The 14 Best Action Movies From Black Directors

There are very few pure action movies, a fact one only comes to appreciate once they try to compile a list like this. "The Expendables," "Commando," and the "Fast and the Furious" franchise are examples of such films in which the only objective is to blow things up in creative and satisfying ways. Instead, most action movies fall on a sliding scale and also incorporate thriller, horror, and comedic elements.

The same handful of Black directors pops up on this list again and again, in part because they are excellent directors but also because it's a shallow pool. Black directors just don't get as many opportunities. According to a 2021 report by the consulting company McKinsey & Company, less than 6 percent of the writers, directors, and producers of U.S.-produced films are Black, despite Black Americans constituting 13.4 percent of the United States population (per the same report). This discrepancy may also explain why the films listed here are about something more than chases and gunfights. The action scenes are the main draw in comic book films, but director Ryan Coogler was after something more elemental and important in "Black Panther." "I was very honest about the idea I wanted to explore in this film, which is what it means to be African," Coogler told Rolling Stone


The seventh film in the "Rocky" franchise is the first in which Sylvester Stallone's Rocky Balboa isn't stumbling around the ring. Instead, the story follows Adonis Johnson Creed (Michael B. Jordan), the son of Balboa's one-time rival and friend Apollo Creed (the Creed family has incredible first names). "Creed" is a "Rocky" film only in broad but familiar strokes: the inspirational story of an underdog punching his way to the top. Even though the beats are familiar, they are no less affecting thanks in large part to Director Ryan Coogler's modern spin on the formula. "Creed" is fresh and exciting, both homage and revitalization. 

The fight scenes are where "Creed" truly shines. The two-round fight between Adonis and Leo Sporino is captured in one continuous shot and is a breath-taking piece of cinema. Upping the immersion factor, Jordan did all his own stunts and was even knocked out. Aided by Jordan's gritty, star-making performance and Stallone's understated turn as a weary and battered ex-fighter — this is the most believable version of Rocky yet, an old man who talks like he spent a good portion of his life getting punched in the face —"Creed" is the best "Rocky" since the first and an amazing action film in its own right.

Dead Presidents

This 1995 film from the Hughes brothers is loosely based on the life of Haywood Kirkland and his experiences after returning home from Vietnam. It's a story that unfolds over nearly a decade, and in that way, "Dead Presidents" is almost like three movies in one. The opening sequence is reminiscent of "Goodfellas," as young Anthony Curtis (Larenz Tate) spends time with (and is enamored by) bookie Kirby (Keith David). That segues to the war in Vietnam, with jungle shootouts and the sort of casual insanity the genre seems to demand. The last half of the film is a lead-up to the heist and its fallout. Taken as a whole, "Dead Presidents" feels like a biopic, and it effectively shows the hows and whys that led Anthony to such a drastic end. 

Between this film and his memorable role as O-Dog in "Menace II Society," it remains baffling that Tate never really became more popular. Chris Tucker also stars, playing Anthony's friend Skip with all the fast-talking gusto for which he would quickly become famous. 1995 was a great year for the ascendant young comic, as "Dead Presidents" released only six months after "Friday" made Tucker a household name. Here, his manic energy is balanced by a narrative in which Skip is suffering from exposure to Agent Orange and is a heroin addict, allowing Tucker a rare opportunity to stretch his dramatic legs.

Training Day

Directed by Antoine Fuqua, the film memorably stars Denzel Washington as corrupt narcotics detective Alonzo Harris and Ethan Hawke as wet-behind-the-ears rookie Jake Hoyt. Alonzo tests his new partner practically from the jump, goading him, and when that doesn't work, he thinks nothing of putting a gun to young Jake's head. It's new-guy-hazing via power-mad psychopath, and things quickly escalate from bad to much, much worse over the course of 24 hours. Wild chase scenes, claustrophobic fist fights, and frenetic gun battles get the adrenaline racing, but what makes "Training Day" truly special is Alonzo's brutal unpredictability.

