African American Directors to Watch in 2020 and Beyond

African american directors

In the last couple years I have been digging into documentaries on Netflix and Youtube to learn more about our countries History. I had been sparked by woke late night comedians like Trevor Noah, Chelsea Handler and Steven Colbert. They tackle issues like race, immigration, and politics with a flare that makes hard topics digestible. These comics also brought on powerful guests that and helped explain the current state of our country in more simple terms.

I began binge watching documentaries on Vice, Netflix, CNN and Youtube. I found it disturbing how far behind women’s rights and minorities rights were and that we are still fighting for equality. At this day and age it makes my head spin that we are still saying the first black or the first female anything.  Things I thought that were handled in my parents’ generation im now finding out were not handled at all.

I sought to educate myself so I could speak on these issues more intelligently. I had always shied away whenever they came up in a debate or in the office or even with friends having beers, because I did not feel educated enough to have an opinion.

That is no longer the case.

Over the last couple years I compiled an amazing list of people who have influenced  our current state of affairs and are making their voices heard on how we can change the future.  These individuals have platforms and are speaking authentically to make us aware of injustices. They aim to shed light on the past and where history may be repeating its self. They all strive in their own way to make positive changes in the world through the voice they have been given. In this article I want to highlight some of the most influential and inspirational African American directors who have been changing the history of film.

Ryan Coogler is a film director. He also has taken on production and screenwriting. Coogler spent his early years in California and studied at Sacramento State. He was a driven young man and excelled at most things he tried from math and writing in school to putting up major stats on the college football field.

Coogler was included on Time‘s  2013 list of the 30 people under 30 for his work in cinema. He’s know for taking on projects that focus on overlooked cultural issues and giving black people the leads in his works.  Between 2013 and 2019 Coogler has won more than 20 prestigious awards for excellence in film. I believe he is just getting started and will continue to amaze audience and critics and he hones his skills and gains confidence in his art.

My introduction to Coogler’s film work was Fruitvale Station, his first feature- length film. The story had me wrapped up in emotions, laughing, crying, shock. It tells the story of the last 24 hours of the life of Oscar Grant, played by African-American actor Michale B. Jordan. Coogler and Jordan create an amazing team telling the tragic story of a young man that was shot by  police at Oakland’s Fruitvale BART station on January 1, 2009. The film won many awards and brought to light the topic of police brutality and excessive use of force that has been plaguing our country.

Coogler next production was Creed, a spin off of the Rocky films. Creed was released in 2015 and again Coogler chose to work with Michael B. Jordan as the lead, Adonis, Apollo Creed’s son. The film was praised across the board by critics. My father and I watched the Rocky movies when I was young, even though I never liked watching the actual fights and blood, I understood the point of never quit fighting for the goal. Coogler showcases the theme to never quit fighting in this film as well.

Coogler became the youngest Marvel Studios filmmaker when he signed on to co-write and direct the Black Panther in January 2016. The film was a huge success, grossing the fifth largest opening weekend box-office results of all-time.  It went on to become the highest grossing film in history directed by an African American. Black Panther elevates superhero cinema by telling a complete story with fully actualized characters.

I had not followed Marvel stories up until this point, however I’m hooked now and have watched Black Panther 3 times. I rarely watch a movie more than once and certainly not in the same year.  I pick up on a new message or notice another amazing costume each time. Coogler once again teams up with Michale B. Jordan, however this time not as the hero but as the main villain.

Coogler worked with an amazing cast filled with young powerful black actors. Black Panther’s emphasis on imagination, creation and liberation ties into the continuing story on race issues of the past and the need for elders to tell the truth to today’s youth so that we avoid repeating the mistakes already learned by our society. While the movie is futuristic it still feels very present.

Coogler is a young man to watch as he is just getting started and gaining momentum as he breaks barriers and records with his work. He is a role model for young men too look up to. He is also an example of how being in place of power and making the right choices to elevate others of his community can have such an impact. He is being praised in his community and by the industry.

Another young African American force in the film world that needs to included in this article is Ava DuVernay. Ava is a well spoken, creative artist that seeks to empower others through the knowledge showcased in the films she chooses to be a part of. The California native wears so many hats in the cinema world. She has written, directed, produced, marketed and distributed films. She is an influencer of our time through her dedication in telling stories of our history. She takes on hot button topics such as race, prison reform, past injustices and women’s rights. She is determinatined to make powerful films that keep the stories of our countries past alive.

DuVernay’s career began in journalism, then moved into public relations where she worked  with industry leaders such as 20th Century Fox and Savoy Pictures.  After working with a few other PR agencies she decided to start her own firm in 1999, The DuVernay Agency. With her journalistic and PR skills honed, DuVernay started taking on production of documentaries. Her choice of topics thus far have showcased a passion to represent African american culture and tell the story of where she and her ancestors came from.  

