6 African-American Filmmakers Who Have Achieved Cinematic Milestones
The 91st Academy Awards ceremony is scheduled to take place during Black History Month this year, specifically on the evening of February 24. That makes now the perfect time to honor a few of the African-American filmmakers who have contributed greatly to the art form over the past century. They may never receive all of the accolades they deserve, but their talents and stories have left an indelible mark on the industry, and will continue to inspire generations to come.
Before we look back, let’s briefly take stock of the status quo. It was not that long ago that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences came under fire for announcing a list of nominees in the four major acting categories that did not include a single person of color. That happened two years in a row—2015 and 2016.
Some “color-blind” pundits (none of which will have read this far, or will have even clicked on this feature) argued that race had nothing to do with it and that the best actors and actresses were recognized. Others took the Academy to task, declaring boycotts of the annual ceremony and launching social media movements like #OscarsSoWhite, a hashtag coined by social advocate and consultant April Reign. Led by then-president of the Academy Cheryl Boone Isaacs (the first African-American and only the third woman to hold that title), changes were made to increase the size and diversity of the Academy (in age and ethnicity).
Now in 2019, it seems to be working. Or at least starting to. The group of African-American nominees for the 91st Academy Awards is strong and absolutely worth lauding. For the first time in his long and exemplary career, Spike Lee is nominated for Best Director for his work on the film BlacKkKlansman, a crime dramedy based on the true story of a black police officer’s successful infiltration of the Ku Klux Klan. This is the same Spike Lee who made Do The Right Thing in 1989 and Malcolm X in 1992—both of which have been selected by the Library of Congress for the National Film Registry—yet it took the Academy three decades to decide that his directorial efforts warranted a nomination.
Director Barry Jenkins got close to breaking the cycle in 2017 with Moonlight and should have again this year with If Beale Street Could Talk, but to-date no African-American director has ever taken home a statue in the directing category.
Lee’s BlacKkKlansman is also nominated for Best Picture, but it will have to take on all of Wakanda to snatch that top spot. Black Panther’s Best Picture nomination is historic for a number of reasons, and while the camera won’t cut to Ryan Coogler after it leaves Spike Lee this time, his production designer (Hannah Beachler) and costume designer (Ruth E. Carter), two Black women, may be celebrating Black History Month by taking home shiny gold hardware for their display cases.
So, how did we get here? Why are we 91 ceremonies in and still able to look forward to firsts that should have been crossed off the list a long time ago? The issues are complicated, but the answers to those questions are not. Black History Month is about looking back and about looking forward, so instead of focusing on the whys and what-ifs, let’s think about the who’s and when’s.
We don’t have the bandwidth to write about each and every African-American trailblazer in the history of film, but here are six that you should definitely know. Coincidentally, it all started with another Oscar.
In 1918, a self-taught South Dakota rancher turned writer was presented with the rare opportunity to have his romance novel (“The Homesteader”) made into a motion picture. Oscar Devereaux Micheaux liked the pitch from George Johnson of the Lincoln Motion Picture Company, but he had a better idea.
Despite lacking the experience, Micheaux demanded that he be allowed to direct the motion picture himself. The powers that be would not allow it, so negro-homesteader-author Micheaux founded his own production company, and later that year became the first African-American to direct a feature film.
For context, Micheaux became a filmmaker two years after the release of D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, which is one of the most influential films ever made—and also one of the most unapologetically racist. While Griffith was depicting Blacks as bucks and brutes and championing the Klan as saviors, Micheaux’s first film, now lost to time, featured a taboo love story about a Black man and a White woman, who eventually learns that she has enough Black blood (one-drop) to not be considered white.
For the three decades that followed, Oscar Micheaux continued to write, direct, produce, and distribute what are known as “race” films, which were intended for Black audiences and featured all-Black casts. That didn’t stop White critics and censors from attempting to bury his work for its “infelicitous, not to say dangerous, treatment of the race question.”
In a new documentary titled Horror Noire, which focuses primarily on Blacks in the horror genre, Candyman actor Tony Todd praises Oscar Micheaux for his early accomplishments in the film industry. Author and professor Robin R. Means Coleman adds that Micheaux’s works are important because of who they were for and what they had to say. “What Oscar Micheaux’s films do is say, ‘Don’t engage in these behaviors, don’t engage in these acts, which ultimately could sort of bring down the race or sully the reputation of the race.’ [He] is making arguments that we are equal and to be respected and to be valued as human beings.”
Oscar Micheaux had at least 44 films under his belt when he died in 1951 at the age of 67, which makes him one of the most prolific indie filmmakers of all time.
Melvin Van Peebles
There are a lot of reasons why everyone should know Melvin Van Peebles’ name, but in film land there are two main touchstones: Watermelon Man and Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. The latter is an X-rated indie action thriller about a male prostitute taking on corrupt and racist cops. Released in 1971, it is credited as the film that birthed the blaxploitation genre. Like Oscar Micheaux, Melvin Van Peebles wore most of the hats during the production; not only did he play the title character, but he was the writer, director, co-producer, editor, and score composer.