Washington is riveting as the coolly off-kilter Alonzo, who is more of a gangbanger cosplaying as a cop than vice versa. The badge only emboldens his behavior. There isn't much he wouldn't do to get his money, but for all that, Alonzo is darkly charismatic. You simply can't take your eyes off of him. Despite his heinous actions, Alonzo is somehow still sympathetic. Jake is clearly the hero, but you don't want Alonzo to be the villain. This dichotomy helped net Washington his first Academy Award for best actor in 2002.

The Fate of the Furious (F8)

There aren't many movies more unabashedly action-oriented than the "Fast and the Furious" franchise. Each installment is bigger, louder, and more improbable than the last, but damn, if they aren't all entertaining. Director F. Gary Gray joined the franchise for the eighth installment, which was the first mainline entry without Paul Walker. Despite Walker's notable absence, the film is one of the better entries.

"F8" functions as something of a soft reboot, introducing a bevy of new faces to an already full roster and setting up a recurring, multi-film antagonist in Cipher (Charlize Theron). While it is great fun watching Helen Mirren chew the scenery as the matron of the Shaw family, the jaw-dropping stunts bring all the boys (and girls) to the yard. Jason Statham taking on a plane full of goons while holding a baby is one of the best action scenes in the entire nine-film saga.

Set It Off

This movie is a unicorn — an action movie with a Black director and starring four Black women. It's "How Stella Got Her Groove Back" meets "Point Break" with shades of "Boyz n the Hood." If you ever wanted to see a car on hydraulics run through a police checkpoint, this is the film for you.

Directed by F. Gary Gray, "Set it Off" is about four life-long friends who, after one too many last straws, decide to start robbing banks, as you do. That's being a bit flippant, but these women have reasons, and unlike the Ex-Presidents of "Point Break," it's not to chase the rush. Frankie (Vivica Fox) is a bank teller who loses her job after she fails to follow procedure during a robbery, all because she had a gun in her face and panicked. She gets a janitorial job with her friends Stony (Jada Pinkett), Cleo (Queen Latifah), and T.T. (Kimberly Elise). After tragedies befall Stony and T.T., the girls decide to use Frankie's inside knowledge to make some unauthorized bank withdrawals and get theirs. "Set it Off" is full of car chases and gunplay, but the quiet moments stick with you the most.

The Magnificent Seven (2016)

A remake of the 1960 film of the same name, which is itself a Westernized take on Akira Kurosawa's legendary "Seven Samurai," "The Magnificent Seven" reunites director Antoine Fuqua with "Training Day" stars Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke. While the film follows the conventions of its lineage (seven men heroically protect a town from an invading force of hostiles and are whittled down to a spare few survivors but impossibly manage to save the day), the shootouts are pure 21st-century action, with all the gunplay and explosions one could hope for. It is a Western more in the mold of "Tombstone" than "Unforgiven," and it doesn't have much to say about the genre other than "Hey, wouldn't this be cool?" And it is.

Washington plays Sam Chisholm, a stoic U.S. Marshal who would rather let his guns do the talking. He's joined by a former Confederate sharpshooter named Goodnight (Hawke); Joshua Faraday (Chris Pratt), a gambler and good-hearted scoundrel in the Han Solo mold; and big game hunter Jack Horn (Vincent D'Onofrio). Rounding out the seven are a Chinese assassin (Lee Byung-hun), a Mexican outlaw (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), and a Comanche warrior (Martin Sensmeier). "The Magnificent Seven" has the same sensibilities as action Westerns like "Young Guns": Life is cheap and heroes go out in a blaze of glory.

New Jack City

Released in early 1991, "New Jack City" is a moody gangster flick that was the vanguard of a new era of urban drama: films distinguishable for their unblinking look at inner city life, pulsing soundtracks, and cool characters. Films like "Boyz n the Hood" and "Menace II Society" are cautionary tales, but damn, if the characters didn't look fly riding around in blinged-out cars and bumping to sweet beats. Directed by Mario Van Peebles, "New Jack City" is an indictment of the drug epidemic that was sweeping the country at the time, but it also does its level best to make Wesley Snipes look hella cool.

