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20 of the best sci-fi and horror movies from Black directors
From vampires to living UFOs, this list comprises 50 years worth of Black voices.
With Black History Month now underway, SYFY WIRE has compiled a list of 20 of the best science fiction and horror films helmed by Black filmmakers over the last five decades of Hollywood history.
Vampires, living UFOs, time travel, haunted houses, and general supernatural entities (all cornerstones of genre fiction, in other words) await you below....
Director: William Crain
Famous for kicking off the horror sub-genre of blaxploitation cinema in the 1970s, Blacula was also the first movie to ever win the Saturn Award for Best Horror Film. William Marshall headlines story as the titular vampire, aka Prince Mamuwalde, an African royal turned into a bloodsucker by the most famous bloodsucker of them all — Count Dracula.
As Tananarive Due points out in the Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror documentary (now streaming on Shudder), the film’s opening, in which Mamuwalde attempts to persuade Dracula to bring an end to the transatlantic slave trade, was utterly groundbreaking for the time. “When is the last time Black audiences had seen themselves expressed visually in the 1700s as erudite and intelligent and holding court and trying to discuss world affairs?”
Ganja & Hess (1973)
Director: Bill Gunn
Another entry in the pantheon of vampiric blaxploitation horror, Ganja & Hess (written and directed by Bill Gunn) stars Duane Jones as anthropologist Hess Green, who discovers an insatiable thirst for human blood after he’s stabbed by his assistant with an ancient dagger. Hess eventually converts the assistant’s wife, Ganja (Marlene Clark), into a fellow member of the undead.
In a retrospective published early last year, Lyvie Scott of /FILM broke down the movie's cultural significance through the lens of its subversive treatment of long-established genre tropes: “Gunn's hypnotic exploration of sexuality, colonialism, religion and addiction told through the lives of two unapologetic Black characters isn't all that common even now, although it's become increasingly popular in horror. Ganja & Hess deliberately flouts the Western perspective. That the film's particular brand of vampirism originates not in Transylvania, but from an African civilization, shows how concerned Gunn is with shifting the narrative.”
Decades later, Spike Lee would remake the film as Da Sweet Blood of Jesus (released in 2015).
Tales From the Hood (1995)
Director: Rusty Cundieff
Executive-produced by Spike Lee, this now-classic anthology of four horror stories told from the point-of-view of the Black community suffered from poor marketing.
“The studio didn’t really know how to deal with the movie. They were afraid of the politics of it. If you look at the release trailer, you cannot tell what the hell is going on. Everything looks crazy. And that was really the tough part of dealing with it,” director and co-writer Rusty Cundieff recalled during an interview with IndieWire in 2020. "In retrospect, I think it was a very poor decision on their parts to go that way, because everyone that I talked to after the film was out wide said, 'If I had known what the movie was really about, I would have seen it in the theater!' Or, 'I would have gone to see it earlier.' And so I think the studio lost some initial box office because they were just afraid of putting it out there the way that I created it.”
Two sequels were released in 2018 and 2020, respectively.
Director: Ernest R. Dickerson
Sharing a few strands of narrative DNA with 1994’s The Crow, Bones finds Snoop Dogg stepping into the shoes of Jimmy Bones, a man who is murdered in cold blood by his own friends after he refuses to sell crack. Years later, Bones comes back to the realm of the living to seek revenge and ensure the safety of his neighborhood.
“Bones is … a grim, gritty, wickedly funny tale of supernatural revenge,” Bloody Disgusting wrote in its review of Scream Factory's 2020 Blu-ray release. “As the title character, Snoop Dogg delivers a double-edged performance, giving us a character who’s genuinely sympathetic in the past, while presenting a darkly humorous yet utterly lethal version of the same character in the present. He has a real presence in the film, and it makes one wish that he’d been afforded the opportunity to play this character in further installments.”
