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Black Film Directors’ Great Movies

by Linnea Crowther

Black directors have been making acclaimed and popular movies for more than a hundred years, dating back to the early days of silent films. Though the Hollywood establishment hasn’t always recognized them, their art has touched and entertained millions of people for generations.  Join us as we celebrate the legacies of Black filmmakers who have died but live on in their great work.

Oscar Micheaux (1884–1951)

Oscar Micheaux is a legend of filmmaking, the first major Black director, whose work began in some of the earliest days of silent cinema and continued through early talkies and into the Golden Age of Hollywood. Among the dozens of films he directed, one that stands out is “Within Our Gates” (1920), the oldest known surviving film by a Black director. It’s seen by many as Micheaux’s response to the white supremacist film “Birth of a Nation” (1915), and it takes an unflinching look at the racism of the early 20th century.

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Gordon Parks (1912–2006)

Gordon Parks was widely considered the first major Black director in American cinema, beginning with his 1969 film, “The Learning Tree.” But it’s 1971’s “Shaft” for which Parks became best known. The stylish action movie helped set the stage for the Blaxploitation genre, which stirred up controversy about the stereotypes it portrayed even as it brought Black actors and filmmakers to a new prominence in the 1970s. “Shaft,” with its story of a Black detective hired by a mobster to find his kidnapped daughter, was a box office hit that pulled its studio, MGM, back from the brink of bankruptcy and made Parks a legend of Black cinema. He would go on to direct other films including the 1972 sequel “Shaft’s Big Score” and the 1976 biopic “Leadbelly.”

View the obituary for Gordon Parks

John Singleton (1968–2019)

John Singleton was the groundbreaking director of the urban drama “Boyz n the Hood.” He was nominated for an Academy Award for the film, becoming the youngest ever Best Director nominee at age 24. His remarkable body of work includes the movies “Hustle and Flow,” “Black Snake Moan” and “2 Fast 2 Furious,” as well as the acclaimed, big-budget music video for Michael Jackson’s hit single “Remember the Time.”

View the obituary for John Singleton

Ossie Davis (1917–2005)

Ossie Davis wore many hats as an actor, poet, playwright, civil rights activist, and director. He was one of the organizers and emcees of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. He acted in dozens of films, with notable roles in Spike Lee films including “Jungle Fever” and “Do the Right Thing.” He also directed a number of films, including 1970’s “Cotton Comes to Harlem.” Some consider it to be the first Blaxploitation film, and it was one of the most successful films of the 1970s by a Black director.

View the obituary for Ossie Davis

Gilbert Moses (1942–1995)

Gilbert Moses was a director for both stage and screen, debuting on Broadway in 1971 with “Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death,” for which he earned a Tony nomination and won a Drama Desk Award. Onscreen, he directed television shows including several episodes of “Roots,” “Benson,” and “Law & Order.” His feature film debut was 1974’s “Willie Dynamite,” followed in 1979 with “The Fish that Saved Pittsburgh.” The basketball comedy starred real-life players including Julius Erving and Meadowlark Lemon, and it became a beloved cult classic.

View the obituary for Gilbert Moses

Kathleen Collins (1942–1988)

Kathleen Collins only directed two movies, but she made history as the first known Black woman ever to direct a feature length film. That film was “Losing Ground” (1982), which starred Bill Gunn alongside Seret Scott and Duane Jones, and while it never saw wide release, it was a winner at the Figueroa International Film Festival and has come to be praised for its quality as well as its pioneering status.

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Prince (1958–2016)

Prince may be best known as one of the most prolific and beloved recording artists of all time, but he was also so much more. Prince became an actor with his smash hit 1984 movie “Purple Rain,” but when it came time for his second movie, 1986’s “Under the Cherry Moon,” the artist exercised his preference for full control over his work and image by becoming the film’s director, too. Prince would go on to direct and star in two more movies, “Sign o’ the Times” (1987) and “Graffiti Bridge” (1990).

View the obituary for Prince

Ivan Rogers (1954–2010)

Ivan Rogers also got his start as a musician, one who once backed Marvin Gaye, but he found his calling in film. He began by acting in his first film, 1986’s “One Way Out,” then continued to act while also beginning to write, direct, and produce. His directorial debut was “Caged Women II” in 1996 and others include “Forgive Me Father” (2001) and “The Payback Man,” released just after his death in 2010.

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Ivan Dixon (1934–2008)

Ivan Dixon is best known to many for his role in the 1960s television sitcom “Hogan’s Heroes,” playing communications specialist James “Kinch” Kinchloe. But after Dixon left “Hogan’s Heroes” in 1970, directing became the focus of his career, beginning with episodes of TV shows including “Nichols” – his directorial debut – as well as “The Waltons” and “The Rockford Files.” In 1972, Dixon’s first film as director, “Trouble Man,” hit the big screen, followed in 1973 by “The Spook Who Sat by the Door.” The politically charged film looked at Black militancy in the 1970s, and it was added to the National Film Registry in 2012 as a “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant” movie.

