Black American History For Dummies
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Black American directors became more and more visible in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, with Spike Lee at the forefront. This article identifies just some of the many Black American directors who made a name for themselves, and a sampling of their work.

Spike Lee: Getting personal

From the 1986 film She’s Gotta Have It to his later work on Netflix, Spike Lee truly helped inspire a generation of filmmakers.

In 2006, Lee, whose career had always been marked by generating his own projects, helmed a rare studio film, Inside Man, starring Denzel Washington, Jodie Foster, and Clive Owen; it became the highest grossing film of his career at roughly $88 million in the U.S. and Canada and more than $95 million overseas.

Lee hit high marks with critics for his 2002 movie 25th Hour, his rare film with White main leads (Edward Norton and Philip Seymour Hoffman) and not-so-high critical marks with his 2008 film Miracle at St. Anna, a film he specifically made reclaiming Black WWII history Hollywood films consistently erased.

His 2018 film BlacKkKlansman, written by him, Kevin Willmott, David Rabinowitz, and Charlie Wachtel, became an Academy Award darling; it was adapted from Rob Stallworth’s 2014 memoir Black Klansman about his efforts as a Black man to thwart the Ku Klux Klan in Colorado.

BlacKkKlansman, which grossed more than $90 million worldwide, was nominated for six Academy Awards, winning one for Best Adapted Screenplay — a first for Lee, who had received an honorary Oscar for his contribution to film in 2015.

Over his prolific feature film career, Lee had only received one nomination, in 1990 for Best Original Screenplay for Do the Right Thing. He fared slightly better with documentaries, receiving a nomination for his provocative 4 Little Girls (1997), chronicling the murder of four girls in the Birmingham church bombing in 1963.

In 2020, Lee released Da 5 Bloods via Netflix. This epic Vietnam veteran tale reteamed him with Delroy Lindo (from Crooklyn) and Clarke Peters (from his 2012 film Red Hook Summer) and marked his first time working with newcomer Jonathan Majors as well as with Chadwick Boseman. With Da 5 Bloods, Lee achieved the distinction of having released films in five different decades, from the 1980s to the 2020s.

Lee, a long-time professor at his film school alma mater, helped produce films of several filmmakers, including Gina Prince-Bythewood’s feature debut Love & Basketball in 2000.

1990s and early 2000s: The music video launch

The rise of hip-hop music gave Black directors opportunities to showcase their vision and skill in music videos. Both Spike Lee and John Singleton directed music videos, most notably Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” for Lee and Michael Jackson’s “Remember the Time” for Singleton.

Hype Williams elevated music videos with his innovative “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)” (1997) by Missy Elliott and “Big Pimpin’” (2000) by Jay-Z and UGK, among many greats. Williams’s debut 1998 film Belly helped introduce rapper DMX as a leading man.

Music video directors, like F. Gary Gray, Tim Story, Antoine Fuqua, and Millicent Shelton, began transitioning primarily into film.

Gray would hit with Friday (1995) and Set It Off (1996), starring rappers Ice Cube and Queen Latifah, respectively, on his way to later direct The Italian Job (2003), which made more than $175 million worldwide.

Gray also directed Straight Outta Compton (2015), which made more than $160 million domestically and $200 million globally, and Fate of the Furious (2017) in the mighty The Fast and the Furious franchise. This made him the first Black American director to have a film reach $1 billion dollars in global box office receipts.

Black directors without strong music video roots were also active at this time, including Carl Franklin with Devil in a Blue Dress (1995), Rick Famuyiwa with The Wood (1999), Malcolm D. Lee with The Best Man (1999), and Gina Prince-Bythewood with Love & Basketball (2000).

Lee Daniels, who produced the feature film Monster’s Ball (2001), for which Halle Berry became the first Black woman to win the Academy Award for Best Actress, directed several films that made a huge impact.

Daniels's influential films during this time period include Precious, in 2009, which was adapted from Sapphire’s 1996 book Push and introduced actress Gabourey Sidibe. The film was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. Mo’Nique won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress and Geoffrey Fletcher became the first Black screenwriter to win the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay.

The 2010s: Drama, horror, heroes, and more

The late 1990s and early 2000s gave only a glimpse into what was to come. The 2010s ushered in Black directors who experienced even more notable breakthroughs, most notably Ava DuVernay, Barry Jenkins, Jordan Peele, and Ryan Coogler.

Ava DuVernay

Ava DuVernay, a Los Angeles area native, began her Hollywood career as a film publicist specializing in outreach to Black audiences. She worked on a string of successful films, including The Brothers (2001), Shrek 2 (2004), and Dreamgirls (2006), which launched Jennifer Hudson’s career.

She directed several small films prior to breaking through at Sundance, first with I Will Follow in 2011 and then with Middle of Nowhere in 2012, with which she became the first Black female director to win its U.S. Directing Award: Dramatic.

As her career progressed, DuVernay became acclaimed for both her filmmaking and her bold advocacy for inclusion. Filming Selma (2014), the first Hollywood feature film directly centered on Martin Luther King Jr., brought together DuVernay and Oprah Winfrey, who portrayed the real-life Annie Lee Cooper and her courageous struggle to vote in Jim Crow Alabama.

That led to DuVernay’s spearheading the dramatic series Queen Sugar as its creator and visionary. Adapted from Natalie Baszile’s 2014 novel, the series revolves around three siblings from the Bordelon clan.

With the launch of Queen Sugar in 2016, DuVernay committed to utilizing all female directors, which opened up additional opportunities for Black women directors, including Julie Dash, the first Black woman director to have a film distributed theatrically with her 1991 film Daughters of the Dust. Also directing for Queen Sugar were Tina Mabry, known for Mississippi Damned, Channing Godfrey Peoples, known for Miss Juneteenth, and Felicia Pride, known for the short Tender.

