A Black History Month Tribute To Great African-American Directors

Monkeys Fighting Robots’ Black History Month celebration continues! The movie-making business is a mechanism of moving parts that can get complicated and confusing. Imagine the muddled robot effects of any Transformers movie and apply it to real life. The process of getting a film from concept to completion is a long, twisting road. Now imagine being African-American in a white-dominated industry and things get even more complex. However, some brothers and sisters, like the ones on our list, have conquered any and all hurdles to make some fantastic pieces of motion picture brilliance.

Black History Month Tribute To
Great African-American Directors

Spike Lee

spike lee-black history-director

When it comes to black history and film, Spike Lee is the directorial equivalent of Sidney Poitier with a dash of MLK and Malcolm X. Love him or hate him, you don’t make a list like this without Spike Lee. Financially he’s one of the highest grossing African-American director of all time. Critically, Spike’s made too many acclaimed films to mention here. The outspoken director is an ardent activist who’s earned the ire of right-wingers all over the United States. Spike also appears regularly at Madison Square Garden harassing opposing players on behalf of the New York Knicks.

Films To Watch:
Do The Right Thing – 1989
Inside Man – 2006
Chi-Raq – 2015

Ava DuVernay

ava duvernay-director-black history

You might want to call her “Ms. First.” DuVernay was the first black female nominated for Best Director at Sundance (she won) and the Golden Globes. Selma was the first film directed by a female African-American nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars. DuVernay is a bold director who turned down a sure-hit offer from Disney to direct Black Panther. Instead, DuVernay tackled the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution in the acclaimed Netflix documentary 13th.

Films To Watch:
Middle of Nowhere – 2012
Selma – 2014
13th – 2016

John Singleton

john singleton-director-black history

Singleton isn’t a household name like Spike Lee, but the American director has a potent filmography. The first African-American ever nominated for a Best Directing Oscar (Boyz n the Hood), Singleton spent the 90s making critically acclaimed films. In 2003, he put his touch on the Fast and Furious franchise when he directed 2 Fast 2 Furious. Singleton has not directed a feature since the ill-conceived Abduction in 2011. But the director remains involved in television as a director on shows like Empire, American Crime Story, and Rebel.

Films To Watch:
Boyz n the Hood – 1991
Higher Learning – 1995
Rosewood – 1997

F. Gary Gray

gary gray-director-black history

Few directors have a streak of hits like F. Gary Gray. The director debuted with the indie urban comedy Friday then made Set It Off and The Negotiator. But wait, there’s more! Gray followed all that up with The Italian Job. Sure, since then, Gray’s choices have been less than spectacular like A Man Apart. But in 2015, Gray returned to form and mainstream success with the biographical drama Straight Outta Compton.

Films To Watch:
The Negotiator – 1998
The Italian Job – 2001
Straight Outta Compton – 2015

Kasi Lemmons

kasi lemmons-director-black history

One thing that makes Kasi Lemmons unique on this list is her long career as an actress dating back 1979. In 1997, Lemmons directed Eve’s Bayou, and her career behind the camera began. Lemmons’ passionate eye for directing was described as “an ongoing testament to the creative possibilities of film.” She last directed Black Nativity in 2013 but is set to lead two projects for release in 2017 and 2018.

Films To Watch:
Eve’s Bayou – 1998
The Caveman’s Valentine – 2001
Talk To Me – 2007

Antoine Fuqua

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The hit-or-miss Fuqua mades duds like 2004s King Arthur and Brooklyn’s Finest. However, the director tips the scales back firmly in his favor with the underrated The Equalizer and Oscar-winning Training Day. And though his Magnificent Seven wasn’t all that magnificent, the entertaining, star-studded action movie earned nearly 200 million dollars worldwide.

Films To Watch:
Training Day – 2001
The Equalizer – 2014
The Magnificent Seven – 2016

Gordon Parks

gordon parks-director-black history

Before Gordon Parks made an impact on the world of movies, he was an acclaimed photojournalist. Parks became the first African-American to direct a major Hollywood production in 1969. That year, Parks directed The Learning Tree, a film based on his semi-autobiographical novel of the same name. But to cinephiles, Parks is best remembered as the father of 70s “blaxploitation” films.

Films To Watch:
The Learning Tree – 1969
Shaft – 1971
Leadbelly – 1976

Dee Rees

dee rees-director-black history

Black history leads us to the award-winning Dee Rees. A graduate of NYU Film, Rees began her career as a protégé of legendary director Spike Lee and worked on Spike’s films Inside Man and When The Levees Broke. After winning praise for her short film Pariah, Rees made a feature film version which went on to earn a host of accolades as well. Rees is the youngest director on this list but continues to add strong films to her burgeoning legacy.

Films To Watch:
Pariah – 2011
Bessie – 2015
Mudbound – 2017

Honorable Mention: Oscar Micheaux

Oscar Micheaux-director-black history

Any Black History Month tribute to filmmakers without Oscar Micheaux is only a faux celebration. Before there was much of a Hollywood to speak of, son of a slave and author, Oscar Micheaux became the first African-American to direct a major motion picture. Micheaux also ran a production company and wrote, directed, and/or produced 44 films, even effortlessly transitioning from silent to spoken films as the industry evolved. It would take a long while after Micheaux died in 1951 for black directors to gain notoriety, but it would’ve taken even longer without the cinematic pioneer.

Films To Watch:
Within Our Gates – 1920
Swing! – 1938
Lying Lips – 1939

Ruben Diaz
Ruben Diaz
Writer, film-fanatic, geek, gamer, info junkie & consummate Devil's advocate who has been fascinated by Earth since 1976. Classically trained in the ways of the future.