View the obituary for Ivan Dixon

Richard Pryor (1940–2005)

Richard Pryor was named the best stand-up comedian of all time by Rolling Stone magazine, and most of his career was spent making us laugh – and making us think – on stage and screen. But he stepped behind the camera twice. The first time was in 1983, when he directed his stand-up film “Richard Pryor: Here and Now.” Three years later, he co-wrote, produced, directed, and starred in the semi-autobiographical film “Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling.” The film met mixed reviews, but the Chicago Tribune’s Gene Siskel called it “superb.”

View the obituary for Richard Pryor

Anita Addison (1952–2004)

Anita Addison was one of the first Black woman to be a senior producer at a major television network, producing shows including “Sisters” and “That’s Life.” As a director, she earned an Oscar nomination for her short films “Savannah,” and she directed episodes of “Knots Landing,” “ER,” and “Judging Amy” as well as full-length films “Eva’s Man” and “There Are No Children Here.”

View the obituary for Anita Addison

George Jackson (1958–2000)

George Jackson was a director and producer as well as serving as president of Motown Records for about a year in the 1990s. As co-producer, he brought films to the big screen including the critically acclaimed “New Jack City” (1991) and the 1985 hip hop biopic “Krush Groove.” In 1991, he directed “House Party 2,” which debuted at No. 1 at the box office.

View the obituary for George Jackson

Joseph Vasquez (1962–1995)

Joseph Vasquez began making films with a Super 8 camera before he was even in his teens, and he earned a filmmaking degree from City College of New York. He wrote, directed, and starred in 1989’s “The Bronx War,” then also wrote and directed 1991’s “Hangin’ With the Homeboys.” His second film won honors at the Sundance Film Festival and seemed like the beginning of a brilliant career. But Vasquez, plagued with mental illness, would only make one more film – 1994’s “Manhattan Merengue” never saw wide release – before his death.

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Raymond St. Jacques (1930–1990)

Raymond St. Jacques had a notable “first” in the acting world before he became a director. In 1965, he landed a regular role on the popular TV series “Rawhide,” becoming the first Black actor to have a regular role in a TV Western. He went on to appear in movies including “Cotton Comes to Harlem” and “Glory,” and he toured with stage productions as well. Throughout his career, he worked to challenge onscreen stereotypes of Black people and to make a place for people of color on both sides of the camera. His lone directorial effort was 1973’s “Book of Numbers” – he produced and starred, too.

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Bill Gunn (1934–1989)

Bill Gunn built his reputation as a playwright, also writing novels and occasionally acting. When producers in the early ’70s wanted to make a Black vampire film, they approached Gunn to create a screenplay and direct. Gunn wasn’t excited about making a horror movie, but he took on the project as an opportunity to weave in a metaphor for addiction, and “Ganja & Hess” became an indie classic, winning honors at the Cannes Film Festival. In 2014, Spike Lee remade “Ganja & Hess” as “Da Sweet Blood of Jesus.”

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Hugh A. Robertson (1932–1988)

Hugh A. Robertson was first a film editor, notably working on “Midnight Cowboy” (1969) – for which he won a BAFTA Award and an Oscar nomination – and on “Shaft.” The two films he went on to direct were “Melinda” (1972), a crime drama starring Calvin Lockhart and Rosalind Cash and including martial artist Jim Kelly’s first film appearance, and “Bim” (1975), a winner at the United States Virgin Islands Film Festival. Robertson also taught filmmaking.

View the obituary for Hugh A. Robertson

D’Urville Martin (1934–1982)

D’Urville Martin had early acting roles in prominent films including “Black Like Me” (1964) and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” (1967), moving on to embrace the Blaxploitation films of the ’70s with roles in “Black Caesar” (1973), “Hammer” (1972), and more. As a director, he helmed the popular 1975 Blaxploitation film “Dolemite,” a weird, funny, super-low-budget classic of the genre that became highly influential on rap artists including Snoop Dogg.

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Gordon Parks Jr. (1934–1979)

Gordon Parks Jr. had big shoes to fill as a filmmaker – his father, Gordon Parks, had jumpstarted the Blaxploitation movement with his classic film “Shaft.” The year after the father’s big success, the son made a name for himself as director of “Super Fly” (1972). The film had its critics, many concerned with its glorification of drug dealing, but its supporters pointed out that the film’s technical crew was almost all non-white, a big step forward for the industry. Parks directed three more feature films before his death in a plane crash.

View the obituary for Gordon Parks Jr.

William Forest Crouch (1904–1968)

William Forest Crouch was primarily a director of short films, with dozens to his credit, but in 1947 he directed the feature-length film “Reet, Petite and Gone.” The jazzy film, driven by its many musical performances, starred bandleader Louis Jordan at the front of an all-black cast.

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Richard Maurice (1893–1951)

Richard Maurice was a native of Cuba who founded a Detroit-based production company, the Maurice Film Company. It only produced two films, his 1920 feature “Nobody’s Children” and his ca. 1928 “Eleven P.M.,” and his work has been praised by modern critics as innovative. “Nobody’s Children” found wide release but no prints survive, while “Eleven P.M.” is still available today.

Read more about Richard Maurice

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