Called the “first truly revolutionary Black film” by political activist and Black Panther Party co-founder Huey P. Newton, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song was made mandatory viewing for everyone in the organization. Conversely, Roger Greenspun for The New York Times called the film Van Peebles’ “third and worst feature,” adding that the filmmaker missed the mark in trying to make a “searing racial indictment.” Responding to what he felt was a biased system, Van Peebles wrote a letter to the MPAA which he read aloud during a press conference in 1971 before the film’s release:
“As a black artist and independent producer of motion pictures, I refuse to submit this film, made from Black perspective for Blacks, to the Motion Picture Code and Administration for rating that would be applicable to the black community. Neither will I “self apply” an “X” rating to my movie, if such a rating, is to be applicable to Black audiences, as called for by the Motion Pictures Code and Administration rules. I charge that your film rating body has no right to tell the Black community what it may or may not see. Should the rest of the community submit to your censorship that is its business, but White standards shall no longer be imposed on the Black community.”
Shot in 19 days with a rumored $500,000 budget, the film raked in $15 million at the box office ($93 million in today’s dollars). For filmmakers like Spike Lee, it provided a roadmap for how to get things done (and get “paid”) on the indie tip. Having added the film to its collection in 1993, The Museum of Modern Art wrote of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song that “not since Oscar Micheaux had an African-American filmmaker taken such complete control of the creative process, turning out a work so deeply connected to his own personal and cultural reality that he was not surprised when the white critical establishment professed bewilderment upon its release in 1971.”
Known primarily as one of the greatest American photographers in history, Gordon Parks also belongs on this list for directing the film adaptation of The Learning Tree, and also for a little film called Shaft, which released the same year as Melvin Van Peebles’ aforementioned landmark film. Each of Parks’ films tackled the complicated subject of being Black in America, though from very different perspectives and in very different settings.
The Learning Tree may have been Parks’ directorial debut, but it was also his third career. Taking what he learned as a fashion photographer/photojournalist and as a writer (the film is an adaptation of his semi-autobiographical novel of the same name), Parks found a way to translate the 240-page book about a Black teen growing up in rural Kansas into a captivating 107-minute film. The drama was well-received by critics in 1969, and when the National Film Registry was created 20 years later, it was one of the first 25 films selected for preservation.
In 1971, Gordon Parks directed a film that would later be praised as one of the high points of the blaxploitation era: Shaft. Adapted from a Ernest Tidyman novel by Tidyman and screenwriter John D. F. Black, the film was a departure from the source material in a major, history-effecting way, and Parks gets all the credit for it. In the novel, the titular character was a White man, but Gordon Parks decided to cast Richard Roundtree in the role instead. The decision shifted the narrative completely and created an icon for the Black community, one that many filmmakers have tried and often failed to clone over the years.
This past summer we lost a legend of the editing room. John Carter’s name may not ring as many bells as the other men and women featured in this post, but you’d be hard pressed to find someone who hasn’t seen at least one of the films he worked on during his 95 years of life. His extensive résumé includes The Heartbreak Kid (1972), Lean on Me (1989), The Five Heartbeats (1991), Boomerang (1992) Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit (1993), Friday (1995), Set It Off (1996), Soul Food (1997), and Barbershop (2002), just to name a few.
Carter was the first African-American to join the American Cinema Editors honorary society, and he was also the recipient of a BAFTA Award for his work editing the 1971 Milos Forman film, Taking Off. Editors are rarely as celebrated and respected as directors and actors (hence the Academy’s short-lived decision to write them out of the televised portion of the ceremony), but without Carter and others like him, film as we know it would cease to exist.
In an attempt to blend the past with the present and to look toward the future, we would be remiss if we did not include an African-American film editor who is well on her way to become a role model and trailblazer for future generations.
Joi McMillon is known primarily for her recent collaborations with Barry Jenkins on films like Moonlight and more recently If Beale Street Could Talk (in both cases she was co-editor with Nat Sanders). McMillon made history with the former, becoming the first Black woman nominated in the film editing category at the Oscars.
What’s even more special is that it was the first feature McMillon edited, having previously worked in television and on short films. While she and her co-nominee Nat Sanders did not take home the award in the individual category, they got to experience the excitement of Moonlight winning Best Picture, which McMillon told the popular pop-culture podcast BlackGirlNerds was the “best prize of them all.”
And last but certainly not least in this unranked list of six amazingly talented African-American filmmakers is one person whose name could be thrown into the hat for any upcoming feature or documentary and it would automatically get people more excited.
It feels like Ava DuVernay has been around for a long time, but she made her feature debut in 2008 with a documentary about the ‘90s music scene in Los Angeles called This Is The Life. Since then she has become a household name, both as a producer and as a director, with projects including the award-winning prison reform documentary 13th, the Oscar-winning MLK Jr. drama Selma, the television series Queen Sugar, and the film A Wrinkle in Time, which earned DuVernay the distinction of being the first Black female director to helm a film that grossed over $100 million at the box office.
In 2019, DuVernay is set to direct a feature film based on the DC Comics property The New Gods, and she has a TV mini-series called Central Park Five on the way. It’s only a matter of time before the words “Oscar nominated director” precede her name, and we will be there cheering when it happens.
So who are some African-American filmmakers, past or present, that you admire and feel that others should know about their work and accomplishments? Join the conversation—we’d love to hear from you.