As we continue our celebration of Black History Month, it’s time to shine a light on filmmakers who have played their own part to elevate their communities. Be it awareness or social change, these directors have made a difference with their projects ranging from short films to multi-part documentaries and everything in between. Here are 15 voices who have and continue to make a difference.
The Parisian-born Algerian director has become one of France’s most honored working filmmakers, with his films united by a theme of fighting injustice around the world. His Oscar-nominated 1995 drama Dust of Life brought to the screen the true story of the labor camp experiences of a child of an African-American soldier and a Vietnamese woman, while his acclaimed 2006 World War II film Days of Glory impacted the release of pensions to many former French colonies. During the pandemic, he made a different kind of footprint by sharing his knowledge through masterclasses offered to first-time filmmakers.
Long after her death in 1988, the work of this pioneering civil rights activist, writer, and educator jolted the world. Her film Losing Ground, which was initially given sparse exhibition in 1982, was rediscovered and reappraised as a masterpiece. The semi-autobiographical comedy – which was the very first sound American feature film to be directed by a Black woman – tells the story of a philosophy professor torn between two men and her career. When it was finally given an official release in 2015, Losing Ground rewrote the cinematic history books.
Blockbuster barriers have been broken multiple times by this vital young American director since his powerhouse debut with Fruitvale Station (2013) starring his frequent acting collaborator, Michael B. Jordan. That film’s depiction of the tragic true story of Oakland’s Oscar Grant anticipated the Black Lives Matter movement. Coogler then went on to revive the Rocky franchise with the celebrated Creed (2015) and deliver one of Marvel’s most successful films, Black Panther (2018), which earned seven Academy Award nominations (including the first ever Best Picture nomination for a superhero film) and won three Oscars. When Coogler isn’t making a film, he backs up his commitment to improving lives by counseling incarcerated juveniles in San Francisco and supporting the Blackout for Human Rights campaign, which he cofounded.
Initially embarking on her directing career while still working as a publicist, DuVernay has shattered barriers since making her debut as a filmmaker. Her acclaimed film Middle of Nowhere (2012) featured a look at the plight of incarcerated prisoners and the impact of their circumstances on their families, an approach she brought to major public awareness with her Oscar-nominated documentary, 13th (2016). Her Oscar-winning 2014 film Selma, a depiction of the historic 1965 marches for voting rights involving Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., brought Dr. King’s legacy to a new generation of young viewers. In 2020, she was elected to the Academy’s Board of Governors for the Directors Branch.
Of the many filmmakers who shook up the independent film scene and took advantage of the widespread popularity of home video, Leslie Harris stood out as a female filmmaker with a distinctive voice as the writer, director and producer of Just Another Girl on the I.R.T. (1992). Here, we get inside the heart and soul of a young woman determined to overcome the obstacles in her Brooklyn surroundings to become a doctor, a mission many young viewers took to heart. The film was recently restored by the Academy Film Archive in collaboration with UCLA and Sundance, with a premiere last month at Sundance as part of its annual From the Collection series.
The first Black woman to earn an Oscar nomination for a film she directed, Houston moved audiences with her powerful short film, Tuesday Morning Ride (1995), based on a story by Harlem writer Arna Bontemps, about an aging couple (Ruby Dee and Bill Cobbs) dealing with a society they feel no longer has any use for them. Since then, she has gone on to a successful career including several notable TV assignments, such as helming multiple episodes of Empire.
The LGBT experiences of Black youths became a major topic of conversation with the release of Jenkins’ second feature film, Moonlight (2016), which went on to win the Oscar for Best Picture, as well as Oscars for Best Supporting Actor for Mahershala Ali and Best Adapted Screenplay for Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney. He was nominated again for his screenplay for his third directorial feature, If Beale Street Could Talk (2018), which won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for Regina King. Most recently, he directed and won an Emmy for his work on the 2021 limited series, The Underground Railroad, depicting the network of escape routes for slaves in the American South.
