Minorities are unfairly marginalized across many mediums. Even if they are at the forefront of a work, often with nefarious intent, they are put in place to present the illusion of diversity or inclusiveness.
There are many jobs that have the power to break barriers and provide inspiration for people.
But it is the creator of art, the owner, the director of the piece, that has the most profound impact on an audience, for they dictate everything shown.
Often, these creators come in the form of film directors. They have an almost-unrivaled power in the world of art to enact change.
For Black History Month, we wanted to take a look at 10 Black directors that have helped pave the way for Blacks in cinema and in the world.
These directors have provided inspiration and representation to Black people and other marginalized groups that are far too often excluded, and they deserve a moment to be recognized.
There was no other place to start but with one of the greatest and most unique directors of all time. Shelton Jackson Lee, who was nicknamed “Spike” as a baby by his mother because of his toughness.
“I don’t think my films are going to get rid of racism or prejudice. I think the best thing my films can do is provoke discussion,” said Spike Lee, 1991.
Spike’s films often feel like they were ahead of their time. His debut film, She’s Gotta Have It, explored a sexually-empowered woman in Brooklyn with three lovers. In 1986, the idea of a woman with multiple lovers was not too far away from heresy. Spike said to hell with all that.
He followed that up three years later with possibly his most iconic film, Do The Right Thing, a film that explores heightened racial tensions, especially between African Americans and Italian Americans in Brooklyn on an especially hot day.
This film busted open a door to a conversation that America wasn’t ready to have. It’s this brutal honesty, authenticity, and ingenuity that have made Spike a pillar in the film industry.
His other films, including Malcolm X, the doc 4 Little Girls, and most recently, BlacKkKlansman have continued to tell stories that sometimes we aren’t ready to hear.
Let’s take it to the younger generation real quick. Ryan Coogler, an Oakland-native, is one of the brightest young directors in Hollywood. At 33, he already has a multitude of projects under his belt that have shocked the world.
His debut film in 2013, Fruitvale Station, a biographical drama about Oscar Grant (played by Michael B. Jordan), drips with intensity and sorrow. It is a beautiful portrait of a man trying to right the ship of his life, all while being dragged down by the system.
The film speaks of injustice, and as a student at the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts when Grant was shot, Coogler expressed his desire to make a film about Grant’s last day.
“I wanted the audience to get to know this guy, to get attached so that when the situation that happens to him happens, it’s not just like you read it in the paper, you know what I mean? When you know somebody as a human being, you know that life means something,” Coogler said.
Working with Grant’s family, Coogler created a beautiful film that leaves you with a pain in your heart as you walk away and an imprint on your mind just as deep.
Coogler has also directed Marvel’s Black Panther, and Creed, with all three starring Michael B. Jordan. Black Panther is a unique and delicately-crafted superhero movie; a film that has something to say about benevolence and ancestry.
Creed is a beautiful exploration of a man trying to discover his identity and forge his own path beyond the memory of his late father.
“I tend to like movies where the filmmaker has a personal connection to the subject matter,” said Coogler.
Show me a movie about Brooklyn better than Do The Right Thing.”
Barry Jenkins was born in Miami, the youngest of four siblings, each from a different father. His upbringing as the child of a single mother in Miami surely served as motivation for his most iconic film, 2016’s Moonlight.
Moonlight follows the story of Chiron, a withdrawn boy who struggles with bullies and his own questions of sexuality, and a crack-addict mother.
This film has been lauded for its delicate discussion of Black masculinity, sexuality, and vulnerability. It is the first film with an all-Black cast and first LGBTQ-related film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture.
This film is pure and beautiful, a masterpiece crafted by one of the best directors alive.
Jenkins followed this up with If Beale Street Could Talk, another beautiful story, this time of a couple (Tish and Fonny) in Harlem whose future is put into question when Fonny is arrested for a crime he did not commit. If Beale Street Could Talk is based on James Baldwin’s novel of the same name.
Jenkins has a near-unrivaled ability to capture complicated stories in their true essence. The “devil is in the details,” as they say, but so is the beauty, and of producing; this is where Jenkins excels.
Ava DuVernay grew up in Lynwood, California, and as an adult, her interest was not always in film. DuVernay first wanted to be a journalist, and then moved into public relations, before finally diving into film, namely documentaries.
For someone who only got into filmmaking in the past 15 years, DuVernay is a seasoned veteran and jack of all trades in the business.
Her 2014 historical drama film, Selma, was based on Martin Luther King Jr.’s efforts and was partly inspired by DuVernay’s time as a child traveling to the childhood home of her father, not far from Selma, Alabama.
Two years later, DuVernay directed 13th, a documentary detailing the end of slavery and how the United States government then legally persecuted African Americans by locking them up in jails and exploiting them for cheap labor.
The film was a harrowing delineation of our country’s wicked history, how injustice still reigns supreme, and an explanation of the modern prison system.
DuVernay has also been revered for her work creating, co-writing, and directing “When They See Us,” a drama miniseries based on the 1989 Central Park jogger case, where five male suspects were falsely accused and jailed related to the rape of a jogger in Central Park, most of them under-18.
DuVernay is a constant voice against injustice any and everywhere, and her projects are some of the most influential of this millennium. Through her work, she continues to inspire, educate, and work towards creating a more just world.