Snipes plays drug lord Nino Brown, a man for whom no action is too depraved as long as he gets paid. He's charming and stylish, shrewd and funny, but it's kinda hard to admire a guy after he uses a little girl as a human shield. Fortunately, Nino's nemesis is detective Scotty Appleton, played with simmering anger by Ice-T. Chris Rock and Judd Nelson also have large roles as a drug addict and an unhinged detective, respectively, but this is mostly the Nino and Scotty show. This was Ice-T's first major film and probably the reason he is still acting today.

The Equalizer

Antoine Fuqua directed this gritty action film, which is based on the 1980s television show of the same name. Robert McCall (Denzel Washington) is a retired black ops soldier working at a home improvement store. McCall likes to spend his evenings drinking diner coffee and reading classic novels. He befriends Alina (Chloë Grace Moretz), a lonely girl being trafficked by the Russian mafia, who dreams of becoming a singer — even while recognizing her world isn't the place for such dreams. When Alina's pimp beats her within an inch of her life, Robert decides to take matters into his own capable hands. Much killing ensues.

"The Equalizer" is "John Wick" without the mesmerizing gun ballet. Instead, the death-dealing is visceral and in your face. Russian lackeys are shot, stabbed, electrified, and strangled. A set piece near the end of the film takes place on Robert's home turf: the home improvement store. It plays something like "Die Hard" meets "Home Alone" as the Russian hunters become the hunted and are eliminated through the use of gardening implements and tools. A sequel was released in 2018 and a third film is coming in 2023.

Four Brothers

Set in Detroit, this 2005 action-drama from director John Singleton takes inspiration from films like "Dirty Harry" and the 1965 Western "The Sons of Katie Elder". It follows the story of four brothers who reunite after their adoptive mother is murdered during an armed robbery. What seems at first to be a wrong place, wrong time tragedy turns out to be anything but. Someone targeted their mother specifically. The brothers take matters into their own hands, leading to car chases on snowy Detroit roads, gunfights in broad daylight, and a level of unflinching vigilante justice that would make the Punisher proud.

Mark Wahlberg stars as Bobby Mercer, a notorious hothead and the self-appointed leader of the pack. Joining Bobby are his brothers Angel (Tyrese Gibson), an ex-Marine and long-time horndog; Jeremiah (André 3000), the responsible one; and Jack (Garrett Hedlund), the youngest and a wannabe musician. They are directly opposed by Victor Sweet, a crime lord who dresses in impeccable three-piece suits and lush fur coats, played gamely by Chiwetel Ejiofor.

Black Panther

The Marvel Cinematic Universe's first true black superhero (apologies to Falcon and War Machine, but T'Challa is in a different stratosphere), "Black Panther" quickly transcended the comic book movie genre and became a cultural event. Ryan Coogler's film is joyously Black, celebrating what Africa is and what it could be. It is also a top-tier action movie with kinetic, intricately-staged fights and explosive chases buoyed by a thumping hip-hop soundtrack.

T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is the new King of Wakanda, a fictional, futuristic African country. He is also the Black Panther, a superhuman warrior in a nigh-invulnerable suit with an arsenal of gadgets that would make James Bond envious. T'Challa's rule is challenged by Erik Stevens, played with brooding intensity by a yolked Michael B. Jordan, who mostly goes by "Killmonger" for obvious reasons. Unbeknownst to practically everyone, Erik is T'Challa's cousin (their fathers were brothers) who was born and raised in America and abandoned there after T'Challa's dad murdered Erik's. The drama is all very Shakespearean and gives the action a weight and pathos most comic book films lack.

