9 Best African Films Movies to Watch

Staff & contributors

Though it’s without a plot, Faya Dayi nonetheless weaves a stunning, expansive narrative about khat and the people who farm it and chew its leaves for their hallucinogenic effect. The documentary seems to take place in the same hazy dreamlike stupor that khat-chewers chase: shot in luminous black and white, the film is set to a reflective rhythm that floats from folklore to contemporary stories of romantic heartbreak, migration, and oppression.

Largely featuring members of Ethiopia's Oromo community — a marginalized ethnic group — including the farmers and workers involved in khat production, Faya Dayi is a portrait of economic hardship, emotional pain, and transcendent escape that hits straight in the chest for all the rawness and yearning it depicts. (As disembodied voice-overs put it, “people chew to get away” to the khat-induced “empty and lonely hideout where no one can ever visit you, your own dark and lonely world.”) Full of textures and images that evoke all of the senses, this is virtually a 5D movie, a hypnotic out-of-body experience that floats an astonishing expanse of ideas into your head — no talky explanations needed.

Genre: Documentary

Actor: Biniam Yonas, Destu Ibrahim Mumade, Hashim Abdi, Mohammed Arif, Urji Abrahim Mumade

Director: Jessica Beshir

There’s much to despair at in Mahamat-Saleh Haroun's drama set in Chad, where abortion is illegal, female genital mutilation isn't, and single mothers are ostracised. Amina's (Achouackh Abakar) 15-year-old daughter Maria (Rihane Khalil Alio) has just been expelled from school because she’s pregnant. Like Amina, Maria has been abandoned by the child’s father — but, having witnessed first-hand the stigma that comes with being an unmarried mother, she refuses to let history continue repeating itself, and declares she wants an abortion.

But underground abortions are expensive, and the duo are barely scraping by as it is, in spite of Amina’s backbreaking manual work. Their situation is dire — and there are more disturbing revelations to be had — but, despite the bleakness of Lingui’s plot on paper, the film isn’t miserabilist. As Amina searches desperately for a safe abortion provider, she takes us with her into a furtive underground network of solidarity, one that offers the mother and daughter all the compassion and aid that the government and their imam should be providing. This is a film in which acts of kindness are quietly delivered on the understanding that that’s what we owe each other, and one where sisterhood is alive — making this, paradoxically, a simultaneously enraging and heartening watch.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Achouackh Abakar Souleymane, Briya Gomdigue, Rihane Khalil Alio, Saleh Sambo, Youssouf Djaoro

Director: Mahamat-Saleh Haroun

, 1992

Restored in 2019, Djibril Diop Mambéty's adaptation of the 1956 play, The Visit, presents a powerful allegory of societal decay through the story of Linguère Ramatou, a woman who returns to her impoverished hometown with an offer that can change everything. Mambéty's skillful direction captures the complexities of human nature and the moral choices we face in a world driven by greed and corruption in a global capitalist world. The narrative unfolds with precision, blending dark humor and piercing social commentary. With or without the context of its original influence, Hyenas is a brilliant Senegalese film.

 

Genre: Comedy, Drama

Director: Djibril Diop Mambéty

Remarkably for a movie about women being shunned and exploited by those more powerful than them, I Am Not A Witch is often wryly funny. That’s because this satire about Zambia’s labor camps for "witches" is told with a matter-of-fact-ness that brings out both the heartbreak and absurdity of the film’s events. The bitter gravity of the predicament nine-year-old Shula (Maggie Mulubwa) finds herself in — she’s been accused of witchcraft on the back of some very flimsy evidence — is never glossed over, but neither is its farcicality. Appropriately for its subject, there are also touches of magical realism here, notes that elevate the film into something even more complex than a wry commentary on this morbidly fascinating form of misogyny. This hybrid tonal approach is executed with the kind of fluidity filmmakers might hope to one day master late on in their career — which makes the fact that this is director Rungano Nyoni’s debut all the more extraordinary.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Dyna Mufuni, Gloria Huwiler, Henry B.J. Phiri, Maggie Mulubwa, Nancy Murilo, Nellie Munamonga, Ritah Mubanga, Travers Merrill

Director: Rungano Nyoni

, 1987

Celebrated Malian filmmaker Souleyman Cissé crafted Yeelen (which means ‘brightness’) as an explicit antidote to the “ethnographic” lens through which Western directors often told Africa-set stories. That intention is certainly felt, because Yeelen doesn’t trouble itself to translate its folklore-drawn premise for audiences unfamiliar with 13th-century Malian myths. Rejecting Western storytelling conventions, it instead uses those of the culture it depicts — a looping approach to time and matter-of-fact magical realism — to present the tale of Nianankoro (Issiaka Kane), a supernaturally gifted young man whose sorcerer father (Niamanto Sanogo) plots to kill him because of the threats he poses to the elder man's power. 

