For decades, gangster movies have been a staple for movie lovers. There is something intriguing about seeing screen characters using force, treachery, and influence to acquire wealth. Watching the criminals backstab each other or get hunted down by the authorities tends to be even more exciting and before that happens, there is always a crime glorification window where these individuals are shown living a life of luxury. From Scarface to Goodfellas, there are numerous gangster movies to enjoy, and genre fans who are already familiar with the popular projects can narrow down their watch lists to tales revolving around Black characters. These films not only feature great protagonists and antagonists but also offer a moral lesson or too regarding how to live a trouble-free life.
10 Juice (1992)
Ernest R. Dickerson’s Juice is basically a 95 reminder of the sayings, “You are a product of your environment” and “Choose your friends wisely.” In the film, four young Harlem buddies (Bishop, Q, Raheem, and Steel) find themselves idolizing neighborhood criminals and on one evening, they impulsively decide to rob a convenience store. During the stick-up, Bishop kills the owner, causing him to fall out with his friends. Worried that they won’t keep quiet about the incident, he vows to hunt them all down and kill them.
The film impresses in many ways, but one thing audiences are likely to appreciate the most is the performance of one of the most talented rappers-cum-actors, Tupac Shakur. In his role as Bishop, Tupac remains unapologetically ruthless, menacing, and unreasonable. The supporting cast is impressive too, as it features the finest Black talents such as Samuel L. Jackson and Queen Latifah.
9 Black Caesar (1973)
In Black Caesar, police brutality ends up being the motivating factor for young Tommy Gibbs to get into the life of crime. After being consistently harassed by officers as a young man, he grows to hate everyone that is part of the ‘good side’ so he works his way into the New York mafia. Soon, he forms his own faction and finds himself in conflict with several mob families.
As questionable as Gibbs’ trajectory in life is, anyone watching can’t help but admire his ambition, industriousness, and caution. Even when his enemies conspire against him, they still find it difficult to take him down. Black Caesar is also quite a music-fest as it has a wonderful soundtrack composed by the legendary James Brown. In addition to that, many aspects of the film (including the title) are inspired by James Cagney’s Little Caesar. There is plenty of violence, as is the case with the Pre-Code project, and the characters in both films also rise from street gangsters to bosses.
8 Boyz n the Hood (1991)
Rarely does a film boost the careers of so many actors at once but Boyz n the Hood did just that, with Angela Bassett, Cuba Gooding Jr., Ice Cube, Morris Chestnut, Laurence Fishburne, and Regina King, all going on to be Hollywood superstars after appearing in the John Singleton directorial debut. The events revolve around Tre, who often finds himself in a dilemma on whether to stick to the principles his father teaches him or lose himself in the South-Central Los Angeles gang culture like his friends.
Proof of Boyz n the Hood’s brilliance also lies in the fact that it was nominated for both Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay at the Oscars. The story is extremely touching, mainly because of the deaths of many characters who had nothing to do with the crime. Away from the violence and flawless plot, the film shines because of the colorful cinematography. From wide-angled shots of buildings to cars, there is no shortage of views guaranteed to please the eyes.
7 Shottas (2002)
Arguably Jamaica’s most popular film, Shottas stars Bob Marley’s son Ky-Mani Marley as an ambitious and hot-tempered young gangster named Biggs. After accumulating plenty of money through his criminal activities in Jamaica, he buys a visa to America, only for him to get deported. Not willing to give up, he makes a return to Miami where he finds himself in a major feud with the new drug kingpin.
In all honesty, Shottas’ plot isn’t unique in any way, but the film is boosted by strong performances all around and there are many familiar names in the cast, notably DJ Khaled and Wyclef Jean. And because it’s a Jamaican production, the soundtrack is packed with danceable songs from some of the country’s top musical talents.
6 New Jack City (1991)
Rumors of a New Jack City reboot have been flying around for a while now and fans of the original might be caught in two minds on whether to be excited about it. That’s because the Mario Van Peebles film is simply too good. The story follows rising New York drug lord Nino Brown (Wesley Snipes) whose illegal business runs smoothly until an undercover cop (played by Law & Order: SVU’s Ice-T) infiltrates his gang.
