The History of Black Filmmakers Who Changed Hollywood

Jordan Peele, writer/director of Get Out. Photo taken at The Los Angeles Film School.

A Decade of Influential Black Artists Who Broke Grounds in Film

The 2010s was a pivotal decade for Black actors and filmmakers. The decade brought in fresh storylines with standout Black protagonists, first-time Oscar wins for Black filmmakers and a hashtag that changed history. Movie studios favored more varied stories with newer voices after #OscarsSoWhite exposed the Hollywood establishment as repeat offenders of marginalizing minorities. Black cinema thrived in this new era which challenged racial stereotypes and brought Black queerness to the forefront with movies like Barry Jenkin’s Moonlight (2016) and the documentary Tangerine (2015). Standout Black filmmakers and actors from the 2010s include Jordan Peele, Steve McQueen, Octavia Spencer, Ava DuVernay, Marhershala Ali, John Ridley, and Viola Davis just to name a few.

Jordan Peele shattered box office records with both of his horror films Get Out (2017) and Us (2019) and became one of Time Magazine’s most influential people in the world. While 12 Years a Slave director Steve McQueen made Oscar history as the first Black British director and producer to win an Academy Award for Best Picture. Some would argue that the 2010s was the banner decade for Black filmmaking, but the real foundation happened long before then. There were many influential Black artists throughout the decades who paved the way for people like Jordan Peele and Steve McQueen to excel as filmmakers. As we’ve become familiar with the last decade of Black filmmakers, it’s vital to take a look back in film history at the Black storytellers who started it all.

These five heavy-hitters changed the film industry throughout history

Oscar Micheaux

Oscar Micheaux
Photo of Oscar Micheaux via THR

What is Oscar Micheaux known for?

Oscar Micheaux was a pioneer for Black filmmaking and is credited for being the first African American to produce a feature-length film in 1919. Born into slavery in southern Illinois, Oscar Micheaux left home for Chicago to pursue work as a Pullman porter on railroads. This was one of the best jobs at the time for African Americans. However, Oscar Micheaux had bigger ambitions as a writer. He wrote a series of novels, including his most famous self-published novel The Homesteader. Two independent filmmakers offered Oscar Micheaux to buy the rights to The Homesteader, but Micheaux declined and pursued his own path to making his novel into a feature film. Today, Oscar Micheaux is credited with being the first Black filmmaker. He even made a movie before Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid came out in 1921.

Spike Lee

Spike Lee at L.A. Film School
Photo of Spike Lee at The Los Angeles Film School

What is Spike Lee known for?

Spike Lee splashed on the film scene with his 1986 movie, She’s Gotta Have it, which only took two weeks to shoot with a budget of $175K. The movie grossed $7 million and is considered the most profitable movie in 1986. Spike Lee went on to direct, produce, write and star in films over the past four decades and only keeps adding to his impressive filmography. In his early years as a filmmaker, Spike Lee’s work explored the racial inequality and lived experiences of African Americans. Outspoken and unapologetic about his critiques on the societal mistreatment of African Americans, Spike Lee has become one of the most profound voices in filmmaking and American pop culture. Some of his monumental filmographies include Malcolm X (1992), 4 Little Girls (1997), He Got Game (1998), Inside Man (2006), and BlacKkKlansman (2018).

Sidney Poitier

Sidney Poitier
Photo of Sidney Poitier via Popsugar

What is Sidney Poitier known for?

Sidney Poitier is the greatest American movie star, according to Times culture critic Wesley Morris. Sidney Poitier was the first Black actor to win the Academy Award for Best Actor for his role in Lilies of the Field. It took 38 years for another Black actor to win Best Actor at the Academy Awards. Only four Black actors have ever won in that category. His strength of character and determination to make a name for himself as an African-American actor, led him to become one of the most well-respected actors in Hollywood. Sidney Poitier passed away this past year but leaves behind a colossal legacy for African-American actors, filmmakers and artists.

Melvin Van Peebles

Melvin Van Peebles
Playwright and Director Melvin Van Peebles (Photo by © Alex Gotfryd/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

What is Melvin Van Peebles known for?

Melvin Van Peebles is best known for his landmark films Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song and Watermelon Man. Both films introduced Black themes to audiences in the 1970s in an effort to appeal to Black urban audiences. As a Chicago native, Melvin Van Peebles had a pulse on the film and entertainment industry as very few African Americans were directing movies at the time. He was also a novelist, songwriter, musician and painter. Melvin Van Peebles is rightfully referred to as the Godfather of Black Cinema.

Julie Dash

Julie Dash
Photo of Julie Dash (credit unknown)

What is Julie Dash known for?

Julie Dash is a modern television tycoon who has worked in the film and TV industry for the past three decades. Julie Dash is a director, writer and producer who received her MFA from UCLA Film School. She is part of the graduating class of filmmakers known as the L.A. Rebellion, which refers to the first African and African American students who studied film at UCLA. The L.A. Rebellion heavily influenced some of Julie Dash’s early work in her career. Her films focused on the lives of Black people and the unique struggles of Black women in America. She is best known for her film Daughters of the Dust, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 1991. Daughters of the Dust became the first feature film directed by an African-American woman distributed theatrically in the U.S.