10 Black Directors to Watch in 2016

Two years ago, we published our first list of 10 black directors to watch. A new filmmaker named Ryan Coogler sat atop that list, and he was joined by Justin Simien, Amma Asante (whose follow-up to Belle, titled A United Kingdom is in post-production) and Nailah Jefferson, who recently won a $50,000 grant from the New Orleans Film Society her next project. In my fantasy world, where the Oscars aren’t so white, and aren’t so male, everyone on that list (along with everyone on our women directors list would have had the success of Coogler, or at least the opportunities to create the big-budget film of their dreams—or even the low-budget film of their dreams. But it’s only 2016, and many black filmmaker (and black film-goer) dreams remain deferred. So here are 10 more black directors (presented without ranking, because all 10 are doing compelling work) you should watch—and by “watch” I mean follow on Twitter, support, contribute to, and more—in 2016. (On another note, I’ll add that there is clearly a problem in Hollywood when Googling “black women directors 2016” yields meager results for feature films that are being released this year. Let’s work on fixing that, altogether now.)

1. Dawn Porter


You know you’ve made a powerful documentary when police are hired to stand guard outside of screenings, and bags are checked for weapons at the door. It’s not a pretty image, especially coming out of the Sundance Film Festival—a certain emblem of artistic freedom and expression—but it’s the reality of Dawn Porter’s Trapped. A pro-abortion documentary premiering during a time when violent attacks on abortion clinics have become one of the many terrifying American norms, is exactly what the film world needs right now, and we need women like Porter to make them happen. Porter has said that she knew she needed to make this film after reading an article that stated there was only one abortion clinic in the entire state of Mississippi. And for Porter, the biggest stories about abortion clinics are not the acts of violent, domestic terrorism, but the legal actions that are being taken to calculatingly regulate abortion clinics in the deep South. Porter has stressed that this is not just a film about abortions, but a film about class and power in America. The filmmaker, who previously directed Gideon’s Army and Spies of Mississippi, is dedicated to exposing the structures that exist within the American justice system for no other reason than to strip marginalized citizens of their rights. Let’s hope that her work gets some much-deserved attention so that she can continue to de-marginalize these stories.

Follow Porter on Twitter. Follow news about Trappedhere.

2. Matthew A. Cherry


Partly inspired by last year’s much-beloved Tangerine, Matthew Cherry’s sophomore directorial effort, Nine Rides, is the first feature-length film shot on the iPhone 6s. Cherry, as both writer and director, will always have a rare perspective, as a former NFL player interested in the dynamics of race and class, particularly in terms of how they play out among people of color. Nine Rides only recently released a teaser trailer, and we don’t know much about the story, but it centers around a single night in the life of an Uber cab driver (played by Dorian Missick), whose world is about to change. Recently named as one of six directors with the chops to take on a Creed sequel in place of Ryan Coogler, Cherry has some big expectations to live up to. But something tells me that the footballer, turned production assistant, turned director can handle the pressure.

Follow Cherry on Twitter. Follow news about Nine Rideshere.

3. Andrew Dosunmu


You’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, or a movie by its trailer, but Andrew Dosunmu creates the kinds of visually compelling works that inspire you to break this rule. The acclaimed filmmaker and photographer was celebrated for his 2013 Nigerian drama, Mother of George, (as well as for his debut, Restless City), and had his first solo NYC exhibit in 2014, “Andrew Dosunmu: Elsewhere – 10 years of photography.” This year, he’s teaming back up with past collaborator and Sundance Award-winning cinematographer Bradford Young to bring us the highly anticipated Beat-up Little Seagull, starring Babs Olusanmokun, Michelle Pfeiffer and Kiefer Sutherland.

4. Rita Coburn Whack


Whack’s Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise (co-directed by Bob Hercules) recently premiered at Sundance, and is the first feature documentary to tell the powerful story of a black woman poet, activist and survivor who transformed the culture. But you should also commit Whack’s name to memory for this excellent quote she gave to Indiewire about the realities of being a black woman director:

“Racism and sexism still exist in this medium and in our culture. If you understand that premise, you will be misunderstood often. The misconception is that since you have completed a project, you can take a deep breath and be content. This is not a medium of contentment. It is a medium of constant variables and a need to continue to work across all media. As black women or as women of any descent, if we do not continue to tell our own stories, many of the stories told will misrepresent the larger culture.”

Whack is also an award-winning author and Emmy-winning producer, whose career began in broadcasting. Supporting her work means supporting the work of future renaissance women like her, and—although we’re taking this moment to highlight directors—it’s becoming abundantly clear that this industry needs more women of color “across all media,” making decisions about the future of entertainment.

Follow news about Maya Angelou: And Still I Risehere.

5. Maïmouna Doucouré


Another artist making waves at Sundance is French-Senegalese director and screenwriter Maïmouna Doucouré, who was just awarded the Short Film Jury Award for International Fiction for Maman(s). Doucouré’s film is an exploration of polygamous culture and practices, through the eyes of a child. For the director, the story is both personal and political, as it is partly inspired by her own experiences as a child of polygamy. Although she went to university to study biology, she eventually answered the call to filmmaking that had been tugging at her since she was young, and has spoken fondly about watching movies like Scarface, The Godfather and Boyz N the Hood with her brothers. Doucouré has also critiqued the French film world and its problematic relationship with black actors—something she plans to challenge with her work: “In films, black people still play the roles of nannies, maids… And outside of cinema, they are still doing advertisements for condoms, AIDS.” Like so many African-American directors, Doucouré hopes to take black French citizens beyond stereotypes, and we have every reason to be excited about the complex stories she’ll be bringing to film.

