5 Black Directors You Need to Know

August 27, 2020

By Sheena Holt

Let’s be honest: the film industry is painfully dominated by white men. 94% white and 77% male, the Academy, which serves as an authority on what’s hot or not in Hollywood, remains a gatekeeper to the industry, and has made waves and recent years with its astounding lack of inclusion in its award nominees.

In the spirit of decolonizing the film industry, we offer a list of Black directors we all must know. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, and you’ll certainly learn something.

1. Spike Lee

One of the most well-regarded directors of all time, Lee is best-known for 1989 classic Do the Right Thing, in addition to countless other films which delve primarily into the complications of race relations and poverty in New York City. Never one to shy away from mixing humor with serious topics, his 2018 film BlacKkKlansman rewrote the true story of a Black police officer who, with the help of a Jewish police officer, infiltrates the Klu Klux Klan.

Lee’s work is never light, but rest assured that you’ll never be bored with one of his films. They’re jam-packed with action, colorful editing, and nuanced social themes that will always leave you considering what it means to exist in a racial capitalist society.

2. Ava DuVernay

The first Black woman to win the directing award in the U.S. dramatic competition at Sundance, Ava DuVernay is a directing force to be reckoned with, capable of excellent documentary and historical work. 13th, which explains and portrays the U.S. prison-industrial complex, should be a required viewing in every American school, and certainly in your own home.

Selma shows the story of the pinnacle civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery. It focuses especially on MLK’s and John Lewis’s influence, but also gives a nod to the work of other civil rights activists present at the march, such as the white Reverend James Reeb, who was murdered for his activism in Selma.

3. Jordan Peele

While Peele’s work tackles race relations, it does so through a somewhat unconventional lens: horror. And really, what better way to think about the racial landscape in America?

Peele’s breakout film Get Out showed a Black man meeting his white girlfriend’s supposedly progressive, wealthy family. What starts as a polite if slightly awkward stay turns into a racial nightmare as it becomes clear that this white family isn’t as they appear.

4. Boots Riley

Though primarily a rapper in The Coup, Riley shot into the film industry with 2018’s Sorry to Bother You, a thriller that explores gentrification, capitalism, and personal greed, all within a magical version of Oakland. A fantastically imaginative film in its own right, Sorry to Bother You is also incredible because it is quite literally Riley’s first-ever experience with directing, aside from helping with a few music videos for his band. In a world dominated by mass-produced blockbusters, an underdog hit like Sorry to Bother You is a breath of fresh air.

5. Barry Jenkins

While he’s my favorite director on this list, Barry Jenkins’s work speaks for itself. Director of Moonlight, which famously won 2017’s Best Picture Academy Award, as well as Best Screenplay for Jenkins’s writing, Jenkins should absolutely be a household name.

Jenkin’s work consistently portrays Black love. Though Jenkins’s work tends toward the romantic, make no mistake: these are not rom-coms. But by looking at race through the lens of love, we are able to see the vulnerability of racial issues that make them all the more human.

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