As disturbingly violent as New Jack City is, there are several things that are guaranteed to awe the viewer, specifically Nino’s passionate courtroom monologue where he rants on about why drugs should be legal. He reminds everyone that there was plenty of violence during the Prohibition Era, but it all ended when alcohol became legal. He also argues that the police ought to be more focused on the source than on gangsters on the lower end of the food chain. “There are no Uzis made in Harlem. Not one of us here owns a poppy field,” he says.
5 Menace II Society (1993)
Menace II Society is yet another brilliant movie about the never-ending chain of gang violence in Los Angeles. In an area where almost every young person is affiliated with a criminal faction, any simple disagreement is solved with guns. And whenever one person gets killed, his friends or associates quickly retaliate. Caught up in this lifestyle is the teenager Caine Lawson who figures the best way to have a better life is to move to Atlanta.
Throughout the proceedings, audiences stay with crossed fingers, wondering whether Caine will make it out before all the people that he and his friends have offended retaliate. Regrettably, his dream doesn’t become a reality. Menace II Society has one of the most tragic movie endings. Nonetheless, it teaches an important lesson about watching the company you keep and making the right choices.
4 American Gangster (2007)
From shooting enemies in the middle of the street to smuggling drugs using the coffins of dead American soldiers, Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) keeps asserting his dominance and demonstrating his intelligence in American Gangster. Because of his notoriety, the Harlem mob boss quickly catches the attention of a Newark detective who vows to take him down.
Overall, American Gangster is as much a business movie as it is a gangster movie. There are plenty of entrepreneurship skills to learn from Frank. By creating the cheaper and superior “Blue Magic” heroin, he is able to eliminate much of his competition. And like every other Denzel Washington film, there are plenty of quotables here. “The loudest one in the room is always the weakest one in the room,” he once lashes out at an employee wearing a flashy suit.
3 Dead Presidents (1995)
In Dead Presidents, Anthony Curtis faces the kind of problem that has been touched on many times in Hollywood. After completing his tour of duty in Vietnam, he struggles to get any work once he returns home. He thus decides to become a gangster and his biggest job comes when he teams up with two friends to rob a bank. The plot is partially based on the life of Haywood T. Kirkland.
Events after the heist follow a familiar pattern. One of the criminals begins spending too much, causing the authorities to start sniffing. Consequently, none of them gets a happy ending. The final minutes of the film are especially iconic, specifically because of the scene where Anthony throws a chair at a judge (who happens to be a fellow war veteran) for giving him a 15-year sentence.
2 Hoodlum (1997)
Hoodlum is a fictionalized account of the life of Elseworth “Bumpy” Johnson, the Harlem mob boss who was succeeded by the deadlier Frank Lucas. There is currently a much more detailed show about him (FX’s Godfather of Harlem) but the movie is ideal for anyone who needs a summary. The film mostly centers on Bumpy’s rivalry with the mobsters Dutch Schultz and Charles “Lucky” Luciano.
Generally, Hoodlum can be summed up as a race to the finish line. Competition is the major theme and for much of the running time, the gangsters keep coming up with creative ways to outdo each other. With Laurence Fishburne, Tim Roth, and Andy Garcia starring in the three main roles, the film hardly has any dull moment.
1 Set It Off (1996)
Set It Off follows four janitors who soon become fed up with their low pay and decide to become criminals. After weighing up all the kinds of crimes they can commit, they feel they should go big or go home, so they settle for robbing banks. When they stash their major score in one of their work sites, their boss steals it, forcing them to continue robbing. Sadly, the authorities soon catch up with them.
The film’s star-studded cast includes Queen Latifah, Vivica A. Fox, Jada Pinkett, and Kimberly Elise, who all give the best performances of their careers. Away from the bloody mayhem, there is a really catchy soundtrack that includes singles from popular Black artistes such as Brandy, Busta Rhymes and Ray J.