By Aswad Walker
As Blackfolk, we love us some music, live, recorded, remixed, chopped & screwed, etc. We also love movies about music. And over the decades, there have been many to spotlight the Black music experience.
Here are what I consider to be the top 10 all-time music-based Black movies. And feel free to let me know just how on-point and correct my list is.
#10: TIE between Cadillac Records & Get on Up… Cadillac Records, like so many of the movies on this list, has a monster cast, including Beyonce (Etta James), Jeffrey Wright (Muddy Waters), Mos Def (Chuck Berry), Eamonn Walker (Howlin’ Wolf), Gabrielle Union, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Cedric the Entertainer and Columbus Short. This period piece shines a deserving light on Black music of the 1950s and 60s that was not part of the Motown sound. And what can we say about Get on Up? The late, great Chadwick Boseman, who incredibly captured the essence of Thurgood Marshall, Jackie Robinson and King T’Challa/Black Panther was so nice with his that he was also able to literally become the “hardest working man in show business, Mr. Please-Please-Please, Mr. Dynamite, Soul Brother Number One, the Godfather of Soul,” James Brown, himself! And check out this supporting cast: Viola Davis, Jill Scott, Octavia Spencer, Craig Robinson, Tika Sumpter (Lord, Lord), Black Thought, Aunjanue Ellis, Keith Robinson, Aloe Blacc, Dan Aykroyd. And probably most important… all R&B, Soul, Neo-Soul, Funk, etc. trace their roots back to the musical genius of James Brown. The Godfather of Soul doesn’t get enough credit for his musical innovations!
#9: Dreamgirls is the big screen version of the Broadway smash hit play that tells the story of Motown without actually telling the story of Motown. Beyonce, Jennifer Hudson, Anika Noni Rose, Sharon Leal, Jamie Foxx, Danny Glover and original Dreamgirl, Houstonian Loretta Devine all do the d*mn thing on screen. Not to mention Eddie Murphy, who made his dramatic acting debut and got nominated for an Oscar… which he should have won.
#8: The Wiz was one of those moments for the culture. But it was so much more than a moment. I know folk who watch this musical extravaganza at least once a year. Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Nipsey Russell, Mabel King, Richard Pryor and the iconic Lena Horne are just a few of the stars that make this musical masterpiece shine. So, go ‘head and “ease on down the road” and check it out for yourself.
#7: Lady Sings the Blues is one of those movies that’ll have parents of Millennials and Gen Zers saying “Y’all don’t know ‘nuthin’ ‘bout that, see.” And they don’t, unless they’ve been blessed to have parents who made them watch this powerful movie that had Blackfolk playing leads before that was a regular occurrence. And this 1972 film starred two of the biggest Black stars of their era: Diana Ross and Billy Dee Williams, a pair who would later make another classic together, Mahogany, three years later. And check out this bonus greatness. Isabel Sanford (Weezy on The Jeffersons), Richard Pryor and Scatman Crothers (Y’all don’t know ‘nuthin’ ‘bout that) also grace the screen in this biopic about the life of the legendary Billie Holiday. And FYI… The United States vs. Billie Holiday starring Andra Day was powerful, as well.
#6: Ray is incredible for many reasons, not the least of which is the incredible, Oscar-winning performance by Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles. And don’t sleep on the performances by Regina King, Kerry Washington, Aunjanue Ellis and Clifton Powell.
#5: Sparkle, the original made in 1976 and starring Irene Cara and Philip Michael Thomas, is one of my favorite movies of all time. It has everything: drama, intrigue, an up-and-down love story, family drama, Black reality, a comeback for the ages and some of the best onscreen music ever, thanks to the late greats Aretha Franklin and Curtis Mayfield. As well, I loved the 2012 remake of Sparkle and appreciated the changes they made to the story. But that original, with Sister as the lead singer, joined by Deloris and Sparkle. Lord have mercy! And I know I’m sounding like a broken record, but the casts were insane: Lonette McKee, Mary Alice, Tony King, Dwan Smith and Dorian Harewood in the original, and Jordin Sparks, Carmen Ejogo, Tika Sumpter, Whitney Houston, Derek Luke, Mike Epps, Omari Hardwick, etc. in the remake.
#4: Brown Sugar here is ranked fourth, but really, it, like all these movies, are neck-and-neck to me. Brown Sugar is not only a love letter to old school hip-hop. It’s not only a romantic comedy (a genre I have to admit, I’m a sucker for). It’s also a movie with a soundtrack that’s Oscar-worthy all by itself. And the way the movie pits commercialized music vs. the real-real, it will have you screaming every time “Cav” (Mos Def) blesses the mic.
#3: The Five Heartbeats, according to my wife, is one of those movies I watch every single time it comes on. And she’s right. The crazy thing is, the first time I saw it, I thought it was just okay. But by the second or third time I saw it, I was hooked. There’s so much history that this movie highlights in this fictional tale that it’s a must-see just for that. And if you’re Generation X like me (or older), you know several groups that made that transition from doo-wop to R&B to disco and beyond. This has to be one of the most quoted movies of all time, with so many memorable lines, you feel like calling Big Red on anyone who dares misquote any of Duck’s or Eddie Kane’s words.
#2: Mo Betta Blues is one of Spike Lee’s most under-appreciated masterpieces. The star-power alone in this movie is ridiculous: Denzel Washington, Samuel L. Jackson, Wesley Snipes, Bill Nunn, Giancarlo Esposito, Abbey Lincoln, Robin Harris, John Turturro, Ruben Blades, Spike Lee, Charlie Murphy, Branford Marsalis and more. Visually, this is a gorgeous film. And as a brother, I appreciate the real interactions it shows between brothers. And it’s one of the few films where we actually see a grown Black man (Denzel) interacting with his grown father (“Big Stop Williams” played by legendary character actor Dick Anthony Williams). But it’s the music that takes this beautiful story over the top. You don’t even have to like jazz to appreciate this film that celebrates America’s classical music and the Black people and experiences that gave birth to it.
#1: Purple Rain. Prince. The Revolution. The Time. Apollonia 6. Minneapolis. The 80s. What else need be said? Over the years I’ve realized that Purple Rain highlighted a lot of dysfunction and trauma, namely the generational curses brought on by abuse (physical, verbal and otherwise). But the way that trauma served as the backdrop to the coming-of-age story of The Kid and the reality of friendly yet cut-throat competition between bands and the quest for fame or finding one’s voice, made this a movie that covered the gamut of the Black experience (i.e. the human experience). But even if the movie didn’t have all of that, it would have made this list simply by giving the world a front-row seat to the greatest band to ever bless the stage—THE TIME. “Chili Sauce!”