6. Tahir Jetter

Photo Credit: Laurent B. Chevalier

Back in 2014, I highlighted Shaka King for taking the black romantic comedy into strange and exciting places with his indie darling, Newlyweeds. Black rom-com features are few and far between right now, and, aside from a lot of made-for-TV, or straight-to-Netflix fare, there just aren’t a lot of options. Tahir Jetter is receiving high praise for his film, also a Sundance premiere, How to Tell You’re a Douchebag, which picks up where classics like Love Jones and Brown Sugar left off. Jetter is also, according to some critics, redefining explorations of romance and race for audiences today, as his film follows a young, misogynistic writer who falls for a journalist. Jetter has described his work as a projection of his own tendencies to overlook black, male privilege, as well as a a reflection of frustrations and insecurities surrounding a particular failed relationship. How to Tell You’re a Douchebag is the director’s first feature film, but it’s clear that the NYU Tisch alum has a whole world of stories waiting to make it to the screen.

Follow Jetter on Twitter. Follow news about How To Tellhere.

7. Chanelle Aponte Pearson


The winner of the IFP 2015 Gotham Awards Spotlight on Women Directors, visual artist and filmmaker Chanelle Pearson is being recognized for bringing a queer, Brooklyn love story to light, with 195 Lewis. The film first began as a web series of the same name (brilliantly described as “the story of four fierce women navigating the pussies, potlucks and parties of New York’s queerest borough, Brooklyn”) and then, with the help of co-writers Terence Nance, Rae Leone Allen and Yaani Supreme, the project morphed into a film about a couple who decide to try an open relationship, and the community that surrounds them. 195 Lewis will make its premiere at the International Film Festival Rotterdam, and will hopefully be the first of many more feature projects from Pearson.

8. Don Cheadle


Every once in a while, a beloved actor decides to step behind the camera and tell the story he’s been wanting to see. It worked for Denzel Washington’s criminally underrated directorial debut, Antwone Fisher (and his follow-up, The Great Debaters), and I believe it’s going to work for Don Cheadle’s Miles Ahead. Described by some as an anti-biopic, Cheadle’s uncommon approach to the true story of one of the legendary musician’s darkest hours, will, at the least, inspire a conversation about the countless other black artists (musicians and otherwise) still awaiting long-overdue big-screen features. Unfortunately, as Cheadle himself has pointed out, the funding for such projects tends to be nonexistent, until a white actor (like Ewan McGregor for Miles Ahead) is involved. Whatever the response to his film, that Cheadle even conceived of this anti-biopic approach for a character like Miles Davis is proof that his talent and his voice are desperately needed in cinema.

Follow Cheadle on Twitter. Follow news about Miles Aheadhere.

9. Stella Meghie


The Toronto-born filmmaker is the winner of Showtime’s Tony Cox Award in Screenwriting, and we’ll soon get to see her script as the feature film, Jean of the Joneses. Meghie’s comedy centers on the dysfunctional women who make up a well-to-do Jamaican-American family. Taylour Paige plays the lead (25-year-old Jean), who does everything she can to break the familiar mold of the Joneses while uncovering deep secrets about the family. Meghie has said that the loud, female voices she grew up with inspired the script, but that the screenplay really began to take shape when she “loosened up” on some of her personal connections and “allowed the story to grow into something bigger.” Jean of the Joneses recently started filming and may not premiere until the end of the year, but Meghie’s career is one to start following now.

Follow Meghie on Twitter.

10. Nate Parker


Here’s the thing about watching as one of your favorite, low-key, brilliant actors suddenly make a record-breaking film and begin the very short walk to mainstream madness: it’s amazing. When I first thought about writing this list again, I wanted Parker’s name to be one of the first ones that readers saw, and I planned to write about how underrated he is as a talent. No one talks enough about his performances in Beyond the Lights, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Red Hook Summer, or the previously mentioned Great Debaters (or the award-winning short film, LU). Up until a few days ago, when The Birth of a Nation sold to Fox for $17.5 million, he was my Nate Parker. Now I’m both elated and, okay, a bit disappointed to be sharing him with the rest of the world. Speaking of the world, it is my opinion that it will absolutely change when The Birth of a Nation hits theaters, particularly the world of cinema. The film’s title speaks to Parker’s desire to draw a line from one of the first American films ever made to 2016 America, where a black-led uprising is still one of the most feared—and perhaps powerful—notions in our society. As a result of his recent success, Parker is now the most obvious name on this list. But he’s still a first-time director, and although I considered leaving him off to make space for another, lesser-known filmmaker, it’s still early enough that I can champion him for just a while longer before it becomes redundant (but still well-deserved) praise.

Follow Parker on Twitter. Follow news about The Birth of a Nation here.

Shannon M. Houston is Assistant TV Editor & a film critic at Paste, and a writer for Salon and Heart&Soul. This New York-based freelancer probably has more babies than you, but that’s okay; you can still be friends. She welcomes almost all follows on Twitter.


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