Focus Features

10 Black Directors Who Have Made Masterpieces

In June 2020, Netflix introduced a "Black Lives Matter" genre to highlight movies and TV series made by Black filmmakers. Netflix's list of 40 or so titles is a great place to start, but there are quite a few masterpieces by Black filmmakers out there that aren't part of the list. For those looking to learn more about the best in Black filmmaking, there is a slew of Black directors who have made masterpieces you need to watch.

Creating a subsection of "Black Lives Matter" stories on Netflix is just the tip of a much more extensive oeuvre that extends back to the end of the 1960s. That's when Black artists first started knocking down the barriers to create their own stories to put on screen. Famed filmmakers like Spike Lee and Ava DuVernay have made names for themselves despite the systemic issues at play. Lee was ignored by the Academy for years, with his only Oscar an honorary one until 2019. And Duvernay had to fight every step of the way in the industry, only starting her career at age 32. But there's a long list that extends past them and this collection is by no means a complete accounting,

1. Ava DuVernay

The one and only Ava DuVernay is the mastermind behind Selma, 13th, and When They See Us, all of which are masterpieces. She is the first Black woman to be nominated for a Golden Globe Award for Best Director, and also the first Black female director to have her film nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture.

2. Spike Lee

If DuVernay is the current Queen of Black filmmaking, Lee is a living legend, His filmography of masterpieces is extensive, starting with She's Gotta Have It. Some of his career highlights include Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X, Get On The Bus, 25th Hour, When the Levees Broke, and BlacKkKlansman. The Oscars are famous for their failure to recognize Do the Right Thing in favor of Driving Miss Daisy, and his Academy Award for BlacKkKlansman felt like the world setting right when he finally won.

3. Dee Rees

Most fans know Dee Rees for Mudbound, the first Netflix film to break the barriers for streaming at the Oscars. But before that, she also made Bessie for HBO, starring Queen Latifah and Mo’Nique as blues singers Bessie Smith and Ma Raine. She was also the director behind Pariah, the story of 17-year-old Alike (Adepero Oduye) coming of age in Brooklyn, her struggle with her sexuality, and her parents' struggle with who she's becoming. Both are fantastic must-watches.

4. Steve McQueen

Steve McQueen, or as he's now known, Sir Steven Rodney McQueen CBE, was the first Black filmmaker to win an Academy Award for Best Picture for 12 Years A Slave. Starring Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender, the film is the type to be held up in cinematic classrooms for a generation. It's a masterclass that examines the horrors of slavery as a sickness that spread throughout society.

It's notable that out of McQueen's other films, his best star Fassbender, including 2008's Hunger, a historical drama about the 1981 Irish hunger strike, and 2011's Shame. His latest movie, Widows, is one of 2018's most overlooked films.

5. Amma Asante

When people imagine period pieces, they think about lily-white Downton Abbey or PBS' Victoria. Amma Asante challenged that notion with her film inspired by the real-life figure of Dido Elizabeth Belle, the daughter of an African slave from the West Indies and a British Royal Navy officer. One of the few films to directly tackle the complex racial dynamics of 18th-century England, the movie stars Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Belle and is a must-watch for anyone who thinks themselves a history buff.

Since then, Asante has followed Belle up with A United Kingdom, starring David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike.

6. Ryan Coogler

Coogler is famous for Black Panther, the first of the Marvel Cinematic Universe films to star a superhero of color. The film was even nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars. But before that, Coogler had already had two masterpieces under his belt, both of which starred Michael B. Jordan, who played Erik Killmonger in Black Panther.

The first was Fruitvale Station, following Oscar Grant on the last day of his life, before he was killed by mindless police brutality. The other was Creed, the film that revived the Rocky series decades after Stallone retired the character.

7. Julie Dash

If the only exposure to Daughters Of The Dust is Beyoncé's homage to it in Lemonade, please fix that as soon as you can. Julie Dash’s piece on womanhood in South Carolina's Gullah-Geechee community was a groundbreaker in 1992. It was the first film directed by a Black woman to be screened in the U.S. But beyond that, it's a remarkable, lyrical piece, less a story than a meditation, all the more amazing when you consider it was made for peanuts.

Since then, Dash has only done a small amount of TV, though 2002's The Rosa Parks Story was nominated for Outstanding Directorial Achievement, the first Black woman to be nominated in that category.

8. Barry Jenkins

Barry Jenkins will forever be known for Moonlight's amazing come-from-behind win for Best Picture, and the complete hash that was made in announcing it. But his adaptation of Tarell Alvin McCraney's unpublished semi-autobiographical play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue isn't Jenkin's only groundbreaking film.

Prior to Moonlight, he directed Medicine For Melancholy, the story of a romantic one-night-stand starring Wyatt Cenac and Tracey Heggins, in a film that should be held up next to the Before trilogy.

9. Kasi Lemmons

Kasi Lemmons spent two decades as an actress before moving behind the camera. Her directorial debut, Eve's Bayou, is a mystical, Southern Gothic tale of hidden family shame focused on a wealthy Black community in Louisiana. It introduced Jurnee Smollett to the big screen and gave Samuel L. Jackson some deep drama to sink his teeth into.

Lemmon's made several films since then, the latest being 2019's Harriet, for which star Cynthia Erivo was nominated for an Academy Award.

10. Gordon Parks

Gordon Parks is famous for helping create the "blaxploitation" genre, with Shaft. He also directed Shaft's Big Score, The Super Cops, and Leadbelly. His son Gordon Parks Jr. directed several blaxploitation films as well, including Super Fly, Three the Hard Way, Thomasine & Bushrod, and Aaron Loves Angela.

But before that, Parks was a photographer for Life Magazine, whose photos of Black life in the 1940s are some of the most famous of the time. And before he accidentally invented an entire genre of film, he directed The Learning Tree, his debut masterpiece, and the first Hollywood studio film directed by a Black filmmaker. Set in 1920s Kansas, it's a coming of age story about Newt Winger (Kyle Johnson) dealing with everyday racial prejudice and what we know call the white gaze.