A few weeks before Black History Month kicked off (that would be February, as in, today), IndieWire posed an admittedly quite open question to some our favorite Black filmmakers: Who are your favorite Black filmmakers?
The basic pitch was a bit more involved, asking for picks that run more toward “inspiration” and “impact,” with an eye toward the long history of Black filmmakers. We sent a batch of questions to get the creative juices flowing: Which movies did you watch as a kid that shaped your taste? Which filmmaker’s work has inspired the films you make today? Who is a filmmaker deserving of more attention from other movie lovers?
In short, what films and which filmmakers should everyone know about?
The responses, from Gina Prince-Bythewood, Mariama Diallo, Adamma Ebo, Rashaad Ernesto Green, Carey Williams, and newly minted Sundance winner A.V. Rockwell surpassed all expectations.
The filmmakers we polled took a relatively open prompt and ran with it. Some went the top ten list route, while others added in short films and music videos to the kind of lists that often favor only features; most attributed their favorite films to their own creative success, naming the films and filmmakers whose own shots and style they are still trying to crack; Diallo organized her picks around a theme, Green wrote a full essay on Spike Lee’s influence (including how a chance encounter with the fellow filmmaker literally led to Green’s eventual choice to become a director), and Prince-Bythewood spotlighted female directors, complete with her own dream Oscar nominations.
Each of their picks is personal, insightful, and essential. Not just a look at some must-see films for cinephiles of all kinds, these listings also provide an incredible window into the work that came before, and the work that will come after.
The following has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mariama Diallo: “Master,” “Hair Wolf,” “Random Acts of Flyness,” “The Other Black Girl”
What a balm, to watch dysfunction on screen. Better yet when it unfolds within a family. I find no comfort in tidiness. Let it all hang out.
“To Sleep with Anger,” directed by Charles Burnett (1990)
“Eve’s Bayou,” directed by Kasi Lemmons (1997)
“Crooklyn,” directed by Spike Lee (1994)
“Hyenas,” directed by Djibril Diop Mambety (1992)
“Daughters of the Dust,” directed by Julie Dash (1991)
Adamma Ebo: “Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul,” “Atlanta,” “Fishing: The Series”
Here’s my list of 10 films by Black filmmakers that I absolutely adore and that have also shaped many of my creative sensibilities. (Also, I want to stress that this is in no particular order!)
“Juice,” directed by Ernest R. Dickerson (1992)
“Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse,” directed by Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman (2018)
“Eve’s Bayou,” directed by Kasi Lemmons (1997)
“Do the Right Thing,” directed by Spike Lee (1989)
“Bebe’s Kids,” directed by Bruce W. Smith (1992)
“Moonlight,” directed by Barry Jenkins (2016)
“Get Out,” directed by Jordan Peele (2017)
“Rise of the Guardians,” directed by Peter Ramsey (2012)
“ATL,” directed by Chris Robinson (2006)
“The Wood,” directed by Rick Famuyiwa (1999)
Rashaad Ernesto Green: “Premature,” “Gun Hill Road,” “Luke Cage,” “The Chi”
If it weren’t for Spike Lee, I wouldn’t be a filmmaker today. He showed us it could be done. As an artist growing up in New York, Spike Lee was everything for me. His body of work helped shape my worldview, identity, and sense of pride as a young Black man. I found his films to be powerful and thought-provoking. No other filmmaker made me run to the theater as fast as Spike did. He’s been a beacon of inspiration throughout my life and has been there to witness some of my most defining moments.
“Do the Right Thing” was the film that ignited my passion for storytelling. It’s quintessential Spike Lee. Set in Brooklyn on the hottest day of the year, it explores New York’s complex racial climate in the late ‘80s. This film defined a generation of filmmakers and artists who followed. On a more personal note, my father, whose room was next to mine, would always need white noise to sleep. There was a period of time when he would play the VHS tape of “Do the Right Thing” every night on his big screen as he dozed off. Of course, I’d also hear the film through the wall as I rested. When I didn’t venture into Dad’s lair to turn the volume down and chance waking him up, the film’s soundtrack would run in the background of my dreams.
