11 Black Filmmakers You Should Know
Up your watch list game with these movie directors
En español | Yes, Spike Lee. This director (as well as writer and actor) is one of the best-known and -lauded filmmakers (Black or otherwise) of our time, and for good reason. But it's high time movie lovers expanded their knowledge beyond Lee, because there's a deep bench of talented directors who've made films we've loved and have yet to discover. Here are 11 moviemakers you should put in your streaming queue — from up-and-comers to their mighty fine mentors.
Like many working filmmakers of color, Carl Franklin, 71, has spent much of the last two decades plying his craft in television. But 1991's crime drama One False Move garnered an Indie Spirit Award and critical accolades, and the 1995 adaptation of Walter Mosley's Devil in a Blue Dress — starring Denzel Washington as private eye Easy Rawlins — unforgettably introduced us to actor Don Cheadle, who roars as Easy's friend Mouse.
Carl Franklin Must Watches:
One False Move: Amazon Prime, YouTube
Devil in a Blue Dress: Amazon Prime, YouTube
The onetime movie publicist has become a mini-mogul with major purpose — at home in movie theaters (Oscar-nominated Selma) or streaming (Emmy-winning miniseries When They See Us). Like Spike Lee, DuVernay is dedicated to bringing other filmmakers along for the ride, for example by hiring female directors for her Oprah-supported OWN series, Queen Sugar.
Ava DuVernay Must Watches:
Selma: Amazon Prime, Vudu, Google Play, YouTube
When They See Us: Netflix
RELATED: How cool is Ava DuVernay? Answer: Very cool. Get to know her better (and meet a dozen more women making waves in filmmaking) on AARP's must-read list, here: 13 Female Directors You Should Discover Right Now
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The pup of the list, the 20-year-old Youmans is among the gifted filmmakers DuVernay champions. Her company, Array, distributed his debut, Burning Cane, an elegiac drama that tells the story of a woman of faith whose son is faltering and a rural minister who's grappling with his own failings. The film took home big awards at the Tribeca Film Festival: best feature, best cinematography, and best actor for Wendell Pierce (Treme) as the tippling pastor. Youmans may be just starting out, but what promise and what a mentor.
Philip Youmans Must Watch:
Burning Cane: Netflix
This MacArthur genius fellow's UCLA thesis film, Killer of Sheep, was among the first movies inducted into the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry. Having moved as a child from Mississippi to Los Angeles in the late 1940s, Burnett has a profound feel for one of the vital routes of the Great Migration, and the rural and urban get their due in Killer of Sheep and his darkly hilarious To Sleep With Anger, in which Danny Glover plays an old friend from the South who overstays his welcome.
Charles Burnett Must Watch:
To Sleep With Anger: Amazon Prime, YouTube
Lemmons’ 1997 debut as writer-director, Eve's Bayou — about a young daughter (Jurnee Smollett in her big-screen debut) grasping the transgressions of her father, a Louisiana doctor (Samuel L. Jackson) — earned her the National Board of Review's best directorial debut nod and the Independent Spirit Award for best first feature. Since then, her projects have been ambitious (Caveman's Valentine with Jackson portraying a homeless man with schizophrenia); wild and smart fun (Talk to Me with Don Cheadle eating up the joint as the jawing radio personality Ralph “Petey” Greene); and historically rousing (Harriet with Cynthia Erivo returning to the scene of the national crime as former slave-abolitionist Harriet Tubman). In 2018, Eve's Bayou was placed on the National Film Registry.
Kasi Lemmons Must Watches:
Eve's Bayou: Amazon Prime, Vudu
Talk to Me: Google Play
The 81-year-old was still racking up episodic TV credits as recently as last year, but it was his ‘70s comedies Cooley High, Car Wash — featuring funnymen Richard Pryor and George Carlin and a killer soundtrack — and Greased Lightning that made him a Hollywood atypical: a very busy Black director.
Michael Schultz Must Watches:
Cooley High: Vudu
Car Wash: iTunes
The playwright and performance artist crashed the movie party at Sundance this year with her sumptuous, oh-so-hilarious B&W debut film, The Forty-Year-Old Version, about a frustrated playwright who decides later in life she wants to be a rapper. Blank — who wrote, directed and starred — got the Sundance directing prize, and Netflix snagged the movie with plans to release in October. Wanna play the one-degree-of-separation-from-Spike-Lee game? Not only does her film visually reference She's Gotta Have It, Blank was a writer on the Netflix series of the same name, based on Nola Darling's continuing adventures.
Watch the trailer, here: The Forty-Year-Old Version
RELATED: Speaking of Spike Lee, make sure you're exploring some of the lesser-shared films of this great American director. We've got your short list, here: The 5 Best Spike Lee Films You Haven't (Yet) Seen
From his poignant 2013 debut, Fruitvale Station, to Creed — a smart reboot of the Rocky franchise — to the Marvel multiverse-expanding superhero flick Black Panther, Coogler has hardwired his characters’ tender and often besieged depths into each of his films. Even Erik Killmonger, the Black Panther baddie to Chadwick Boseman's King T'Challa, has his hard-to-discount reasons for being such a disrupter.
Ryan Coogler Must Watches:
Black Panther: Amazon Prime, YouTube
Creed: Amazon Prime, Google Play
If Spike Lee is the filmmaker whose love for Black folk permeates the screen, Jenkins in his first three films has become the undisputed champion of what Black love looks like. Medicine for Melancholy followed two Bay Area hipsters launching their affair. His adaptation of James Baldwin's If Beale Street Could Talk lavished a lush and loving gaze on the central couple. Oscar-winning Moonlight focused beautifully on the love of surrogate dad Juan for Little as well as the yearning that onetime child carries for his childhood friend.
Barry Jenkins Must Watches:
Medicine for Melancholy: YouTube, Google Play
Moonlight: Netflix, Amazon Prime
Roger Ross Williams
The Oscar-winning filmmaker's list of feature documentaries cuts a wonderfully wide swath in subject matter: from the incursion of American evangelicals into Uganda and its effects on that African nation's politics (God Loves Uganda); to a kid breaking through his autistic silence with the aid of Disney characters (Oscar-nominated Life, Animated); to a loving look at Harlem's palace of culture in a film as intricate as it is rousing (Emmy-nominated The Apollo). He received an Oscar for his 2010 short, Music by Prudence, about Prudence Mabhena, a diminutive singer with a big voice and a disability.
Roger Ross Williams Must Watches:
God Loves Uganda: Amazon Prime, iTunes
Life, Animated: Hulu, Google Play
We know him as an Oscar-winning acting great. And at 93, he deserves every minute of his retirement. But his work as an actor-director — particularly in the ‘70s — still puts the “blast” in “blast from the past.” As actor-director, Poitier began with 1972's Buck and the Preacher, and you can do the same in getting to know this artist anew. In the film, Poitier and Harry Belafonte have sweet chemistry as an upright wagon trail leader and an iffy minister, respectively, who join forces to help a group of former Louisiana slaves make it west as night riders attempt to turn them back. His comedies with Bill Cosby — Uptown Saturday Night and Let's Do It Again were two — almost lift Poitier above the latter's disgrace. Almost. Meanwhile, Poitier's illness-fated 1972 love story A Warm December — with him as a widower and Ester Anderson as an African princess — feels like a lost find.
Sidney Poitier Must Watches:
Buck and the Preacher: YouTube, Vudu
A Warm December: iTunes