Celebrate Black History Month with 20 African-American Film Directors

February 17, 2019 | Viveca

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Celebrate Black History month by exploring North American feature films directed by African-American filmmakers across the decades working in a wide variety of cinematic styles and genres. The historical (and current) challenges faced by African-American filmmakers are rooted in racism, a theme integral to their cinema. Landmark barriers have been broken – more barriers still loom. Here is a selection of recommended feature films available from the Toronto Public Library. 

The North York Central Library has the largest collection of feature DVDs to borrow from the Browsery, the Teen Zone, and the Language, Literature and Fine Arts departments. 

The Hate U Give Blackkklansman (2)
The Hate U Give (2018) Directed by George Tillman, Jr. 

Based on Angie Thomas' young adult novel, The Hate U Give. A young black student attending a white, middle-class highschool has her life upended when a close friend is killed by a white policeman during a traffic stop. Check out the free screenings of this film at the Toronto Public Library. 

Blackkklansman (2018) Directed by Spike Lee. 

Lee's latest film is based on Ron Stallworth's memoir, Black Klansman: Race, Hate, and the Undercover Investigation of a Lifetime about an African-American policeman who goes undercover to infiltrate the Klu Klux Klan in the 1970s. This film won the Grand Prix at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival and has been nominated for both Best Picture and Best Director in this year's Oscar race. John David Washington plays the role of Stallworth (and yes – he is Denzel's son). 


The Watermelon Woman (1997) Directed by Cheryl Dunye. 

Dunye wrote, edited, directed and starred in this film about a young lesbian video store clerk working on a film about black actresses marginalized by history. This was the first feature film directed by an African-American lesbian.

Moonlight (2017) Directed by Barry Jenkins.

"And the Oscar goes to . . . " The legendary 2017 Oscar mixup that resulted in the wrong winner announced for Best Picture turned out to be good news for Moonlight. This poignant coming-of-age story about an isolated young man is both mournful and moving. Jenkins latest film, If Beale Street Could Talk, is based on James Baldwin's 1974 classic novel

Black Panther Get Out
Black Panther (2018) Directed by Ryan Coogler. 

This Oscar-nominated film was a significant cultural event that (finally) delivered a superhero film with an African-American focus realized by African-American artists. Wakanda Forever! Coogler also directed Creed, with actor Michael B. Jordon in his major debut (after his role as the heartbreaking Wallace in The Wire).

Get Out (2017) Directed by Jordon Peele. This Oscar-nominated horror film directed by half of the Key and Peele comedy duo is no laughing matter. Horror films have always been the dark mirror reflecting societal issues and Get Out does just that. It addresses racism in America head-on with enough plot twists and jump scares to keep you on the edge of your seat. Peele won the Oscar last year for Best Original Screenplay. 

Malcolm X Selma

Malcolm X (1992) Directed by Spike Lee. 

Denzel Washington was nominated for an Oscar for his role as Malcolm X in this sweeping biography based on The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Lee weathered controversy from every corner during the making of this film - which is now preserved in the Library of Congress National Film Registry. Lee's other films include Do the Right Thing, Crooklyn, Jungle Fever, and Chi-Raq. Denzel Washington is also a director whose works include Antwone Fisher and Fences

Selma (2015) Directed by Ava DuVernay. 

With David Oyelowo in the role of Martin Luther King Jr., this Oscar-nominated film chronicles the 1965 civil rights marches. DuVernay was the first black female director to be nominated for a Golden Globe and the first to be nominated for an Oscar. Her other films include I Will Follow and A Wrinkle in Time.

Daughters of the Dust
Daughters of the Dust (1991 ) Directed by Julie Dash.

This was the first film directed by an African-American woman to be released theatrically in the USA. It is a family saga involving three generations of Gullah women who are preparing to leave their home island for the mainland. It remains a critical landmark in American cinema. DuVernay also directed The Rosa Parks Story with Angela Bassett in the lead role. 

Killer of Sheep (1977) Directed by Charles Burnett. 

Declared a national treasure by the Library of Congress, this neorealist film about growing up in Watts in the 1970s received the 1981 Critics Award at the Berlin International Film Festival. Burnett also directed To Sleep With Anger and Warming by the Devil's Fire.

Boyz n the Hood Straight Outta Compton
Boyz n the Hood (1991) Directed by John Singleton.

This story of three friends growing up in South Central Los Angeles was Singleton's first feature film. He was the first African-American to get an Oscar nomination for Best Director. He was also the youngest. Singleton's other films include Rosewood and 2 Fast 2 Furious. He also appears in the documentary The Talk: Race in America

Straight Outta Compton (2015) Directed by F. Gary Gray. 

This biopic about the rap group N.W.A. and its members, Easy-E, Ice Cube and Dr. Dre was nominated for Best Original Screenplay. O'Shea Jackson Jr., the son of Ice Cube, played the role of his father. Actor Corey Hawkins plays Dr. Dre and he also appears in Blackkklansmen as activist Stokely Carmichael. 

Juice Precious
Juice (1992) Directed by Ernest R. Dickerson.

Dickerson was the cinematographer on a number of Spike Lee films and Juice was his directorial debut. This story of the challenges faced by four youth growing up in Harlem included the legendary Tupac Shakur in a supporting role. Dickerson also directed many episodes of The Wire, Dexter, and The Walking Dead. 

Precious (2009) Directed by Lee Daniels. 

This film about a young woman struggling with poverty and a history of abuse received six Oscar nominations. It was based on the novel Push by Sapphire. Daniels also directed The Butler and created the television show, Empire. 

Shaft Story of A Three-Day Pass

Shaft (1971) Directed by Gordon Parks.

One of the earliest blaxploitation films by a legendary director and musician, Shaft is now preserved in the Library of Congress National Film Registry. John Singleton directed Shaft, the 2000 remake. Parks' 1969 The Learning Tree was an autobiographical story of the trauma growing up black in Kansas in the 1920s. Parks' eldest son, Gordon Parks Jr., directed Super Fly in 1972. 

Story of a Three-Day Pass (1968) Directed by Melvin Van Peebles. 

A young American soldier on a short pass in Paris experiences racism and self-doubt in this black and white film evoking French New Wave cinema. Van Peebles also directed Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, considered a watershed in African-American filmmaking and famous for the many challenges he faced with production and distribution. Van Peebles' son, Mario went on to be a major director with New Jack City as his directorial debut. 

How Stella Got Her Groove Back Marshall
How Stella Got Her Groove Back (1998 ) Directed by Kevin Rodney Sullivan.

This was Sullivan's directorial debut and was based on Terry McMillan's novel about a divorced woman falling for a younger man while on vacation. Sullivan has gone on to direct many popular television shows, including Quantico and Riverdale. 

Marshall (2017) Directed by Reginald Hudlin.

A biopic about Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American Supreme Court Justice, stars Chadwick Boseman in the lead role. Hudlin's early film, House Party, is a critically-acclaimed cult classic. 

12 Years a Slave (2014) Directed by Steve McQueen.

This Oscar-winning film, based on Solomon Northup's 12 Years a Slave, is about a man kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841. McQueen, born in England, also directed the recent noir heist film Widows, as well as Hunger, and Shame

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