There have been many classic movie comedies over the years featuring Black stars, ranging from Eddie Murphy’s Coming to America to Whoopi Goldberg’s Sister Act. Those films are among the many that resonated with Black audiences even though they were directed by white filmmakers (John Landis and Emile Ardolino, respectively, in the case of those two movies). Despite that, Hollywood has also had a long tradition of Black directors creating movies aimed specifically at Black audiences; trailblazer Oscar Micheaux, in fact, is regarded as the first major Black filmmaker, directing and producing more than 40 so-called “race films” between 1919 and 1948.
These days, as Hollywood executives increasingly come to realize the importance of Black directors telling Black stories, there’s been an ever-growing number of Black directors engaging in big-screen filmmaking, a trend that has been evident not just in dramas but in comedies as well. In fact, some of the most beloved comedies with predominantly Black casts featured Black directors at the helm. For the full picture, keep on reading for a rundown of the 15 best comedy movies from Black directors
She’s Gotta Have It heralded the arrival of a new voice in cinema, the first film from now-iconic filmmaker Spike Lee. Made on a shoestring budget of $175,000, the film follows the romantic conundrums surrounding young, attractive New Yorker Nola Darling (Tracy Camilla Jones), who is simultaneously dating three very different men: sensitive and caring Jamie Overstreet (Tommy Redmond Hicks), narcissistic male model Greer Childs (John Canada Terrell), and basketball-obsessed bicycle messenger Mars Blackmon (played by Lee himself). Nola’s free-thinking, sexually liberated attitudes take a hit when all three men meet and compare notes about their respective relationships/experiences with Nola, leading her to some unexpected soul-searching.
More correctly categorized as a dramedy than a straight comedy, She’s Gotta Have It‘s funniest bits come courtesy of Lee’s character and his hilarious mile-a-minute chatter. That’s evident from what is arguably the film’s most memorable moment: when Mars calls up Nola for a birthday booty call. She blows him off (because she’s in bed with Jamie), leading Mars to beg, “Please, baby, please, baby, please baby, baby, please.” When he’s rebuffed, Mars is then seen phoning another woman to make the same request. Lee revisited his first project in 2017 with the Netflix series She’s Gotta Have It, which updated the concept to the present, casting new actors as Nola and her trio of suitors.
Written, produced, directed by, and starring Robert Townsend, Hollywood Shuffle is a prime example of the old axiom advising to “write what you know.” In this semi-autobiographical indie comedy, Townsend — an up-and-coming actor at the time — plays aspiring actor Bobby Taylor, who auditions for one stereotypical role after another while paying the bills by working at Winky Dinky Dog. Bobby figures his big break has arrived when he’s cast in the street-gang flick Jivetime Jimmy’s Revenge, but finds himself having a crisis of conscience about accepting the stereotypical-bordering-on-insulting role, and he eventually quits to save his dignity.
The film’s funniest bits come during Bobby’s fantasy dream sequences, which function as comedy sketches within the film. In one, he envisions an acting school that specializes in teaching Black thespians how to be “more Black,” while another spoofs the then-popular film review show At the Movies, substituting the show’s stars — movie critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert — with two Black guys who sneak into cinemas to review such faux films as Chicago Jones and the Temple of Doom and Attack of the Street Pimps before they’re thrown out of the theater by an usher. After spoofing At the Movies, Townsend ironically wound up receiving a thumbs-up review from Ebert, who acknowledged the low-budget indie’s problems while also offering praise: “There are a lot of good laughs in Hollywood Shuffle, and the movie certainly functions as a showcase for Townsend …”
One of Hollywood Shuffle’s co-writers was Keenen Ivory Wayans, who made his directorial debut with I’m Gonna Git You Sucka, which he also wrote and starred in. As the title suggests, the film is a spoof of 1970s blaxploitation films such as Shaft, Super Fly, and Rudy Ray Moore’s Dolemite. Wayans plays Jack Spade, a military veteran who returns to his hometown to discover his younger brother, Junebug, has died from an “OG” — an overdose of gold chains. Realizing gold chains have become an epidemic plaguing the neighborhood, Jack makes it his mission to bring down Mr. Big (John Vernon, a.k.a. Animal House‘s Dean Wormer), the crime boss at the top of the gold chain empire. Understandably, the comedy is big, broad, and silly, and it ultimately paved the way for Wayans’ subsequent success on the small screen with his FOX sketch-comedy series In Living Color.
The first-rate cast is also a contributing factor to the film’s funniness. In addition to actual blaxploitation stars Isaac Hayes, Jim Brown, and Antonio Fargas, Wayans wrangled several of his hilarious siblings, as well as Clarence Williams III of Mod Squad fame, future In Living Color star David Alan Grier, and up-and-coming comedians Robin Harris and Chris Rock.