With her 2018 film A Wrinkle in Time, adapted from Madeleine L’Engle’s classic 1962 novel and starring Storm Reid, along with Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, and Mindy Kaling, DuVernay became the first Black woman director to have a film pass $100 million at the box office.

Through the streaming platform Netflix, DuVernay was able to make profound social justice statements, particularly through her 2016 documentary 13th, exploring the constitutional amendment and its relation to the mass incarceration of Black people.

This documentary won four Emmys and an NAACP Image Award and garnered an Oscar nomination. Her Netflix limited series When They See Us, about the Central Park Five (later known as the Exonerated Five), who were falsely imprisoned for the 1989 rape of the Central Park jogger, won several African American Film Critics Association (AAFCA) and NAACP Image Awards. It also won the Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited Series or a Movie for Jharrel Jerome, a first for an Afro-Latino actor.

Barry Jenkins

Director Barry Jenkins’s 2016 film Moonlight is a tender coming-of-age story based on playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney’s unpublished semiautobiographical play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, centered on a young man exploring his sexuality. It surprised critics and fans when it won the Oscar for Best Picture in 2017 over frontrunner La La Land after a dramatic mix-up initially announced La La Land as the winner.

Jenkins’s 2018 film adaptation of James Baldwin’s celebrated 1974 novel If Beale Street Could Talk, addressing mass incarceration, resulted in actress Regina King winning her first Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. The Underground Railroad, Jenkins’s limited series for Amazon, a first for him, was adapted from Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel.

Jordan Peele

Jordan Peele surprised many when his 2017 feature film debut Get Out garnered him a Best Director and a Best Picture Oscar nomination, a first-time combo for a Black director. It was also a win for Black horror films and horror in general.

Get Out, starring British actor Daniel Kaluuya, takes a turn when he and his white girlfriend visit her parents and he begins meeting Black people in a “sunken place” devoid of their essence or souls. He suspects it’s intentional and tries to escape the same fate.

Made for less than $5 million, Get Out, also starring Lil Rel Howery, LaKeith Stanfield, and Betty Gabriel, grossed $255.5 million worldwide. Peele followed Get Out with Us (2019), starring Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o as both the protagonist and the antagonist, grossing more than $255 million worldwide.

Ryan Coogler

California Bay Area native Ryan Coogler’s first feature film, Fruitvale Station — about the 2008 Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) cop killing of 22-year-old Oscar Grant III — was released in 2013 This came at the same time as the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the murder of Trayvon Martin.

Fruitvale Station starred Michael B. Jordan, who was just starting to make a real push toward the big screen. It was the rare film that humanized the victims of cop killings and not just the cop.

From there, Coogler turned his attention to Sylvester Stallone’s iconic Rocky franchise and created Creed, his 2015 film, shifting the focus to Adonis “Donnie” Creed. Creed starred Michael B. Jordan as an offspring of Apollo Creed and starred Sylvester Stallone as Rocky. That film grossed more than $170 million worldwide.

None of Coogler’s previous achievements, as impressive as they were for a director, especially one younger than 30 and Black, foreshadowed how significantly he would change the film landscape as the co-writer and director of Black Panther, the first standalone Black-cast film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Black Panther starred Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa/Black Panther, the would-be king of the fictional African nation of Wakanda and Michael B. Jordan as Killmonger, a challenger to the throne.

Released February 16, 2018, to critical and popular acclaim, Black Panther, with its African Diasporic casting of actors from the United States, England, various parts of the African Continent, and the Caribbean, proved to be a global sensation.

In the United States and Canada alone, Black Panther grossed more than $700 million on its way to a worldwide gross of more than $1.3 billion. This made Coogler the highest-grossing Black director, just ahead of Gray’s The Fate of the Furious, which grossed more than $1.2 billion in 2017.

The love and pride audiences have for Black Panther made the unexpected passing of Chadwick Boseman on August 28, 2020, at age 43, a cause of national and international mourning.

2020: A stream of Black women directors

A high point of 2020 was the emergence of Black women directors, with a Black woman-directed feature-length film released almost every month. It began with Numa Perrier’s Jezebel on Netflix in January 2020, followed by Radha Blank’s The 40-Year-Old Version, which won Sundance’s U.S. Dramatic Competition Directing Award prior to being shown on Netflix that October.

That February, Canadian-American director Stella Meghie released The Photograph, which she wrote and directed, starring Issa Rae and LaKeith Stanfield on the big screen.

Other films that followed include the high school mean-girl tale Selah and the Spades from writer/director Tayarisha Poe on Amazon Prime Video; writer/director Channing Godfrey Peoples’ Miss Juneteenth, starring Nicole Beharie, on video-on-demand; and Gina Prince-Bythewood’s action film The Old Guard for Netflix, starring white South African Charlize Theron and Black actress KiKi Layne.

In the year prior, 2019, Melina Matsoukas, a music video master known for her collaborations with Beyoncé, Rihanna, and even Whitney Houston, had gotten the party started early with her feature film debut Queen & Slim, starring Kaluuya and Jodie Turner Smith. It generated considerable buzz. So did the announcement that Nia DaCosta, whose anticipated Candyman reboot was pushed to 2021, would direct the next Captain Marvel film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

About This Article

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Ronda Racha Penrice attended the M.A. program in Southern Studies at the University of Mississippi. A veteran freelance writer, the Columbia University alum has covered Black history and culture for publications including Zora, Essence, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Ebony, theGrio, The Root, and NBC THINK.

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