Seven Up-and-Coming Black Directors You Should Know

Tanya Hamilton; Rashaad Ernesto Green; Ava DuVernay

With tonight's 2011 Academy Awards, there's been a lot of focus on this year's "blackout," the lack of African Americans nominated for awards. Of course, like the Grammys and other awards shows, the Oscars don't necessarily validate or confirm the greatness of a work; a good film speaks for itself, whether or not it's getting love from the people handing out awards.

With that in mind, The Root decided to take a look at up-and-coming black directors who we predict will be forces in the film industry, whether or not they're recognized by the Academy Awards. You will find that what this diverse set of directors has in common is passion, skill, talent and the ability to tell stories in a way that resonates with various audiences. We'll be watching them — and so should you.


Tanya Hamilton

With Night Catches Us, Hamilton made her feature-film directing debut with a cerebral film about the complications of love in the post-Black Panther era. With her use of animation and painterly cinematography, Hamilton demonstrated a keen ability to tell a story that is different from anything else on the cinematic scene, with large themes and compelling characters. (She managed to pull in some A-list talent as well: Kerry Washington and Anthony Mackie star in this small independent film.) If you think Hamilton is aiming for something more mainstream for her next project, think again. Her upcoming Tribe will explore the lives of two Native American brothers, one of whom is half black.


Why She's One to Watch: She's not afraid to take on topics that no one else will.

Salim Akil

This Oakland, Calif., native knows his way around relationships on film and television, over the years working steadily as a writer, producer and director. He got his start writing and co-producing the critically acclaimed Drylongso. He then worked as a writer, director and eventual executive producer on Showtime's hit series Soul Food. Akil added his talent and vision to Girlfriends, serving as a writer, producer and director, and then to the wildly popular show The Game, executive-produced by his wife and business partner, Mara Brock-Akil. Akil served as director on Jumping the Broom, starring Angela Bassett, Paula Patton, Laz Alonso and Loretta Devine. The film opens Mother's Day weekend.


Why He's One to Watch: He's got the skills to move between television and film projects without sacrificing his integrity.

Patrik-Ian Polk

Patrik-Ian Polk is bringing LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) issues to the big and small screens through great storytelling and intriguing characters. The Mississippi native has managed to move gay stories and subject matter from the margins to the center of the film world, producing and directing films that give voice to a population that has previously been silenced or represented solely through a humorous lens.


Polk's first feature film, Punks, produced by Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds, explores the relationships within a group of gay African-American friends. The film was screened at the 2000 Sundance Film Festival, chosen to open the 24th San Francisco International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, and nominated for the GLAAD Media Award and the John Cassavetes Award. Polk's next project was Logo's Noah's Arc, which also explored black gay friendships. The show was set in Los Angeles and became known as the gay Sex and the City. It addressed many issues, including same-sex marriage, HIV/AIDS awareness, parenthood and homophobia. The show ran for two seasons and produced a spin-off feature film entitled Noah's Arc: Jumping the Broom, which Polk wrote, produced and directed.

Why He's One to Watch: Through his director's lens, he transforms black gay men from object to subject.


Ava DuVernay

Some may know Ava DuVernay as a powerhouse publicist, but becoming a great filmmaker is next on her list. DuVernay has directed a documentary on female emcees, My Mic Sounds Nice, and the feature film I Will Follow, starring Salli Richardson-Whitfield, Omari Hardwick, Tracie Thoms and Michole White. In her feature-film debut, DuVernay directs an ensemble cast through a story of loss, recovery and the resiliency of the human spirit. I Will Follow, which opens in March, won the Audience Award at the 2010 Urbanworld Film Festival. Did we mention she formed her own distribution company, the African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement, which will be powered by the nation's black film festival organizations?


Dee Rees

Dee Rees is one of the few African Americans whose film was picked up by a major distributor this year. Rees directed Pariah, a film about a Brooklyn, N.Y., teenager whose struggle with her sexual identity is exacerbated by her troubled relationships with her friends. Her film debuted at Sundance and was picked up by Focus Features, to be released later this year. Pariah has been screened at more than 40 festivals worldwide and has won 25 awards for best short. The film was a finalist for the 2009 Sundance/NHK International Award.


An alumna of NYU's graduate film program, Rees was also a 2008 Sundance Screenwriting and Directing Lab Fellow. Her upcoming projects include The Ville, a dramatic television series; and two feature-length screenplays: Large Print, a dark comedy, and Pandora, an environmental-science thriller.

Why She's One to Watch: She balances social justice and entertainment in a way that few have done before.


Wanuri Kahiu

Kenyan Wanuri Kahiu takes viewers to a place they have never seen before in film or real life. Her short film Pumzi (2009) takes place in futuristic Africa, 35 years after World War III, the "water war." Kahiu pulled the film together by hook or by crook, not even having cast the lead character, Asha, one day before shooting was to begin. Kahiu, her producers and crew dug in to create a visually stunning, creative examination of life in a place that is altogether different, yet hauntingly familiar. Kahiu researched classic 1950s films to create her movie's futuristic sets, bringing together the processes of matte painting and rear-screen projection with indigenous African artwork. Pumzi debuted at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival as part of its "New African Cinema Program."


Kahiu's first feature film, From a Whisper, also released in 2009, was based on the real-life events surrounding the Aug. 7, 1998, twin bombings of U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. From a Whisper won awards at the African Movie Academy Awards, including best director and best picture; the Golden Dhow Award for best East African picture at the Zanzibar International Film Festival; and the award for best film at the Kalasha Film and Television Awards in Kenya. Shortly after, she completed For Our Land (2009), a documentary about the life of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Wangari Maathai for M-Net's "Great Africans" series.

Why She's One to Watch: She blazes trails in art and film, expanding the boundaries of film genres.


Rashaad Ernesto Green

Rashaad Ernesto Green's Gun Hill Road is a film about a Latino man who returns home from a three-year prison stint to find that things have changed — like his relationship with his wife and his son's sexual identity. Esai Morales stars as Enrique, a father who must decide whether to cling to his notions of masculinity or to become the father that his son, Michael, played brilliantly by Harmony Santana, needs.


Like the actual street that runs through the Bronx, N.Y., Gun Hill Road is a metaphor for the bumpy road that life can sometimes be, and which can either divide or unite a family. Green, a Bronx native and Dartmouth graduate, brings a story to the screen that questions normalcy in a way that is not simplistic. Gun Hill Road debuted at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival and landed a seven-figure distribution deal from the Motion Film Group. The film will be released this summer.

Why He's One to Watch: He is able to show the complexity of the hood and its residents.


Nsenga Burton is editor-at-large for The Root. She also serves as cultural critic for Creative Loafing and is an assistant professor of communication and media studies at Goucher College in Baltimore. Follow her on Twitter

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