Ostensibly a vehicle for then-popular rap duo Kid ‘n Play (a.k.a. Christopher “Kid” Reid and Christopher “Play” Martin), House Party marked the directorial debt of Reginald Hudlin, who would go on to direct such films as the Eddie Murphy-starring Boomerang and the Matthew Perry rom-com Serving Sara). Essentially high school hijinks, the plot focuses on a party that Play throws when his folks are out of town for the weekend. Because Kid has been grounded, he sneaks out but eventually incurs the wrath of his angry dad (comedian Robin Harris, who steals every scene he’s in). Getting to the party, however, is easier said than done, with Kid encountering a variety of obstacles (including a brief stint behind bars) before finally making it to the big bash.
The low-budget film made its money back and then some, ultimately raking in more than $26 million — 10-plus times the $2.5 million it cost to make. That led to sequels, 1991’s House Party 2 and 1994’s House Party 3, and the 2023 House Party remake. What set House Party apart from other Black-centric comedies at that time was its authenticity. “The theory we’ve always believed … is that if you can make a film that is culturally uncompromised, it will still have broad appeal,” Hudlin told the Los Angeles Times back in 1990. “And, in fact, by diluting the [ethnic content of] the film, it becomes less interesting for all audiences.”
F. Gary Gray was best known for directing music videos for the likes of Cypress Hill, Coolio, and Ice Cube when he made his directorial debut with Friday. The screenplay — co-written by the film’s star, Ice Cube, and DJ Pooh — is a classic buddy comedy with a stoner twist, following the exploits of weed-loving slacker duo Craig Jones (Ice Cube) and Smokey (Chris Tucker) during one day in South Central. Their day turns bleak, however, when the two are given until that evening to repay $200 to drug dealer Big Worm (Faizon Love) for the weed they were supposed to sell but instead smoked, or they’ll be whacked. Thanks to that ultimatum, the film follows their mishaps trying to scrape together the $200. Along with the two leads, Friday benefits from a top-notch cast playing an array of colorful characters, ranging from comedian Bernie Mac as not-so-godly Pastor Clever to annoying Felicia (Angela Means), the latter spawning the wildly popular meme “Bye, Felicia.”
According to the film’s star/screenwriter, his intent was to show the lighter side of Black neighborhoods after the starkly gritty depictions in Boyz n the Hood and its ilk. “I mean, I knew it was crazy around where I grew up but we had fun in the hood,” Ice Cube told Complex, recalling that they based the film’s characters on the real people they knew. “Every hood has a Deebo or a Felicia,” explained DJ Pooh.
While Friday may have been a reaction to all those gritty hood-set dramas, Don’t Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood is a straight-out genre parody. Taking his cues from the over-the-top, absurdist antics of Airplane, director Paris Barclay shifted gears from directing music videos and TV shows to his first feature film. The sibling duo of Shawn and Marlon Wayans starred as, respectively, Ashtray — sent by his mother to live in the ghetto so he can toughen up — and Loc Dog, his drug-dealing, weapons-loving, criminal cousin.
Among the film’s most memorable characters are: Officer Self Hatred (Bernie Mac), a Black cop who only harasses Black people; demon-possessed Keisha (Terri J. Vaughn); Dashiki (Tracey Cherelle Jones), a “hood mother” who has seven kids by seven different fathers; Crazy Legs (Suli McCullough), who dreams of becoming a professional dancer despite having been paralyzed in a drive-by shooting; and Malik, played by Omar Epps as a parody of the character he portrayed in Higher Learning. Keenen Ivory Wayans also appears as a mailman who pops up whenever a lesson is being imparted to the audience so that he can hammer it home even further by yelling, “Message!” Sometimes, those messages become the setup for a joke — like when Ashtray tells a young Black boy that they’re an endangered species “Why, because we’re Black males?” the boy asks. “No,” Ashtray responds, “because rappers are taking all the good acting jobs.”
As an actor, Ice Cube has displayed the rare ability to excel in both gritty drama and outrageous comedy. Building on the success of Friday, he took the lead role of Calvin Palmer in director Tim Story’s Barbershop, set in a Black barbershop on the South Side of Chicago. The film explores the role of the barbershop in Black communities, as a gathering place for men to come together and get their hair trimmed — but mostly to share stories and engage in hilarious conversations. On that front, the film’s funniest utterances come from veteran barber Eddie, played by comedian Cedric the Entertainer, whose old-school opinions may be out of step with the times, but nevertheless contain a certain wisdom, skewed as they may be. “There are three things that Black people need to tell the truth about,” Eddie opines in one scene. “Number one: Rodney King should’ve gotten his ass beat for being drunk in a Hyundai in a white part of Los Angeles. Number two: O.J. did it! And number three: Rosa Parks didn’t do nuthin’ but sit her Black ass down!”
