8 Black Filmmakers Who Revolutionized the Entertainment Industry
Black filmmakers have notoriously struggled for representation and opportunity within the industry. In the over 90 years since the Academy Awards were first introduced, only a handful of nominations–and even less awards–have gone to Black filmmakers, actors, production designers, make-up artists, costume designers, composers, editors, producers, and, well–you get the picture.
In a 2019 Indiewire report, producer Tambay Obenson broke down the numbers, “Since the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences began celebrating excellence in film in 1927, fewer than 200 black creatives have been nominated across all categories. (Total possible slots: Approximately 10,000.) Among the non-acting awards, only 23 black nominees have won.”
That’s an unconscionable disparity that Black filmmakers have had to contend with since the earliest days of filmmaking. It’s even worse when you consider that Black filmmakers have been revolutionizing the entertainment industry since it’s inception, and deserve to have the respect–and recognition–that their talents deserve.
In this article, we celebrate these remarkable directors, producers, writers, and cinematographers that have left an indelible mark on moviemaking. Read on to learn more about who they are and what makes their work outstanding.
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1. Oscar Micheaux
This prolific Black filmmaker is known for directing and producing films at a time when Black people still heavily struggled to voice their own stories. Considered by many the first independent filmmaker in the United States, Micheaux paved the way for indie filmmakers with movies like Body and Soul, becoming an inspiration for many contemporary names in the industry.
Being the child of a formerly enslaved woman and the racial tenor of his times didn’t keep Micheaux from creating his own film production company and financing his work. Today, influential industry personalities like Spike Lee — who has also earned his spot on this list — have heavily praised Oscar Micheaux and admitted his impact in their work.
Stream Oscar Micheaux’s Body and Soul on The Criterion Channel.
2. Charles Burnett
The work of this writer-director has received many honors and accolades at film festivals, yet it’s hardly ever been hyped by the mainstream press. Even Black American film critic Armond White once deemed Burnett the least well-known great American filmmaker. Notable for not being famous, Charles Burnet has become a kind of a cult hero. His films are often morally and emotionally complex and reject sensationalism and stereotype when depicting the African-American quotidian life.
Back in the ’60s, Burnet enrolled in UCLA to study film and became a prominent representative of the LA Rebellion — a group of student filmmakers who saw cinema as an instrument for social and political change. Thanks to his genius contributions to the film industry, this outstanding Black director, film producer, writer, editor, actor, photographer, and cinematographer has been awarded grants from the Rockefeller Foundation, the J.P. Getty Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts. In addition, his thesis project, Killer of Sheep, was among the first titles included in the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress in 1990.
Stream Killer of Sheep on Kanopy.
3. Spike Lee
This influential Black filmmaker has famously used his work to explore racial tensions in an urban environment. Since his debut film, She’s Gotta Have It, in the mid-’80s, he’s released a movie almost every year, giving higher visibility to urban crime, poverty, colorism within the Black community, and other racial-related issues.
Lee has been widely praised throughout his career, but it was not until 2019 that he claimed his first Oscar for BlacKkKlansman. His most recent film, Da 5 Bloods, has gained critical recognition and received numerous accolades.
The Brooklyn native owns a prolific production company — Forty Acres and a Mule — that has generated over 35 films depicting the Black American struggles in his hometown. Some of the firm’s most notable titles since its establishment in the early ’80s are Do the Right Thing, School Daze, Malcolm X, and Crooklyn.
Lee is also no stranger to the advertising world. He has directed commercials for Nike, Snapple, Taco Bell, and many other brands.
Stream Do the Right Thing on Peacock.
4. Ava Duvernay
This Black-American filmmaker first made a name for herself in 2012, when her film Middle of Nowhere turned her into the first Black woman to win the directing award in Sundance. But this was not the last time Duvernay would be making history. In 2014 she became the first female Black filmmaker to be nominated for a Golden Globe for best director and the first Black female director nominated for best picture for Selma. She also received an Oscar nomination for best documentary feature in 2017 for her work in 13th.
