Black talent has been overlooked in Hollywood for generations. Diversity both in front of and behind the camera has been severely lacking for decades. Recent years have seen renewed calls for production studios to fix this massive gap and, slowly, changes are underway. But despite the hurdles, Black creators have still managed to put out some of the most significant work in film and TV history. For those looking to learn more about the best in Black filmmaking, there are a slew of Black directors who have made masterpieces you need to watch.
Famed filmmakers like Spike Lee and Ava DuVernay have become household names despite the systemic issues in the industry. Lee was ignored by the Oscars for years, with his only Academy Award being an honorary one until 2019. Similarly, DuVernay had to fight every step of the way in the industry before becoming one of the most recognizable leaders in Hollywood. But there’s a long list of creators that extends past them, going all the way back to Gordon Parks, whose The Learning Tree, his debut masterpiece from 1963, was the first Hollywood studio film directed by a Black filmmaker.
The accomplishments of these directors also pave the way for future creators, who hopefully won’t have to face the same kind of racism and gatekeeping that those who have come before them had to. Already there are changes. John Singleton was the first Black filmmaker nominated for the Academy Award for Best Director for Boyz N the Hood in 1991; he remained the only one for years. It was almost two decades before Lee Daniels was honored the same way for Precious in 2009. But since 2016, there’s been a Black director nominated in the category every year. (Notably all men so far, but hopefully that changes soon.)
Of course, awards season doesn’t always recognize true masterpieces. Here are some works by Black directors you should check out, regardless of their accolades:
1. Ava DuVernay
The one and only Ava DuVernay is the mastermind behind modern classics such as Selma, 13th, and When They See Us. She is the first Black woman to be nominated for a Golden Globe Award for Best Director and also the first Black female director to have her film nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture.
Her upcoming projects will both be Netflix productions, including a Colin Kaepernick project, Colin in Black & White, and an adaptation of Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste, a deep dive into the effects of the United States’ social stratification.
2. Spike Lee
If DuVernay is the current queen of Black filmmaking, Lee is a living legend. His filmography is extensive, starting with She’s Gotta Have It. Some of his career highlights include Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X, Get On The Bus, 25th Hour, When the Levees Broke, and BlacKkKlansman.
Following the Oscars’ infamous snub of Do the Right Thing in favor of Driving Miss Daisy in 1999, Lee’s Academy Award for BlacKkKlansman felt like the world setting itself right when he finally won. His latest, Netflix’s Da 5 Bloods, is also a critical darling.
3. Dee Rees
Most fans know Dee Rees for Mudbound, the first Netflix film to break the barriers for streaming at the Oscars when it landed a record eight nominations. But before that, she also made Bessie for HBO, starring Queen Latifah and Mo’Nique as blues singers Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey, respectively. She was also the director of Pariah, the story of 17-year-old Alike (Adepero Oduye) coming of age in Brooklyn, her experiences with her sexuality, and her parents’ struggle with who she’s becoming. Both are fantastic must-watches. Rees’ latest, The Last Thing He Wanted, is streaming on Netflix.
4. Steve McQueen
Steve McQueen, or as he’s now known, Sir Steven Rodney McQueen CBE, was the first Black filmmaker to win an Academy Award for Best Picture for 12 Years A Slave. Starring Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender, the film is the type to be held up in cinematic classrooms for generations. It’s a masterclass that examines the horrors of slavery as a sickness that spread throughout society. (Fassbender also stars in two of McQueen’s other films, 2008’s Hunger, a historical drama about the 1981 Irish hunger strike, and 2011’s Shame.)
But 12 Years was only the beginning. McQueen’s film Widows is one of 2018’s most overlooked films. His latest, Small Axe, is an anthology slate of five standalone movies released as a miniseries on Amazon. All five (Mangrove, Lovers Rock, Red, White and Blue, Alex Wheatle, and Education) focus on the West Indian immigrant experience in the UK and star A-listers like John Boyega and Letitia Wright.