The Book of Eli (2010)
Directors: Albert and Allen Hughes
A criminally underrated and wonderfully-stylized entry in the post-apocalyptic genre, The Book of Eli revolves around the eponymous drifter (the great Denzel Washington looking more badass than usual in a pair of perpetual sunglasses) who has taken it upon himself to protect a mysterious tome that may hold the very key to humanity’s future. To go any further than that would be to ruin the surprises along the way.
“What we’d like people to take away from The Book of Eli is an appreciation of life and how precious it is,” Allen Hughes remarked in late 2009. “It’s a story that touches on universal themes of faith, commitment, sacrifice and, ultimately, hope. These are the elements that originally attracted us and we tried to do them justice.”
The Fate of the Furious (2017)
Director: F. Gary Gray
Gray was given the rather unenviable job of continuing the Fast & Furious franchise without the involvement of Paul Walker, whose untimely passing required that the narrative be shifted over to Vin Diesel’s Dominic Toretto.
The series’ overarching theme of family is flipped on its head when Dom suddenly becomes the world’s most dangerous getaway driver, working on behalf of the mysterious terrorist known as Cipher (Charlize Theron). It’s a refreshing twist on the usual Fast Saga formula (recalling Letty’s own criminal ties in Fast & Furious 6) that culminates in one of the craziest and most memorable action set pieces ever committed to film: an icy drag race against a Russian nuclear submarine.
Chatting with Slash Film in April of 2017, Gray revealed that the frigid climax was shot on location in Iceland. “When you have a Lamborghini traveling a hundred-plus miles per hour on melting ice, chased by a submarine and a whole bunch of military vehicles, you have a situation where, if the ice is melting, these vehicles can collapse into the water below the surface,” he said.
(The franchise keeps getting faster and more furious, with Fast X hitting theaters on May 19.)
Get Out (2017)
Director: Jordan Peele
Believe it or not, Jordan Peele was not always synonymous with the horror genre. Shocking, right? Prior to 2017, one of the most original and talented filmmakers of this generation was associated with Key & Peele, the Emmy-winning sketch comedy series he had co-created and starred in alongside Keegan-Michael Key. So when it was announced that Peele had joined forces with Blumhouse for his directorial debut, many were curious to see how the comedian would turn in laughs for scares.
As we now know, the end result was a cultural phenomenon that nabbed Peele an Oscar win for Best Original Screenplay. A clever and biting commentary on deep racial divides in America, Get Out stars Daniel Kaluuya as Chris Washington, a Black man who comes to discover an unpleasant secret about his white girlfriend while visiting her family in Upstate New York.
"What originally started as a movie to combat the lie that America had become post-racial became a movie where the cat is out of bag, and now we’re having this conversation," he said during an interview with The New York Times. "I realized I had to shift it a little bit. It became less about trying to create wokeness and more about trying to offer us a hero out of this turmoil, to offer escape and joy."
Peele became a genre demigod almost overnight, with several projects (Little Marvin’s Them and Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz’s Atenbellum come to mind) emulating the socially conscious horror format in the years that followed. In addition to his newfound status as an in-demand writer/director, Peele also became a powerhouse producer, attaching his name and production company to a multitude of shows and films such as BlacKkKlansman, a revival of The Twilight Zone (now playing on SYFY!), Lovecraft Country, and Hunters.
RELATED: Jordan Peele's 'Twilight Zone' revival comes to SYFY - here's how to watch
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)
Directors: Peter Ramsey, Bob Persichetti & Rodney Rothman
Visually innovative, funny, emotional, meta, thrilling, are just a few of the adjectives that describe Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. We don't think anyone would disagree with us when we say Miles Morales couldn’t have asked for a better introduction to the big screen.
The film — which would deservedly take home an Oscar for Best Animated Feature at the 91st Academy Awards — was like a comic book come to vivid life right before our very eyes, while Shameik Moore’s earnest performance as Miles kept everything grounded. An entire multiverse chock full of Spider-People was a welcome reminder that Peter Parker shouldn't be the only one to have all the fun.