The Book of Eli

The plot of this 2010 post-apocalyptic Western directed by the Hughes brothers is pretty outlandish, but it makes for a compelling film. Eli (Denzel Washington) carries the world's last copy of the Bible across the wasteland formerly known as the United States. Every other copy was destroyed after the bombs fell, maybe for religious reasons or maybe they were just convenient kindling, it's not clear. Presumably, Eli is on a mission from God. A voice in his head tells him to take the book west. If you've seen "Mad Max" or tried to buy toilet paper during the height of the pandemic, you're familiar with the variety of debased scavengers Eli encounters on the road. Fortunately, he is handy with the steel and earns his keep.

Oh, did I mention that Eli is blind? It's a minor detail and only really comes up once. Maybe that isn't noteworthy at all, except for the fact that Eli shoots a lot of people. I've heard of Jesus taking the wheel, but this is a whole other kind of intervention.

Despite the heroic trappings, "The Book of Eli" is grim. Eli shoots a hairless cat in the opening scene — because he's hungry — and things only get worse once other people get involved. Gary Oldman has fun playing Bill Carnegie, the megalomaniac leader of a decrepit town and the only other person interested in the book. Reading becomes less of a priority when you have to worry about cannibals deciding you'd make a nice snack.

The Italian Job (2003)

In this remake of the 1969 British film of the same name by director F. Gary Gray, this star-studded film features a team of expert thieves who plot to steal millions in gold from a private vault in Los Angeles, which was originally stolen from a Venice bank (hence, the film's name). It checks all the requisite heist boxes: assemble a team of personalities, make exquisite plans, and scramble when complications arise. Oh, and it has an incredible chase scene. The Mini Coopers used in filming are practically part of the cast.

Mark Wahlberg stars as Charlie Croker, team leader and fixer. Charlie was part of the crew that stole the gold from the bank and was subsequently double-crossed by Steve Frazelli (Edward Norton), who took all $35 million for himself. Charlie recruits Stella (Charlize Theron), a professional safe-cracker for whom this job is personal, and enlists the rest of the original crew to get their money back. The result is a film that is reminiscent of "Ocean's Eleven" in that both movies involve heists and teams of charmingly unsavory characters. However, "The Italian Job" is faster and funnier with taut, pulse-racing action scenes, and those wonderful Mini Coopers.

Shaft (1971)

Directed by Gordon Parks, "Shaft" stars Richard Roundtree as John Shaft, a private detective working cases in Harlem. Shaft is unlike any other PI you've ever seen: an impossibly cool, slick-talking lady's man who won't stand for jive talk or acquiesce to the Man, and isn't afraid of mixing it up if that's what the job calls for. If any of that sounds familiar, it's probably because those other cats are copying Shaft, you dig? In "Shaft," our hero helps an organized crime boss named Bumpy (Moses Gunn) recover his daughter, who was kidnapped by the Mafia.

A progenitor of the blaxploitation genre, "Shaft" was preserved in the National Film Registry in 2000, owing to its "cultural, historical, and aesthetic significance." It also spawned two direct sequels starring Roundtree, two spin-off films starring Samuel L. Jackson, and a series of 1970s television movies. We'd be remiss to not mention that iconic theme song, which won the 1972 Academy Award for best original song and is still banging 50 years later.

Inside Man

Oh, look. Another Denzel Washington film! The man simply has a way of popping up in the best movies, or conversely, movies are simply better when Washington is in them. 

Of all the films on this list, "Inside Man" is the least actiony. Outside of a sequence in which the police imagine all the ways a shootout could go wrong, there isn't any traditional action at all — no gunfire or chases. The only violence is a brief beat down that occurs behind a frosted window. And yet, here we are.

"Inside Man" is a heist film directed by Spike Lee and released in 2006. Washington stars as detective and hostage negotiator Keith Frazier, who is called to the scene after a group of criminals seizes control of a New York bank. The ringleader, Dalton Russell (Clive Owen), is preternaturally calm and prepared and often breaks the fourth wall, addressing the audience directly as he describes how he will commit the perfect crime. This is where the action comes in, as detective Frazier and Russell match wits in a tense game of cat and mouse. The rest of the cast, including Jodie Foster, Willem Dafoe, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Christopher Plummer, is just as stellar. "Inside Man" is a riveting film and an amazing action movie.