Made for a modest $12 million, Barbershop brought in more than $77 million at the box office. That success led to three sequels (including the Queen Latifah-starring Beauty Shop), establishing one of the most successful Black-led comedy movie franchises in Hollywood history.
Based on writer and director John Ridley’s animated online series, director Malcolm D. Lee’s Undercover Brother spoofs both blaxploitation movies and the spy genre. Eddie Griffin stars as Anton Jackson, whose crime-fighting alter ego Undercover Brother joins the top-secret espionage agency known as B.R.O.T.H.E.R.H.O.O.D., which exists to thwart the devious efforts of The Man, leader of a Caucasian cabal devoted to the denigration of Black culture. Undercover Brother works under the organization’s boss, the Chief (Chi McBride), alongside fellow agents Conspiracy Brother (Dave Chappelle), Smart Brother (Gary Anthony Williams), Sistah Girl (Aunjanue Ellis), and Lance the Intern (Neil Patrick Harris), the sole white member of the group. “What can I tell you, man,” sighs the Chief while explaining Lance’s presence. “Affirmative action.” Undercover Brother and his cohorts must foil an evil plot after The Man’s henchman, Mr. Feather (SNL alum Chris Kattan), kidnaps James Brown (with the Godfather of Soul playing himself). Other stars include Billy Dee Williams as a Colin Powell-esque general and Denise Richards as henchwoman She-Devil, who ultimately betrays The Man after falling for Undercover Brother’s seductive charms.
“The picture is crammed with shameless satire, engaging moments of pure silliness and jokes that border on the outrageous,” wrote critic Mick LaSalle of the film in his review for the San Francisco Chronicle. “It combines relentless energy with an aura of good nature for a formula that works.”
Keenen Ivory Wayans returned behind the camera for the 2004 comedy White Chicks, which boasted an outrageous premise. Wayans’ brothers, Marlon Wayans and Shawn Wayans, star as Marcus Anthony II and Kevin Copeland, respectively, low-level FBI agents who badly botch a case — but are offered one last chance to rescue their careers by protecting the daughters of a wealthy cruise line owner from becoming the latest victims in a string of kidnappings. When an unfortunate accident leads the women to suffer facial injuries and they refuse to be seen in public, the agents don makeup and wigs in order to impersonate them at a posh charity party.
At the time of its release, reviews for White Chicks were decidedly mixed. “Most movies require some suspension of disbelief,” wrote critic Dave Kehr in his brutal review for the New York Times. “But White Chicks … requires something more radical than that. A full frontal lobotomy might be a good place to start.” The film also had its supporters. Variety reviewer David Rooney, for example, wrote, that “as lowbrow comedies go, it pretty much delivers.” While the film was nominated for five Razzies — including Worst Picture — it also raked in an impressive box-office take of more than $113 million, and over the years has come to be considered a comedy cult classic.
It’s no secret that the blaxploitation films of the 1970s have been lovingly and hilariously spoofed in subsequent years, and director Scott Sanders’ Black Dynamite is a worthy addition to that list. Michael Jai White stars as the titular Black Dynamite, a Vietnam vet, ex-CIA agent and kung fu expert whose mission to avenge the murder of his brother uncovers a vast conspiracy involving a malt liquor that’s been infused with a nefarious chemical that shrinks the genitals of those who drink it. Sanders and White co-wrote the screenplay, with White revealing in an interview with The A.V. Club that he came up with the idea for Black Dynamite while listening to the James Brown classic “Super Bad,” and that the character was initially intended to be named Superbad (a notion that the 2007 release of teen comedy Super Bad kiboshed).
While the film has frequently been compared to fellow blaxploitation spoofs I’m Gonna Git You Sucka and Undercover Brother, Black Dynamite is set in the 1970s, not the present, lending a level of authenticity that makes the absurdity of its gags hit even harder. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the film’s action-packed climax, when Black Dynamite enters the Oval Office to engage in a mano-a-mano nunchuks battle with Richard Nixon — a scene that also features a cameo from the ghost of Abraham Lincoln.
Rarely has social satire and hilarious humor blended as successfully as in Dear White People, the 2014 directorial debut of Justin Simien, who also wrote the screenplay. Set in fictional Winchester University, a prestigious Ivy League college, Samantha White (Tessa Thompson) ruffles feathers with her campus radio show Dear White People, in which she discusses the racism that the school’s minority of Black students encounter at the predominantly white institution. Tyler James Williams (of Everybody Hates Chris fame) plays Lionel Higgins, a gay Black student who becomes conflicted when he’s tapped by the college’s student newspaper to write about Sam and his own impressions of being a Black student at Winchester. Ultimately, the simmering racial tensions on campus are brought to a head when a well-connected white student hosts a party encouraging white guests to wear blackface.