In 2010, Ava Duvernay founded Array, a film collective dedicated to amplifying people of color and female directors in Hollywood. But her achievements are not limited to the filmmaking industry. More recently, she’s made a thriving career in television with her Netflix limited series When They See Us. The show has earned her critical acclaim and numerous Emmy nominations.
Stream When They See Us on Netflix.
5. William Foster
Born in 1860, this Black showman is famous for creating the first U.S. production company founded by an African American. Although not much is known of his early life, he made a name for himself by working as a publicist for Black performers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Additionally, as a journalist, he gave the Black entertainment scene visibility through numerous publications.
With the Foster Photography Company, Foster paved the way for the 1900’s race film industry. He provided Black audiences with more realistic entertainment alternatives that depicted their daily lives without the notorious stereotypes and demeaning clichés that plagued Hollywood at the time. His first film, The Railroad Porter, focused on portraying respectable characters with their own stories.
Unfortunately none of William Foster’s films are currently available to watch.
6. Julie Dash
A born-and-raised New Yorker, Julie Dash began her film studies in Harlem in the late 1960s. Yet, her passion for filmmaking led her to UCLA, where she won a student award from the Directors Guild of America for her opera prima, The Diary of an African Nun, in 1977. Later, the Black Filmmakers Foundation awarded her the Jury Prize for Best Film of the Decade for her critically acclaimed short film Illusions.
In the early ’90s, Dash became the first African American woman to receive a general theatrical release in the U.S. with her first feature, Daughters of the Dust. This film was also named by the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry in 2004.
Julie Dash has also worked on television films and even music videos. Her most acclaimed TV films include Love Song, Incognito, Funny Valentines, and “he Rosa Parks Story. The latter was nominated for a Directors Guild Award in 2002. When not focused on her projects, Julie Dash empowers aspiring young filmmakers as a frequent lecturer at Ivy League universities like Harvard, Yale, and Princeton.
Stream Daughters of the Dust on Kanopy.
7. Jamaa Fanaka
Part of the L.A. Rebellion film movement that emerged from the University of California Los Angeles between the late 1960s and into the late 1980s, Jamaa Fanaka’s films dug into the realities of people of color with thoughtful nuance, allowing audiences to see a side of Black life they simply were not getting from the Blaxploitation cinema of the 1970s.
His characters weren’t stereotypical archetypes informed by centuries of racism, but real people, caught in a reality of macro- and micro-aggressions, that he wanted to portray with authentic compassion. Because the L.A. Rebellion was in part a response to the Watts Riots of 1965, his films actively confront the spectrum of bigotry he saw around him, allowing movies like Welcome Home Brother Charles, Emma Mae, and Penitentiary to become political works of art
Thanks to film restoration companies like Vinegar Syndrome, Fanaka’s work is being given the treatment they deserve, introducing a whole new generation to a filmmaker who made a profound impact on early independent cinema.
Stream Penitentiary on Tubi.
8. Melvin Van Peebles
After receiving high praise from Hollywood for his caustic comedy about racism and representation, Watermelon Man, acclaimed director Melvin Van Peebles broke from the industry to create an unparalleled vision of the impact white supremacy has on Black lives in his seminal film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song.
He’s been called the Godfather of Black Cinema and the originator of the Blaxploitation movement, but don’t put Melvin Van Peebles into such a narrow box. Because in actuality, he’s the filmmaker who truly kicked off the independent film scene. As he said in an interview, “Because of the fixation on race, we often overlook the fact that Sweetback was the beginning of independent film, not just Black independent film. So I’m the godfather of those films as well as The Blair Witch Project or Motorcycle Diaries. I made those things possible too.”
Sweetback proved to the white establishment the voracious appetite filmgoers had for stories that reflected Black experiences in the United States, and also showed just what cinematic artists could create outside of the industry establishment. Decades later, Van Peebles journey creating Sweetback would be dramatized by his own son, actor and director Mario Van Peebles, in his film Baadasssss!
Stream Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song on The Criterion Channel
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