“I don’t think any of us were prepared for the depth of emotion that it pulled out of people after it came out,” Peter Ramsey, the first Black filmmaker to win an Oscar in the animation category, remarked in 2021. “That was mind-blowing, how much it meant to people. We hoped it was going to do well and be big, but I don’t think any of us realized it was going to have this cultural impact. And we definitely weren’t thinking of anything like an Oscar. We were like, ‘A Spider-Man movie? That’s never going to get an Oscar!’ But it’s so weird the way that things developed."
The hotly-anticipated sequel, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, swings into theaters this summer. A third entry, Beyond the Spider-Verse, is scheduled to premiere in spring of next year.
A Wrinkle in Time (2018)
Director: Ava DuVernay
DuVernay’s overall goal in adapting Madeleine L’Engle’s 1962 novel of the same name into a $100 million+ blockbuster at Disney was to contemporize the source material.
“We wanted to make sure that we were capturing her intention, but updating it, so that contemporary audiences could enter into the fantasy in a way that felt vibrant to them,” the filmmaker explained to Collider. “It was a beautiful process with a lot of back and forth.”
The movie itself is a wonderful showcase for the director’s ambitious visual and storytelling sensibilities. Until that point, DuVernay had cut her writing/directing teeth on smaller, character-driven dramas like I Will Follow, Middle of Nowhere, and the Oscar-nominated Selma. A Wrinkle in Time proved that she could make the jump to bigger-budgeted features without losing sight of the genuine sense of humanity that defined her first three efforts, which makes it all the more disappointing that her New Gods project never came to fruition.
Black Panther (2018)
Director: Ryan Coogler
Do we really need to go into detail on this one? Ryan Coogler’s tremendous follow-up to Fruitvale Station and Creed doesn’t really need much elaboration at this point, but here’s one anyway. It’s not hyperbole to say that Marvel Studios’ first standalone superhero project to feature a Black character (and a predominantly Black cast) represented a major turning point in Hollywood.
While the concept of superheroes of color was not totally unheard of at the time (Spawn, Blade, and Hancock had, of course, already paved the way), Black Panther struck a real chord by wading into the thornier issues of the minority experience. The cultural importance of Black Panther manifested itself in more than $1 billion at the box office and several history-making Oscar nominations and wins.
“In its emphasis on Black imagination, creation and liberation, the movie becomes an emblem of a past that was denied and a future that feels very present,” Manohla Dargis wrote in her review of the film for The New York Times. “And in doing so opens up its world, and yours, beautifully.”
Shortly after he is crowned as the new king of Wakanda, T’Challa (the late Chadwick Boseman) is forced to reassess his country’s longtime policy of keeping its advanced Vibranium technology a secret from the rest of the world. The arrival of his long-lost cousin, Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), raises important questions about Wakanda’s inaction toward slavery, war, and racially-motivated violence throughout the centuries, to the point where T’Challa begins to wonder if he even deserves to be called the good guy.
It’s an empowering comic book movie with real conscience and a total awareness of how far we still need to go as a society. The answers don’t come easy here. T’Challa ultimately deciding to amend his worldview and break from ancient tradition after hearing the villain’s side of the story is a breath of fresh air in the MCU (and the superhero genre in general), which too often struggles with one-note antagonists.
Sorry to Bother You (2018)
Director: Boots Riley
Before Everything Everywhere All at Once, there was Sorry to Bother You. Like the Daniels’ Oscar-nominated trip through the multiverse, Riley’s directorial debut is one of the strangest and most audacious movies of the last 20 years, easy.
So why has everyone stopped talking about it? This trippy jaunt through world of telemarketing (seen through the eyes of Lakeith Stanfield's Cassius Green) genuinely needs to be seen to be believed, and you’re crazy if you think we’re going to spoil any of the plot details for you. If you haven’t watched Sorry to Bother you yet, go in completely blind and thank us later.
