Ranking 25 films about sports and moving Black America forward

Chadwick Boseman at The Los Angeles Premiere of Warner Bros. Pictures' and Legendary Pictures' 42, on Tuesday, April, 9th, 2013 in Los Angeles. (Photo by Eric Charbonneau/Invision for Warner Bros./AP Images)

I teach students in my race, sports and culture class that the most significant campaigns for racial equality in sports consistently have reflected the overall quest for civil rights in the United States.

To see how Black athletes and coaches have for more than a century challenged social norms and values, one can watch many films made over the years that focus on their inspiring stories.

This quote may be from the movie “Woodlawn,” however, it easily could have been said in any film involving race and sports: “When you play for yourself, you can be great, but when you play for something higher than yourself — that’s when something extraordinary can happen.”

Which brings us to “Black Ice,” a must-see film that opened in theaters nationwide Friday. It’s not only about the challenges and triumphs of Black players, both past and present, within the predominantly white sport of hockey, but also the struggle we all share even talking about race.

Read more: Review: Well-sourced hockey doc 'Black Ice' throws its weight behind a racial indictment

Here are 25 other films that focus on Black athletes and the desire for a greater societal good. The list prioritizes true stories, excluding films such as “Bring The Noise,” “Creed,” “He Got Game,” “Love & Basketball” and “White Men Can’t Jump.” I also left off some “white savior” films such as “Cool Runnings,” “Radio” and “The Blind Side.”

The following list is far from scientific. Key factors: Did it make me cry a little, laugh a lot or swell with pride? It’s likely the ones at the top did all three.

1. “One Night In Miami”

2020 | Trailer

Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, Sam Cooke and Malcolm X — by then already legendary in music, politics and sports — spend an incredible night discussing their personal crossroads and societal responsibilities amid the civil rights movement and cultural upheaval of the 1960s. It’s so fascinating to consider that they were together at the same time, and the honest interaction they had in that hotel room was enthralling.

2. “When We Were Kings”

1996 | Trailer

George Foreman looks on as Will Smith gives Muhammad Ali a hug during the Oscars in 2007.
George Foreman, left, looks on as Will Smith, center, gives Muhammad Ali a hug after Ali And Foreman made an appearance on stage when the film "When We Were Kings" won best documentary at the 1997 Academy Awards in Los Angeles. (Susan Sterner / Associated Press)

A documentary about the captivating “Rumble in the Jungle” boxing match held in 1974 in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) between heavyweight champion George Foreman and former champion Muhammad Ali. It features archival footage of celebrities and a related music festival, along with interviews from the 1990s. The film is about much more than boxing, just as Ali always seemed to be.

3. “42

2013 | Trailer

Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey defies Major League Baseball’s color barrier by signing a Black player, Jackie Robinson, whose indelible courage, restraint and, yes, talent lead him to overcome racism and overwhelm his critics. Two lessons for my students from this film each semester: how the Black press helped pave the way for integration in sports, and how racism isn’t necessarily a natural instinct. It’s learned.

Read more: Complete coverage: Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier 75 years ago

4. “Brian’s Song”

1971 | Trailer 

Brian Piccolo and Gale Sayers were Chicago Bears roommates in the late1960s, when pro football still endured a bit of race-based segregation. The bond between Sayers, who’s Black, and Piccolo, who’s white, as well as their wives, became a beacon of hope during the civil rights era. It grows stronger when Piccolo gets horrible news. Considered one of the best TV movies ever made, it was definitely the first film to make me cry.

5. "The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings

1976 | Trailer

Bingo Long and Leon Carter in 1939 lead a group of Black baseball players defecting from the Negro League and their tightfisted team owners, with the barnstorming squad challenging white counterparts in pickup games. I remember joining my eighth-grade classmates for a field trip to see this film in a local theater. Such a joy to see an ensemble of notable Black actors striving for good while playing the favorite sport of my youth.

