90's in Black: A Retrospective On the Golden Decade

Like every hustler, I was trapped. Cats that hung together trying to find a little security, to find an answer, found nothing. Cats that might have probed space or cured cancer. I mean, West Indian Archie might have been a mathematical genius. We were all victims of the American social order.

I was born in 1986 but I’m of the 90’s. Months ago, while grabbing some brews with a few co-workers after a long day, we played 90’s trivia. Needless to say, I was the equivalent to LeBron James playing against 5th graders. It was absolute dominance and it was marvelous.

Being of the 90’s, I spent countless hours glued in front of dusty TV boxes and nestled in cold movie theaters. While a lot of the messages and meanings of those early shows and films would’ve went over a young Marc Rob’s head, I tried watching any and everything.

On January 10, 2020, I had the idea to create a Top 50 list of Black films from the 90’s. The goal was to first just create a list of 50 90’s Black films off the top of my head and go from there. By the next morning, I came up with 70 films and thought of the crazy idea of ballooning the list to 100. I got to 75 and thought I was done. Twenty minutes later, I hit 81 (Kobe!!) and was spent. But I wasn’t done; the next morning, I reached 94. (By 94, I didn’t even think of the cult classic Set It Off. I was proud and weary; I swear I could feel my brain wrinkle four times over.) Two hours later, I’d finally hit 100. Next, the Google searches began to learn what movies I’d left off.

Somehow, I forgot about How Stella Got Her Groove Back, Posse, B.A.P.S., Hoodlum, and nine other films (some were movies that I thought of initially, didn’t include but decided to add them to the list anyway). At a total of 113 films, I trimmed, scored and ranked each film to create The Top 100 Black Films of the 1990’s (click here for the full list).

This piece explores the best film of each year of the decade. It’s a celebration of the film, directors, actors/subjects and everything in-between. Enjoy.

Some of them say that we’re sick, we’re crazy. And some of them think that we are the most gorgeous, special things on Earth.

1990 – Paris Is Burning

Without this incredible documentary, we don’t get the beautiful, touching and glamorous Pose, the hit television show on FX. Paris Is Burning is beautiful, touching and glamorous but, at the same time, it’s not. The documentary combines the grittiness of 80’s New York with the hopefulness of marginalized young black and brown queer and trans folks. Seeing these young people have the full confidence in themselves as they developed drag ball culture and voguing while the world did everything it could to tear them down is equal parts moving and sad.

The watershed moment of the film comes when we examine the life of Venus Xtravaganza. She’s poor without anything to her name and we learn that she becomes a sex worker just to make a little money for herself. Because of her profession and life on the streets, we learn that she’s murdered, allegedly by a disgruntled john. Before her death, we’re told that men’s homophobia often leads to them murdering trans “men” when they are discovered not to be women. Venus’ death hits like a lightning bolt and we feel the true dangers of choosing to live the life you want to live in the face of those that have no respect for you.

Thirty years later, Pose does a great job of championing queer and trans rights, not by being preachy but showing these beautiful people for who they are. Though Pose is fiction, Paris Is Burning is all fact and the people are just as (or even more) beautiful and moving.

Paris Is Burning didn’t change the world, unfortunately; it would still take nearly three decades before the conversation of trans rights was meet with the seriousness that it deserved. But this documentary serves (pun intended); we need to know the history to make sure we never regress to this level of hatred and violence again.

Honorable Mention: House Party, Mo’ Better Blues

Note: I’m cheating a bit. Paris Is Burning released in Canada in late 1990 but didn’t reach the States until early 1991. Oh well. It’s my list and I’ll get fly if I want to.

“Dough… you still got one brother left, man.”

1991 – Boyz N The Hood

I don’t know what more I can say about this movie better than 1,000 think-pieces in 1991 did. For better or worse, John Singleton forever changed black cinema; there’s no need to be coy. It launched his career as well as Cuba Gooding Jr, Nia Long, Morris Chestnut, Tyra Ferrell and the acting career of Ice Cube, someone who’s more known now for his Hollywood career than being one of the best west coast MC’s ever. While the late Eazy E dismissed Boyz In The Hood as an after-school special, it shone a light on gritty Los Angeles when most of the country only knew about NWA and the Rodney King beating.

