Arguably the best thing about Letterboxd is the lists. Obviously there are the official lists - the 250 greatest narrative films, the 100 greatest documentary films, etc. There are also great lists made by users that track films in different categories, among my favorites being the lists about women filmmakers (including this list and this list which chronicle the full history of women filmmakers, and this list of recommendations for women directed films). I reference these lists constantly when trying to fill gaps in my watchlist. There are comparably great lists that track black films. Black Life on Film is obviously the highest profile list; BLACK CINEMA is really good too. These lists track black cinema in all of its…
Films by Black Directors
Arguably the best thing about Letterboxd is the lists. Obviously there are the official lists - the 250 greatest narrative films, the 100 greatest documentary films, etc. There are also great lists made by users that track films in different categories, among my favorites being the lists about women filmmakers (including this list and this list which chronicle the full history of women filmmakers, and this list of recommendations for women directed films). I reference these lists constantly when trying to fill gaps in my watchlist. There are comparably great lists that track black films. Black Life on Film is obviously the highest profile list; BLACK CINEMA is really good too. These lists track black cinema in all of its dimensions, including afrocentric themes, black leads and/or black casts, black screenwriters, black directors, etc. I have always been particularly interested in finding films by black directors, and at least when I started this list many months ago, there appeared to be a dearth of these lists on the site. Obviously this has changed in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests that lasted through the summer of 2020, the most comprehensive civil rights actions in the United States since 1968.
This list was created as a timeline of important films from black filmmakers from around the world, as well as black and Arab filmmakers from Africa. It is not meant to be comprehensive or exhaustive, as I lack the time, resources, and commitment to create the painstakingly curated lists I noted in the previous paragraph. I have tried to focus on critically acclaimed films, and so with only few exceptions, usually to include historically noteworthy movies, films with less than a 3.0 rating are typically excluded. I tried to avoid obscure films with very few viewers, though in some cases, especially for African films, this is unavoidable. This list, presented as a timeline in reverse chronological order, includes short films, documentaries, and miniseries, but excludes concert films, visual albums, and comedy specials, because I absolutely have no desire to keep up with that. In addition to previously noted lists about black films, my resources included OkayAfrica's 10 Best African Films of All-Time (2018), YardBarker's The 27 Greatest Films by Black Directors (2019), and Slate's The Black Film Canon (2016).
Of course, a list feels somewhat pointless without at least a little historical context, and since I'm long-winded and a history nerd, what follows is a short survey of the history of black cinema. Narrative filmmaking was first truly revolutionized by D.W. Griffith's landmark 1915 epic, The Birth of a Nation. The film that birthed the modern KKK and stands as an unforgivable testament to the Lost Cause myth of the Confederacy was for a while the highest grossing film of all-time. Gone With the Wind, released in 1939, is still the highest grossing film of all-time adjusted for inflation, another epic filled with slavery apologia. Though the Best Picture winner made Hattie McDaniel the first black person to win an Oscar, she won it at a segregated ceremony for playing a black stereotype. Even the first talkie in Hollywood history, 1927's The Jazz Singer, features stark depictions of white actors in blackface. In an era dominated by white filmmakers and open racism, of minstrel shows and blackface, black-led films were independent affairs. Positive depictions of black life on film actually appeared not long after the Lumière brothers screened the first film exhibition in 1895. The one-minute, white-directed short Something Good - Negro Kiss (1898) is a landmark, as is A Fool and His Money (1912), from the French woman pioneer Alice Guy-Blaché.
Short films soon followed from the white-owned Ebony Film Company and the black-owned Lincoln Motion Picture Company. These "race films" featured black casts and catered to black audiences, in segregated movie theaters. Many of the most important, such as The Scar of Shame (1929) and A Cabin in the Sky (1943), were helmed by white directors. Some of the first black filmmakers in history found opportunities in the market for race films, however. The author turned auteur Oscar Micheaux broke through in 1919 with The Homesteader, which is now lost. His Within Our Gates (1920), a response to The Birth of a Nation, is the oldest surviving feature-length film from a black director. The comedic actor Spencer Williams, who headlined the transition of Amos 'n Andy from a white-led minstrel radio show into the first TV program to feature a black cast, found success as a filmmaker in this era as well. His landmark The Blood of Jesus (1941) was the first race film selected for preservation in the U.S. National Film Registry, in 1991.