Her early works included Compton in C Minor, that she directed in 2007. The following year she followed up with the alternative hip hop documentary This Is the Life. It captured the history of LA’s Good Life Cafe’s arts movement. It highlights this magical time and pocket of positivity in the resurgence of consciousnesses in the black community. During that time in LA, Ava also participated as part of the spoken word duo Figures of Speech.  DuVernay released her first narrative feature film in 2011.  I Will Follow is a drama inspired by her aunt Denise Sexton. DuVernay created this work with only $50,000 and in only 14 days. Its story line is dealing with the loss of a loved one and was received well by critics.

In 2014, DuVernay directed Selma, a film about the 1965 civil rights march between Selma and Montgomery. The movie was a huge success. Ava’s father had marched in Selma and took her there as a child to learn the history. Ava did a major re-write to of most of the original script by screenwriter Paul Webb during the production process as she wanted to increase emphasis on Dr. King and the actual people of Selma. This created a little backlash from some historians saying she swayed from the “facts”. In response Ava clapped back stating she is a “story teller” and that’s exactly what she did, tell a story from her point of view, from her experience, from what she learned from her father and family.

To add to her list in promoting knowledge of her culture, DuVernay was commissioned by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture to create a film for the museum’s opening in 2016.  August 28: A Day in the Life of a People, tells the story of six significant events in African-American history that all happened on the same date, August 28. The films history changing events include the UK Slavery Abolition Act in 1833, the lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till in Mississippi in 1955, the release of Motown’s first number-one song, the “I Have a Dream” speech by Martin Luther King, Jr.’s in 1963, the 2005 landfall of Hurricane Katrina and the 2008 night at the DNC when Barack Obama accepted the Democratic nomination for president.

My introduction to Ava’s work was the Netflix special the 13th Amendment that came out in 2016 and earned a nomination for the Best Documentary Feature at the 89th Oscars. This made DuVernay the first black woman to be nominated as a director by the academy. 

The 13th Amendment opened the New York Film Festival and until this unveiling, no mention of the film had been made by DuVernay or the film’s distributor Netflix. In this documentary she digs into the current prison system in the U.S. and how it is failing our country and the millions of minorities locked away. She discusses the history of the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which outlawed slavery. With a quarter of all incarcerated people in the world being held in the U.S., Ava argues that slavery is effectively being perpetuated still in the U.S. through mass incarceration. The film features several activists, politicians, and public figures who bring facts, interviews, shocking stats and moving testimonials that all paint a picture of the prison system that has been covered up and kept out of public debate for far too long. The film went on to win a Peabody Award and a Columbia Journalism School duPont Award.

The second movie of Ava’s that I watched was her 2018 fantasy film A Wrinkle in Time. I went with my Friend and her 11 yr old son. I really thought we were going to a kiddy film and even though I knew the book title, I had never read it. While the main stars in the movie are kids, the message is way deeper and for all of humanity. Ava called in Oprah, Resse Witherspoon and Mindy Kaling to play the motherly super goddesses that support the kids on their journey. The costumes and scenery are out of this world due to a great budget that allowed for lots of CGI. The topics of fear, the dark and the light, fighting ego and knowing when to own your power are played out through this hero’s journey tale with a young black female lead.

DuVernay’s production and marketing budget was over $100 million, making her the first black woman to direct a film with a budget of that size. This film also made her the first black woman to direct a film that earned at least $100 million. Although this film was considered a flop by critics because it lost money at the box office, I was moved by the message and topics discussed. I believe critics were comparing this work against her previous land mark documentaries and couldn’t wrap their heads around the imagination that was presented in this film.  

Just this last week on Netflix, When They See Us, Ava’s new docu-series was released. The series tells the true story of 5 boys of color in 1989 in New York that were arrested, interrogated and coerced into confessing to a vicious attack of a white woman in Central Park. None of them knew anything or did anything, yet the prison system and racial profiling set them for a terrible journey. In the second installment, Ava inserts real media footage, showcasing a young Trump, who took out an ad in the paper at that time calling for a reinstatement of the death penalty.  We know our current president is racist by the comments he has made while in office. Here she inserted a view from the past that shows he’s been making these comments for years.

I can’t wait to finish this series. I was only 9 years old when this case was happening in New York and nothing about it was discussed in my west coast white household. I believe it is her mission to keep the stories of the past alive and retell them to new generations so we know the facts. Her stories help us to process and talk about hard issues moving forward instead of just living ignorantly saying, its not my city, why should I care. Her gift is to unite humanity through story telling.  I look forward to her works in the future. To me everything she has produced was needed, appropriate and on time.

DuVernay is a young woman to follow as she is breaking barriers for women and people of color and has so much more to bring as she continues to gain skills and confidence in the industry.

She is a role model for young women and is mentored by greats like Oprah.  I believe she will continue to use her platform to elevate others with her talent of telling stories that matter and need to be shared, remembered and embedded in today’s minds to carry the history on.

Before you go, check out another awesome article written by one of our many Mom Advice Line contributors:

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