The shocking under-representation of black directors has long plagued the film industry, and the presence of people of colour on and offscreen is an issue that is increasingly hard to ignore. To this day, in the Academy Awards’ 87-year history, not a single black filmmaker has won the Oscar for Best Director. This lack of diversity may be explained by the fact that the voting members of the Academy in 2015 were 94 per cent white, 77 per cent male and had a median age of 62. What we know for sure: it’s certainly not down to a lack of talent, with numerous veterans and pioneers of black cinema spread across the globe. Here we pay homage to a selection of them.
Out this week, Justin Simien’s debut feature Dear White People goes straight for the jugular, as its name suggests. The movie is an incendiary satire about the racial tensions at a fictional Ivy League college campus, eviscerating any suggestion that racism is over in America. Simien is a hugely exciting prospect, and could be heralding in a new era of informed filmmaking that is far from the white male gaze.
It’s vital, as American director Gina Prince-Bythewood argues, to realise that there is no such thing as “black film” – it is an infinitely varied field that can’t be so easily defined. Her aim is for films made by black directors to be simply be considered normal. Prince-Bythewood trades in love stories, and her latest, Beyond the Lights (which will receive its London premiere this month at the Bechdel Test Fest), follows the poignant relationship between a famous singer from London and a young American cop.
There have been many films about slavery, but none have felt as potent and definitive as 12 Years A Slave. Directed by Steve McQueen in 2013, it retells the true story of Solomon Northup, an African-American freeman who kidnapped off streets of 19th century Washington, and sold into slavery. McQueen’s films have always had a political bent to them, including 2008’s Hunger, about the Irish Republican prisoners who went on hunger strike in 1981, but this latest – tackling the imperious elephant in the room, slavery – marks a genuine milestone in the history of film.
It’s rare enough for black lives to make it onto the screen – let alone those of black teen sexuality. But that was director Dee Rees depicted in her stunning directorial debut, Pariah, in 2011, and has continued with her HBO film Bessie, which further challenges the perceptions of black female sexuality by examining the life of blues singer Bessie Smith. LGBT communities usually shown in the media are invariably white, but Rees significantly shows queer communities populated by black women.
Perhaps to avoid the typecasting that is often forced upon black artists, Ava DuVernay recently turned down the opportunity to direct Marvel’s Black Panther, supposedly the first black superhero story. The American director – who became the first black female director to be nominated for a Golden Globe – put the 1965 Selma voting rights marches onto the silver screen. The ensuing success – $66 million takings worldwide – means that DuVernay may well have blazed the trail for future female directors to be given the green light.
DEBBIE TUCKER GREEN
Playwright Debbie Tucker Green’s beautifully bleak debut film Second Coming transposes a depth of personality rarely offered to black characters on screen. In it, Jackie (Nadine Marshall) struggles with her estranged husband (Idris Elba), as an unexpected child makes its way. Green’s film offers a stark assessment of race relations in modern Britain, and once told the Guardian: “It makes me laugh when I walk into theatres and people are tripping over themselves because I am a black playwright. If you're black and working in a shop nobody trips over themselves.”
Funnyman Richard Ayoade – formerly of The IT Crowd – is practically a one-man genre with his signature brand of socially awkward characters. Steeped in influences such as Woody Allen and François Truffaut, the actor-turned-director exhibited masterful storytelling in 2010’s Submarine and visual flair in 2013’s The Double – an adaptation of a Dostoyevsky short story. He is one of Britain’s most original filmmakers working right now.
Born in Britain to Ghanaian parents, racial identity plays a prominent role in Amma Asante’s films. Her first major feature film, Belle (2013) is about the real story of Dido Elizabeth Belle, the illegitimate daughter of an enslaved African woman and a British navy captain, who sent the girl to go and live with his uncle, Lord Mansfield. She once revealed: “Although I'm not biracial, I'm bi-cultural, I walk that division every day subtly and unsubtly, consciously and unconsciously.”
With the deadly Ferguson and Baltimore unrest still fresh in everyone’s minds, Ryan Coogler’s Sundance award-winning first film Fruitvale Station is disturbingly prescient. It tells of the last day in the life of a shooting victim, and hits much closer to home – an unarmed black man named Oscar Grant was shot by an Oakland police officer in 2008, not far from when Coogler grew up, but the officer received a meagre two-year sentence. Coogler’s responded by dealing with the situations of trauma through film: a classic yet compelling approach.
You know you must be doing something OK when right-wing blogs label you a “notorious racial grievancemonger”. From Do The Right Thing (1989) to Red Hook Summer (2012), Spike Lee’s extensive filmography is woven with a subversion of race roles. Born in the deep south of America before Civil Rights, Lee continues to critique all sorts of skin-tone prejudice. Taking a step outside of the Hollywood system, his latest movie, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, was funded through Kickstarter.
Dear White People is out in cinemas today
Follow Peter Yeung on Twitter here @peteryeung_