6. “Hoop Dreams”

1994 | Trailer

President Bill Clinton walks on the Arkansas State campus with Arthur Agee, a star of the movie "Hoop Dreams."
President Bill Clinton walks on the Arkansas State University campus in 1995 with basketball player Arthur Agee, one of two stars of the movie "Hoop Dreams." (Doug Mills / Associated Press)

One of the most highly touted documentaries follows the story of two Black high school students in Chicago and their dream of making it to the NBA. The film takes its time in poignantly telling a story that still too often pervades America. Yes, we often hear about the make-it-to-the-top legends of high school basketball, but here we have the other side: what happens when race, class and education result in heartbreak.

7. “Remember The Titans

2000 | Trailer

An African American coach takes the helm of a high school football team during its first season as a racially integrated unit in Alexandria, Va., in the 1970s. Denzel Washington, at the height of his acting stature, masterfully portrays Coach Boone in a rare Disney movie involving race. The film offers a defining example of how sports can help overcome prejudice, transform a community and inspire a nation.

8. “King Richard”

2021 | Trailer

Guided by a premonition and a 78-page plan, Richard Williams has his two daughters, Venus and Serena, train on tennis courts in Compton as their family defies the daunting expectations of a predominantly white sport. It’s often been said that their story would have been rejected if offered first as a movie script. Will Smith earned an Oscar for best actor for the leading role, and despite “the Slap,” the film hits all of the right notes.

9. “Invictus

2009 | Trailer

Based on the events in South Africa before and during the 1995 Rugby World Cup, in which new president Nelson Mandela seeks to unite a country divided by race. The film offers us lessons in the power of forgiveness and transformative leadership. More than that, though, actor Morgan Freeman is amazing in how he portrays the international icon.

10. “Race

2016 | Trailer

Jesse Owens becomes a track and field star while breaking records at Ohio State in the early 1930s. Overcoming racism at home and abroad, Owens blitzes the 1936 Summer Olympics in Germany to show the Nazis and the world what a Black man can do when it matters most. Such a shame his stardom ended once he returned to Jim Crow’s America.

11. “Pride

2007 | Trailer

In 1970s Philadelphia, Jim Ellis, driven by a love of competitive swimming, upgrades a run-down recreation center with the help of a janitor. When the city marks it for demolition, Ellis creates an all-Black swim team. Facing racism and other challenges, he readies his team for the state championships. Terrence Howard and Bernie Mac shine.

12. “Ali

2001 | Trailer

From 1964 to 1974, Muhammad Ali wins the heavyweight championship, converts to Islam, criticizes the Vietnam War, is banished from boxing, returns to fight Joe Frazier and then reclaims the title against George Foreman in 1974 — all during great social and political upheaval. Will Smith rightfully earns his first Oscar nomination in the lead role.

13. “The Express: The Ernie Davis Story

2008 | Trailer

Davis overcomes poverty and other obstacles to get from an upstate New York high school to Syracuse University. Davis becomes the first Black player to win the Heisman Trophy, but then he must overcome an obstacle no one saw coming. The scenes of Davis with Jim Brown, whom he succeeded at Syracuse, are my favorites.

14. “The Joe Louis Story

1953 | Movie

The film follows Louis as a teenager who gives up on the violin to try boxing, then as a Golden Gloves and heavyweight champion. But prejudice follows Louis throughout his career, and his bouts with Germany’s Max Schmeling reek of racial and international tension. For me, though, I’ll always remember Louis for staying up all night to catch a fly to show he was serious about boxing.

Read more: It's more than LeBron

15. “More Than A Game”

2008 | Trailer

Former St. Vincent-St. Mary High teammates LeBron James, Dru Joyce III and Willie McGee stand in their high school gym

The story shares the evolution of LeBron James through the trials and tribulations he and his teammates faced in Akron, Ohio, as high school basketball became a national TV showcase in the early 2000s. Knowing what we know now — James is a four-time NBA champion and its all-time scoring leader — makes the tale even more incredible.

16. “The Jackie Robinson Story

1950 | Trailer

Tracing the life and career of the first Black player to reintegrate Major League Baseball, in 1947, with Robinson earning praise from critics for starring as himself. The first Black athlete to do that as well, I recall watching it as a child and thinking all of my favorite players would do such a thing someday.