Now I understand why children were advised to miss school to see Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X” in the early ‘90s. I found the film completely transformative in my pre-adolescence. I began to see the world differently and pick up on the more subtle racial issues within my community.
When I got to college and Spike delivered the keynote address at Dartmouth’s annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebration, I trailed him across campus like a lost puppy and informed him of my future acting aspirations. He told me to keep in touch. A few years later while attending NYU’s Grad Acting Program, I’d bump into him on occasion while he was en route to the film department.
Following graduation, I attended a talkback at NYU with Denzel Washington prior to his Broadway performance of “Julius Caesar.” Spike happened to be in the audience when I asked Denzel a question. What transpired afterwards only happens in the movies. Spike’s assistant approached me and asked me for a copy of my headshot which I happily provided. I had heard Spike was auditioning for his upcoming film, “Inside Man,” but had no idea how to get in the room. It was a dream of mine to work with Spike so this prospect felt too good to be true.
A week or so went by and I didn’t hear anything. As fate would have it, I was concurrently working on a theater piece whose playwright/director just happened to work at Spike’s commercial agency and used the conference room to rehearse. One night, Spike swung by the office after hours. We made small introductions. Spike noticed me from the talkback and said, “You’re the one who asked Denzel that question.” Something in my youthful ambition prompted me to ask, “So what’s up with that audition?” Spike looked at me hard and responded, “A’ight, bet.” He then turned and walked out.
A couple days later, I got a call from my agent that I’d be auditioning for Spike Lee’s “Inside Man.” I wound up being cast as a bank hostage and featured extra which afforded me nearly three weeks on set to watch the master at work. It was one of the seminal experiences that led me to eventually believe I was on the wrong side of the camera. The days were long and it seemed the director and his team were the ones having all the fun. There was a scene when the hostages, handcuffed in zip ties behind our backs and dressed in painters’ uniforms, were finally released from the bank and Spike told us to mix up our reactions so that every hostage wasn’t doing the same thing. I thought, “This is my moment. I’m going to show Spike what I’m made of.”
So they roll the film, Spike calls “action,” and I acted completely insane. I started yelling in pain. I was antagonistic and defensive towards the cops who were trying to load the hostages on the bus. When they grabbed me, I was kicking and screaming. Half the uniform ripped off my body and my bare chest was exposed. My fellow castmates thought I had truly lost my mind. We finished the take and got ready for another one. Spike marched through the sea of extras, came right up to me and said, “Do that again.” Given permission from the man himself, I cranked it up a notch and acted even more insane the second time around. I heard Spike was jumping up and down at the monitor. Even though the moment didn’t make the final cut, I felt vindicated. I had finally arrived.
Then came the critical juncture in my career where I decided in what capacity I wanted to tell stories. I peered over the cinematic landscape, at who was in control of what stories got told and by whom. I thought of Spike who never asked for permission, who didn’t wait in line for his number to be called. If there was void of stories about people of color, he didn’t complain or wait for the industry to change. He changed it himself. I realized in that moment that in order to see the kind of stories I wished to be told, I’d have to tell them.
I ventured behind the camera to study under Spike back at NYU’s Graduate Film Program where he served as Artistic Director. After adjusting my schedule to audit Spike’s Third-Year Directing Strategies Class in my first and second year of the program, Spike thought I was a super senior when I showed up for class a third year in a row. During his office hours, Spike was always brutally honest about the work in a way I very much appreciated. When watching my first-year MOS silent film, he turned to me and remarked, “You’re sentimental, huh?” Then when giving feedback on my first feature, he said, “Don’t worry about me. Worry about your story.” I got a real kick getting to know Spike. He’s been extremely loyal to his crew of collaborators and truly generous with his students and the filmmakers he’s inspired.
Spike’s influence over my work is most evident in the stories I’m drawn to. Whether it’s a Bronx-based Latino family wrestling with their child’s identity crisis in “Gun Hill Road,” young Black teens navigating their first big love in “Premature,” or Black athletes finding their voice in my upcoming film, “’68,” I often find myself tackling issues of social justice in one form or another. I have Spike to thank for that.
