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Celebrating joy during Black History Month with time capsules of Black comedy

Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall in character in Coming to America.
(Image credit: Coming to America, Paramount Pictures)

Growing up, there were several Black comedies I knew like the back of my hand before ever seeing them. These movies encapsulated Blackness in ways that resonate across generations, and have been duplicated and reproduced in other movies and various forms of media. They aren’t without fault but where they succeed in immortalizing specific moments in Black culture is one of the biggest reasons why they were all movies I knew before ever laying eyes on them. The movies I’ve put on this short list are just a fraction of iconic Black comedies that are near and dear to my heart, and I hope continue to have the impact they’ve had decades after debuting. 

Coming to America (1988) 

Eddie Murphy’s Coming to America was one of those movies that I knew about well before ever watching it. I’d heard lines from the movie referenced several times by family and friends but never knowing the exact source. It wasn’t until listening to Ludacris’s “Word of Mouf” album and hearing the skit intro to the first song on it that I finally decided to check it out. The first time I watched Coming to America, I was in awe. The opulent wardrobe stood out the most to me, all thanks to the legendary and now Academy Award-winner Ruth E. Carter. I also realized how much of this movie I’d seen homages in music videos, especially the infamous dance sequence. 

The story itself was captivating to me. A prince leaves his home in search of a princess. The movie's premise wasn't necessarily groundbreaking in that regard, but the near all-Black cast made me feel seen enough for it to resonate with me. Then there is the actual comedy within the movie that made me understand why I’d heard, so many lines over the years said at random by family and friends. I think the barbershop scene was the first time I’d learned Muhammad Ali’s birth name. Then there was the iconic Soul Glo commercial and fundraiser scenes that made me make the connection as to why this movie had permeated so much of my life before I’d even seen it. It was all due to specific forms of Blackness that only we understood in their intended ways. 

Harlem Nights (1989)

I didn’t plan on being this way, but there is a healthy amount of Eddie Murphy on this list. So much of his creative movie contributions were infused into my everyday life, like Coming to America, I often didn’t fully realize it until after I’d finally watched the source movie. Like the rest of the film on this list, Harlem Nights never fails to get a good laugh out of me, but more importantly, it introduced me to comedic legends who were before my time, but I knew about thanks to older relatives. Then there was Della Reese, who I learned a great deal about, thanks to my grandparents. The opportunity to watch them all interact in the same space is a moment that I think is extremely precious and something I don't take for granted.

I’ve grown to appreciate these kinds of movies with predominantly Black casts because they are like family reunions in the way that they include Black legends and then expose them to subsequent generations like myself. I also always loved how Harlem Nights is both a period piece and comedy. Rarely do we get Black period pieces that have a comedic tone to them. It's not an easy feat to accomplish given the violent history toward Black people in this country. It encapsulates both the Harlem Renaissance era and immortalizes Black comedy legends at the same time. A commendable task wrapped up in some iconic comedy. I still can’t believe it’s Eddie Murphy’s feature-length directorial credit. 

I'm Gonna Git You Sucka (1988)

The Wayans family has been in my life since I can remember. I often watched their parody movies based on popular Black movies first before watching the actual source movies. I’ve always been in awe of how well they took those movies' themes and turned them into comedies that had something to say themselves. 

I’m Gonna Git You Sucka is one of my dad’s favorite movies. It’s a riff on Blaxploitation era films. I hadn’t realized how brilliantly well done it was until after I got into watching a few well-known films from that era. Not only is the movie full of memorable lines and scenes, but it’s a comedic take on a period of films that often had Black leads but were written and directed by non-Black people. It does a phenomenal job of breaking down why many of these stories and scenes from some beloved Blaxploitation films were through a white lens. 

House Party (1990)

Reginald Hudlin’s House Party has a very special place in my heart because it was the first Black teen comedy I remember watching that made me go, “That’s what these John Hughes movies were missing.” And I enjoyed plenty of his movies too. House Party immortalizes a specific time in the late 80s and early 90s Black culture for Black teenagers and young adults from that period. It’s the music, hairstyles, clothing style, dances, and conversations that are a near-perfect snapshot of this very specific time in culture. All the way down to the amount of sugar one character pour into a pitcher to make kool-aid or the joke about calling 911 but having to wait on hold. 

Like the rest of the other movies on this list, House Party has lines and scenes that I heard well before watching the film, and I think that speaks volumes for it. Then there is the inclusion of several Black actors that will soon become staples in Black content to follow and are still relevant today, like Tisha Campbell, Martin Lawerence, A.J. Johnson, and John Witherspoon. House Party is a coming of age comedy that has managed to stay relevant within Black culture some 30 years later, and that’s no mistake. You've seen the iconic Kid n' Play dance no less than five times in some movie or form of media. That's impact.