These race films were noteworthy for their non-stereotyped depictions of African-Americans in an era when racist imagery dominated popular culture and advertising. They peaked in popularity in the 1920s and 1930s, but died out during World War II, and with their collapse, black directed cinema died out as well. Though black directors fell into obscurity, black actors were slowly breaking through as the Civil Rights Movement changed attitudes on race in America. Sidney Poitier brought dignified roles for people of color to mainstream white audiences for the first time in the 1950s and 1960s, winning a landmark Oscar in 1963 for Lilies of the Field, and actually ending 1967 as the top box office star in the USA, thanks to films like the Best Picture winner In the Heat of the Night.
At the same time, the nations of Africa, under European colonial control since the 1800s, began to win their independence and establish free nations for the first time in decades. This provided African creatives the opportunities to become film directors for the first time, free to make movies that tackled anti-racist and anti-imperialist themes, while critiquing government corruption, cultural transformation, and Western economic hegemony in the post-colonial world. Early films in Africa were made by white colonists, ethnographic films that depicted black and Arab people in derogatory ways. Now African filmmakers could control their own images. North Africa, and especially Egypt, became the first African region to find international recognition for its cinema. The great Youssef Chahine scored a global breakthrough with his thriller Cairo Station (1958), which played at the Berlin Film Festival. Films from sub-Saharan Africa would take longer to reach international audiences. The historian Paulin Soumanou Vieyra, of Benin and Senegal, is credited with the first film directed by a black African, Afrique-sur-Seine (1955).
The father of black African cinema is the great Senegalese author Ousmane Sembène. Noted for his realism and minimalist aesthetic, he switched from literature to cinema in an effort to reach a wider audience, and won the Prix Jean Vigo award in France for his landmark Black Girl (1966), about a Senegalese woman who migrates to France for work only to find herself dehumanized by her white employers. His follow-up, Mandabi (1968), was the first West African film produced in a native African language, Wolof. With a prolific career through his death in 2007, he was a fixture at the Moscow and Cannes film festivals, and was a judge at the 1977 Berlin Film Festival. His final film, the feminist protest film Moolaadé (2004), is considered one of the greatest international films of the 21st century. He broke down barriers for other African filmmakers. The Mauritanian filmmaker Med Hondo and the Senegalese filmmaker Djibril Diop Mambéty became the faces of the African avant-garde with their films Soleil Ô (1970) and Touki Bouki (1973), respectively, which examined the alienation felt by African youth both in their changing countries and in the urban centers of Europe. Yeelen (1987), an adventure film from the Malian director Souleymane Cissé, based on West African folklore, won a Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. Nigeria's film industry, nicknamed Nollywood, is one of the largest in the world today, producing around 2500 films per year.
African-American cinema returned to prominence with a wave of politically charged indie films in the late 1960s and early 1970s, led by photographer Gordon Parks Sr. and musician/writer Melvin van Peebles. Their films - The Learning Tree (1969), Sweet Sweetback's Badass Song (1971), and Shaft (1971) - were revolutionary and spearheaded a wave of black directed films in the 1970s, including work by filmmakers like Gordon Parks Jr. (Superfly), Bill Gunn (Ganja and Hess), and Michael Schultz (Cooley High). Many were former actors. Sidney Poitier transitioned from acting to filmmaking, with a series of successful movies with comedian Bill Cosby. Ivan Dixon, who starred in the legendary, white-directed indie film Nothing But a Man (1964), about racism in the Jim Crow South, found success with films like The Spook Who Sat by the Door (1973). Shaft and Sweetback jump-started a wave of blaxploitation films, crime thrillers from both white and black directors, that were popular throughout the decade. Despite accusations of perpetuating racial stereotypes, they gave black filmmakers an outlet to critique race relations. The decade peaked in 1977 with the miniseries Roots, which featured a multiracial directing crew and became the most watched scripted television event in US history upon its landmark release. As the blaxploitation genre faded at the end of the 1970s, a new indie movement emerged out of UCLA, influenced by the professors Elyseo J. Taylor and Teshome Gabriel. Dubbed the LA Rebellion, the films were influenced by African cinema and Italian neorealism, and featured important filmmakers like Charles Burnett (Killer of Sheep), Billy Woodberry (Bless Their Little Hearts), Larry Clark (Passing Through), and the Ethiopian-born Haile Gerima (Bush Mama).
