Black film directors have changed the landscape of Hollywood over the years, contributing blockbuster hits and critically acclaimed films.
Most Influential African-American Directors
Black film directors haven’t always been prominent in Hollywood, but several successful individuals paved the way for future generations. Both newcomers to the film scene and Black directors with more experience have been very successful financially and critically. Here are some of the top African-American film directors in the industry:
- Ryan Coogler: Ryan Coogler is best known for directing “Black Panther,” which turned out to be the highest-grossing film of all time by a Black director. Coogler also won the grand jury and top audience awards at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, which pushed him into the spotlight. Additionally, he directed “Creed,” the seventh film in the Rocky franchise, which grossed nearly $175 million on a global scale.
- Tyler Perry: Tyler Perry is one of the few directors on this list who writes, produces, and directs his own projects. He is behind a series of films led by Madea, his signature character, and the chaos that seems to surround her and her family. Perry’s films bring in an average of $60 million, generating at least a 2-to-1 return on his investments.
- Jordan Peele: Jordan Peele gained notoriety in the sketch show he starred in alongside Keegan-Michael Key, although he has since become a leading Black director. His directorial debut was a horror film called “Get Out,” which was released in 2017 and starred relatively unknown actors at the time. This film grossed $280 million worldwide, while his next film, “Us,” was the highest-grossing original film when it came out in 2019.
- Steve McQueen: Steve McQueen was the first Black director to win the Best Picture Oscar, which he won for “12 Years a Slave.” McQueen’s films are gritty, insightful, and revealing, providing a glimpse into the soul of the main characters.
- Barry Jenkins: When Barry Jenkins released his first movie, “Medicine for Melancholy,” it received substantial merit from the critics. They eagerly awaited his next film, although they had to wait a decade for “Moonlight,” which was released in 2016. It won Best Picture at the Oscars, marking the first time that a film featuring an all-Black cast received the Academy Awards’ highest honor. Jenkins also earned an Oscar for Best Screenplay.
- Ava DuVernay: Ava DuVernay started her career as a publicist, although she transitioned to the directorial world when she submitted her film, “Middle of Nowhere,” to the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. She won the directing award in the festival’s national competition, and she was the first Black woman to earn that honor. DuVernay has also earned Golden Globe and Oscar nods, while “A Wrinkle in Time,” her 2018 film based on a hit novel, grossed over $100 million.
- F. Gary Gray: In 2015, F. Gary Gray directed “Straight Outta Compton,” a film focused on rap group NWA that featured newcomers to the acting world. This box office smash grossed over $160 million and remained at the top of the list for four straight weeks. Gray also directed the eighth film in the “Fast and the Furious” franchise in 2017, which grossed $1.2 billion, and “Men in Black: International” in 2019. He’s one of the leading Black directors when it comes to directing films with budgets of over $100 million.
- Antoine Fuqua: Antoine Fuqua has focused on action-packed films, including “Olympus Has Fallen” and “The Equalizer” franchise, which starred Denzel Washington. Fuqua’s films are both critically and financially successful.
- Tim Story: Based on the number of hit films, Tim Story is one of the most successful Black directors of the decade. He has worked in various genres, including comedy and action, which shows his versatility. Some of Story’s top hits include the “Fantastic Four” films, “Think Like a Man,” and the “Ride Along” franchise.
- Malcolm D. Lee: Delivering comedies with Black leading actors, Malcolm D. Lee has been in the business for over a decade. He made his directorial debut with “The Best Man,” followed by a sequel, and then “Girls Trip,” a hilarious comedy featuring Tiffany Haddish in one of her earliest roles.
- Melvin Van Peebles: Melvin Van Peebles is influential in Hollywood because of his “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song,” a film he starred in, wrote, produced, and directed in 1971. This undertaking was revolutionary for any filmmaker, but especially for a Black storyteller.
- The Hughes Brothers: Twin brothers Allen and Albert Hughes have been making movies together since they were 12. They’ve created gritty portrayals of Black youth and violence, including criminals in the Vietnam era and modern-day gangs. They directed “The Book of Eli” and several other films.
- Oscar Micheaux: The first Black filmmaker was Oscar Micheaux, who directed “The Homesteader” in 1919 and “The Exile” in 1931. Micheaux was also an author, and he was honored with the Golden Jubilee Special Award for Directorial Achievement posthumously in 1986. During his lifetime, he wrote, produced, and directed his own films.
- Euzhan Palcy: Although Micheaux was able to gain success, it would be another seven decades before a major studio would feature a Black woman as the director of a film. This happened in 1989 when MGM hired Euzhan Palcy to direct “A Dry White Season,” a film focused on the opposition to apartheid.
- Julie Dash: In 1991, Julie Dash made history as the first African American woman whose film received a general theatrical release in the U.S.
- Victoria Mahoney: More recently, Victoria Mahoney became the first woman to direct a film in the “Star Wars” franchise when she was second unit director of “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” in 2019.
- John Singleton: John Singleton was an influential Black director who passed away in 2019. He directed “Boyz n the Hood” in 1991, and he was the youngest director and the first African American to be nominated for the Best Director Oscar. Singleton often cast rap stars as actors and featured rap music on soundtracks, while other mainstream action films typically used rock or metal.
- Spike Lee: Spike Lee is another well-known Black director who launched his debut in 1986 with “She’s Gotta Have It.” Lee is the president of the 2020 Cannes Film Festival’s jury, marking the first time in the festival’s 73-year history that a Black person has held this position. Lee’s contributions to Hollywood paved the way for other Black directors, as he was able to create representations of everyday Black people and comment on the state of race in America.
2018 was an especially historic year for Black filmmakers. During that year, 14% of the directors of top-100 grossing films were Black. During Black History Month each year, Variety looks back on some of the history-making Black directors and filmmakers.
Great Movies by Black American Directors
Black film directors in America have released fascinating, engaging, thought-provoking, and action-packed films for decades. Some of the options you should watch include:
Devil in a Blue Dress
“Devil in a Blue Dress” features a young Denzel Washington and the racial tensions he faces as a Black detective.
Scene from “Devin in a Blue Dress”
Beyond the Lights
“Beyond the Lights” is a story about a rising hip-hop star who considers suicide and falls for the cop who saves her.
Scene from “Beyond the Lights”
The Learning Tree
“The Learning Tree” is a powerful drama about lost innocence and terrible violence.
Scene from “The Learning Tree”
She’s Gotta Have It
This film is Spike Lee’s directorial debut about a free-spirited young woman in Brooklyn.
Scene from “She’s Gotta Have It”
“Tongues Untied” is a defiant and audacious film that reflects on two marginalized identities — being Black and gay in America.
Scene from “Tongues Untied”
“25th Hour” focuses on the wrenching tale of reckoning and sin as a convicted drug dealer spends his final day of freedom before beginning a seven-year prison sentence.
Scene from “25th Hour”
The Watermelon Woman
“The Watermelon Woman” is the story of an aspiring Black filmmaker who experiences a crisis of identity while researching for her first documentary.
Scene from “The Watermelon Woman”
If you’re interested in learning more about Black film directors, apply to the Nashville Film Institute to gain professional qualifications as a filmmaker.