8 Black People Who Revolutionized the Film Industry 

Since the dawn of film, Black filmmakers have produced poignant, thought-provoking stories, building the entertainment industry into what it is today even when it refused to acknowledge their contributions. In recent years, movies with Black directors at the helm, including Straight Outta Compton and both Black Panther films, have grossed hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office. 

Here, we celebrate influential Black members of the film industry, including some present-day directors, who have made and continue to make waves in the industry. In addition to bringing representation to the big screen, the people we’re talking about today are also known for their experimental styles and the unique voices they’ve brought to the industry. 

1. William Greaves

William Greaves was a documentarian who produced, wrote, and directed more than 100 movies. He started his career in the industry as an actor before moving behind the scenes. In the 1960s, his film Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One garnered attention for its avant-garde premise and all the risks Greaves took while making it. 

Known as a meta-documentary, the film showcases a behind-the-scenes look at the production of a fictional documentary. This film style is common in movies such as This Is Spinal Tap and TV shows such as The Office, but Greaves was one of the first to do it. 

His films also highlighted prominent people and social issues in the Black community, including Frederick Douglass and Muhammad Ali. Greaves is best known for his dedication to showcasing the diversity of the Black community to break down stereotypes and offer a well-rounded glimpse at everyday Black life. 

2. Jordan Peele

While he may have started his career in comedy as half of the duo Key and Peele, Jordan Peele has gone on to become a prolific director in his own right. Peele received critical acclaim for his directorial feature-film debut, Get Out, in 2017.

Many credit the movie, along with his next two films 2019’s Us and 2022’s Nope, with reviving the horror genre and making it appealing to younger audiences. Peele deftly uses cinematic elements such as comedy and music to make multidimensional horror movies that tell a cohesive story instead of relying on gore, jump scares, and filler. He also tells Black stories that resonate with audiences without capitalizing on Black trauma. 

3. Kathleen Collins

Kathleen Collins has the distinction of being one of the first Black women to direct a movie. Her most well-known movie, Losing Ground, released in 1982, tells the story of a Black couple navigating their relationship over a summer in New York City. The movie tackles the intricacies of relationships with intrigue and clever dialogue. While Collins can be credited as an industry revolutionary by being among the first in her field, she deserves credit for telling stories in an artful, effortless way. 

Losing Ground is one of the few movies telling stories about Black middle-class couples without spinning them through a white lens. Collins also managed to capture the New York creative scene in the late 1970s and early ‘80s as her main characters are part of this world. 

4. Marlon Riggs

In the late 1980s and early ’90s, being gay was still largely stigmatized in the US and in the Black community, but Marlon Riggs gave a face to this portion of the population. Known as a director, educator, and activist, Riggs was unapologetically himself and brought his personality to life through his films. A graduate of both Harvard University and the University of California, Berkeley, Riggs often took an academic interest in his subjects, dissecting their lives with a hypothesis in mind. 

His films blended documentary-style direction with poetry and music to shed light on Black people and gay people, who are both often overlooked in traditional media. His movie Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien (No Regret) shed light on the lives of HIV-positive people with a series of vignettes. Throughout the movie, he allows viewers to get to know these people anonymously, slowly revealing who they are as the film goes on. 

5. John Singleton

Filmmaker John Singleton was behind some of the most well-known movies of the 1990s, including Boyz n the Hood and Poetic Justice. He received Oscar nominations for writing and directing Boyz n the Hood, becoming the first Black director to receive the honor. 

Singleton grew up in South Central Los Angeles and often brought his life experience to the masses through the screen. After finding success in the film industry, he was able to speak out on the industry’s choices to pass over Black directors, producers, and other creatives when telling Black stories. 

“Audiences … can smell what’s real and what isn’t,” he said in a 2013 Hollywood Reporter essay. “And there is a noticeable difference between pictures that have significant contributions from African-Americans behind the scenes and those that don’t.” 

Singleton was known for taking risks with his movies and making decisions that might not appeal to the masses, but it was more important to him to tell a compelling and real story. 

6. Ryan Coogler

Director Ryan Coogler has been at the helm of some of Hollywood’s best-performing movies, notably Black Panther and its sequel, Wakanda Forever. Coogler’s approach to making movies is to fill them with imagination and intrigue. He kicked off his career with 2014’s Fruitvale Station, which won the Sundance Dramatic Audience and Grand Jury Prize. 

Coogler grew up in Oakland, California, and played football in college. While he was attending St. Mary’s College, a teacher suggested that Coogler get into screenwriting. A lifelong pop-culture enthusiast, he longed to bring representation to big-budget films that were popular during his youth. He strives to make movies that appeal to the masses while offering an accurate representation of real people living in the world. 

Coogler expertly navigates blockbusters and smaller movies alike. His passion and energy make his work stand out — even in decades-old franchises, as it did with 2015’s Creed — while entertaining the masses. 

7. Steve McQueen

British filmmaker Steve McQueen is best known for directing 12 Years a Slave. He was nominated for Best Director at the Oscars and won Best Picture. McQueen is known for his experimental and minimalistic approach to directing, producing movies that are as visually striking as they are interesting to watch. 

After moving to the U.S. and attending New York University in the early 1990s, McQueen dabbled in art and photography. He eventually landed on filmmaking and started making shorts in 1993. This artistic background is evident in his directing, as he weaves camera angles and poignant silence into his movies to pull on the audience’s emotions. 

He approaches filmmaking from the human perspective, choosing shots and angles that chronicle people at their core. Most of his films showcase people dealing with challenges, and he manages to evoke intense emotions. 

McQueen has received numerous accolades for his work, and he continues to create thought-provoking films, shorts, and miniseries that connect viewers to the human experience.

8. Dee Rees

A protege of Spike Lee, director Dee Rees brings a Black and queer perspective to her films. She graduated from New York University in 2008 and immediately started making her mark on the industry. Her 2011 debut, Pariah, made waves for its provocative storytelling and talented actors. The movie is a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story in which the main character grapples with her identity in a straight-laced household. In the 10 years since Pariah was released, Rees has directed multiple projects, including the 2017 movie Mudbound, which explores heavy themes such as post-traumatic stress disorder and racism in segregated Mississippi following World War II. Rees was able to draw on her own experience growing up in the South to bring touching realism to the film. 

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