The film was met with critical acclaim and rave reviews, such as National Newspaper Publishers Association reviewer Dwight Brown’s contention that the film is “a brilliant piece of writing from a very thoughtful and humorous director whose take on life is as fresh as the ink on a college diploma.” Simien later expanded on the film’s premise with the Netflix series Dear White People, which ran for four seasons.
Female-fronted comedy movies were once a rarity, and female-fronted comedies with Black leads were even rarer. Malcolm D. Lee (who brought viewers Undercover Brother) delivered a female buddy comedy for the ages with Road Trip, assembling an all-star cast featuring Queen Latifah, Jada Pinkett Smith, Regina Hall, and newcomer Tiffany Haddish. The four women play pals — who dubbed themselves the Flossy Posse — who have drifted apart over the years, but make an effort to reinforce their four-way friendship with a trip to the Essence Music Festival in New Orleans. It’s there that Queen Latifah’s character — a lifestyle guru fashioning herself as “the next Oprah” — will be giving a speech. Raunchy, drunken hijinks ensue, particularly in one scene in which the women imbibe absinthe, sending them all into a hilariously hallucinogenic frenzy.
Not only was Girls Trip beloved by critics, audiences felt the same way, propelling the film to a worldwide box-office gross of $140 million. Meanwhile, Girls Trip also served as a cinematic calling card for Haddish, whose breakout role as outrageous Dina sent her comedy career into the stratosphere.
In Sorry to Bother You, the feature film debut of director Boots Riley, Lakeith Stanfield (a standout in FX series Atlanta) stars as Cassius “Cash” Green, who lands a low-level job as a telemarketer. Initially struggling, Cash discovers the secret to success by imitating a “white voice” in his calls (comedian David Cross provides that particular voice) that results in a major promotion to the position of Power Caller. This success, however, leads him to discover the company he works for is involved in shady arms deals fueled by slave labor; employees are given a substance that transforms them into human-horse hybrids dubbed Equisapiens. Cash faces a crisis of conscience, but also enjoys the sleek new apartment and expensive sports car that are among the perks of his promotion — until he discovers he too is morphing into an Equisapien.
If that sounds like a weird and bizarre morality tale, that’s because it’s how Riley intended it. “This is an absurdist, dark comedy with magical realism and science fiction inspired by the world of telemarketing,” Riley told NPR’s Fresh Air when asked to offer a brief synopsis.
There have been many variations on the body-swap premise best evinced by the Tom Hanks classic Big, in which a child morphs into an adult version of themselves (also think Jennifer Garner’s 13 Going on 30). Little presents a role reversal of Big, which is evident in its title, with Regina Hall playing high-powered tech executive Jordan Sanders, who transforms into her childhood self (Marsai Martin of Black-ish), with Issa Rae (Insecure) costarring as Jordan’s incredulous best friend. Interestingly enough, it was Martin — then just 10 years old — who came to producer Kenya Barris (her boss on Black-ish) after watching Big, and at 14 wound up becoming an executive producer on the project — the youngest EP in Hollywood history. Tina Gordon (who wrote the screenplays for such films as Drumline and ATL) was tapped to make her directorial debut (as well as co-write the screenplay with Tracy Oliver).
The fact that Little was directed by, written by, and starred Black women is something of a milestone. And while several critics found the film too reminiscent of other body-swap comedies (and claimed it could have benefited from a bit more of Hall), Gordon moves the film along at a fast pace and keeps the comedy coming consistently.
If Little was significant for being led by Black women both in front of and behind the camera, The Forty-Year-Old Version can almost be seen as something of a companion piece. This 2020 comedy, directed by and starring Radha Blank (who also wrote and produced), depicts the struggles of playwright/teacher Radha as she approached her 40th birthday. Reflecting on the “30 under 30” award she won a decade earlier, she’s forced to compromise the vision for her latest play, Harlem Ave., when the play’s producer — an old white guy (Reed Birney) — insists she make changes that he feels will appeal to a white audience. In the midst of this, she rediscovers her long-lost passion for rap music, eventually rebranding herself as rapper RadhaMUSPrime. Ultimately, her newfound focus on music serves to reignite the creativity that she felt had stagnated, providing the inspiration that’s been lacking from her play — and her life — and showing her a new path forward.
Blank’s unique voice shines through The Forty-Year-Old Version, a powerful cinematic debut that earned a Grand Jury Prize nomination at Sundance, and the acclaimed film fest’s Best Directing prize. Shooting the film in lush black-and-white, Blank explained in an interview with Thrillist, was inspired by her own cinematic influences. “It definitely was paying homage to these older New York City films, from Manhattan to The Apartment to She’s Gotta Have It,” she said.