Five Black Directors You Should Know
(Plus, local talent you should work with)
While Hollywood & pop criticism lack representation & amplification of Black directors, Black creators have been utilizing the form brilliantly since almost the medium's beginning. A simple list of five is insufficient, so in addition to checking out these five Black directors, we encourage you to explore the work of (in no particular order): Haile Gerima, Julie Dash, Charles Burnett (and the entirety of the LA Rebellion), Gordon Parks, Spike Lee, Kasi Lemmons, William Crain, Nia DaCosta, Robert Townsend, Dee Rees, Stefon Bristol, Barry Jenkins, Jordan Peele, F. Gary Gray, Ryan Coogler, Steve McQueen, Ava DuVernay, Djibril Diop Mambéty & so many more!
To begin this list, we’ve decided to go back to the genesis of Black film. The first African-American to produce a feature-length film was the Chicago vanguard, Oscar Micheaux! The film on hand was The Homesteader (1919), which even predates Charlie Chaplin's first film The Kid (1921). Micheaux, who also penned, self-published, and distributed the source material, garnered some Hollywood attention. However, financiers were reticent to meet Micheaux’s demand to direct the project. Determined, Micheaux returned to Chicago to direct & produce the film adaptation himself, eschewing Hollywood’s tropes of Black characters. The film’s success led to Micheaux establishing his own production company in 1920, the Micheaux Film Corp.
With control of the means of production & a self-professed mission to “teach that the colored man can be anything,” Micheaux resourcefully followed up his debut with Within Our Gates (1920). The film was a direct response to the representation and stereotypes that D.W. Griffith perpetuated in his work. While his work was often underfunded, Micheaux trekked on making over 30 films of all genres, two of which have been selected for the National Film Registry.
This cemented Micheaux not only as an important Black creator, but a fundamental figure in indie film, a classification that is often (and inaccurately) referred to as a recent invention.
The Homesteader (1919)
Within Our Gates (1920)
The Exile (1931)
Cheryl Dunye is a multihyphenate, perhaps best known for her feature debut, The Watermelon Woman (1996). Like most of her work, The Watermelon Woman explores themes of race, sexuality, and gender. It’s a profound piece that exemplifies a filmmaker taking the resources at hand to make their unique film by any means necessary. An unapologetically DIY endeavor, upon release, it even became somewhat sensational, causing National Endowment for the Arts to restructure its disbursement criteria.
Dunye plowed through the controversy. With the money already spent and the movie made, she premiered it at Berlinale, winning the Teddy Award for Best Feature Film before screening worldwide for years to become a landmark in New Queer Cinema. In addition to professing at some of the nation's best film programs, her work since has continued to push the boundaries of narrative and documentary form, which she has described as “dunyementaries.”
Watermelon Woman (1996)
Stranger Inside (2001)
The Owls (2010)
Black is Blue (2014)
Making a splash out of UCLA, Gina Prince-Bythewood (GPB) developed her first feature, Love & Basketball (2000). The film was developed through the Sundance Institute’s directing & writing lab and produced by Spike Lee’s 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks. While not a box office smash, the film quickly became a popular culture favorite and a cult classic in large part to GPB’s humanistic direction style. Her attention & care for the emotions of her characters is unparalleled. She most recently transposed this style to the Netflix action blockbuster, The Old Guard (2020). “I never thought I’d get the opportunity to make [action movies], given the way that Hollywood is,” she told David Sims of the Atlantic. However, she broke the barrier making one of Netflix’s 10 most-watched movies of all time (with a sequel rumored to be greenlit).
Love & Basketball (2000)
Disappearing Acts (2000)
Beyond the Lights (2014)
Shots Fired (2018)
The Old Guard (2020)
Janicza Bravo approaches filmmaking with an unrelenting wry sense of humor. She exemplified this on a recent A24 podcast with Moonlight editor Joi McMillon. (Do yourself a favor and listen to this. She’s truly hysterical, and who couldn’t use more laughter right now?). A24 also happens to be the producers behind her upcoming film, Zola (coming soon), which happens to be the first major motion picture based on a Twitter thread. While 2020’s “unprecedented times” hampered Zola’s 2020 release, it received positive reviews at its Sundance 2020 premiere. Her previous feature Lemon (2017) & short films have us so brimming to see Zola ASAP. They again showcase her caustic humor, which could be related to past collaborators, like, Tim Heidecker, Eric Wareheim, Brett Gelman, Derrick Beckles & Michael Cera. Though Bravo’s voice truly is unto its own!
Gregory Go Boom (2013)
Hot Package [Writer] (2015) (1994)
Atlanta: Season 1 Episode 9 “Juneteenth” (2016)
Zola (tentatively 2021)
Brooklyn-based Shaka King is a bit of an outlier on this list, with only one major credit released by this article's writing. His first feature, Newlyweeds (2013), was developed through Emerging Narrative workshop at Independent Film Project, awarded a grant from Rooftop Films/Edgeworx Studios, and 3 out 4 stars in its Matt Zoller Seitz’s Roger Ebert review (amongst other rave reviews). King also won the Film Independent Spirit Awards’ Someone to Watch Award/Grant.
However, the buried lede here is his film, which comes out today, Judas & the Black Messiah (2021). One of the year’s most anticipated movies, Judas & Black Messiah, “chronicles the life of Illinois Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton through the eyes of William O'Neal,” according to NPR. King was initially reticent to make another feature after struggling to find distribution for Newlyweeds. But after his passion project (Mulignans) “saved him,” he took his newfound energy to direct and navigate a story that demanded acute attention & tone. A story that, according to Karen Han’s recent Slate review, is “...one of 2021’s best films. It may be one of the year’s most important movies.”
Judas & the Black Messiah (2021)
Looking to work with Black Directors in Chicago?
Here are some we recommend checking out:
Here are some we recommend checking out:
(in no particular order)
Check out Black in Film for even more great talent!