Black Filmmakers Who Changed the Game

From the well-known like Sidney Poitier to the more obscure like Eloyce Gist, these folks made film firsts.

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    Oscar Micheaux (via; Sidney Poitier (Kevin Winter/Getty Images); Euzhan Palcy (Marwan Naamani/Getty Images)

    Black Film Game Changers

    (The Root) — Many will watch the 2013 Academy Awards to see if legendary actor Denzel Washington will make history by becoming the only African American to win a best actor Oscar twice with his nomination for Flight, and if Quvenzhané Wallis, the youngest best actress nominee in the history of the awards, will continue to make history by taking home the golden statue for her fierce performance in Beasts of the Southern Wild.

    Filmmaker Reginald Hudlin is also hoping to take home an award as producer (along with Stacey Sher and Pilar Savone) for the controversial Western Django Unchained, which received five Academy Award nominations, including best picture. Audiences will be watching to see if Hudlin, who is the fourth African American to receive a producer nomination (Quincy Jones for The Color Purple, Lee Daniels for Precious and Broderick Johnson for The Blind Side), will make history by becoming the first African American to win the award, thereby changing the game for African Americans and the academy forever. In the spirit of firsts, check out black game changers in film history.

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    Photograph of William Foster of Foster Photoplay Company and personal letterhead for Foster (Ngfoster/Wikipedia Commons)

    William D. Foster

    In 1910, Foster, a sports writer for the Chicago Defender, formed the Foster Photoplay Company, the first independent African-American film company. (Foster wasn’t a complete stranger to show business; he had also worked as a press agent for vaudeville stars Bert Williams and George Walker.) In 1912, Foster produced and directed The Railroad Porter. The film paid homage to the Keystone comic chases, while attempting to address the pervasive derogatory stereotypes of blacks in film.

    Foster understood the power of film and had the foresight to see that positive images of blacks would be needed with films like The Birth of a Nation (1915) coming down the pike. While D.W. Griffith gave birth to a nation, Foster gave birth to a genre — race films — and opened up doors for black filmmakers to come.

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    Oscar Micheaux

    Lauded as the father of black filmmaking, Oklahoman Micheaux was a novelist turned filmmaker who directly challenged the scathing images of African Americans in film as the film industry was unfolding in the early 1900s. With limited resources, he made 44 films, including Within Our Gates, God’s Stepchildren and The Homesteader. Micheaux’s films examined issues of racism, classism and institutions like the church. Micheaux’s films have been criticized by scholars for their take on colorism and gender, but he is also celebrated for challenging the Hollywood film industry head on by embracing the spirit of entrepreneurialism to tell stories that Hollywood would not tell.

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    Kevin Winter/Getty Images

    Sidney Poitier

    Where would black actors be without Poitier? Poitier was the first black actor to be nominated for a best actor Academy Award (Defiant Ones, 1958) and the first black actor to win a best actor Academy Award for his portrayal of Homer Smith in 1963’s Lilies of the Field. Poitier changed the game with portrayals of stoic characters who had integrity, dignity, honor, self-respect and respect for others, which had not happened in Hollywood film prior to his magnetic performances.

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    Ian Gavan/Getty Images

    Spike Lee

    Say what you will about Spike Lee, but without his commitment to filmmaking and documenting black culture, particularly at a time when black cultural production was exploding (1980s and 1990s), contemporary black filmmaking would not be what it is today. Lee’s groundbreaking film She’s Gotta Have It wowed audiences across the globe, introducing the world to Mars Blackmon and to what would become his iconic production company 40 Acres and a Mule. Before there was the Internet or social media, Lee had mastered the art of personal branding, becoming a household name. He ignited the careers of many in front of and behind the cameras with films that demonstrated the connections in black popular culture (including jazz and hip-hop). Lee’s talents go beyond fictional filmmaking with the seminal documentaries 4 Little Girls (1997) and When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts (2006).

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    'Hellbound' Film by James and Eloyce Gist (via

    Eloyce Gist

    Washington, D.C., native Gist made religious films in the early 1900s. With her husband James, who was a pastor of a local church, Gist drove around D.C. with a camera, shooting footage of non-actors for her morality tales. Her films Hellbound Train and Verdict: Not Guilty were released in 1930 and were strongly endorsed by the NAACP. Contrary to popular perception, black Christian-themed films are not new to the industry or the black community.

