10 Most Influential African-American Film Directors
The African-American filmmakers on this list have spent their lives and careers dealing with a double-edged sword: being a successful black director means some people just want them to make movies, while others want to see them specifically address only the grievances and history of their own race. Finding a balance between the two is tough, and those who’ve pulled it off have done what all skilled directors do: they’ve used their personal history and worldview as a lens through which to project their stories onto American screens. They’re all worth exploring, and they’ve all contributed in major ways to the filmmaking world.
- Spike Lee: Easily the most well-known black director working today, as well as one of the most talented and energetic filmmakers of the past 30 years, period. Spike Lee has been making amazing movies since blowing up in 1986 with She’s Gotta Have It. (Trivia: It was Fab Five Freddy’s appearance in that film as a hound and flirt that inspired the lines that became Tone Loc’s hit "Wild Thing." Impress your friends.) His impressive filmography has mined his own life for material as much as what it means to be a black man in today’s America, and Lee’s never shied away from asking tough questions or showing the complicated ways people relate to each other, as in Do the Right Thing. Even his more genre-oriented stuff like the crime thrillers Clockers and Inside Man have used race as a springboard for other issues. He’s pretty much fearless, and he’s a titan of American movie-making who casts a long shadow and has acted as a kind of pioneer for other aspiring African-American directors.
- John Singleton: Like Lee, John Singleton blew onto the scene with a dramatic look at modern African-American life in 1991’s Boyz N the Hood, which earned him Oscar nominations for directing and the original screenplay. The film set the tone for much of Singleton’s work and announced that here was a filmmaker willing to take an uncompromising (if melodramatic) look at real, oftem inner-city life. His films have helped shape that genre to a huge degree, from Poetic Justice to the underseen Baby Boy. He also updated The Sons of Katie Elder with the revenge flick Four Brothers. As he’s said, "I want to be a true American filmmaker, in the sense that my films tell stories that can only really happen in America. They aim to speak to the universality of the human experience, but they’re quintessentially American films."
- Melvin Van Peebles: Melvin Van Peebles holds a place in filmmaking history largely because of the strength and influence of one movie: 1971’s Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. (That’s the correct spelling.) He wrote it, produced it, directed it, and starred in it, which in 1971 was a fantastically revolutionary undertaking for an African-American storyteller. He assembled it on a shoe-string budget, landed small distribution, and scored a hit based almost entirely on word-of-mouth buzz. The movie also broke the mold by showing a black anti-hero beating the cops and getting away with it. It was so popular that it ushered in the entire blaxploitation genre, as well as films like Shaft. The film also marked the debut of Melvin’s son, Mario, who would go on to direct a number of films including oneabout his father’s iconic movie.
- F. Gary Gray: After cutting his teeth on music videos for songs like Ice Cube’s "It Was a Good Day" and tracks by Cypress Hill, F. Gary Gray jumped to the big screen with the 1995 comedy Friday, which starred Ice Cube and Chris Tucker as a pair of friends in a rundown part of L.A. who have to come up with money for a drug dealer. The sequels weren’t nearly as entertaining or well-received as the original, and it’s probably no coincidence that Gray wasn’t involved in them. Gray continued to explore predominantly African-American stories with Set It Off, though he’s since taken a more mainstream approach with things like Law Abiding Citizen. Still, Friday was pretty much the standard for ’90s-era urban comedies, and it hasn’t been topped since.
- Tyler Perry: Tyler Perry is probably better than anyone else at branding. He’s turned his name into a trademark for a type of film and comedy, some of them revolving around the matriarch Medea (played by Perry in drag) but just as many dealing with family issues in well-meaning but occasionally broad strokes. The man’s ridiculously proficient, too: he’s put out at least one film a year since 2005, often writing, directing, producing, and starring in them. He’s a cottage industry unto himself. He’s also expanded his reach into TV, turning one of his films into the TBS series Tyler Perry’s House of Payne, which landed Perry a 100-episode deal (!) worth $200 million (!!) after the pilot episode aired to strong ratings. Perry’s taken his fair share of knocks from filmmakers like Spike Lee who deride his work as "buffoonery," but there’s no denying there’s also an audience for Perry’s stuff. For better or worse, he’s an example of how you can turn yourself into a one-man film store and promotional machine.
- The Hughes brothers: Twin brothers Allen and Albert Hughes are not known for their subtlety. Their first two films — Menace II Society and Dead Presidents — were gritty portrayals of violence and black youth, from modern gangs to the criminals of the Vietnam era. After that, the slowed down considerably, helming American Pimp and From Hell before taking almost a decade off before returning with The Book of Eli. Despite the hiatus, they remain staples in the field and some of the most well-regarded filmmakers in their genre.
- Gordon Parks: Gordon Parks is mostly remembered today for directing Shaft, and though that film definitely deserves the recognition it gets for its place in pop culture history, Parks was a much more important pioneer than some people realize. In 1969, he wrote and directed The Learning Tree, based on his own semi-autobiographical novel of growing up in a United States plagued with de facto segregation. Distributed by Warner Bros./Seven Arts, the film is noted for being the first major-studio release directed by an African-American. Both Learning Tree and Shaft were eventually selected for preservation in the National Film Registry after the Library of Congress deemed them culturally significant. Parks was also a poet and photographer.
- Antoine Fuqua: Antoine Fuqua’s career started slow: mixed in with The Replacement Killers and Bait (which starred Jamie Foxx several years before his critical comeback) were a few straight-to-video offerings of his music video and concert work with Usher and Toni Braxton. But 2001’s Training Day took him to another level, thanks to Denzel Washington’s crazed performance as a crooked cop. The film was rightly praised for its commitment to authenticity: Fuqua shot on location in many gang-run neighborhoods, a decision that would influence other filmmakers and push them to make their crime films similarly realistic.
- Carl Franklin: Carl Franklin was an actor long before he made movies, appearing in a variety of TV series from the 1970s through the 1990s. His 1992 film One False Move was originally relegated to video before positive buzz saved it, and he followed that with the gripping neo-noir Devil in a Blue Dress. Franklin’s a talented filmmaker, but he’s also been candid about how he wants to use his race and experience as fuel for his films without letting them define them completely. "I am interested in the universal values of the black experience," he’s said.
- Oscar Micheaux: It’s not Oscar Micheaux’s fault that he’s mostly forgotten today, but that doesn’t make it less of a tragedy for such a groundbreaking African-American filmmaker to go unsung. Born in 1884, Micheaux produced and directed dozens of films in his lifetime, and he’s generally regaded as the first black feature filmmaker. His works dealt head-on with what it meant to be black in America at a time when African-Americans were beaten and repeatedly told they were inferior. The silent The Homesteader, his first feature, follows an African-American man who feels torn between his affection for a white woman and his sense of racial loyalty. His films require a careful eye today — race relations in the U.S. having changed pretty drastically in the past 90 years — but there’s no denying his place in filmmaking and African-American history. He’s an influence on all storytellers, whether they know it or not.