While films that succeeded it tried to add more nihilism (Menace II Society) or add levity (Friday), Boyz N The Hood is the perfect balance of showing intimacy of environment, it’s characters and how difficult life was for black folks coming out of the Crack Era.

Honorable Mention: New Jack City, Strictly Business, The Five Heartbeats

“Man, who are you?”
No; the question is, who are you? Well, I’ll tell ya. You are lost in the darkness.”

1992 – Malcolm X

Regardless of criteria or stipulation, there was not a better movie in 1992 than Malcolm X nor a better actor than Denzel Washington as Malcolm Little/Red/El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. Denzel and Spike Lee collaborations have produced all great results, but Malcolm X is the apex of what both artists bring to the collective table. Denzel is everything you want him to be: slick, charismatic, electric, humbling, sullen and strong. Also, Spike is everything you want him to be: stylistic, grandiose, provocative, caring, funny and smart. From the beautifully energetic choreographed Roseland State Ballroom dance scene to open the film to the frantic and terrifying Audubon Ballroom scene to close it out, Lee’s talent was on full tilt.

Not just limited to the film’s star attractions, Albert Hall as Baines was powerful and stirring right up until his unforeseen heel turn, Delroy Lindo fierceness turned into vulnerability as West Indian Archie was touching, and Angela Bassett warmth, candor and hurt as Betty Shabazz was palpable.

Last summer, the best rapper of 2019, Freddie Gibbs, on the best album of 2019, Bandana, dismissed Lee’s film by saying, “Fuck Spike; he, mostly, showed Malcolm on coke and white whores” but that was far from the case. Lee showed the full life of a complicated man during the most volatile time in our country’s history. Yes, Red rode the white horse and he slept with white women, but that’s only a blimp in the life of one of the most dynamic, galvanizing and polarizing Civil Rights leaders. Denzel and Spike did Malcolm’s legacy the appropriate justice it deserved.

Honorable Mention: Boomerang, White Men Can’t Jump, Deep Cover

Note: 1992 may be the greatest year in black cinema. Looking at my Top 100 and the crème de la crème of 1992 is so rich and satisfying: X was one of the best films of the 90’s, Boomerang is the great black romantic comedy ever and White Men Can’t Jump is one of, if not, the greatest basketball movies ever. The Boomerang original soundtrack alone is decadence and unsurpassed (it’s only challenger is the Waiting To Exhale soundtrack and I want the smoke)(btw, remember when movie original soundtracks were a the thing?)(I miss the 90’s).

“You know, every now and then, I think you might like to hear something from us nice and easy. But there’s just one thing: we never, ever do nothing nice and easy; we always do it nice and rough. So, we’re gonna take the beginning of this song and do it easy, and then we’re gonna do the finish rough.”

1993 – What’s Love Got To Do With It?

Read the following list of films and take a second to think if they hold any space in your memory: What’s Love Got To Do With It, The Piano, Six Degrees of Separation, The Remains of the Day and Shadowlands. Let me tell you what they have in common: the lead actress from each those films were nominated for Best Actress at the 66th Academy Awards. Other than What’s Love, I’m going to take a leap of faith and say the actresses from those pictures don’t readily come to mind.

Now, the following list of films probably will be easier to recollect: Philadelphia, Schindler’s List, and In the Name of the Father. Those movies, along with What’s Love and The Remains of Day, had the lead actor nominated for Best Actor.

Of all the films named, What’s Love, Philadelphia and Schindler’s List are the only ones to have staying power nearly three decades later. Though I wouldn’t argue Laurence Fishburne winning Best Actor over Tom Hanks, no actress had a better performance than Angela Bassett as Anna Mae Bullock. Bassett flexed the full range of growth of a woman triumphing over the evilness of her abusive husband. And while there is a tired trope in Hollywood of woman needing to survive horrible atrocities for their stories to be told, What’s Love Got To Do With It? actually gives Tina Turner the respect of showing her growth and achievement independent of her abuser.