He’s been there even when he doesn’t know he’s been. I’m blessed to call Spike my teacher, mentor, colleague, and friend. On this occasion, I’d simply like to say, “Thank you, Spike. Peace and Love. Sho’ Nuff. Ya Dig? And that’s the double truth, Ruth.”
Gina Prince-Bythewood: “The Woman King,” “The Old Guard,” “Beyond the Lights,” “Love and Basketball”
For Black History Month, I wanted to give a shout out to Black female filmmakers. In the 95-year history of the Academy Awards, a Black woman has never been nominated for best director. In the 95-year history, only one Black woman has won Best Actress. A Black female editor has never won. There have been a number of films by Black women that have deserved recognition by their “peers.”
Below are 10, with their extraordinary crafts highlighted.
“One Night in Miami,” directed by Regina King (2020). Best Pic, Directing, Writing, Acting, Cinematography.
“Sugar Cane Alley,” directed bby Euzhan Palcy (1983). Best Pic, Directing, Writing.
“Eve’s Bayou,” directed by Kasi Lemmons (1997). Best Pic, Directing, Writing, Supporting Actress, Editing, Production Design.
“Time,” directed by Garrett Bradley (2020). This was nominated for Best Documentary but did not win. It’s ridiculously powerful and game-changing and everyone needs to watch.
“The Forty-Year-Old Version,” directed by Radha Blank (2020). Best Writing. Powerful, personal, hysterically funny.
“Saint Omer,” directed by Alice Diop (2022). Best International Film.
“Selma,” directed by Ava DuVernay (2014). Best Pic noms should always share a Best Director nom.
“Clemency,” directed by Chinonye Chukwu (2019). An extraordinary performance by Alfre Woodard. And “Till” (2022) with its extraordinary performance by Danielle Deadwyler.
“Belle,” directed by Amma Assante (2013). Giving a shout to the beautifully complex performance of Gugu Mbatha-Raw who also rocked an unbelievable, transformative performance in “Beyond the Lights” the same year.
“Atlantics,” directed by by Mati Diop (2019). Best International Film. Directing, Writing.
There are more than 10 films. There are more than 10 Black female filmmakers doing exceptional work. This is just a snapshot of a large, talented, fierce creative community that is growing. I see us.
A.V. Rockwell: “A Thousand and One,” “Feathers”
“Black Films & Filmmakers That Deserve More Attention”
“Ganja and Hess,” directed by Bill Gunn (1973)
“Sugar Cane Alley,” Euzhan Palcy (1983)
“Body & Soul,” directed by Oscar Micheaux (1925)
Each of these artists were groundbreaking storytellers ahead of their time. “Sugar Cane Alley” in particular is a story that deeply resonates with me as a Caribbean-American and I felt like this story, in many ways, was my own story.
Carey Williams: “Emergency,” “R#J”
Here’s a list of films and filmmakers over time that have inspired me:
Spike Lee: Spike’s body of work has had a profound influence on me. Early on, I found myself not only in awe of his command of visual language but also his willingness to play with the form. No matter the material, Spike speaks to audiences with such a clear voice.
“Mother of George,” directed by Andrew Dosunmu (2013): The beauty of this film blows my mind. I use frames from this film in almost every deck and lookbook that I create.
Steve McQueen: I think McQueen is one of today’s most fearless filmmakers. In his films, he often has at least one long single take that’s visual poetry and gives him nowhere to hide. As filmmakers, we often get caught up in worrying about the audience’s attention span and I get the feeling McQueen doesn’t care at all about that. Yes, you can watch someone sweep a hallway for 3 minutes.
Some other really strong inspirations are short films:
I remember seeing “Slow,” directed by Darius Clark Monroe (2011), and being blown away.
“Crazy Beats Strong Every Time,” directed by Moon Molson (2011): It’s a shame that this one doesn’t seem to be online anywhere.
“Good kid, m.A.A.d city,” directed by Khalil Joseph (2014)
“Until the Quiet Comes,” directed by Khalil Joseph (2013)
“She Walked Calmly Disappearing Into the Darkness,” directed by Malik Hassan Sayeed (2008)
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