17. “Glory Road

2006 | Trailer

Texas Western basketball coach Don Haskins and players celebrate after winning the 1966 national championship
Texas Western basketball coach Don Haskins, second from left, and players celebrate after winning the 1966 NCAA basketball championship. Texas Western featured the first all-Black starting five to win a national championship and served as the inspiration for "Glory Road." (AP / Associated Press)

As the 1966 Texas Western Miners’ coach, Don Haskins builds a team based on talent rather than race. His diverse lineup soon begins to win all of its games, but when Black players begin to dominate the court with flashy moves, racial tensions on and off it rise, jeopardizing the team’s future. Quite compelling, to me at least, that NBA coaching legend Pat Riley played for Kentucky in that championship game.

18. “The Hurricane”

1999 | Trailer

Rubin “Hurricane” Carter’s quest to be middleweight boxing champ ends when he and another man are sentenced to life in prison for the murders of three people in a New Jersey bar. He gets help from the unlikeliest of people to prove his innocence years later. Denzel Washington turning away the love of his life in that prison scene: horrifying.

19. “From The Rough”

2013 | Trailer

Catana Starks, the first woman to coach a college men’s golf team, forms a team of international players and leads Tennessee State to a championship season. This is the only film on the list with a woman (Taraji P. Henson) in the leading role. Here’s hoping that future lists will have many more such movies to choose from.

20. “The Great White Hope

1970 | Trailer

Jack Jefferson is the early 1910s heavyweight boxing champ, but as a Black man, he’s also fighting discrimination and prejudice. Fans and the media resent the idea of a Black champion (especially one who dates white women) and search for a “great white hope” to beat him. Based on the true story of Jack Johnson, I shake my head each time my students think I’m talking instead about the soft-rock and pop musician.

21. “Coach Carter

2005 | Trailer 

Ken Carter, a high school basketball coach in Richmond, Calif., makes headlines in 1999 for suspending his undefeated team because of poor academics. One of the few movies in which Samuel L. Jackson is the lead actor, it’s a little preachy at times but still offers plenty of nice on-court action and a great example of a compassionate Black man.

22. “Woodlawn”

2015 | Trailer

In this 2014 photo, "Woodlawn" director Andy Erwin talks with actors Caleb Castille and Nic Bishop
"Woodlawn" director Andy Erwin talks with actors Caleb Castille, who plays former Alabama running back Tony Nathan, and Nic Bishop, who plays Tandy Gerelds. (Brynn Anderson / Associated Press)

Amid 1970s government-mandated desegregation, gifted athlete Tony Nathan joins fellow Black students at a new high school in Birmingham, Ala. As violence erupts in the city, the football coach lets an outsider offer his players a message of hope and love. Definitely a compelling story about when race, sports and religion collide.

23. “Big George Foreman

2023 | Trailer

Foreman, the Olympic gold medalist and world heavyweight champion, retires after setbacks and becomes a preacher. When hard times hit again, Foreman returns to the ring and, at age 45, becomes the oldest heavyweight champion. One might expect more cinematic boxing scenes. Then again, it’s more about what happens outside of the ring.

24. “Rebound: The Legend of Earl 'The Goat’ Manigault”

1996 | Trailer

The best basketball player the world has never known — a 1960s Harlem playground legend nicknamed “The Goat” — resolves to serve his community after drugs and despair ruined his career. Interesting tale about the man many people, including Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, said earned the title long before Michael Jordan and LeBron James came along.

25. “The Greatest

1977 | Trailer

Ending where we began, this time with the man himself in the lead roles of Cassius Clay and Muhammed Ali. The film traces his rise from Olympic gold medalist to heavyweight champion, his conversion to Islam, his refusal to serve in the Vietnam War and his triumphant return to the ring. If nothing else, we can thank the film for giving us “The Greatest Love of All,” sung first by George Benson and later by Whitney Houston.

Other notable films involving sports and the quest to move Black America forward: “Friday Night Lights” (2004); “Hurricane Season” (2009); “Brian Banks” (2018); “A Most Beautiful Thing” (2020) and “Sweetwater” (2023).

Herbert Lowe is a Times visiting academic fellow and senior lecturer at the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.