Speaking of the embodiment of evil and the dangers of the male ego, Laurence Fishburne’s portrayal of Ike Turner was scarily authentic. So much so, I’m surprised (and happy) that he never became typecast as a villain in his future films. Having both actors nominated for their performances was appropriate then and has since aged like wine. The movie is stark, triggering and difficult but Anna Mae’s story of triumph deserved to be told.

Honorable Mention: Menace II Society, Sister Act 2, CB4

“That’s why when somebody say, ‘When you get to the NBA, don’t forget about me’… I should’ve said to them, ‘If I don’t make it, don’t you forget about me.'”

1994 – Hoop Dreams

Twenty-two consecutive years as the greatest American sport’s documentary, only to be upended by 2016’s OJ: Made In America, is a hell of a title reign. Hoop Dreams is a perfect tale of destitute citizens trying to find escape through the long shot hope of being a professional athlete. With the backdrop of notoriously poor and dangerous Cabrini-Green projects and West Garfield Park in Chicago, William Gates and Arthur Agee Jr chase dreams of making it to the NBA. While the Gates family seem to marginally stay above water, the Agee family routinely lives in squalor.

The best sport’s films are never really about the sport itself: the sport is the vehicle that drives it’s characters but mining the social and political environment that surround the sport will always be where the gold lies. While the Gates and Agee’s family story is remarkable, 1990’s Chicago is the standalone character. The city looks like a, literal, concrete jungle. It’s unkempt and wild vegetation surrounding dilapidated housing, liquor stores and playgrounds is shocking but unsurprising. Juxtaposed against St. Joseph High School, a private Catholic school where Gates and Agee’s start their freshman year, and the environments are night and day.

The school, which is a nearly 3-hour round-trip commute, is safe, clean and mostly white but the quality of education, which should be the most important factor in discussing these children’s lives, is something they’ve really never experienced before. Gates and Agee are described as having education levels that of a 4th or 5th grader. As soon as William goes to St. Joe’s, his education is immediately improved. During Arthur’s sophomore year, he’s dropped back into the Chicago public school system with nearly catastrophic results.

While not getting too bogged down in the details, in summation, Hoop Dreams is about how poor families are or are nearly destroyed by a city that doesn’t care for them and how there’s little hope of survival. During the filming, it’s revealed that Arthur’s father, Bo, is addicted to crack cocaine, routinely physically abused his mother and went to jail for burglary. After turning 18, Arthur loses public aid and his family had to live on $268 a month from the government (accounting for inflation, that’s the equivalent of $505 in 2020). William constantly feels pressure from his brother, Curtis, to make it to the NBA because his hoop dreams failed and his father is virtually non-existent.

When filming ended and after being a critical and commercial success, Chicago still did everything to destroy these people. In 2002, William waded a bout of joblessness. September 10, 2001, Curtis was kidnapped and murdered. Bo was murdered in 2004. And neither kid made it to the NBA. In December 2017, Arthur is arrested for battery against a woman, which left her with three broken ribs.

The film’s most telling scene comes in the form of a basketball game between Arthur and Bo right before he leaves for college. In the game, the years of frustration and unresolved anger against his father floods to the surface during a seemingly meaningless day on the court. But the game is poignant because it shows Arthur’s true self. When he talks to friends and family on camera, he’s a shy, bashful yet hopeful kid. During this game, however, Agee’s resentment was unrestrained and naked, even if it was manifested in sinking a couple of jumpers, shouts and hard stares at his father. These kids felt real hard feelings during their coming of age and they only had one tool for survival. The valley was desolate and the hills were trying.

Honorable Mention: Fresh, The Inkwell, Above The Rim, Crooklyn

“A man once told me that you step out of your door in the morning, and you are already in trouble. The only question is are you on top of that trouble or not?