John Singleton, may he rest in power, was a native of South Los Angeles and an acclaimed director. His debut film, Boyz n the Hood, was a huge critical and commercial success and earned Singleton an Academy Award Nomination for Best Original Screenplay and Best Director.
The film explores, among other things, violence, gentrification, and African-Americans’ lives in tattered neighborhoods and their difficulties in trying to escape them.
Singleton was one of a kind, and unapologetically true to himself. His work, just on Boyz n the Hood alone, skyrocketed Cuba Gooding Jr., Ice Cube, and Nia Long to stardom. Singleton also directed Shaft, a crime thriller starring Samuel L. Jackson.
“My greatest achievement is, I’ve been in this business for over 26 years, and I haven’t lost my soul,” said Singleton.
Jordan Peele was known by the majority of us through his collaborative work with Keegan-Michael Key on “Key and Peele.”
But since the two comedy writers and actors agreed to disband, Peele has shown his keen eye and talent as a horror film director.
Released in 2017, Get Out was a startling and socially-conscience horror-thriller, where a Black man leaves the city with his white girlfriend to meet her parents.
“I would have voted for Obama for a third term if I could,” the dad tells him, in a cascade of eerie quotes and performances that let you know something is off here, but you can’t just figure out what.
The film highlighted a newer aspect of racism, whereby African-Americans are fetishized for their bodies, or athletic skill, instead of just being treated as human beings.
It is the liberal racism of today at play and is a horrifying movie because the themes present and actions taken are (despite some extreme hyperbole) could, and do actually occur in real life.
Get Out had us all shook, and for good reason. Peele established himself as a brilliant auteur.
To follow that brilliance up, Peele segued into his newest film, Us, which was more of an indictment on classist tendencies than racist ones.
This film may not have hit as hard as Peele’s debut, but it was still a brilliantly terrifying work that cast aspersions on the disenfranchised in this country.
Steve McQueen is a British director who is of Grenadian and Trinidadian descent. McQueen became interested in film during his time at Goldsmiths College, University of London.
McQueen directed plenty of short films before his first feature film, Hunger, released in 2008. Hunger covers the 1981 hunger strikes by Republican prisoners in Northern Ireland. His next film, Shame, also starred Michael Fassbender, as a sex addict living in New York.
In 2013, McQueen’s crown jewel, 12 Years a Slave, was released and won the Academy Award for Best Picture. 12 Years a Slave covered the autobiographical work of Solomon Northup, a free Black man who is kidnapped in 1841 and sold into slavery.
McQueen’s latest film, Widows, a film exploring four widows whose husbands were killed during a police shootout, was also lauded by critics. McQueen is one of the most talented directors creating works right now.
Kasi Lemmons is an American film director who most recently directed Harriet, the 2019 film of Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad.
Lemmons was born in St. Louis, Missouri, and she was eight, moved to Newton, Massachusetts. Lemmons was an actress, and even appeared in such films as The Silence of the Lambs and Candyman. However, she has stated that she always wanted to be a director.
“I’ve come to really believe that I have something to offer as a filmmaker, that goes beyond what I had to offer as an actress and maybe this is what I’m meant to do,” she said.
In addition to Harriet, Lemmons has directed Eve’s Bayou, The Caveman’s Valentine, Talk to Me, and Black Nativity.
F. Gary Gray
Straight Outta Compton, the widely popular 2015 film documenting N.W.A.’s ascension, was directed by F. Gary Gray.
Gray began his career by directing music videos, including “It Was a Good Day” by Ice Cube, and “Natural Born Killaz” by Dr. Dre and Ice Cube. It was only fitting then, that years down the line Gray and Ice Cube would be linked together in another partnership.
Gray has also directed films such as Law Abiding Citizen, The Fate of the Furious, and Men In Black: International. Gray has shown that he has the ability to direct big-budget action films and a biographical film like Straight Outta Compton.
Sidney Poitier is a Bahamian-American director who has received an abundance of awards in his long and prestigious lifetime. Poitier grew up in the Bahamas but moved to New York when he was 16.
Poitier started out as an actor, and his first Academy nomination (for The Defiant Ones), was the first-ever for a Black actor. In 1964 he did win the Academy Award for Best Actor for his role in the critically acclaimed Lilies of the Field.
Many of Poitier’s films broke ground in dealing with race and race relations. In the 70s Poitier turned to acting and directing, with the films Uptown Saturday Night (1974), Let’s Do It Again (1975), and A Piece of the Action (1978).
Poitier also directed Stir Crazy, featuring Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor, and received an honorary knighthood from Queen Elizabeth in 1974.
“So I’m OK with myself, with history, my work, who I am and who I was,” said Poitier.
As a groundbreaker in film, and one of the first Black actors/directors to be recognized for all of his worth, Poitier is a staple of the film industry and cannot be forgotten when the history of film is told.
Representation matters more to the audience than it does to the actual creators of content. The people we see across different mediums give us an idea about what kind of people (can) do the jobs that we desire to do.
These Black filmmakers are not just role models because of the great heights they have reached. They are role models because of the way they have educated and inspired countless people across different races, ages, and backgrounds.
We thank these filmmakers for their work, and for those still with us.