episodic list articles by Corey B. Buckner

The 5 Best: Black Films of the 90s

by Corey B. Buckner

Let me say up front that I am fully prepared to have other people disagree with my list. That is the beauty of these types of lists; everyone has different tastes and interests, and we all remember the impact of things like films differently. As such, this is MY list of the top 5 black films of the 90s, and I encourage you, if you are so inclined to, to share YOUR list with me in the comments.

The 90s was a golden era for black films in America as black Americans had grown past the Blaxploitation films of the 70s and begun taking control and telling our own stories in our own voices. Thanks in large part to the pre-woke masterpieces given to us by talented writers and directors like Robert Townsend in the 1980s, we had arrived in the 90s both empowered and inspired to raise our voices on film and start telling the world about the Black American experience in a way that properly represented black America instead of exploiting it. In the 1990s, writers and directors like Spike Lee, Keenan Ivory Wayans, John Singleton and the Hughes Brothers changed the theater landscape forever and provided some absolutely classic films in the process. Here is my list of the best of them.

5. Menace II Society

"Man, I got these cheeseburgers, they some double cheeseburgers". O Dog and Kane blew my mind in 1993. As you all know, I grew up in the suburbs and I was somewhat sheltered from that the realities of life in the inner city. Honestly, when I first saw Menace II Society I thought it was an aggrandize version of life in South Central LA, That was until a few years later when my friend Ramone moved into town from that region of LA and verified its authenticity. When I was younger I didn't like that the movie didn't end on an upbeat or redeeming note; but as I got older and graduated from a Disney viewpoint of the world; my appreciation for the way the film ends became much more. The soundtrack to this movie was hot as well, with 1993 being right in the middle of an era in which a good soundtrack was essential to the success of black movies.

For many in my generation, this was our proper introduction to Larenz Tate aka Power's Rashad Tate. It was also the first introduction to The Hughes Brothers for many of us as well. All-in-all, Menace II Society was an eye-opening, era-defining cultural movement for me and many other male teens in my community and around the country.

4. Above the Rim

Another contender for best movie soundtrack of the 90s, the 1994 film Above the Rim is as memorable for the music that accompanied it as the performances put in by Tupac Shakur, Duane Martin, Bernie Mac, Marlon Wayans and others. But let's be honest; with no disrespect for the stars of this film; it is the work of SWV, H-Town, Aaron Hall, Warren G and others that has etched the memory of this film so favorably in our collective memories. I mean, this movie introduced us to, "Regulators… mount up!" and SWV's "Anything" which is one of the hottest, upbeat, female R&B group songs of the 90s. As you can see, I can't say enough about this film's music. This wasn't a compilation of old joints that the filmmakers knew we would already like; these were NEW or semi-new songs! I have so much respect for that.

But, I don't want to take away too much from the work that Duane Martin and Tupace put in. The story itself can stand on its own merit, that being of a rising High School basketball star's relationship with a neighborhood drug dealer. But, if I'm being 100% honest; this film is on my list because of how perfectly the music enhanced the story of the at a time when film-accompanying music was absolutely essential. Seriously, I dare you to go and put that soundtrack on right now. I promise you that you won't be able to turn it off until the album finishes. Even then, you might hit repeat and listen to it all over again.

3. Boyz N The Hood

Boyz in the Hood was my introduction to 90s movies about the perils of black, inner city life; and I couldn't have found a better place to start. My older sister took me to the local Dollar Movie Theater to see this, telling me that I needed to see it. I didn't know anything about the movie going in, but after seeing Boyz in the Hood, I would never forget what I had seen. There are so many memorable moments in this film like Tre Styles fighting the air or being asked if he'd teach a ‘fly honey' to drive stick.

In Boyz in the Hood we found out that Ice Cube could act due to his masterful portrayal of the adult Dougboy in a cast that also includes Morris Chestnut, Nia Long, Angela Bassett, Regina King and Laurence Fishburn. For those still wondering, the "knucklehead" driving the red car was not Chris Tucker. The actor that played him was named Lloyd Avery II and he passed away in 2005. This movie, like Menace II Society introduced the rest of the country to the realities of life in South Central California; a reality that many of us were not fully aware of. It was a master class of taking viewers on an emotional rollercoaster that was perfectly summed up when Doughboy closed out the film saying, "Either they don't know, don't show, or don't care about what's going on in the hood."

2. Mo Better Blues

"A little bit of mo' betta makes it mo' betta'. If I'm being honest, this whole list could be comprised of Spike Lee Joints; but I've decided to pick just one out of respect for the impact that the other films on this list had on me. Imagine me in 1990, at the age of twelve, laying on the floor in front of my parents and their best friends pretending NOT to watch the steamy love scenes between Denzel Washington, Joie Lee and Cynda Williams. Let's just say, there was a lot of squinted eyes peeking through the loosely positioned fingers that covered them. Mo Better Blues was everything to me. I played the trombone at the time, and Jazz was my preferred music to play. But, even though I was a talented trombone player; the trumpet was my favorite instrument. I love that jazz trumpet sound.

The story of a musician who put his music above everyone and everything was powerful, and the score composed by Bill Lee was captivating. I still listen to it now. If you have a moment, go look at the cast list for the film and see how deeply it was laced with black excellence. Also, a great Easter Egg that I've learned many people missed was a very timely faint drop of, "Kenny G," in the background of one of the scenes. I won't tell you where it is if you don't know already, but I do encourage you to watch the film and see if you can catch it. It's a brilliant drop. Although my absolute favorite Spike Lee Joint was released in 2000 so it couldn't be included in this list; Mo Better Blues was my favorite film by Lee for nearly a decade, and is still as good today as it was then.

1. Jason's Lyric

I... do... not... Care if you disagree with me, Allen Payne, Jada Pinkett, Bokeem Woodbine and Treach KILLED IT in this film. The love story in Jason's Lyric is heartfelt, and I challenge you to find another one like it in black cinema in the 90s. It was pure and respectful, and passionate without being raunchy. The view of the south hit's me in a "down home" place and makes me think about visiting my Granny and Grandad in Alabama as a kid. This film built up in a way that made me really cheer hard for Jason and Lyric to overcome the troubles of their environment and find a way to be together. This was one of the first films that NEARLY made me shed a tear at its conclusion, which is something that none of the other films on this list came close to doing.

There isn't one single thing about this movie that I do not like, and even today, any time I stumble across it on cable or streaming services I will stop what I'm doing to watch. I have a definite slant for pure love stories, and seeing Jason's determination to be with Lyric, and his willingness to do whatever it takes to be with the woman he wanted had a definite impact on how I approach relationships even today in my marriage. This film for me is black excellence at its most excellent; and a fitting choice for the top spot on my list of best black films of the 90s.

That's it, and I'd love to hear what you think about my list. I'd also love to hear from you on what YOUR list looks like.

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