 A basic primer to the customs central to Yeelen is provided in the opening titles, but knowledge of the culture it communicates through isn’t a prerequisite to watching and enjoying the film because its epic conflicts — both Oedipal (father versus son) and religious (flesh versus spirit) — and otherworldly sensibilities make it both instinctively familiar and mesmerizing. A deserved winner of the Cannes Jury Prize, though the fact that it was the first African film to win one of the festival's awards — 40 years into its existence — makes this an unjustly belated milestone.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Aoua Sangare, Balla Moussa Keita, Ismaila Sarr, Issiaka Kane, Niamanto Sanogo

Director: Souleymane Cissé

Rating: NR

Set in one of Morocco’s oldest medinas, Blue Caftan is a tender portrayal of pure love and the different forms it takes. It follows traditional tailor Halim (Saleh Bakri) and his wife Mina (Lubna Azabal) who, despite their imperfect marriage, prove their affection in small but moving ways. He peels tangerines for her and washes her hair, she preps his meals and defends his craft from demanding customers. When a third person, Youssef (Ayoub Missioui), enters the picture, even more manifestations of passion (and the lack and longing and excess of it) emerge. 

It’s a dramatic film, but never overly so. Like the silky fabric Halim handles with expert care, it’s rich but soft, detailed but delicate. In the face of poverty, sickness, and discrimination, the film mines moments of joy, friendship, and pleasure, subverting the expectation that tragic circumstances must mean tragic outcomes. 

Blue Caftan, even in its saddest moments—and there are plenty—is a film full of love, made even more memorable by the deft performances and palpable chemistry of its three leads.

Genre: Drama, Romance

Actor: Lubna Azabal, Saleh Bakri, Zakaria Atifi

Director: Maryam Touzani

Ashkal takes an audaciously hybrid approach to genre: it’s part-noir, part-supernatural thriller, and full political allegory. The investigation at the center of this slow-burn Tunisian police procedural is a gripping one, as burnt naked bodies keep turning up in abandoned construction sites in Tunis with no trace of a struggle or even a combustible on them. In post-revolution Tunisia, the deaths are an uncomfortable reminder of recent history: it was a young Tunisian man’s self-immolation that sparked the Arab Spring, after all.

The revolution’s complicated legacy looms over the film, as we watch the country’s Truth and Dignity Commission begin its work of uncovering the former government’s corruption and abuses. Ashkal’s two protagonists — the young Fatma (Fatma Oussaifi) and her more seasoned police partner Batal (Mohamed Grayaa) — find themselves on opposite sides of that political divide, he having been implicated in the abuses of power that are now being investigated by Fatma’s father. There are fascinating elements at play here, and the results of Ashkal’s ambitious genre experiment are mostly inspired. Much of the film’s energies are spent on building a paranoid atmosphere — efforts that can, at times, frustratingly slacken the tension — but its fantastical touches tauten things up enough to make it a haunting political commentary in the end.

Genre: Drama, Thriller

Director: Youssef Chebbi

, 2005

Tsotsi, a delinquent from Johannesburg, South Africa, realizes after shooting a woman and stealing her car, that her baby is on the back seat. A movie with very few words but which manages to be extremely touching. As you witness the transformation of Tsotsi, through his increasing affection for the baby, you will be astonished by the amazing actor, who manages to communicate so many feelings through his sight. This film won the 2006 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

Genre: Crime, Drama

Actor: Ian Roberts, Israel Makoe, Jerry Mofokeng, Kenneth Nkosi, Mothusi Magano, Nambitha Mpumlwana, Owen Sejake, Percy Matsemela, Presley Chweneyagae, Rapulana Seiphemo, Terry Pheto, Zenzo Ngqobe, Zola

Director: Gavin Hood

Rating: R

While investigating a gold heist in Johannesburg, Chili (S'dumo Mtshali) is jaded after an undercover operation fails spectacularly. With one chance left, he must choose between following the law and protecting the wealth of higher-ups or going against it and helping a heist crew dole out the riches to those in need. Wealth redistribution is at the heart of the film, with greed on all sides thwarting any prospects of prosperity for the city. The action-crime-thriller examines economic inequality via the lead cops trying to effect change, all while leaning into a warm visual style that shifts cameras to mirror the tensions. It's a nice touch to the average Robin Hood and "for the people" narrative, but the CGI choices and generic action scenes can get distracting at times.

Genre: Action, Crime, Thriller

Actor: Brenda Ngxoli, Deon Lotz, Presley Chweneyagae, S'Dumo Mtshali

Director: Donovan Marsh