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20 Black filmmakers who have changed Hollywood in the last century

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Key Points
  • It took decades for Black directors to break into the entertainment industry and alter how Hollywood operated behind and in front of the camera.
  • Oscar Micheaux led the charge, launching his own studio in 1919. 
  • Directors such as Spike Lee, Ava DuVernay, Jordan Peele and Ryan Coogler are household names, creating works of art and commercially successful projects.

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(L to R) Ava Duvernay, Spike Lee, Jordan Peele
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The films that launched the entertainment industry around the turn of the 20th century were created for white audiences by white filmmakers.

It took decades for Black directors to break into the industry and alter how Hollywood operated behind and in front of the camera and how it viewed Black content. Oscar Micheaux led the charge, launching his own studio in 1919. 

Directors such as Melvin van Peebles and Gordon Parks put Black narratives at the forefront of their storytelling in the 1970s, creating a subgenre known as "blaxploitation." These films used Black stereotypes about poverty and drug abuse to put Black actors at the center of the action.  

Then in the '80s and '90s, Spike Lee and John Singleton used their films to examine urban and racial tensions, providing a mainstream audience with more nuanced Black characters. 

"I've been blessed with the opportunity to express the views of black people who otherwise don't have access to power and the media," Lee wrote in a companion novel to "Do the Right Thing" published in 1989. "I have to take advantage of that while I'm still bankable."

During that time, Black female filmmakers were making strides. Kathleen Collins' work in the '80s paved the way for Julie Dash to become the first Black woman to have a film get a wide release in 1991.

Each of these directors helped push back barriers and inspire a new generation of Black filmmakers such as Ava DuVernay, Tyler Perry and Barry Jenkins, who have been recognized not only critically for their work but commercially at the global box office.

While Black filmmakers are more prevalent and celebrated in Hollywood in the 21st century, there's still a lot of work to be done. 

2020 was a banner year for Black ensemble films. "One Night in Miami," "Da 5 Bloods," "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom'' and "Judas and the Black Messiah" stunned critics. However, none of these films was nominated for best picture or best screenplay at the Golden Globes. The Academy Awards will make its nominations in March.

Here's a look at 20 Black directors who have changed Hollywood:

Oscar Micheaux

Hailed as the first major Black filmmaker, Oscar Micheaux directed and produced 42 feature films between 1919 and 1948. 

He was a writer-turned-filmmaker, using his first novel "The Homesteader" to launch his career in the film industry. During that time, Micheaux's content was classified as "race film," a genre of movies made during the Jim Crow era that were created for and by Black people.

Many of his films featured all-Black casts and his characters were not stereotypical, unlike the blackface caricatures seen in more mainstream white films. He tackled subjects such as racial violence, rape, economic oppression and discrimination within his work.

He died in 1951 but has posthumously been inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame and awarded the Golden Jubilee Special Directorial Award from the Directors Guild of America.

A lobby card for the 1921 silent film 'The Gunsaulus Mystery," The poster features Oscar Micheaux who was the writer and director of the film, he is regarded as the first major African-American filmmaker, the film belongs to a genre called race films which were produced for all-black audiences, 1921.
Smith Collection | Gado | Archive Photos | Getty Images

William Greaves

An influential independent documentary filmmaker, William Greaves produced and directed more than 100 films. His films captured social issues as well as key African American figures such as Muhammad Ali and Ida B. Wells. 

In the late 1960's Greaves garnered attention for his experimental film "Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One." The avant-garde film chronicles a fictional documentary titled "Over the Cliff," which is directed by Greaves, who acts in it. The documentary focuses on actors as they prepare to audition for a dramatic piece. Greaves used three sets of camera crews: One documented the audition process and the actors, the second documented the first film crew and the third documented the actors and the two other film crews.

The meta-documentary, as it has come to be called, featured a documentary, a documentary about a documentary and a documentary that documented a documentary about a documentary. 

Greaves, who passed away in 2014, is a member of the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame and the recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Documentary Association.

Director William Greaves speaks at the press conference for the film "Symbiopsychotaxiplasm:Take 2 1/2" at the Tribeca Film Festival April 25, 2005 in New York City.
Bryan Bedder | Getty Images

Gordon Parks

Gordon Parks started his career as a prolific and famed photographer before branching out into filmmaking. He started as a consultant on various Hollywood productions in the '50s before directing a series of documentaries about Black urban life for National Educational Television.

Parks became Hollywood's first major Black director, bringing the iconic "Shaft" to theaters in 1971. The film spawned a number of follow-ups and helped spark a subgenre known as blaxploitation. The genre was one in which images of lower-class Blacks being involved with drugs and violence were exploited to make commercially successful films.

While this genre played on Black stereotypes, it also cast Black actors in lead roles, instead of as minor characters or sidekicks.

