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20 Iconic Movies That Showcase Black Love Stories

Here are 20 films with Black leads that shattered Hollywood's glass ceiling and decided to love anyway.

by Kristin Corry and DeAsia Paige
Jul 19 2019, 2:31pm

Collage by Hunter French | Movie posters via New Line Cinema, Fox Searchlight Pictures and A24

When Lena Waithe premiered the trailer for Queen & Slim, a romantic drama, at this year's BET Awards, it opened the door for a discussion on the way society approaches Black love.

The Melina Matsoukas-directed film follows Queen and Slim, a couple whose first date takes a dark turn when they're pulled over by an aggressive police officer. What should be a routine stop turns physical, and Slim shoots the police officer, killing him in self-defense. The couple flees the scene and the inevitable fate that follows having white blood on Black hands in America, falling in love on the run. Some have described Queen & Slim as the "Black Bonnie & Clyde," the same way others plastered "a hip When Harry Met Sally" on the 1997 film Love Jones. When it comes to watching Black love on-screen, there is an overwhelming preoccupation with comparing Black stories to existing white films.

None of the highest grossing romantic comedies of all time center on two Black leading characters, and there's a shortage of love stories that find Black people in a love as pure as Noah and Allie's in The Notebook, or Rose and Jack's in The Titanic. When Nora Ephron's 1989 blockbuster When Harry Met Sally kicked off the romantic comedy boom in the 90s, it was natural that Black filmmakers wanted to rework the formula to reflect their own communities. But their work was siloed; they weren't just romantic films, but Black romantic films. Last year, writer Soraya Roberts examined the history of Black love stories as a genre. "Nora Ephron and Nancy Meyers became Gina Prince-Bythewood and Malcolm D. Lee," she wrote. “Meg Ryan and Julia Roberts became Sanaa Lathan and Queen Latifah." The mainstream's exclusive fixation on the love lives of white characters (while implicitly placing a quota on Black ones) has contributed to the rhetoric that real love is reserved for some and not others.

The Black love story has evolved from singular, nuanced characters of the 90s (Love Jones) and the bloated ensemble casts of the past decade (Jumping the Broom) to the most modern additions to the genre, many of which use contemporary socio-politics as a backdrop. Whether you want to catch up on the best Black love stories before the release of Queen & Slim this November, or are celebrating The Wood's 20th anniversary, you may need a refresher course. So here's an exhaustive list of some of the best romantic comedies and dramas that show just how resilient Black love can be.

Coming to America (1988)

Some may debate that Eddie Murphy's Coming to America doesn't qualify as a romantic comedy, but why else would Prince Akeem (Eddie Murphy) travel from his fictional African kingdom Zamunda all the way to Queens to find Akeem's queen-to-be? The 1988 film finds Akeem downplaying his royal status to work at McDowell's (a knock-off McDonald's) in an attempt to impress the owner's daughter, Lisa (Shari Headley). His interest in Lisa is tested when he tries to win her over without his riches and shift her attention from the tall, handsome man with a Jheri curl—which, if you know anything about 1988, is a big deal. — Kristin Corry

Boomerang (1992)

Boomerang transformed Eddie Murphy from class clown to high power executive Marcus Graham. Marcus is the epitome of a ladies' man; he has access to anything he wants, and the power to make any woman fall for him—until he meets Jacqueline (Robin Givens), who shares everything that makes Marcus desirable, including plenty of charm. Their tryst leaves Marcus heartbroken and he finds himself in the arms of his close friend, Angela (Halle Berry), and it's the first time Marcus is expected to be emotionally available to a woman he's dating. — KC

Poetic Justice (1993)

The John Singleton-directed film personifies the marriage of R&B and hip-hop with the accidental love story of Justice (Janet Jackson) and Lucky (Tupac Shakur). An impromptu road trip to Oakland gives them the opportunity to learn each other's quirks and tics, but Lucky's mail truck can't house both of their egos. Over the course of the trip, Lucky and Justice realize they share the grief that living and losing in South Central can bring, and they still carry the residue of what it means to continue life once a loved one is murdered. For a film riddled with sexual innuendos (and two sex symbols of the 90s), Justice and Lucky's story leans heavily on a more innocent intimacy. The two don't share more than a kiss. — KC

Jason's Lyric (1994)

Set in the heat of Houston, Jason (Allen Payne) and Lyric's (Jada Pinkett-Smith) romance is like a Shakespearean tragedy: A couple finds love despite the blood spilled between their families. When Jason and Lyric's gang-affiliated brothers plan to rob a bank together to escape their environment, the couple is left to searching for a getaway of their own. Marti (Lisa Carlson), a friend of Lyric's, tells her she's found "quiet in a world full of thunder" with Jason. The film establishes that love can still exist amid chaos. — KC