5. Amma Asante
When people imagine period pieces, they think about the lily-white Downton Abbey or PBS’ Victoria. Amma Asante challenged that notion with her film Belle. Inspired by Dido Elizabeth Belle, a real-life heiress who was the daughter of an African slave from the West Indies and a British Royal Navy officer, the film challenged the notion that Regency England was an all-white world. One of the few films to directly tackle the complex racial dynamics of 18th-century England, the movie stars Gugu Mbatha-Raw and is a must-watch for anyone who thinks themselves a history buff.
Since then, Asante has followed Belle up with A United Kingdom, starring David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike. Her latest release, Where Hands Touch, features a powerhouse performance by Amandla Stenberg.
6. Ryan Coogler
Ryan Coogler is famous for Black Panther, the first Marvel Cinematic Universe film to star a superhero of color and the first MCU movie nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars. But before that, Coogler already had two masterpieces under his belt, both of which starred Michael B. Jordan (who played Erik Killmonger in Black Panther). The first was Fruitvale Station, following Oscar Grant on the last day of his life before he was killed in an act of mindless police brutality. The other was Creed, the film that revived the Rocky series decades after Stallone retired the character.
Coogler’s latest, Judas and the Black Messiah, is a historical drama telling the story of real-life Black Panther Fred Hampton, played by Daniel Kaluuya. Coogler is also slated to write and direct the sequel to Marvel’s Black Panther, due out in 2022.
7. Julie Dash
If your only exposure to Daughters Of The Dust is Beyoncé’s homage to it in Lemonade, please fix that as soon as you can. Julie Dash’s piece on womanhood in South Carolina’s Gullah-Geechee community was a groundbreaker in 1992. It was the first film directed by a Black woman to have been screened in the U.S. But beyond that, it’s a remarkable, lyrical piece, less a story than a meditation, all the more amazing when you consider it was produced on a shoestring budget.
Since then, Dash has only done a small amount of TV, including directing episodes of Queen Sugar. Her 2002 project The Rosa Parks Story earned a nod for Outstanding Directorial Achievement, making her the first Black woman nominated in the category.
8. Barry Jenkins
Barry Jenkins will forever be known for Moonlight’s incredible come-from-behind win for Best Picture at the 2017 Oscars and the complete hash in announcing it. But his adaptation of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s unpublished semi-autobiographical play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue isn’t Jenkins’ only groundbreaking film.
Before Moonlight, Jenkins directed Medicine For Melancholy, the story of a romantic one-night-stand starring Wyatt Cenac and Tracey Heggins. Since then, he’s done the critically acclaimed adaptation of James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk and most recently released 2020’s Charm City Kings. His next project will be taking on the photorealistic CGI sequel to Disney’s The Lion King remake.
9. Kasi Lemmons
Kasi Lemmons spent two decades as an actor before moving behind the camera. Her directorial debut, Eve’s Bayou, is a mystical, Southern Gothic tale of hidden family shame focused on a wealthy Black community in Louisiana. It introduced Jurnee Smollett to the big screen and gave Samuel L. Jackson some serious drama to play.
Since then, Lemmon has made several films, the latest being 2019’s Harriet, for which star Cynthia Erivo was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress. She was also the director behind Netflix’s 2020 series Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker.
10. Gordon Parks
Gordon Parks is famous for helping create the "blaxploitation" genre with Shaft. He also directed Shaft’s Big Score, The Super Cops, and Leadbelly. His son, Gordon Parks Jr., also directed several blaxploitation films, including Super Fly, Three the Hard Way, Thomasine & Bushrod, and Aaron Loves Angela.
Before all this, Parks was a photographer for Life Magazine, whose photos of Black life in the 1940s are some of the most famous of the time. His visionary outlook caused actor/director John Cassavettes to encourage him into filmmaking, leading him to create The Learning Tree, his debut masterpiece. Set in 1920s Kansas, it’s a coming-of-age story about Newt Winger (Kyle Johnson) dealing with everyday racial prejudice and what we now call the “white gaze.”
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