"When I set out to write the movie, there was nothing in my head that was fantastical. But as I took the journey with Cassius I realized that some of the things I wanted to talk about, the bigger ideas, could start feeling heavy-handed or the dialogue could feel corny," Riley explained to TIME in 2018. "In trying to avoid cliché, I realized that if I bent the reality of the world that was there, it actually drew attention to that parallel point in our actual reality. I think that what I tried to convey in this is that through all the craziness, there’s an optimism that comes when you realize there’s a way to fight back."
The First Purge (2018)
Director: Gerard McMurray
The title pretty much tells you everything you need to know. McMurray (who was the first director to helm a Purge installment outside of franchise creator, James DeMonaco) takes us back to the very start when a dystopian United States decided to make all crime legal for one night out of the year. McMurray jumped at the chance, excited to explore modern-day issues through this heightened reality.
“I just felt like I wanted to make something special with this, to explore what it felt like for a Black man on Purge Night,” the filmmaker said in 2018 during an interview with Daily Dead. “Because of everything going on, there’s so much political and social commentary you can make with this story and have it reflect the world right now, and I felt like that was important. My vision was that I wanted to say something, but still make it fun and entertaining at the same time, all while using my own voice. And it was great coming into a very warm situation with both Jason [Blum] and James. They were great.”
Director: Jordan Peele
While it may not be on the same level as Get Out, execution-wise, Us is still a triumph for Mr. Peele, whose storytelling prowess (both visually and thematically) takes center stage in this skin-crawling tale of jump-suited doppelgängers taking over the world.
Even if the rules of the Tethered aren’t made completely clear to the audience, one can still revel in a palpable sense of creeping dread, and you can't say enough about Lupita Nyong’o’s iconic performance as the croaky-voiced Red, leading member of the Tethered who wages a bloody revolution against the surface world. As far as horror allegories for inequality go, Us is one of the best to ever do it.
"Everybody thinks of the term 'us' in different ways," Peele explained to NPR. "It can be 'us' the family, 'us' the town, 'us the country,' 'us humanity.' I think in the simplest form, the very nature of 'us' means there is a 'them, right? So that is what this movie is about to me, is that: Whatever your 'us' is, we turn 'them' into the enemy, and maybe 'we' are our own worst enemy."
See You Yesterday (2019)
Director: Stefon Bristol
Science fiction has always been a prism through which to explore hard-hitting subject matter, and this Spike Lee-produced Netflix film is no exception. Bristol’s award-winning debut expertly utilizes the genre to confront the abject ugliness of police brutality against minorities.
When her brother is murdered by cops, teenage science prodigy C.J. (Eden Duncan-Smith) and best friend Sebastian (Danté Crichlow) decide to put their prototype time machine to the test in an effort to save a man’s life.
“Back when I started writing the script, all the superhero movies left me feeling empty,” Bristol states in Netflix's official production notes. “I understand people want escapism and spectacle and fun. The question I had for myself as a filmmaker was, How do I combine a Marvel film with a strong, political message? There’s too much stuff happening right now in our country and around the world that escapism is not the best route. We have to face our problems head-on."
The Old Guard (2020)
Director: Gina Prince-Bythewood
Charlize Theron headlines this adaptation of the Image comic book series of the same name as Andy, leading member of a group of immortal warriors collected throughout the centuries. The latest member, U.S. Marine Nile (KiKi Layne), becomes a direct proxy for the audience, helping ground a larger-than-life fantasy.
Netflix “blockbusters” are often hit-or-miss, but The Old Guard is most definitely a hit, proving how an indie filmmaker like Gina Prince-Bythwood can make the leap from smaller productions to big-budget adventures without losing their eye for characterization.
“This is a story with mythological elements and themes of relationships, family, and love that were very appealing to me,” Prince-Bythewood says in the production notes. “But at its core, the fact that I got to put two badass women on screen was everything. The script came to me at a time when I had been looking to move into a bigger sandbox and it ended up presenting me with the opportunity to do exactly what I wanted: To put female heroes into the world, one of whom is a young Black woman.”
A sequel is currently on the way from director Victoria Mahoney (Yelling at the Sky).
