It’s a bit of a shame that practically every new director of color whose film has some purpose beyond pure entertainment inevitably gets compared to Spike Lee. One the one hand, it speaks volumes about Lee’s work and his longevity as a director (it’s been 25 years since Do The RIght Thing), but it’s also problematic and disappointing to see that if you’re a black director and you make a good film set in Brooklyn (like Shaka King), you’re dubbed the new Spike Lee. And if you’re a black director and you make a good film with a message about police brutality (like Ryan Coogler), you’re dubbed the new Spike Lee. If you’re a black director and you invoke the spirit of Spike Lee ironically or otherwise (like Justin Simien), you’re, obviously, the new Spike Lee! Sadly, if you’re a black director there’s a good chance that someone is going to either align your work with or against Spike Lee’s.
Even this list, in an attempt to highlight just a few of the exciting projects from many up-and-coming black directors (and a few who have seen some box office success), finds itself inadvertently paying homage to the great Lee. We do this not because we think the new Spike Lee is on this list, but in hopes of changing the dialogue about black filmmakers in general. In 2014, it would be nice to stop looking for the next black director who will stand out in a sea of stories excluding the black experience. And if the success of movies like The Butler and 12 Years A Slave are proof of a growing excitement for more narratives about the black American experience, then we have much to look forward to from these ten directors.
1. Ryan Coogler
A small but powerful indie film came along last year and had everyone buzzing about Ryan Coogler. Fruitvale Station told the story of Oscar Grant (played by Michael B. Jordan) and went on to win the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. Fruitvale also won Prize of the Future at the Cannes Film Festival. For some critics, Coogler’s debut was not without its problems, but he told a story that desperately needed its space on screen, and there’s plenty to look forward to from his upcoming projects. He’s teaming up with Jordan again for Creed, which also stars Sylvester Stallone as Rocky Balboa. (Jordan will play the grandson of Apollo Creed.) The idea for this spinoff of sorts was inspired by a childhood spent watching Rocky movies with his father. Coogler hopes to bring back much of the excitement from the first Rocky films, even as he creates a new storyline that will depart from the original.
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2. Shaka King
With last year’s Newlyweeds, Shaka King redefined the stoner comedy, which was exciting for a lot of us who didn’t even know that the stoner comedy needed redefining. Although some critics missed out on much of the film’s unique humor (which we might attribute to some very specific Brooklyn/hip-hop/artsy/stoner vibes), many of us spent the entire film laugh-crying as Lyle (Amari Cheatom) and Nina (Trae Harris) got high, fought, loved, and made vague plans to travel to the Galápagos Islands. King was also recognized for his work by the Film Independent Spirit Awards with the Someone to Watch award. A Brooklyn native, King has started penning his next project and plans to begin filming by the year’s end. Liquid Courage will tell the story of a former child star trying to resurrect his career.
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3. Nailah Jefferson
Jefferson’s directorial debut, Vanishing Pearls: Oystermen of Point à la Hache, premiered at the Slamdance Film Festival this year and told the story of the crippling effects the 2010 BP Oil Spill on bayou communities in Louisiana. The powerful documentary drew on scientific, social and personal testimonies to reveal the blatant classism and racism that led to the devastation in Point à la Hache and other fishing towns. The film plays like an Erin Brockovich story, with insurance lawyers and BP representatives using power, finance and influence to wreak just as much havoc on individuals as the oil spill did on sea life in the Gulf. Jefferson names Ken Burns, Nora Ephron and Errol Morris as some of her biggest influences. She will likely spend much of the year promoting and screening her David & Goliath story, which officially hits theaters in April. Jefferson is currently writing her first narrative short, A Reasonable Deception and also working on a series of short films, titled Dying is the Easy Part.
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4. David L. Johnson
A Howard University and American Film Institute graduate, Johnson has a busy and exciting year ahead of him, producing for Al Jazeera America and working on multiple independent projects. He’ll be executive-producing the web series version of his short film Good Together, and his controversial comedy web series (set on a slave plantation and originally developed long before Django Unchained) will also return with its second season this year. Always looking to spark dialogue with his creative work, Johnson also has plans to shoot a short film called WHITEFACE, which he describes as “the story of a black entertainer in the ’20s who decides to take his career into his own hands by publicly humiliating his white boss.”
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5. Yoruba Richen
Richen’s 2013 documentary, The New Black, boldly goes where many of us have been afraid to go in discourse about the fight for gay rights in America. Richen’s film exposes and explores the relationship between black America and homosexuality, specifically gay marriage as it is understood (and perhaps misunderstood) by the black church. Richen provocatively asks whether or not gay is the new black, but has openly stated that she does not see the gay rights movement as the new black civil rights movement. A Harlem native and Guggenheim fellow, Richen has an extensive background in documentary filmmaking. (Her previous film was Promised Land, a PBS doc that received much acclaim.) Of her many goals, the writer/director/activist hopes to open up dialogue between the black and gay communities and give voice to those who are members of both.
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6. Tim Story
The music video director-turned-filmmaker seems to have found the key to box office success, with films like Think Like a Man and Ride Along making a big impression on audiences and critics alike. This year marks the highly-anticipated release of Think Like a Man Too, starring Kevin Hart, Michael Ealy, Regina Hall and Gabrielle Union. Some might accuse Story of being formulaic, and he certainly stands apart from some of the other directors on this list, but his ability to both entertain and engage cannot be denied.
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7. Angel Kristi Williams
The Baltimore native who now resides in Los Angeles recently got some buzz for her Seed & Spark fundraising campaign for a new coming-of-age drama, Charlotte. The project, which explores the complexities of friendship and budding curiosities between two young girls in Baltimore, represents the final stage of Williams’s MFA Screen Directing project for Columbia College Chicago. Her previous short film, The Christmas Tree is still making its way around the festival circuit.
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8. Bille Woodruff
Whether we’re willing to publicly admit it or not, many of us were reading Zane’s Sex Chronicles back in the day, long before E L James came along and made mommy porn socially acceptable. This year, Bille Woodruff will be bringing the erotic series to the big screen with Addicted. Woodruff has also been working on the television series, The Game, and seeing as how he has a penchant for classic guilty pleasures—he directed one of the Bring It On movies, after all—we’re expecting fun things with Addicted and in his upcoming projects.
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9. Amma Asante
The self-proclaimed “director in high heels” will bring a fascinating true story to the big screen later this year with her second feature film, Belle, starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Emily Watson. Set in the 18th century, the British drama is inspired by the life of Dido Elizabeth Belle, the illegitimate mixed-race daughter of a Royal Navy admiral. Asante also recently landed her first big Hollywood feature and is set to direct a Fatal Attraction-type thriller called Unforgettable.
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10. Justin Simien
The director of Dear White People has spent much of the past few years generating buzz around an idea that he first tried out as a Twitter feed. @DearWhitePeople is now the acclaimed Dear White People the movie, having won the Special Jury Prize for Breakthrough Talent at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. Simien has been speaking out about his film and defending the project, which has been met with criticism, often in reaction to the title alone. But the story is one to which many can relate (and one that Simien writes from experience), as it centers on a group of black students and their experiences with identity at a predominantly white Ivy league school. Here’s hoping that Simien can spend the rest of the year promoting, rather than defending, this satirical piece that should probably be required viewing on college campuses everywhere.
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Shannon M. Houston is a New York-based freelance writer, regular contributor to Paste, and occasional contributor to the human race via little squishy babies. You can follow her on Twitter.