thriller, an indie arthouse drama, and a dark comedy that, in lesser hands, would feel cringey and overstimulating. But thanks to the intentional direction of Janicza Bravo (with a thoughtful script co-written by Jeremy O. Harris), Zola sticks the landing with lots of uncomfortable laughs along the way.
A star-studded cast comes together for a fantastical romp in the Old West. The best part of this film is how it subverts the traditional Western genre, taking real-life cowboys and outlaws but reimagining them, resulting in one of the few Westerns with a primarily Black cast. This is a movie where everyone pulls their weight: Jonathan Majors as Nat Love, Idris Elba as Rufus Buck, Regina King as Trudy Smith, and more. It’s a stylish and energetic time, as fast-paced as the pistol-whipping fight sequences that take place throughout (particularly between Love and Buck’s team of sharp-shooters that culminates in the end of the two’s long-fought and bitter rivalry). Unfortunately, the film disappointed some when it cast fair-skinned, biracial German-American actress Zazie Beetz to play the plus-sized, dark-skinned legend, Stagecoach Mary. In spite of this, the movie is saved by being playful and imaginative, one of two films this year paying true homage to the under-tapped history of Black cowboys.
A thoroughly buoyant film, King Richard finds Will Smith at the peak of his powers as he plays a Compton father raising two future world-renowned athletes: Venus and Serena Williams. Here, Smith gets to tap into his comedic timing in a way we haven’t seen in years, and delivers monologue after gut-wrenching monologue that just knocks the wind out of you. And best of all, he’s evenly matched with Aunjanue Ellis (excellent in HBO’s Lovecraft Country) as the Williams matriarch. Those familiar with the legendary tennis duo’s rise to fame in the ’90s and 2000s will enjoy many of the scene-by-scene reenactments from this once-in-a-lifetime story. And for others learning for the first time, it’s a heartfelt family drama that manages to touch on racism, pressure, and sacrifice.
Most everyone has heard of 1969’s Woodstock, but Questlove’s documentary Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) depicts the lesser-known (but equally impactful) Harlem Cultural Festival of the same year. The doc is heavy on the archival footage, restoring decades-old clips of performances from Nina Simone, Gladys Knight and the Pips, and Stevie Wonder with breathtaking color and clarity. The doc also tracks down attendees and performers alike, as they all reminisce about that memorable summer in Harlem. It’s a great educational journey for folks who might be hearing about this historic event for the first time, and it masterfully connects the Civil Rights Movement of the past to the one in our present day.
Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield prove why they’re two of the biggest stars of their generation as Chicago Black Panther leader Fred Hampton and William O’Neal (the man who would eventually betray him), respectively, in Judas and the Black Messiah. The combined brilliance of Shaka King, the Lucas brothers, and Will Berson brings this story to life with an electrifying script, and a powerful message of racial justice that rings true now more than ever. This is one of the first films, and perhaps the most notable, to chronicle the short life of Hampton. It also does the important work of painting a true picture of the Black Panther Party, one that shows the group in their fullness — from community outreach like the party’s Free Breakfast for Children program to the Rainbow Coalition, a multiracial movement that united working class organizers like the white Southern Young Patriots and the Latino-led Young Lords.
A prison drama unlike any other, Night of Kings displays the power of the West African oral tradition with breathtaking stakes and dazzling visuals. Philippe Lacôte’s fantasy takes viewers into a fictionalized account of the notorious La Maca prison on the Ivory Coast, where Bakary Koné is the latest inmate. Here, the prison is run by the prisoners and the ruler of them all is the ailing Dangôro Blackbeard, who is being pressured to leave his post. To stall the prison uprising, he appoints Koné’s character as the facility’s new Roman, a griot or storyteller in West African cultures. But what this new Roman doesn’t know is that if the story ends, he dies. This movie is magical and gritty with a clear knowledge of Ivory Coast politics, blending fable with fact for a thoroughly out-of-body experience.
Based on the novel by Nella Larson, Passing is a quietly poignant film that explores the choices that shape our lives. Irene is a well-to-do Black wife in 1920s Harlem whose life is flipped upside down by the return of her childhood friend, Clare, who is now passing for white. A Netflix original, this movie is one of the few mainstream films to explore colorism, Black elitism, and what it means to be white-passing. Is Blackness solely determined by genotype or phenotype? Ancestry? Or is it about shared experience, socialization, culture? A mix of them all? It’s like that thought experiment of a tree falling in a forest: if no one knows you’re Black, are you still Black? Tessa Thompson plays Irene with a fluster of anxiety and repression, and although Ruth Negga’s racial passability was much-debated, her Clare is like a black widow: both beguiling and untrustworthy. The tension consistently amps up as the movie goes on, and it even subtly includes the homerotic undertones of the book that some critics and scholars have overlooked. Passing will keep you on the edge of your seat with an ending that’s unforgettable.
Noëlle D. Lilley is a southern California native learning to appreciate seasons. She is an alum of the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York, and the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, and a member of the National Association of Black Journalists. She cut her reporting teeth in Bakersfield, CA; Phoenix, AZ; and Washington D.C., where she covered the 2018 Thousand Oaks shooting, 2017 Congressional Baseball shooting, and other national stories, as well as hyperlocal stories that speak to equity, representation, and social justice. Her work can be found in the Chicago Reader, theGrio, CNN, The Nation, Arizona PBS, BKLYNER, amNewYork, and elsewhere. She lives in New York City where she works as a television reporter for News 12 Networks, and is working on her first novel.
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