Black Box (2020)
Director: Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour
One of the debut features in Amazon’s Welcome to Blumhouse series, Black Box stars Mamoudou Athie (Archive 81, Jurassic World Dominion) as Nolan Wright, a news photographer looking to regain his memory in the wake of a car accident that claimed his wife.
Desperate to regain a normal life for the sake of his daughter, Ava (Amanda Christine), Nolan takes part in an experimental hypnosis procedure overseen by Dr. Lillian Brooks (Phylicia Rashad). The foggy memories are unlocked along with something much more sinister.
"Conceptually, I've always pictured this film as Black Swan meets The Pursuit of Happyness," Osei-Kuffour explained during an interview with Screen Rant in 2020. "Black Swan is really about the psychology of someone who's constantly questioning their reality, but it's executed in a really grounded slice of life way. The Pursuit of Happyness depicts this magical bond between a father and his child, which is also fundamental here."
His House (2020)
Director: Remi Weeks
A gripping parable of immigration, assimilation, and xenophobia, Weeks’ feature-length debut centers around a young refugee couple from South Sudan (Wunmi Mosaku and Sope Dirisu) who settle in a small English town occupied by a terrible evil.
“I feel like in many places in the West you’re pulled in two very different directions: There’s part of you that really wants to assimilate and fit in, and to not draw attention to yourself, but there’s another part of you that feels very suspicious that the place doesn’t particularly feel welcoming to you, so you find yourself pulling away again, wanting to rebel from that and to stick to your roots and stick out proudly,” Weeks told Esquire. "You’re often torn in these two directions and battle within yourself, especially when you’re trying to find your place in a new country. You find yourself always struggling to find a balance.”
Director: Antoine Fuqua
Based on The Reincarnationist Papers written by D. Eric Maikranz, Infinite dares to tell an epic tale of good versus evil. Fuqua puts his action experience from Olympus Has Fallen and The Equalizer to excellent use in the trials of Evan McCauley (Mark Wahlberg), a man who learns that he is part of the “Infinites,” a gifted few who can recall the memories and skills of past lives. He’s immediately thrown into the deep-end when a fellow Infinite (Chiwetel Ejiofor) sets out to end all life to stop what he sees as a cursed cycle of reincarnation.
Director: Nia DaCosta
The first entry in the Candyman franchise to actually be directed by a Black filmmaker, this 2021 reboot (executive produced and co-written by Jordan Peele) is a mature horror movie ripped straight from the headlines, grappling with the intergenerational trauma and systemic racism that continues to define this country.
The hook-handed entity known for haunting Chicago's Cabrini-Green neighborhood is more than just a surface-level monster: He’s a walking embodiment of the unimaginable pain that has been inflicted on other human beings, whose only crime in life was being born a different color. DaCosta described Candyman as both “a monster” and an “antihero” during an interview with Collider.
“He’s multifaceted,” she added. “For me, he represents how we change people from people into idols or martyrs or icons or representations of a thing, as opposed to living, breathing human beings. He’s definitely a monster. It’s a horror movie. He’s definitely a villain, of a sort. But we wanted to deconstruct who decided he was a monster, who gave him that name, and how he got there in the first place.”
Director: Jordan Peele
A meta critique of humanity’s macabre fascination with spectacle, a biting indictment on the erasure of Black people in the world of entertainment, and a generally terrifying monster movie too boot — Jordan Peele’s ambitious third outing really does have it all. Daniel Kaluuya and Keke Palmer are at the top of their respective acting games in this insanely clever subversion of the alien invasion genre.
Peele takes the visual of the classic flying saucer we’ve seen a billion and one times and reconfigures it into a living, breathing entity hiding somewhere in the clouds above us. Named after the one word most of us would probably utter in the face of something that goes beyond our tiny, insignificant existence on this planet, Nope is a masterwork. No two ways about it.
Jordan Peele makes the revitalization of the science fiction genre look easy when such an achievement is anything but. The fact that Nope didn't get a single Oscar nomination this year is quite the snub.