Director Gordon Parks and actor Richard Roundtree on set of the movie "Shaft's Big Score!", circa 1972.
Michael Ochs Archives | Moviepix | Getty Images

Melvin van Peebles

Melvin van Peebles directed more than a dozen films during his career in Hollywood, but he is most well known for the 1971 movie "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song," which he wrote, directed and acted in.

"Sweetback" tells the story of a Black man who is selected as a patsy for a murder by white police officers. The man ends up killing the cops, becomes the target of a massive manhunt and flees to Mexico. It became one of the most successful films of 1971, tallying more than $15 million in box-office sales.

The film proved that a story with a strong African-American lead character could be successful at the box office and helped usher in a new wave of Black cinema.

Actor, director, screenwriter, playwright, novelist and composer Melvin Van Peebles photographed in 1972.
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Kathleen Collins

A poet, playwright and filmmaker, Kathleen Collins helped break barriers for female directors in Hollywood. She had two major films: "The Cruz Brothers and Miss Malloy" and "Losing Ground," which were released in the early '80s.

Although "Losing Ground" was denied a large-scale exhibition, it was among the first films created by a Black woman that was feature-length and created for popular consumption. Collins helped pave the way for future Black women filmmakers to have their films get national commercial distribution. 

Collins passed away in 1988 from breast cancer. At that time, the bulk of her work was unpublished and left to her daughter. In 2006, Nina Collins began to go through her mother's archive and have it published, restored and reissued.

Spike Lee

In the mid-'80s Spike Lee emerged in the film industry with "She's Gotta Have It," a film about the love life of a contemporary Black woman. Over the next 40 years, Lee would become known for his exploration of race relations, colorism in the Black community and urban crime and poverty. He has released a movie almost every year since 1986.

He was one of the few Black filmmakers making movies for a wide audience during that time and, while his films were not breaking box-office records, they were gaining critical attention.

Lee was nominated for best documentary feature in 1998 for "4 Little Girls" and best original screenplay in 1990 for "Do the Right Thing." He received an honorary Oscar in 2016 for his directorial accomplishments. In 2019, Lee finally claimed his first Oscar for best adapted screenplay for his work on "BlacKkKlansman."

His most recent feature was "Da 5 Bloods," which was released on Netflix last year. The film received a number of key critics' prizes, including best film from the National Board of Review and one of the top 10 films of the year by the American Film Institute.

Spike Lee
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Marlon Riggs

Marlon Riggs was an American filmmaker, poet and gay rights activist during the '80s and '90s. He produced and directed a number of documentary films including "Tongues Untied," "Ethnic Notions" and "Color Adjustment" prior to his untimely death in 1994 due to complications from AIDS.

Riggs used film to examine past and present representations of race and sexuality in the U.S. One of his most controversial documentaries was "Tongues Untied." It looked at gay Black male culture during the AIDS crisis and featured a kiss between two Black men, something that hadn't been portrayed in mainstream media. It was selected by PBS for its "POV" series.

The documentary was partially funded by taxpayer money though the National Endowment for the Arts, leading some conservatives to use it in long-running attempts to defund PBS and the NEA.

Riggs' work, although controversial, became a lightning rod for the culture war between conservatives and liberals that raged during that time.

Julie Dash

Just three years after the passing of Collins, Julie Dash released "Daughters of the Dust." It was the first full-length film directed by an African American woman to get a wide theatrical release in the U.S. Dash's 1991 film was named to the National Film Registry in 2004.

Dash has directed music videos, commercial spots, shorts and episodic television during her career. She was nominated for a Directors Guild Award for "The Rosa Parks Story," which was released in 2002. 

Renowned filmmaker Julie Dash, who wrote and directed the acclaimed film, 'Daughters of the Dust', teaches filmmaking at Howard University.
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John Singleton

At the age of 24, John Singleton became the youngest person ever to be nominated for best director at the Academy Awards and the first African-American. He was nominated for his film "Boyz n the Hood," a 1991 coming-of-age drama that also earned Singleton a best original screenplay nod at the Oscars.

Many of Singleton's films examined urban and racial tensions including "Poetic Justice" and "Higher Learning," which were released in the '90s. He also directed the film "2 Fast 2 Furious."

Prior to his death in 2019, Singleton wrote, directed or executive produced a number of television shows including "Snowfall," "Rebel," "Empire" and "Billions."

View of director John Singleton, wearing sunglasses and beret, while on the set of his movie 'Poetic Justice', Los Angeles, CA, 1993.
Anthony Barboza | Archive Photos | Getty Images

F. Gary Gray

F. Gary Gray began his career directing critically acclaimed and award-winning music videos for artists such as Ice Cube, Dr. Dre and Outkast. It wasn't until the mid-90s that he made his feature film debut.

