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Influential Black Filmmakers

Juneteenth, also known as Emancipation Day, is this Monday, June 19th. The holiday celebrates the day that all enslaved Black people were freed. President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation marked the "formal" end of slavery in 1863. However, it wasn't until an entire two and a half years later, on June 19, 1865, that the enslaved people of Galveston, Texas learned of their freedom. As with... literally all holidays, we'll be celebrating by watching and talking about movies. Join us and read on for three of our favorite Black influential filmmakers!

influential black filmmakers

1) Oscar Micheaux

Let's start at the beginning, with Oscar Micheaux. In 1918, he created the first movie company owned and controlled by Black filmmakers. Micheaux spent adolescence and much of young adulthood trying his hand at a wide variety of jobs, developing a myriad of skills and connections. Primarily, however, Micheaux was a writer. In 1918, he was approached by a film company that was interested in adapting his first novel for a major motion-picture. When the company refused Micheaux's input, the filmmaker decided to start his own. His film adaptation, entitled The Homesteader, debuted in 1919 and was widely successful, both fiscally and critically. This film--as with his entire body of work--explored contemporary Black life, including navigation of social relationships with white Americans and racial injustices. If you're interested in learning more, you'll have to check out the documentary about Micheaux's early life, The Czar of Black Hollywood. It was independently produced and released in 2014 by Bayer Mack--another influential Black filmmaker!

2) Ava DuVernay

Ava DuVernay is another filmmaker who started their careers outside of the industry. DuVernay began as a journalist and later created her own public relations firm in 1999. Fast-forward to December 2005: With only $6,000, DuVernay independently made her first film. Entitled Saturday Night Life, the short was based off of her mother's experiences raising children as a single parent. In 2012, DuVernay won best director at the Sundance Film Festival for her movie I Will Follow (2010), becoming the first Black woman to win the honor. The filmmaker went on to create documentaries and more full-length films, including Selma (2014) about the 1965 Selma to Montgomery march, and 13th (2016) about US mass incarceration. Her work primarily explores social injustices, along with the intricacies of societal norms among Black cultures in the US. DuVernay also founded the African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement (AFFRM) in 2010. She created the company to distribute films made by and/or with a focus on Black Americans.

3) Steve McQueen

No, we haven't completely lost it. We're referring to Steve McQueen the British director... not Steve McQueen the American actor. This McQueen was literally appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 2011 and was knighted in 2020 for his contributions to film. And, staying on theme, McQueen didn't start out in film, per se, but rather art and design. The filmmaker's early work was--obviously--more abstract and experimental, as opposed to narrative or linear. In 2008, however, McQueen premiered Hunger, his first full-length film, at the Cannes Film Festival. Hunger won a variety of awards, including Cannes' First-Time Director and the Inaugural Sydney Film Festival Prize. The director went on to create more work that explores societal injustices in depth, such as 12 Years a Slave (2013), based on the diary of an enslaved person in America, and Uprising (2021), based on the events that occurred in 1981 in the UK that went on to define the nation's race relations for a generation.


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