During the history of cinema, major black voices have found artistic expression in filmmaking, creating some of cinema’s most memorable moments. From the liberating catharsis of the blaxploitation genre to the genre-defying films of Spike Lee, black filmmakers have made an indelible imprint on the history of film. And new filmmakers like Jordan Peele, Barry Jenkins, and Ryan Coogler have ushered in new and challenging voices to contemporary cinema. Collected here are 15 of history’s most influential and successful black filmmakers.
Essential films: Do the Right Thing, BlacKKKlansman, Malcom X, Da 5 Bloods, 25th Hour, Inside Man, She’s Gotta Have It, When the Levees Broke, Chi-Raq, He Got Game, Bamboozled, Jungle Fever, Crooklyn.
Regarded as the most influential black filmmaker of all-time, for over three and a half decades Spike Lee has remained a vibrant and provocative American filmmaker, creating an electrifying and didactic body of work that’s subversive, genre-defying, and cinematically thrilling. Combining real and archival footage, meta narratives, genre tropes, and compelling cinematic flourishes, each decade of his career is marked with a masterpiece: Do the Right Thing (’89), Malcolm X (’92), 25th Hour (2002), BlacKKKlansman (2018), Da 5 Bloods (2020).
Essential films: Creed, Fruitvale Station, Black Panther.
With only three directorial features under his belt, Ryan Coogler has the unique position of being the highest-grossing black filmmaker of all-time. His debut, Fruitvale Station, was a critical darling and his follow-up, Creed–the seventh installment in the Rocky series–reinvigorated the franchise for a new generation. But it was Black Panther which proved the most successful–becoming the highest-grossing film of all time by a black director.
Essential films: The Learning Tree, Shaft, The Super Cops, Shaft’s Big Score, Leadbelly .
Gordon Parks is best known for pioneering the genre of blaxploitation (Shaft and Shaft’s Big Score) and becoming the first black director whose films received wide release and mainstream success. He also directed Leadbelly, a nuanced biopic of the legendary blues musician, and The Learning Tree, a poignant semi-autobiographical film about a young black boy growing up in rural Kansas.
Essential films: 13th, Selma, Middle of Nowhere, I Will Follow.
Before turning to filmmaking, Ava DuVernay spent her early career as a film publicist. Her big break came in 2012 when she received a directing award from the Sundance Film Festival for her debut feature the 2012 film Middle of Nowhere. This was followed by Selma, which earned DuVernay a Golden Globe nomination for Best Director and she became the first black female director to have a film nominated for the Oscar for Best Picture. In 2017 she directed the Netflix documentary 13th and received an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Feature.
Essential films: 12 Years a Slave, Hunger, Widows, Shame.
When 12 Years a Slave won the Oscar for Best Picture, Steve McQueen became the first black director to have a film win Best Picture. Like all his other features–Hunger, Shame, Widows—12 Years a Slave proved a harrowing and deeply empathic character study.
Essential films: Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One, Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take 2 ½, Still a Brother.
Originally beginning his career as an actor, William Greaves studied acting alongside classmate Marlon Brando at the Actor’s Studio. In time, Greaves left acting behind and pursued filmmaking. He was enormously prolific–producing over 200 movies–and is best known for his innovative and influential experimental documentary Symbiopsychotaxiplasm from 1968.
Melvin Van Peebles
Essential films: Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, Watermelon Man, The Story of a 3 Day Pass, Don’t Play Us Cheap.
Along with Gordon Parks’ Shaft, Melvin Van Peebles is responsible for the dawning of the blaxploitation genre. The release of his film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song was a watershed moment for black cinema. Not only did Peebles write, produce, direct and star in the film–the film was also innovative because Peebles, in the plot of the film, subverted the norms of the day and depicted the black anti-hero winning against the cops and getting away with it. Produced on a slim budget and relying entirely on word-of-mouth publicity, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song proved enormously successful and influential and helped usher in a new wave of diverse voices into the cinematic collective.