In the years that followed, Gray released blockbuster hits and award-nominated films including "The Italian Job," "Law Abiding Citizen," "Straight Outta Compton" and "The Fate of the Furious."

Gray has directed 10 films in the last three decades, tallying more than $2.2 billion in ticket sales. He is the first Black director to have a film gross more than $1 billion at the global box office. "The Fate of the Furious" tallied $1.2 billion in 2017.

Honoree F. Gary Gray accepts the Excellence in the Arts Award onstage during BET Presents the American Black Film Festival Honors on February 17, 2017 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images)
Alberto E. Rodriguez | Getty Images Entertainment | Getty Images

Antoine Fuqua

Like Gray, Antoine Fuqua got his start in the industry directing music videos. He worked with artists such as Toni Braxton, Coolio, Prince and Stevie Wonder before launching into feature films in 1998.

Fuqua is known for directing action and thriller films and has a consistent track record at the box office. His 2001 film "Training Day" earned actor Denzel Washington an Academy Award.

His films "King Arthur," "Shooter," "Olympus Has Fallen," "The Equalizer" and "Southpaw" have garnered more than $1.3 billion at the global box office. His most recent work was a 2019 documentary called "What's My Name: Muhammad Ali."

Executive Producer & Director Antoine Fuqua attends the "What's My Name | Muhammad Ali" Tribeca Premiere on April 28, 2019 in New York City.
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Tyler Perry

Tyler Perry built a multimillion-dollar brand by creating content for an audience that was often ignored by Hollywood. While some have derided the filmmaker for amplifying negative or stereotypical images of Black identity, particularly with his Madea films, he continues to showcase A-list and up-and-coming Black talent in his work.

Following the box-office success of his 2005 debut "Diary of a Mad Black Woman," Perry secured a lucrative first-look deal with Lionsgate until 2014. Perry's two dozen theatrical releases have garnered more than $1.1 billion globally.

Perry operates one of three major studios in Georgia, where he films his movie and television projects and rents out space to other filmmakers. With his studio, Perry has helped nurture the state's film industry. He has even partnered with the Georgia Film Academy to place interns from the school on productions.

Tyler Perry accepts People's Champion Award onstage for the 2020 E! People's Choice Awards held at the Barker Hangar in Santa Monica, California and on broadcast on Sunday, November 15, 2020.
Christopher Polk | E! Entertainment | NBCUniversal | Getty Images

Tim Story

Tim Story is one of the most commercially successful Black filmmakers. His directorial debut came in 2002 with "Barbershop," a comedy film that spawned two other films in the franchise.

He also directed 2005's "Fantastic Four" and its sequel "Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer," which together amassed more than $600 million at the global box office.

In total, Story's films, which also include "Think Like a Man," "Ride Along" and 2019's "Shaft," have hauled in more than $1.2 billion worldwide.

Director Tim Story attends the premiere of Showtime's "White Famous" at The Jeremy Hotel on September 27, 2017 in West Hollywood, California. (Photo by Paul Archuleta/FilmMagic)
Paul Archuleta | FilmMagic | Getty Images

Steve McQueen

No, not the American actor. This Steve McQueen is a British filmmaker known for his Academy Award-winning film "12 Years a Slave."

Born in London, McQueen spent the '90s making short films before debuting his first feature-length film "Hunger," about the 1981 Irish hunger strike, at the Cannes Film Festival in 2008.

In 2011, he released "Shame," a drama about an executive struggling with sex addiction. Two years later, "12 Years a Slave" garnered him the Oscar for best picture, making him the first Black filmmaker to ever win the award.

He later adapted a British television series called "Widows" into an American-based film and released "Small Axe," a collection of five films set within London's West Indian community between the 1960s and 1980s.

For his work, McQueen has received the Turner Prize, the highest award given to a British visual artist. He has also been appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire.

Director Steve McQueen attends the red carpet of the movie "Soul" during the 15th Rome Film Festival on October 15, 2020 in Rome, Italy.
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Barry Jenkins

Barry Jenkins directed two short films before debuting "Medicine for Melancholy" in 2008. The film received an Independent Spirit Award nomination for Best First Feature. 

Following an eight-year hiatus from feature filmmaking, Jenkins returned to Hollywood with "Moonlight," an LGBT-themed independent drama, that went on to win numerous accolades including the Academy Award for best picture. Jenkins became the fourth Black person nominated for best director and the second to win a best picture Oscar. 

His third directorial feature "If Beale Street Could Talk" arrived in 2018 and earned him nominations for best screenplay at the Academy Awards and Golden Globes.

Jenkins was most recently tapped by Disney to direct a second live-action "Lion King" film.