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    Noble Johnson in poster (via

    George and Noble Johnson

    Before there was Oprah Winfrey, Tim and Daphne Maxwell Reid and Tyler Perry, there were the Johnson brothers. In 1915, they founded the Lincoln Motion Picture Company in Omaha, Neb. The film studio was developed in order to help make race films — films featuring all-black casts and made for black audiences. Their first film was The Realization of a Negro’s Ambition (1916), which follows the trials and tribulations of a Tuskegee graduate who moves to California and faces racism. The company moved to Los Angeles after Noble scored an acting contract with Universal Pictures. The brothers continued to run the Lincoln Motion Picture Company.

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    Melvin Van Peebles

    Van PeeblesSweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971) was a cult classic starring Van Peebles as a black anti-hero who took on “the man” and challenged dominant ideas about authority and society. The film was made for $500,000 and included Bill Cosby as an investor. Van Peebles had one copy of the film and literally took it from city to city, promoting it on radio and screening it at movie houses, grossing $10 million in the process. The success of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song helped further define the golden era of independent cinema and usher in a style and an era of filmmaking (blaxploitation) featuring black casts, urban landscapes, iconic soundtracks and black fashion.


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    Ivan Dixon

    Known mainly for his role as POW Staff Sergeant Ivan Kinchloe on Hogan’s Heroes and the role of clean-cut Joseph Asagai in the 1961 film version of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, Dixon directed one of the most revolutionary independent films of all time, The Spook Who Sat By the Door (1973). Based on the book by Sam Greenlee, the film followed Dan Freeman, an educated black man who rose through the ranks of the CIA, taking what he learned and using it to help the black community rebel against social injustice. This film was a departure from Dixon’s public persona and gave voice to a black power ideology that was an important part of American culture at the time.

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    Marwan Naamani/Getty Images

    Euzhan Palcy

    Martinique native Palcy is the first black woman to direct a film for a major motion picture studio. Palcy’s A Dry White Season (1989) explored the theme of apartheid and the real-world consequences of making a decision to fight the legalized system of black oppression in South Africa. Palcy was also the first black filmmaker to win a Cesar Award (the French Academy Award). In 1994, she was honored with the distinction of Knight in the National Order Merit from French President Francois Mitterrand. In 2004, she was the recipient of the French Legion of Honor from President Jacques Chirac.

    Palcy is a prolific filmmaker, having made narrative films Simeon (1992), Ruby Bridges (1998) and Les Mariées de I’isles Bourbon (The Brides of Bourbon Island) (2007) and the documentaries Aimé Césaire: A Voice for History (1994) and Parcours de Dissidents (The Journey of the Dissidents) (2006).

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    Bush Mama, film by Haile Gerima (via

    The Los Angeles School of Black Filmmakers (L.A. Rebellion)

    The Los Angeles School of Black Filmmakers was a collective of black filmmakers trained at UCLA who made films that tied black stories to black political struggles with an intellectual and cultural core. Haile Gerima, Charles Burnett, Larry Clark, Pamela Jones, Jamaa Fanaka, Julie Dash, Billy Woodberry and Alile Sharon Larkin came out of this group, whose groundbreaking films include Bush Mama (1979), To Sleep With Anger (1990) and Daughters of the Dust (1991).

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    Ben Pruchnie/Getty Images

    Isaac Julien

    Brit Julien is a filmmaker and installation artist who marries cinema with themes of black cultural production, sexuality and power. Julien’s breakout film was Looking for Langston (1989), a docudrama that explored the world of Langston Hughes, the Harlem Renaissance and sexuality through the use of poetry and black-and-white imagery. His followup film Young Soul Rebels (1991) examined the intersection of youth cultural movements in the U.K. The film, which marked the film debuts of acclaimed actors Sophie Okonedo and Eamonn Walker, won the grand prize at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival. Julien opened up the doors on black sexuality, allowing the likes of Dee Rees and Rashad Ernesto Green to share important stories with film audiences.

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    Ava DuVernay

    DuVernay became the first African-American woman to win the best director prize at the Sundance Film Festival for her film Middle of Nowhere in 2012. In 2008, DuVernay made her feature directorial debut with the documentary This Is the Life. In 2010, she directed several network music documentaries, including My Mic Sounds Nice for BET Networks. It was DuVernay’s critically acclaimed 2011 film I Will Follow, starring Salli Richardson-Whitfield, that secured DuVernay’s reputation as a director. A former publicist, DuVernay also founded the African-American Film Releasing Movement, a collective that works to distribute independent black films to diverse audiences.

Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D., is editor-at-large for The Root. She is also founder and editor-in-chief of the Burton Wire, an award-winning news blog covering the African Diaspora. Follow her on Twitter.