1995 – Devil In A Blue Dress

To put Devil In A Blue Dress over Friday, a movie that’s still in our consciousness today may seem blasphemous but it’s the hard true. But instead of talking about the slickness and sexiness of prime Denzel, the focus should be on (or shared by) Don Cheadle. Devil… was the film that launched Cheadle into stardom. His aggressive and deathly funny performance as Mouse won him Best Supporting Actor from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the National Society of Film Critics. This propelled him to star in HBO’s 1996’s Rebound: The Legend of Earl “The Goat” Manigault. Between those two films, Cheadle flexed a range, charm and vulnerability not many black actors not named Denzel or Laurence where given a shot to display.

Here’s the rest of the 90’s for Don Cheadle after Devil In A Blue Dress: Rebound, Volcano (the best of the 1997 volcano movies), Rosewood, Boogie Nights, Out of Sight, The Rat Pack (where he won a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor – Series, Miniseries or Television Film) and Bulworth (which was his only misstep of the 90’s). A far cry from his lone appearance on The Fresh Prince as Ice Tray.

Of the ten movies singled out in this piece, Devil In A Blue Dress may be either the least watched or most forgotten. The honorable mentions I list below all have more popularity and cult-status than Devil. However, that does not devalue the film whatsoever and is worth a revisit.

Honorable Mention: Friday, New Jersey Drive, Dead Presidents

“What’s the fucking procedure when you have a gun to your head?”

1996 – Set It Off

The early 90’s was a desert if you were looking for many films where black woman where the lead actors. It isn’t up until 1992’s Sister Act and indie cult film Just Another Girl on the IRT, where a black woman is front and center and is more than just an object of sexual desire. It isn’t until we hit the mid 90’s in where we get a steady (but slow) trickle of films with black woman leads with different, complex and complete stories. Think 1993’s Poetic Justice, 1994’s Crooklyn, 1995’s Waiting to Exhale. In 1996, F. Gary Gray’s heist flick followed the same linage as 1995’s Heat but with a more soul (pun not intended but you can run with it if you’d like).

A feat that may go unappreciated with Set It Off was it’s ablilty to delicately balance action with drama. You became invested in Stony and Keith’s romance. You felt grief when Tisean’s baby is taken away by Child Services. You welled up when Frankie and Cleo died. Speaking of Cleo, Queen Latifah’s performance as this brazen and bold bank robber still holds cult status to this day. It was her bid to be taken seriously as a dramatic actor and it was everything.

Next year’s Eve’s Bayou holds the title of the 90’s best film with a predominantly black women cast, but Set It Off took black women’s stories into a new plateau.

Honorable Mention: Rebound: The Legend of Earl “The Goat” Manigault, Sunset Park, Don’t Be A Menace To South Central While Drinking Your Juice In The Hood

Note: 1996 was a bit of a down year for black cinema. However, it seems Hollywood was gearing up for a monster 1997.

“You must understand that a Bull Connor cannot exist without the nods of the status quo people. You know, the big boys in any town; he can’t exist without them. He may be the person who actually does the talking but, believe me, the Bull Connor’s have the blessings of someone else.”

1997 – 4 Little Girls

It’s third and final documentary to make the top 10 but it’s no less powerful. Sans Girl 6, no black director in the 90’s had a run even touching Spike’s. Of the top 100 Black films of the 90’s, Spike has seven entries with each project varied from the other. The biggest complaint of Lee is when his approach hits viewers over the head with his message(s), rather than letting the audience develop any interpretation they would have naturally made. But an underrated talent that Spike has is his ability to be a journalist. With 4 Little Girls and 2006’s When The Levees Broke: A Requiem In Four Acts, Lee’s talent to world build and find truth in places where we’ve never seen is breathtaking.

These four children’s lives never had been before displayed beyond a Civil Rights Era factoid and Spike breathes life into people that never deserved to have their little lives extinguished. 4 Little Girls is beautiful and ugly. It serves as a reminder of how dangerous that time in America truly was and how little has actually changed generations later.