A list of this groundbreaking filmmaker’s achievements and impact would be far too long to cover here, of course, given that his filmography includes classic narrative films such as Do the Right Thing (1989), Malcolm X (1992), BlacKkKlansman (2018), and so many more. However, his impact on the community may be best seen in his impressive short and long-form documentary work, including the Oscar-nominated 4 Little Girls (1997) about the victims of a 1963 bombing in Birmingham, When the Levees Break: A Requiem in Four Acts (2006), an examination of the government’s response to Hurricane Katrina, If God Is Willing and da Creek Don’t Rise (2010), and Mo’ne Davis: I Throw Like a Girl (2014), all of which examine the tangled relationship in America between race, government, and modern media.
The first Oscar presented to an African-American director for a feature-length film went to Seattle-born documentarian Martin for Undefeated (2011), which he co-directed with Daniel Lindsay. This fly-on-the-wall look at a Memphis football team trying to turn around a punishing losing streak became a film festival favorite, putting Martin and Lindsay on the path to more glory with films including LA 92 (2017), recounting the turbulent Los Angeles Riots, and the recent Tina Turner documentary, Tina (2021).
Dedicating his entire filmmaking career to social change through documentaries, Haitian-based Peck has offered a powerful perspective on politics, colonialism, and other pressing issues through films all the way up to last year’s Exterminate All the Brutes (2021). His voice reached a new level of exposure with his powerful Oscar-nominated documentary I Am Not Your Negro (2016), which frames the life of legendary writer James Baldwin as an exploration of the complex history of race relations in the United States.
The face of 1990s indie cinema would have been very different indeed without Singleton, a singular writer-director who exploded on the scene and earned an Oscar nomination for Best Director for his feature film debut, Boyz n the Hood (1991). He was only 23-years-old when he directed the coming-of-age drama, making him the youngest filmmaker to ever be nominated in the Best Director category. Singleton also became the first African American to be nominated for an Academy Award for Directing. A defining American classic, the film brought the experiences of young Black men in South Central Los Angeles to worldwide audiences with an immediacy and emotional heft that continues to inspire new generations of artistic voices. Singleton went on to channel that success into a career that included such films as Poetic Justice (1993) and Baby Boy (2001), solidifying a voice that can still be heard after his passing in 2019.
Roger Ross Williams
The first Oscar win by an African American filmmaker arrived in 2010 with Williams’ inspiring Music by Prudence, a documentary short about a disabled Zimbabwe-born singer and her band who buck the odds to reach an audience with their music. A member of the Academy’s Board of Governors as well as a Chair of the Documentary Brach and its Diversity Committee, Williams has gone on to several notable projects including God Loves Uganda (2013) and Life, Animated (2016).
Kevin Wilson Jr.
A recent voice on the scene is this young director who moved and educated audiences with his Oscar-nominated short film, My Nephew Emmett (2017). The film takes a new look at the horrific 1955 murder of Emmett Till as experienced by his uncle, Mose Wright. Wilson Jr. has continued illuminating the world with his work since then, having recently made a PSA for executive producer Angela Bassett, “For Armetta,” promoting The Essential Campaign, a nonprofit dedicated to honoring and supporting essential workers impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Debra J. Robinson
Another recent restoration by the Academy Film Archive is I Be Done Been Was Is (1984), an hour-long documentary that explored a previously neglected side of the entertainment industry: the live comedy scene as experienced by Black women. Here we meet four female comedians balancing their private lives with the demands of making it big on both coasts – in a business already known for the many challenges it presents to up-and-comers. How each comedian approaches the challenges in her path is now ripe for rediscovery.
After starting out in advertising, Detroit-born Woods became one of the first Black women to excel in the realm of short films, including two pivotal titles: Killing Time (1979), with Woods starring as a woman grappling with the decision to end her life, and Fannie’s Film (1981), a documentary short about the day-to-day life of a cleaning woman who improbably finds inspiration in her surroundings. Both shorts have recently been restored by the Academy Film Archive, ensuring that her voice and achievements will continue to inspire.
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