Black creatives like Ava DuVernay and Steve McQueen have been celebrated for breaking records, as well as boundaries and barriers, in 21st century filmmaking. Did you know, Black filmmakers have been credited with ground-breaking, innovative and essential work, as well as creating new trends and championing new styles of filmmaking, since the earliest days of film history?
Image credits © Mashable
At LFA, we value the spirit of pioneers who are unafraid to look at the world through a different lens, and experiment with new forms of storytelling. This #BlackHistoryMonth we’re taking you through a selection of some of the most significant and defining Black pioneers of the film industry.
Image credits © IMDB
Oscar Micheaux is often considered the Black pioneer of filmmaking, being credited as the first Black filmmaker to ever direct a feature film. Tenacious, tireless and fearless, Micheaux was a social critic and satirist whose early features include ‘Within our Gates’ (1920), ‘The Symbol of the Unconquered: A story of the Ku Klux Klan’ (1920) and ‘Body and Soul’ (1925). Micheaux addressed negative stereotypes about African Americans in his work, and believed it was imperative to immortalise the negative treatment of Black people through the medium of film. He was a true innovator, unafraid to break the rules, particularly through his experiments with sound. He famously said:
We want to see our lies dramatized on the screen as we are living it, the same as other people, the world over.
Maria P. Williams
Image credits © Wikipedia
Maria P. Williams is known as the first Black female film producer, with her debut credit for a silent crime drama ‘The Flames of Wrath’ (1923). Williams was an activist for Black rights in the US, as well as a journalist, before beginning her career in film after marrying entrepreneur Jesse L. Williams, who owned a movie theatre in Kansas City. It is still disputed as to whether Maria P. Williams should also be credited for directing ‘The Flames of Wrath’, as the two roles were so similar in the film industry at the time.
Image credits © Enfield Independent
Horace Ové is the Trinidad-British filmmaker who directed ‘Pressure’ (1976), considered to be the first Black British feature-length film. The pioneering film gave an insight into the lived experience and political views of the Windrush generation and their children, living in a discriminatory society. Ové has forged a prolific career as a filmmaker spanning over three decades, often facing controversy for his outspoken and unapologetic works.
Image credits © Watershed
Maureen Blackwood co-founded the Sankofa Film and Video Collective, a group of filmmakers dedicated to producing experimental films that gave voice to the Black experience from new and different perspectives. Blackwood intended for Sankofa to be a historical resource for Black people to find meaningful representation of their lives through film. Her work spans an array of different forms and genres, including ‘The Passion of Remembrance’ (1986) and ‘Home Away from Home’ (1994). Speaking about the need for Black stories on screen, Blackwood said:
Being born and raised in England, you become aware of your absence, not just on TV but in all areas of life, you looked around and you’re not there.
Image credits © Talking Pictures
Born in Barbados, Menelik Shabazz moved to the UK as a child, and began experimenting with filmmaking during his school years in London. His first feature, ‘Burning an Illusion’ (1981), was funded by the BFI and made him the second Black filmmaker to direct a feature in the UK, after Horace Ové! The film tells the story of a young Black woman’s love life, and is quietly radical in its centering of a Black couple in a film, with the focus being on their relationship rather than on the social issue of race. Shabazz founded the Black Filmmaker Magazine in the late 90s, which hosts the BFM International Film Festival.
Image credits © Little White Lies
Julie Dash is one of the most prominent Black female filmmakers of the 20th century. Born in New York in the 1950s, Dash studied film at the University of Los Angeles before embarking on a prolific career which includes works such as ‘Four Women’ (1975), ‘Diary of an African Nun’ (1977) and her most renowned work ‘Daughters of the Dust’ (1991). It is one of 400 other American films that are preserved and protected as National Treasures, and is considered one of the most important cinematic works by a Black filmmaker in the 20th century. The film was rereleased for a new generation in 2016, after singer Beyoncé emulated the visual style and costume aesthetic of the film for her video-album ‘Lemonade’.
Image credits © Letterboxd
William Greaves was a pioneering journalist, director and producer, working primarily in the realm of documentary filmmaking. He was incredibly prolific, and was involved in more than 200 films throughout his lifetime. Inspired by the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, Greaves’ work was essential in putting forward unheard perspectives of real African-Americans, at a time when Black voices were not respected in the media. One of his most significant works is ‘Still a Brother: Inside the Negro Middle Class’ (1968), which documented the demographic shift that was happening in American society, and the challenges African-Americans faced during this process. His 1968 experimental documentary feature ‘Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One’ was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry, due to its cultural and historical significance.
Let’s keep the conversation going, and make sure these pioneers and their vital contributions to filmmaking are not forgotten, by sharing with a friend.