African-American cinema waned again in the early 1980s. However, the late 1980s and early 1990s saw another wave of black independent filmmaking, the New Black Wave. The movement began with the landmark independent films She's Gotta Have It (1986), from Spike Lee, and Hollywood Shuffle (1987), from Robert Townsend. A new generation of black filmmakers - including Marlon Riggs (Tongues Untied), Mario van Peebles (New Jack City), Charles Lane (Sidewalk Stories), Wendell Harris Jr. (Chameleon Street), and Matty Rich (Straight Out of Brooklyn) - found critical and commercial success unlike their predecessors, and progress has mostly been steady since then. Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing (1989) may be the most acclaimed film by an African-American filmmaker of all-time, Charles Burnett would join the National Film Registry with his late career hit To Sleep With Anger (1990), and John Singleton became the first black person nominated for Best Director at the Oscars for Boyz n the Hood (1991). Since then, Ryan Coogler's Marvel film Black Panther (2018) has become one of the highest grossing films of all-time, while Steve McQueen and Barry Jenkins are the only black filmmakers to direct Best Picture winners, with 12 Years a Slave (2013) and Moonlight (2016), respectively. Success has even come at international festivals for African-American and African filmmakers. The 1975 Algerian film Chronicle of the Years of Fire is the only African film to have won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Blue is the Warmest Colour (2013), which despite being a French film with a white cast, is just the second film directed by an African filmmaker (the director was born in Tunisia, in North Africa) to win the Palme d'Or, while Spike Lee took home the secondary award at the festival, the Grand Prix, in 2018 for Black Klansman, and in 2020 was named the first African-American Jury President for the festival.
Even today, it's difficult for black filmmakers to create and sustain successful careers, though progress has clearly been made. This is especially true for black women, who have been marginalized even among black cinema. The novelist Zora Neale Hurston's short ethnographic documentaries in the 1920s and 1930s make her one of the first black women filmmakers, but it wasn't until the 1970s and 1980s that other black women won similar opportunities to create movies. Madeline Anderson's short documentaries, such as 1960's Integration Report One and 1970's I Am Somebody, won acclaim. Sarah Maldoror, an assistant on the acclaimed Italian war film The Battle of Algiers (1966), found success at the Berlin Film Festival for her work Sambizanga (1973). Letter From My Village (1975), from Safi Faye, was the first commercially distributed film from an African woman. Kathleen Collins' landmark Losing Ground (1982), featuring Bill Gunn, was the first American feature length drama directed by a black woman in 60 years, and though it failed to find wide distribution outside of film festival circuits before her death in 1988, it paved the way for pioneers later in the decade. In 1989, Euzhan Palcy, from Martinique, became the first black woman to direct a major American studio film, with the anti-apartheid drama A Dry White Season, while the LA Rebellion alum Julie Dash's Daughters of the Dust (1991) became the first feature length film by a black American woman to receive wide distribution in the US.
Progress has been smoother since then. Leslie Harris became the first black woman to win a prize at the Sundance Film Festival for Just Another Girl on the IRT (1992). Cheryl Dunye became the first black lesbian to direct a feature film with The Watermelon Woman (1996), an examination of the marginalization of black actresses in the history of American cinema. Ava DuVernay is still the only black woman to direct a Best Picture nominee, with 2014's Selma. In 2019, French-Senegalese actor/filmmaker Mati Diop, the niece of Djibril Diop Mambéty, became the first black woman to compete at the Cannes Film Festival, winning the Grand Prix for Atlantics. The two highest rated entries on Letterboxd by any black creator are both by black women: the Netflix miniseries When They See Us (2019) from Ava DuVernay, and the BBC/HBO miniseries I May Destroy You (2020), created by, starring, and co-directed by Afro-British actress Michaela Coel.