The Inkwell (1994)

Drew (Larenz Tate) is your average 16-year-old who has a vision for an epic summer vacation. His parents, however, have other plans—like a summer spent at their wealthy, Republican in-laws’ house on Martha's Vineyard during the summer of 1976. The Inkwell, the spot where middle-class Black families vacation in the summer, is a culture shock for not only Drew but his father Kenny (Joe Morton), a former Black Panther. The Inkwell is a coming-of-age story that explores how Drew's growth is affected by the women he meets on the beach. — KC

Waiting to Exhale (1995)

Savannah (Whitney Houston), Bernadine (Angela Bassett), Gloria (Loretta Divine), and Robin (Lela Rochon) couldn't be a more diverse set of friends when it comes to their careers and personal lives, but the quartet have a love of wine and frustrations with dating in common. The film chronicles the ups and downs of four women who are looking for a love they deserve rather than one they settle for. Forest Whitaker's directorial debut is a candid portrayal of Black womanhood, and what it means to search for the moment when you can finally let go. — KC

A Thin Line Between Love & Hate (1996)

Darnell Wright (Martin Lawrence) has one rule when it comes to dealing with women: "Never tell them you love them." All of that changes when he tries to woo Brandi Web (Lynn Whitfield) a wealthy, hard-to-get woman who isn't settling for anything less than love. It doesn't take long for Darnell to regret lying about his love for Brandi, especially when she reveals she killed her ex-husband. The film, named after the 1971's hit by The Persuaders, is the epitome of the cat-and-mouse chase—but Darnell didn't expect to be the one running. — KC

Love Jones (1997)

First time-director Theodore Witcher established Chicago's renaissance when he wrote Love Jones. Nina Moseley (Nia Long) and Darius Lovehall (Larenz Tate) don't just flirt; they speak in the language of Gordon Parks, Sonia Sanchez, and Charlie Parker. What they're doing isn't a love thing, as Darius puts it. They're "just kickin' it." When Moseley takes a trip to New York to visit her ex-fiancé, the two learn their feelings are deeper than they realized. It isn't a romantic comedy without a chase, and Darius even manages to make his sprint through Union Station in a leather trench coat and dress shoes look effortless. — KC

How Stella Got Her Groove Back (1998)

In film, Black women are usually forced to make a choice between their careers or their love lives. Stella Payne (Angela Bassett) chose the former—until she meets Winston Shakespeare (Taye Diggs), a Jamaican local, while on a much-needed vacation. There's only one problem: at 40, Stella is twice Winston's age, and it wouldn't be that much of a problem if she didn't get mistaken for his mother at the bar. The film, based on the Terry McMillan novel, shows Stella and Winston showing up for one another despite distance, grief, and a significant age gap. — KC

The Best Man (1999)

Harper Stewart (Taye Diggs) is on top of the world after his debut novel Unfinished Business is selected for Oprah Winfrey's coveted book club. But that all changes when an upcoming wedding reunites old friends. Harper's former college crush, Jordan Armstrong (Nia Long), gets her hands on an advanced copy of the book, passing it on to members of the wedding party. The trouble is, Unfinished Business mirrors their undergrad experience so much, the close-knit friends are able to see themselves (and their secrets) in its pages. — KC

The Wood (1999)

Roland (Taye Diggs), Slim (Richard T. Jones), and Mike (Omar Epps) are three childhood friends who recount various moments they've shared while growing up together in Inglewood, California. When Roland gets cold feet on his wedding day, they reflect on how their brotherhood might change because of Roland's marriage, and the friends travel down memory lane to explore their various misadventures as teens growing up in the 80s which include silly middle school bets; run-ins with a local gang member; and, of course, their early experiences with girls. But it's Mike's crush on Alicia (Malinda Williams) that takes center stage and makes the Ricky Famuyiwa-directed coming-of-age film a highly celebrated Black love story, along with one of the most vivid depictions of Black brotherhood on-screen. — DeAsia Paige

Love and Basketball (2000)

Quincy (Omar Epps) has his eyes set on a pro basketball career, and Monica is the girl-next-door tomboy who also hopes to make it to the NBA, despite the obstacles presented by her gender. Set in Los Angeles, the film follows the lives of the two neighbors as their mutual passion for basketball grows into a romantic relationship off the court. However, Quincy's ego and family issues get in the way of the relationship, which ultimately leads to them breaking up. Although the signs are clear that Quincy and Monica shouldn't be in a relationship, the film somehow ends with them playing a basketball game for their love. Nevertheless, Gina Prince-Bythewood's directorial debut paints a hopeful image of love surviving life's harsh realities. — DP

