9 Best African Movies 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

While most are familiar with Hollywood depictions of the transatlantic slave trade, there were also other countries that depicted this terrible time period, including countries from the African continent. Ethiopian filmmaker Haile Gerima self-funded and self-distributed Sankofa in its initial release, but despite the lack of screens, it still managed to become a landmark classic thankfully restored. Like plenty of films on the topic, Gerima creates a harrowing depiction of the slave owners’ evil, but unlike others, it’s more interested in the difficult dynamics between the enslaved, the ways they sought refuge and freedom in each other, and the inner lives of the community they shared despite the terror, all through Gerima’s striking images and the masterfully mixed soundscape, both in the soundtrack and various accents. It’s not perfect, and it’s definitely not easy to watch, but Sankofa has a distinct vision that needs to be seen.

Genre: Drama, Fantasy, History, Science Fiction

Actor: Afemo Omilami, Alexandra Duah, Kofi Ghanaba, Mutabaruka, Mzuri, Nick Medley, Oyafunmike Ogunlano, Reggie Carter, Reginald Carter

Director: Haile Gerima

Craig Foster’s bond with an octopus takes the spotlight in this heartfelt documentary set in the cold seas of South Africa. The title hints at the nature of this bond: the tentacled creature shows the human outsider the ropes in her watery den.

Both parties have an endless curiosity about one another, giving the filmmakers Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed much fuel for this sentimental doc. My Octopus Teacher features Foster diving in the ocean every day and waxing poetic through voiceovers about the remarkable ability of a wild animal to connect with him. This all takes place amidst his obsessive mapping of said animal’s habitat during what appears to be a mid-life crisis. It’s beautiful, yes, both visually and in its message of nature being something we can connect with to find meaning, but much of the story revolves around what Foster feels the octopus is doing in relation to him, and not about what it’s doing, period. The documentary becomes an exercise in making something that exists peacefully in its own little world all about some guy.

For a film that centers on an unlikely emotional attachment, it does explore the ocean and present the adventures one can embark on due to curiosity. Despite its faults, it manages to be informative and shows off gorgeous underwater cinematography.

Genre: Documentary

Director: James Reed, Philippa Ehrlich, Pippa Ehrlich

A poetic and peculiar movie from Senegal about a girl who is forced to marry a wealthy businessman instead of her love interest. The latter, a poor construction worker, embarks on a risky journey across the sea to Europe. The story takes a supernatural turn thereafter, one that is unlike anything seen before in stories around immigration, but one which makes sense. Still, the excellent acting and the long takes that immerse you in what life is like in Senegal, both in and out of the margins of society, are the reasons to watch here. Atlantics' characters are believable and will capture your interest throughout the usual and unusual parts of the movie. They provide rare insight into narratives that most of us have never been exposed to.

Genre: Drama, Fantasy, Mystery, Romance

Actor: Abdou Balde, Amadou Mbow, Amina Kane, Aminata Kane, Arame Fall Faye, Babacar Sylla, Coumba Dieng, Diankou Sembene, Ibrahima Mbaye, Ibrahima Traore, Mama Sane, Mame Bineta Sane, Mariama Gassama, Mati Diop, Nicole Sougou, Traore

Director: Mati Diop

Rating: TV-14