Essential films: Within Our Gates, Body and Soul, The Symbol of the Unconquered, The Girl from Chicago.
Considered the first major black American filmmaker, Oscar Micheaux was responsible for creating over forty feature films between the 1910s and the 1940s. Also an accomplished author, Micheaux used his creative projects to explore the lives of black Americans during the Jim Crow era.
Essential films: Mudbound, Pariah, Bessie, The Last Thing He Wanted.
A native of Nashville, Dee Rees is an exciting new voice in contemporary film and TV. Best known for the Netflix film Mudbound and the HBO biopic of Bessie Smith, Bessie, Rees has worked on the TV series Empire and When We Rise and most recently directed the thriller The Last Thing He Wanted, adapted from a Joan Didion novel and starring Anne Hathaway and Willem Defoe.
Essential films: Boys n the Hood, Baby Boy, Four Brothers, Poetic Justice, Higher Learning.
A diversely accomplished filmmaker best known for directing Boyz n the Hood, Singleton died suddenly of a stroke in April 2019. A native of South Los Angeles, much of Singleton’s work told the stories of black lives in poor urban environments, including Boyz n the Hood and the undervalued Baby Boy (2001). Singleton also co-created the FX crime drama Snowfall and received an Emmy nomination for directing the fifth episode of The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story.
Essential films: Moonlight, If Beale Street Could Talk, Medicine for Melancholy.
Barry Jenkins’ debut feature, Medicine for Melancholy, received critical acclaim when it was released in 2008, but it was his follow-up, 2016’s Moonlight that catapulted him to the forefront of contemporary American filmmakers. The film won Best Picture, best supporting actor, and Best Original Screenplay. Jenkins’ third feature–If Beale Street Could Talk–was adapted from a novel by James Baldwin and continued the filmmakers understated brand of empathy and quiet intimacy. Jenkins is currently adapting Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Underground Railroad as a series for Amazon Studios.
Essential films: Get Out, Us, Key & Peele (series).
Before he revitalized the American horror genre with critical and commercial hits Get Out and Us, Jordan Peele was co-creator of one of TV’s most influential sketch comedy shows: Key and Peele (2012-2015). His directorial debut, Get Out, was the most profitable film of 2017 and immediately guaranteed Peele deep reservoirs of funding for writing, producing, and directing. He followed up Get Out with the critical and commercial hit Us, produced Spike Lee’s BlacKKKlansman, and produced and narrated the web television series The Twilight Zone.
Essential films: Tongues Untied, Black is…Black Ain’t, Ethnic Notions, Color Adjustment.
Marlon Riggs was an innovative documentary filmmaker whose life and career were cut short by the AIDS epidemic in 1994. A poet and a gay rights activist, Riggs’ work captured the intimacy, stereotypes, and vibrancy of gay black men like himself.
F. Gary Gray
Essential films: Friday, Straight Outta Compton, The Italian Job, Fate of the Furious, Set it Off.
Beginning his carer as a director on numerous critically acclaimed music videos, F. Gary Gray’s feature film directorial debut was the 1995 comedy Friday, starring Ice Cube and Chris Tucker. He spent the next fifteen years directing underseen genre flicks, but returned in 2015 with the enormously successful Straight Outta Compton. This was followed by the eighth installment of the Fast and the Furious franchise, The Fate of the Furious and 2019’s Men in Black International. Gray is one of only a few contemporary black filmmakers directing films with budgets in excess of $100 million.
Essential films: Losing Ground, The Cruz Brothers of Miss Malloy.
Kathleen Collins’ life and career ended tragically when she died of breast cancer in 1988. During her short career, Collins directed an arthouse masterpiece, Losing Ground (1982), about the tumultuous marriage between a philosopher and a painter. Losing Ground has proved profoundly influential on black independent cinema and is currently available to stream on The Criterion Channel.