Two Can Play That Game (2001)

Shanté Smith (Vivica A. Fox) is the friend with all of the answers. She is the voice of reason for her circuit of girlfriends, because her relationship with her boyfriend Keith Fenton (Morris Chestnut) seems picture perfect—until she finds him at the club with another woman. Looking to "teach him a lesson" and to prove a point to her friends, Shanté and Keith find themselves in a battle to see who will put their pride aside first. — KC

The Brothers (2001)

It doesn't take long to figure out that Jackson (Morris Chestnut) has serious commitment issues; it's why he's seen going to therapy in the film's opening scene. The root of Jackson's issues are revealed during his relationship with Denise (Gabrielle Union). But he isn't the only one going through relationship troubles. His lifelong friends Brian (Bill Bellamy), Derrick (D.L. Hughley), and Terry (Shemar Moore) also find themselves at odds with trying to finally settle down and stay committed to their respective partners. However, the four friends get through their struggles together, illustrating the power of friendship. — DP

Brown Sugar (2002)

Hip-hop is Sidney Shaw (Sanaa Lathan) and Dre Ellis' (Taye Diggs) love language. The Bronx natives and best friends grew up as hip-hop developed as a genre. Their love for rap and each other is symbiotic; Sid is a music editor for XXL, and Dre leads the hip-hop department at a major label. But as the landscape of rap evolves, so do their lives. Dre proposes to Reese (Nicole Ari Parker), and Sid begins dating Kelby (Boris Kodjoe), a professional basketball player. They've been strictly best friends their whole lives—except that one brief time in grad school—but the prospect of new partners complicates their relationship. Brown Sugar explores whether or not it's possible to have "the buddy and the boo." — KC

Phat Girlz (2006)

Rebel Wilson was wrong when she declared herself the first plus-sized woman to star in a romantic comedy—she clearly never saw Phat Girlz. Jazmin Biltmore (Mo'Nique) is inundated with imagery of thin women both at home and at work. She dreams of creating a stylish plus-sized fashion line that keeps a woman's curves in mind, unlike the limited options she finds in the department store where she works. A trip to Palm Springs lands her in the same hotel as a Nigerian doctor (Jimmy Jean-Louis), the first man Jazmin ever encounters who is willing to love her just as she is. — KC

Think Like a Man (2012)

There was a time in the not-so distant past that comedian Steve Harvey thought he was qualified to teach women how to date. This resulted in 2009's Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man, a New York Times Bestseller that gave women a play-by-play technique he claimed would increase a man's likelihood to commit. If this doesn't sound cringey enough, the book was adapted for the silver screen with a plot that follows four couples and how the book has altered their love lives. The hiccups each couple face is a reminder that there are no rules to dating, especially from an award-winning "handbook." — KC

Beyond the Lights (2014)

Fourteen years after Love & Basketball, Gina Prince-Bythewood wrote and directed Beyond the Lights, a more contemporary love story about embracing your true self. Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is a mega-star with a Rihanna-like following. Fame is what she's wanted since she was a child competing in talent shows, but the public attention and pressure have since debilitated her. The higher she ascends, the further from herself she wanders. One night, Noni is prepared to jump from the balcony of her hotel room, until a police officer, Kaz (Nate Parker), pulls her to safety. Kaz, who has ambitions of running for office, is drawn to Noni's off-stage persona, and Beyond the Lights is the unlikely story of two people from different worlds figuring out how to live as one. — KC

Moonlight (2016)

Director Barry Jenkins returned in 2016 with this generation's most poignant and needed depiction of queer love on the big screen. Moonlight is a look at the three stages of Chiron's (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, Trevante Rhodes) life in which he deals with the struggles of being a Black gay man in America. Exploring the intersection of Blackness, queer love, poverty, and drug culture, Moonlight paints a vivid aesthetic that ultimately immerses its audience in a world that they previously would have been reluctant to approach. The budding relationship between Chiron and Kevin (Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome, and André Holland) becomes the centerpiece through which Jenkins analyzes those themes. The Academy Award-winning film beautifully creates a visceral experience that encourages viewers to challenge society's perceptions of what love can feel like, and who gets to be loved. — DP

If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)

If 2016's Moonlight wasn't enough proof that Barry Jenkins could beautifully depict Black love on-screen, then If Beale Street Could Talk certainly cements that idea. Based on the James Baldwin book of the same name, the film, set in 1970s Harlem, follows the relationship of Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James), who are madly in love. But the film highlights how loving while Black can often lead to unfortunate, life-altering circumstances. Fonny's arrest for a crime he didn't commit ultimately makes the love shared between him and Tish difficult for viewers to wholly embrace, as the film provides a heart-wrenching depiction of a love that knows no boundaries. — DP