In Honor of Black History Month, a Look at Black Directors Who Made History

In 2019, the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative reported that 2018 was a historic year for black filmmakers, noting a “record high when it came to hiring black directors.” The report reflected a significant change, showing the push for diversity both behind and in front of the camera. Though the numbers are increasing, the report also proved that Hollywood still has a long way to go. But as Black History Month 2020 comes to a close, Variety highlights the black filmmakers who have left an indelible mark on the industry and those with films to come through the rest of the year.

The first African American filmmaker to produce a feature film was pioneer Oscar Micheaux, who wrote, produced and directed the silent movie “The Homesteader in 1919. In 1931, he went on to make “The Exile,” which was his first feature with sound. Micheaux didn’t just work in films, he also wrote novels, and the Director’s Guild of America posthumously recognized his work by honoring him with the Golden Jubilee Special Award for Directorial Achievement in 1986.

It took until 1989 for a major studio (MGM) to have a black woman direct a film with Euzhan Palcy’s “A Dry White Season.” Palcy had been making films since the ’70s, but Hollywood repeatedly rejected her ideas for being “too black,” as she told The Guardian. “A Dry White Season” strongly opposed apartheid, and Palcy, facing death threats, fought on to make her movie and tell the story she wanted with the backing of MGM.


"Rebel" pilot episode - John Singleton. (Photo: Prashant Gupta/BET)
CREDIT: Rebel Episode 101. (Photo: Prash

John Singleton’s body of work includes “Poetic Justice,” “Shaft,” “2 Fast 2 Furious” and “Four Brothers.” Though Singleton died in 2019, his impact on film will last for generations to come. His 1991 film, “Boyz N the Hood,” cemented his place in film history when, at the age of 24, he became the first African American and the youngest person to have ever been nominated for a best director Oscar. The film took audiences onto the streets of South Central and showed what it was like to be living there as an innocent young man. Singleton also showed America that rap stars could act, casting Ice Cube in a leading role, and later tapping Tupac Shakur for “Poetic Justice.” It was also Singleton who chose to fill the soundtrack of 2003’s “2 Fast 2 Furious” with rap music, while other mainstream action films typically would use rock or heavy metal at the time.

Five months after Singleton’s “Boyz N the Hood” hit cinemas, Julie Dash made history in December 1991 when her film “Daughters of the Dust” became the first feature directed by an African American woman to get a general theatrical release in the United States.

Last month, it was announced that Oscar winner Spike Lee, who burst onto the scene with 1986’s “She’s Gotta Have It,” will serve as the president of the Cannes Film Festival’s 2020 jury. It’s the first time in the 73-year history of the festival that an African American has held the position. Lee’s contributions to cinema paved the way for many who came after him as he strove to comment on race in America and created representation — not stereotypes — of everyday black people.

Spike Lee - Best Adapted Screenplay - 'BlacKkKlansman'91st Annual Academy Awards, Press Room, Los Angeles, USA - 24 Feb 2019
CREDIT: Andrew H. Walker/BEI/REX/Shutter

“12 Years a Slave” director Steve McQueen cemented his position in Oscar history when he claimed the best picture Oscar for the film in 2014, becoming the first black filmmaker to win the award. “Moonlight’s” Barry Jenkins would become the second to win two years later, though the infamous “La La Land” mix-up almost deprived him of that glory.

Director, filmmaker and producer Ava DuVernay has set the trail alight, blazing her way through Hollywood as she fights for justice in her work, making a point to hire people of color and women for her productions. The director most recently told the story of the Exonerated Five in Netflix’s “When They See Us,” but in 2018, DuVernay became the first black woman to direct a film with a budget of $100 million with Disney’s “A Wrinkle in Time.” The film, starring Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling and Storm Reid, was DuVernay’s love letter to black girls everywhere.

In 2019, Victoria Mahoney became the first woman to direct a “Star Wars” film. When looking to hire his second unit director, “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” director J.J Abrams stepped outside normal hiring methods and personally reached out to DuVernay to ask for recommendations; she gave Abrams Mahoney’s name and the rest is history.

Of landing the job, Mahoney told Variety, “It’s a living legacy and I hope that I’m alive long enough to see this as the new norm in any capacity. I will go past ‘Star Wars’ and because, you know, this is an industry-wide challenge — this is not a one film, one franchise.”

“So, I am hoping that we get to continue seeing an effortless choice to employ women directors who come straight out of Sundance with a $20,000 film like our peers or come from YouTube and have no proof that they can handle a budget north of $140 million,” she continued. “But it’s like, ‘Here’s some trust, here’s some money, let’s see what you can do.’”

And black filmmakers continue to make their mark on cinema long beyond Black History Month’s end on Feb. 29. Here’s a comprehensive list of the films from black directors expected to debut in 2020:

Tyler Perry’s “A Fall From Grace”: streaming on Netflix
Stella Meghie’s “The Photograph”: in theaters now
Dee Rees’ “The Last Thing I Wanted”: streaming on Netflix
Rashaad Ernesto Green’s “Premature”: in limited theaters
Gerard Bush’s “Antebellum” (co-director): April 24
Nia DaCosta’s “Candyman”: June 12
Deon Taylor’s “Fatale”: June 19
Kemp Powers’ “Soul” (co-director): June 19
Antoine Fuqua’s “Infinite”: expected Aug. 7
Shaka King’s “Untitled Fred Hampton Project”: expected Aug. 21
Mark Tonderai’s “Spell”: expected Aug. 28
Tina Gordon’s “Praise This”: Sept. 25
Reinaldo Marcus Green’s “King Richard”: Nov. 25
Tim Story’s “Tom & Jerry”: Dec. 23
Spike Lee’s “Da 5 Bloods”: expected 2020
Gina Prince-Bythewood’s “The Old Guard”: expected 2020

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