Honorable Mention: Eve’s Bayou, Jackie Brown, Love Jones

Note: When making my Top 100 List, 1997 has 17 entries, the most of any year. At this point, Hollywood brought into black stars driving black films, with flicks ranging from children’s movies (Good Burger), raunchy comedies (Booty Call, Sprung) indie films (Hav Plenty) and everything in-between. This has roots back to 1995’s Bad Boys. The $20 million Michael Bay action flick staring Hollywood megastar Will Smith and comedian Martin Lawrence made over $140 million at the box office. While it wasn’t the best film in ’95, it may be most important financially: Bad Boys was the only film with black starring actors to gross over $100 million worldwide at the box office.

“Dear Jesus, ever since you was born, I’ve been pushing you. Trying to make you the best ball player you that could possibly be. Trying to make you the ball player that I never was. I finally came to the realization that I was pushing you further away from me also.”

1998 – He Got Game

The name Jesus… The opening montage of ball games on basketball courts across America… The Nike Pro Foamposite’s… The Penny Foamposite’s… The Air Jordan XIII’s… The SportsCenter montage… The Chuck D soundtrack… The Rosario Dawson… The Tech U campus visit and the assistant coaches… The Ferris wheel… Big Time Willie and the car ride… The gratuitous Denzel throat punch… The final one-on-one battle.

Spike Lee finishes the decade with one of the best basketball movies to be made. And I never refer to Ray Allen as “Ray Allen” because I know better.

Honorable Mention: The Player’s Club, How Stella Got Her Groove Back, Ride

“You gon’ eat yo’ cornbread?”

1999 – Life

The 90’s were a bit of a weird time for Eddie Murphy. It may be a bit lost today but it’s hard to contextualize how popular Eddie Murphy was in the 80’s. The power rankings for 80’s celebrities goes as: 1. Michael Jackson, 2. Murphy, 3. Prince. Here’s the list of classic films he dropped in the 80’s: Delirious, 48 Hrs., Trading Places, Beverly Hills Cop, Coming To America and Harlem Nights spanning 1983 to 1989. No person in Hollywood was funnier nor had the juice and the squeeze.

Then, the 1990 hit.

Until 1999 and sans 1992’s Boomerang, Eddie had middling success in the 90’s. While The Nutty Professor and Dr. Dolittle were commercial successes, they were a far cry from the talent Eddie displayed early in his career. David Spade’s notorious SNL “Look children, it’s a falling star. Make a wish.” bit was a glimpse of how folks in Hollywood felt after Vampire In Brooklyn was a commercial failure. (Vampire In Brooklyn did make the Top 100; I’m only acknowledging the commentary in 1995 surrounding the film.) However, in 1999, Murphy caught his stride with two films: Life and Bowfinger.

While Life didn’t have the commercial success of Bowfinger, it did display the genius comedic mind that we always knew was there and the bubbling dramatic underbelly that wouldn’t be on full display until 2006’s Dreamgirls. Life and Bowfinger should have signified Murphy holding the reins and keeping his career on track. Unfortunately, sans Dreamgirls and 2019’s Dolomite Is My Name, nothing Eddie has done since the turn of the millennium has been worth a damn. Don’t focus on that though; just enjoy Life for what it is.

Honorable Mention: The Best Man, The Wood, Loving Jezebel

Black cinema is currently in a great place as far as artistic choices, dynamic and complex storytelling and having substance. A movie like Moonlight, that’s still and beautiful and gay as the day is long, would not have had a chance in Hell of being made in any decade other than the 2010’s. Nor a movie that’s as racially complicated and dense as Luce. Do the Right Thing wants to expose the racist animosity that attempts to be hidden (or not hidden) from the surface, but Luce has more ambition than just exposing something we all know is there; it tries to digest raveled ideas and the functionality of race and racism that many 80’s and 90’s films don’t try to breach.

The only problem now is that there’s not a lot of choice, especially compared to the 90’s. For the Top 100, just over 30 movies were comedic and 21 of those films scored a 3 & 1/2 out of 5 stars or better. In the 2010’s, we didn’t get anywhere close to that volume of comedic black films. Though volume isn’t everything (of the 100 movies, 36 are scored 3 stars or lowered or not scored at all), it is something. The 90’s had the luck of being fueled by creative, hungry artists with financial backing. If we could live comfortably off of the art we created, the world would be a much finer place.

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