Barry Jenkins accepts Best Director for “If Beale Street Could Talk” onstage during the 2019 Film Independent Spirit Awards on February 23, 2019 in Santa Monica, California. (Photo by Tommaso Boddi/Getty Images)
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Dee Rees

A student and mentee of director Spike Lee, Dee Rees graduated from New York University and immediately went to work. She interned on Lee's "Inside Man" and "When the Levees Broke" in the mid-'00s, using that time to pen a script that would later be developed into her first feature film, 2011's "Pariah."

Her third directorial film, "Mudbound," was nominated for three Academy Awards, including a best screenplay nod for Rees. Rees was the first Black woman nominated for a writing award at the Oscars since Suzanne de Passe in 1973. "Mudbound" also led Rachel Morrison to be the first woman ever nominated for the best cinematography award.

Rees has also written and directed television episodes for series such as "Empire," "When We Rise" and "Philip K. Dick's Electric Dreams."

Dee Rees speaks onstage during the 2020 Sundance Film Festival Awards Night Ceremony at Basin Recreation Field House on February 01, 2020 in Park City, Utah.
Matt Winkelmeyer | Getty Images

Ava DuVernay

Ava DuVernay first made a name for herself in Hollywood with her 2012 film "Middle of Nowhere." The film earned her the directing award in the U.S. dramatic competition at Sundance. She was the first Black woman to win this award.

Two years later, "Selma" helped DuVernay become the first Black woman to be nominated for a Golden Globe for best director and the first Black female director to be nominated for best picture. In 2017, she was nominated for the Oscar for best documentary feature for her film "13th."

While her 2018 Disney fantasy film "A Wrinkle in Time" ultimately lost money at the box office and was a flop with critics, it still garnered more than $100 million domestically. DuVernay was the first Black woman to hit that benchmark.

More recently, DuVernay has had a successful run in television. Her Netflix limited series "When They See Us" told the story of the five Harlem teens who were falsely accused of a brutal attack in Central Park. It earned critical acclaim and 16 Emmy nominations. It won the Emmy for outstanding limited series.

Last year, DuVernay was elected to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences board of governors as part of the directors branch.

DuVernay also founded a film collective called Array in 2010. The company is dedicated to amplifying people of color and female directors in the film industry.

Filmmaker Ava Duvernay attends Film at Lincoln Center screening of "When They See Us" at Walter Reade Theater on May 21, 2019 in New York City.
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Ryan Coogler

"Black Panther" director Ryan Coogler has become a household name in less than a decade. In 2013, he gained critical acclaim and attention for his debut film "Fruitvale Station," which led him to direct "Creed," a spin-off sequel to the Rocky films.

For his third film, Disney gave him a budget of $200 million to bring the Black superhero Black Panther to the big screen. The film brought in a record-breaking $235 million during its opening weekend and went on to ring up more than $1.3 billion in ticket sales globally. He is the second Black director to have a film top $1 billion worldwide. 

In early February, Disney announced that it had struck a five-year deal with Coogler and his company Proximity Media to create television programming exclusively for Disney. He is already contracted to write and direct a second Black Panther film and will now create a TV series for Disney+ based in the fictional world of Wakanda.

Director Ryan Coogler attends the 'Black Panther' BFI preview screening held at BFI Southbank on February 9, 2018 in London, England.
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Jordan Peele

For many years, Jordan Peele was identified with the comedy show "Key & Peele," in which the filmmaker starred alongside fellow comedian Keegan-Michael Key. However, in 2017, Peele delivered an Oscar-winning feature film called "Get Out."

The film was a horror movie about racism that became a breakout hit and critically acclaimed. It exceeded $100 million in sales domestically within its first three weeks in theaters, making Peele the first Black writer-director to hit that mark with his debut movie.

"Get Out" was nominated for four Oscars, including best picture, best director, best actor and best screenplay. Peele won the award for best screenplay.

Peele's second film "Us" also received critical and commercial success. He is currently working on his third feature. In the meantime, he has been an active producer of television shows including "Hunters," "Lovecraft Country" and "The Twilight Zone" as well as films such as "Candyman" and "BlacKkKlansman."

Writer/Director Jordan Peele attends the 'Us' New York Premiere at Museum of Modern Art on March 19, 2019 in New York City.
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Victoria Mahoney

In the last decade, Victoria Mahoney has predominantly worked in television. She has directed episodes of "Queen Sugar," "Grey's Anatomy," "American Crime," "Lovecraft Country," "Power" and "You."

She was also handpicked by J.J. Abrams to direct the second unit of "Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker," which makes her the first woman to direct a Star Wars film in the franchise's more than 40-year history.

Director Victoria Mahoney arrives at the taping of "Queen Sugar After-Show" at OWN Oprah Winfrey Network on November 7, 2017 in West Hollywood, California.
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