A List of Black Gangster Movies
Starting from the 1900s and continuing over the last 100 years, films about Black gangsters have been a mainstay in cinema and society. Whether it be blaxploitation films from the early days, to modern-day films, these films always have an audience. The genre of gangsta films is often viewed as a way to glamorize the criminal world and the concept of living on the edge, but there is something far more to it. There is room in these films and the genre itself, to explore themes of culture, racism and the underworld of crime, while also delivering a dose of justice.
Writers, directors, producers and actors often take a unique angle to display a powerful, but often misrepresented, narrative and culture. In honor of these films and their gifted makers, we are excited to present our list of the greatest Black gangster films of all time.
The Godfather (1972)
The classic American film that launched a million ships and made Francis Ford Coppola a household name, The Godfather isn’t about the black gangsters, but it does feature two black mobsters as important characters. In a rarity, a black mob boss named Virgil Sollozzo (Al Lettieri) is seen as a power player in the mob circle and is treated as a real challenge to the Corleones. The other black character, ‘Willie Cicci,’ is the Corleone family consigliere and head of security, played by famed actor Alex Rocco.
Another classic American mob film, Scarface stars Al Pacino and is about the Cuban immigrant Tony Montana who moves to Miami and builds a drug empire. Not a black gangster movie per se, but an epic film in its own right, Scarface features a strong African American supporting cast. F. Murray Abraham plays a Cuban drug kingpin, and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio plays Tony’s lawyer and rival, who is the only female black gangster in the film.
New Jack City (1991)
A critically-acclaimed early 90s New York mob movie, New Jack City is a an action-packed film. It stars rap legend Ice-T, Wesley Snipes and Chris Rock, who are tasked with bringing down a powerful urban drug lord played by Russell Watkins. The film delves into race, gang politics, police brutality and violence against women, touching on deeper themes than many other mob films.
Menace II Society (1993)
Widely considered one of the greatest hood films ever made, Menace II Society follows the life of a young black man in South Central Los Angeles. The film manages to capture the daily struggles of living in a crime-ridden part of the city with realistic vibrancy. It explores the violent ways in which gangs, poverty and drugs effect the people living in the hood, and also takes a hard look at the systemic racism at play.
American Gangster (2007)
Starring Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe, American Gangster follows the life of real-life mobster Frank Lucas and the first black detective to successfully bring him down, Richie Roberts. Set in late 70s and early 80s New York, this movie documents his rise from poverty living with relatives to becoming one of the biggest drug kings in the city.
Black Panther (2018)
Widely considered to be a revolutionary film, the Black Panther is the first major Marvel movie with a black cast. Directed by Ryan Coogler, the film follows T’Challa, the king of an African nation of Wakanda, as he defends his kingdom against enemies and deals with a complex history of race and politics. Although not a gangster film, the movie touches on deeper themes of justice, crime and the power of black culture.
Inner City (2018)
Starring John Boyega, Inner City follows the rise of an African American stockbroker on Wall Street. This is an unconventional gangster movie with a message of hope, as the main character (played by Boyega) is determined to make a positive change in the world of financial crime.
Based on the true story of a group of strippers and their plan to scam wealthy Wall Street men, Hustlers stars Jennifer Lopez, Julia Stiles and Constance Wu. This crime-drama is a sarcastic, empowering tale about sisterhood and features stereotypes about black women that are not common in other mob films.
Exploring the Themes of Black Gangster Movies
Black gangster movies often explore themes of power, resilience and justice. Themes such as poverty, violence, police brutality and racism are explored in the movies, showing how these communities are viewed by the outside world and the struggles they go through. Most of these movies portray certain characters as the heroes or anti-heroes, fighting for justice and their own survival, which gives them a sense of agency and shows that they are more than just criminals.
While these movies are often seen as glamorizing crime and violence, there is something deeper in them. The makers of these movies, by displaying powerful minorities and shaping the stories around them, are redefining what a gangster is, and what stories can be explored and told.
Impact of Black Gangster Movies
Black gangster movies have had a great impact on both African American culture and American culture overall. The genre has opened up the doors for more diverse and empowered characters, as well as given a platform to discuss racial and social issues in a deeper way. In these films, black people are seen as strong, resilient and powerful characters, something that hasn’t been explored too often in Hollywood.
It is also important to note that modern-day black gangster films, such as Black Panther and Hustlers, are exploring more diverse themes and stories than the classic films of the 70s and 80s. By creating these stories, makers are showing that black people can be heroes, villains, victims and everything in between.
African American Representation in Black Gangster Movies
Black gangster films have had a great impact in representing African Americans in film, with some of the most iconic characters being black. From Tony Montana to John Shaft, it is clear that these films are giving more screen time and recognition to African Americans, something that is still lacking in Hollywood. Through these films, stereotypes about black people and their culture are challenged, and black voices can be heard and seen.
These stories not only give African Americans a bigger platform in cinema, but also present opportunities for actors and directors to portray stories of power and resilience in a unique way. These films give us a glimpse into the lives of black people and represent them in a different light, which is something that is still very much needed in Hollywood.
Critical Analysis of Black Gangster Movies
Although black gangster films often delve into deeper themes, they are not without criticism. Some of these films may be seen as glamorizing crime, showing violence as a solution, or whitewashing certain issues. Films such as Scarface and The Godfather have been criticized for depicting minorities as criminals, and not presenting enough positive protagonists in the stories.
Further criticism of the genre centers around the lack of focus on female characters in most of these films, with Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio as the only female black gangster in Scarface. Films such as Hustlers and The Soul Man have explored this issue in more depth, but there is still a lack of female gangsters in the genre.
Black gangster films have been a staple of cinema for the last 100 years. By exploring themes of power, crime, racism and justice, these films have had a great impact on the way African Americans are portrayed in popular culture. The genre has also come under fire for some of its shortcomings, such as the lack of female characters, but overall it is seen as a necessary and important part of Hollywood.