Mandatory Staff Picks: Celebrating the Best Black Directors in Cinema
If there’s one thing about Hollywood that has become abundantly clear, it’s that we need diversity behind the camera; filmmakers able to astutely comment on race relations in this country while giving a voice to everyday African-Americans. Unfortunately, mainstream cinema has a tendency to sideline the stories of black communities in favor of white-centric narratives. Fortunately, prodigies have still found a way to scratch, crawl, and fight through stereotypes; bringing their unique (and needed) perspectives to the big screen. From big-budget superhero movies to honest depictions of South Central Los Angeles, the following directors and their films have, and continue to, revolutionize how, what, and why we watch.
Photo: David Crotty (Getty Images)
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Gina Prince-Bythewood worked in television for years on shows like A Different World and South Central before writing 2000’s Love & Basketball. She was able to develop the film at the Sundance Institute’s writing and directing lab. The film won the Independent Spirit Award for Best First Screenplay; she went on to direct and produce The Secret Life of Bees (2008) and Beyond the Lights (2014).
F. Gary Gray
You may remember F. Gary Gray’s older films Friday (that’s him in it above), The Negotiator, and The Italian Job. More recently, Gray directed 2015’s NWA biopic, Straight Outta Compton. The film was critically acclaimed and grossed over $160 million at the box office. Gray has since gone on to direct The Fate of the Furious in 2017 (grossing over $1 billion dollars at the box office) and Men in Black International in 2019.
In 2011, Dee Rees debuted her feature film, Pariah (which Spike Lee helped executive direct). The film followed and won many awards including the Gotham Independent Film Award for Breakthrough Director. Rees went on to direct the HBO biopic Bessie starring Queen Latifah as singer Bessie Smith (which won four Primetime Emmys). She wrote and directed 2017's Mudbound which was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, making her the first black woman to be nominated in the category.
On top of a handful of shorts (and a few episodes of television), Barry Jenkins has only helmed three feature films. However, they’ve all been game-changers. His first film, Medicine for Melancholy (2008) is critically acclaimed and his second film, 2016’s Moonlight, became the first film featuring an all-black cast and won Best Picture at the Oscars (Jenkins also went home with the Oscar for Original Screenplay). His newest film, If Beale Street Could Talk, was also nominated for three Oscars, winning one.
It really shouldn’t come as a surprise, but it seems like Jordan Peele went from the Peele in Key and Peele to mic-drop worthy director overnight. His feature, 2017’s Get Out commented on race relations in a way no one had ever seen before. The comedy/horror film grossed over $280 million at the box office and gained Peele an Oscar win for Best Original Screenplay. His follow-up, 2019’s Us has done just as well critically and commercially.
In 2012, Ava DuVernay won the directing award at the Sundance Film Festival for Middle of Nowhere, becoming the first woman of color to win that award. After that, DuVernay directed 2014’s Selma, for which she was nominated at the Golden Globes and Academy Awards for Best Director (the first black woman to accomplish that as well). Three years later, her documentary 13th was nominated for the Oscar for Best Picture and in 2018, DuVernay directed Disney’s A Wrinkle in Time, a film with a budget of over $100 million. DuVernay is constantly promoting equality and makes a conscious effort to hire people and women of color.
This year, Spike Lee became the first African-American to serve as president of the Cannes Film Festival’s jury. As one of the biggest names in entertainment, Lee has paved the way for other black directors stretching back to 1986’s She’s Gotta Have It. His filmography includes joints like Do the Right Thing, Mo’ Better Blues, Jungle Fever, Malcolm X, He Got Game, 25th Hour, Inside Man, Chi-Raq, BlacKkKlansman, and the upcoming Da 5 Bloods. Although a handful of his films have been selected by the Library of Congress to be preserved for their cultural significance, Lee only has one Oscar win for Best Adapted Screenplay (BlacKkKlansman). His latest film, Da 5 Bloods is streaming on Netflix now.
Kasi Lemmons began her career as an actress starring in such films as Spike Lee’s School Daze and Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs. She made her directorial debut with Eve’s Bayou in 1997 and went on to direct Dr. Hugo (1998), The Caveman’s Valentine (2001), Talk to Me (2007), Black Nativity (2013), and, most recently, the Harriet Tubman biopic, Harriet (2019).
Steve McQueen became the first black filmmaker to win the Best Picture Oscar for 2013's 12 Years a Slave, an adaptation of an 1853 slave memoir. His filmography also includes Hunger, Shame, and Widows. The stories McQueen tells can best be described as "raw" and "real," often making the audience uncomfortable in a way that seems necessary.
Cheryl Dunye's 1996 film, The Watermelon Woman was the first film written by a black lesbian about black lesbians. Her filmography also includes Stranger Inside (2001) and Black is Blue (2014). By highlighting issues that relate to race, sexuality, and gender, Dunye's work has inspired and continues to inspire many in the LGBTQ community (as well as the world at large).
Antoine Fuqua has brought us action-packed blockbusters like Shooter, The Equalizer, The Magnificent Seven, and Olympus Has Fallen. He’s also given us gritty character studies like Southpaw and Training Day. His films have warranted Oscar wins, sequels, and spinoffs. While Fuqua himself has never been recognized by the Academy, it's only a matter of time.
With only three films under his belt, Ryan Coogler has become one of the biggest directors in Hollywood. You may recognize them from consistent collaborations with Michael B. Jordan: 2013's Fruitvale Station, 2015's Creed, and 2018's Black Panther. The latter is considered to be one of the Marvel Cinematic Universe's best films, became the highest-grossing film ever by a black director, and was the first superhero film to be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. Coogler is set to write and direct Black Panther 2 next year.
This is the director who came to fame with the 1991 film Boyz n the Hood, a contemplative look at life on the streets of South Central Los Angeles. Not only did the film take the careers of Laurence Fishburne, Cuba Gooding Jr., and Ice Cube to new heights, but it cemented John Singleton into cinematic history. At the age of 24, Singleton became the youngest person to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Director and the ever first African-American. Singleton’s filmography went on to include Poetic Justice, Shaft, 2 Fast 2 Furious, and Four Brothers. Unfortunately, Singleton passed away in 2019, but his body of work will live on for generations.
Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust became the first full-length feature directed by an African-American woman to obtain a general theatrical release in 1991. The film is a retelling of her extended family's life off the coast of the Southeastern U.S. (the women in particular). The film was put in the film registry in the Library of Congress for its cultural and historical significance. Dash went on to direct films like The Rosa Parks Story starring Angela Bassett and is set to helm an upcoming biopic about civil rights icon Angela Davis.
The Hughes Brothers
Albert and Allen Hughes burst onto the scene in 1993 with Menace II Society, the powerful movie about a street hustler trying to navigate the ghetto. It's considered to be among the best in its genre. The pair have gone on to direct such films as 1995’s Dead Presidents, 2010’s The Book of Eli, and 2013’s Broken City.