Directors of color have long been underrepresented in Hollywood, affecting which movies get made and whose stories get told. Fortunately, those who find success often wield it to pave the way for other directors of color to follow in their footsteps. Through their unforgettable art and innovations in film, these 10 directors stand among the most influential big-screen talents in movie history.
Before he started making films, Oscar Micheaux worked as a Pullman porter and wrote books about homesteading in South Dakota. His first movie, The Homesteader (1919), was based on one of his books.
At a time when film studios weren't hiring Black directors, and Black performers were cast as servants and other marginal figures, Micheaux's movies showed Black characters with agency. His realistic portrayals of contemporary Black life at the time tackled topics including lynching, job discrimination and mob violence.
Micheaux’s films also confronted racial stereotypes in the industry. His second silent film, Within Our Gates (1920), offered a rebuttal to the racist stereotypes seen in films such as the white supremacist epic Birth of a Nation (1915), which depicts Black men and women as lazy, morally degenerate and dangerous.
Micheaux didn't have the resources to create flawless productions. But Black audiences embraced films that didn't insult them, helping Micheaux survive the industry’s evolution from silent films to talkies (movies with a soundtrack). He directed, produced and distributed more than 40 films between 1919 and 1948 and was the first Black director to have one of his films screened at a white movie theater.
Directors including Spike Lee, John Singleton and Melvin Van Peebles have credited Micheaux as one of their greatest influences and a pioneer of the industry.
Gordon Parks had a successful career as a photographer, photojournalist and writer before heading to Hollywood. There, he wasn't welcomed with open arms. Parks wanted to direct a film adaptation of his autobiographical novel The Learning Tree (1963), but it took the help of actor-director John Cassavetes for Parks to even get a studio interview.
In 1968, Parks signed a contract to direct The Learning Tree. This made him the first Black auteur signed to direct a studio film and helped forge a path for future Black filmmakers, such as F. Gary Gray (The Italian Job, Be Cool) and Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, King Arthur), to direct both studio assignments and passion projects like The Learning Tree.
Parks wrote, produced and composed for the film, which was released the following year. He also ensured Black crew members were hired for the production.
Parks’ film Shaft (1971), about a streetwise Black private investigator, gave Black men a protagonist they could relate to. "It was such a visionary thing to see this Black detective kicking ass,” said director-producer Spike Lee. “An African American directed this film, that was huge.”
Shaft was a huge success and one of the founding films in a new genre of cinema—Blaxploitation, the wave of independent, low-budget films produced throughout the ‘70s, mostly by Black creators. Blaxploitation films covered a wide range of genres, from crime to horror to comedy, giving Black actors, producers and audiences a niche within the industry to call their own.
Spike Lee stands as one of Hollywood’s most decorated directors. His first feature, She's Gotta Have It (1986), about the love life of a Black woman in Brooklyn, introduced him as a new force in cinema who wanted to focus on Black lives. He followed up with School Daze (1988), about the ups and downs of life at an all-Black college. Lee’s iconic Do the Right Thing (1989), which examined the buildup to a race riot, was inspired by the 1986 death of a Black man who was chased and attacked by a white mob. And in 1992, his biopic of civil rights leader Malcolm X was hailed as another tour de force.
Lee has worked to shape the future of the movie industry by hiring many graduates of historically Black colleges and universities to work on his films and by becoming the artistic director of New York University's graduate film program. He received overdue industry recognition when he won the Academy Award for best adapted screenplay for BlacKkKlansman (2018).
Female directors of color, in particular, have faced an uphill battle to get their projects greenlit in Hollywood. In Mira Nair's first feature film, Salaam Bombay! (1988), she turned to documentary filmmaking techniques to make a movie about a preteen surviving in the slums of Mumbai, India. Despite initial difficulty finding an Indian distributor, the film earned an Oscar nomination for best foreign language film.
After that film’s success, Nair wanted to direct a love story featuring an Indian woman from Uganda and an African American man, but the project hit snags along the way, including an executive wanting the film to feature a white protagonist. Nair countered that the film's waiters could be white. In the end, she was able to make Mississippi Masala (1991).
Since then, Nair has made a variety of movies. "Right from the beginning, I've always gone to stories when I feel that I can tell them in a special way, that they're mine, that they won’t let me go," she said of her choice of projects.
Nair’s style of filmmaking imbues familiar western storylines with eastern sensibilities—both on screen and on set. Her cast and crew are said to do an hour or more of yoga before shooting every day whenever possible, which she said “irons us out, and creates this atmosphere of calm and focus. There are no tantrums on my sets, no raised voices.”
John Singleton grew up in South Central Los Angeles, where he could see a drive-in theater from his mother's apartment, and watched B movies out the window, without the sound. Later, while in film school at the University of Southern California, he wrote—in just three and a half weeks—a script about the struggles and gang violence that were part of life in his neighborhood growing up.
Columbia Pictures wanted to make Singleton's movie but didn't want him to direct. Determined to maintain control of the deeply personal story, he reportedly turned down a $100,000 offer not to direct. The resulting film, Boyz n the Hood (1991) received a 20-minute standing ovation at Cannes Film Festival and earned Singleton Oscar nominations for best screenplay and best director. At 24, Singleton was the youngest-ever best director nominee and the first Black nominee in that category. The first film featuring an all-Black cast to be produced by a major studio, Boyz was inducted into the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress in 2001.
Singleton went on to make films including the Shaft remake, 2 Fast 2 Furious and Hustle & Flow. Many featured renowned Black artists and figures, including Tupac Shakur, Janet Jackson, Ice Cube, Maya Angelou, Regina King and André 3000. Singleton wanted to pave the way for Black creatives wherever possible—or, as he put it, “I want to do for the movie business what Jay-Z did in the music business,” he told The Los Angeles Times in 2006. Until his death at the age of 51 in 2019, Singleton consistently advocated for more diversity in the film industry.
Ang Lee was born in Taiwan and graduated from NYU's film school in 1984. For the rest of the decade, he tried, and failed, to pitch Hollywood his ideas. His breakthrough moment came when two scripts he entered in a Taiwanese screenplay contest received first and second place and resulted in his first two movies getting made.
Lee showcased generational conflict in Chinese families in Tui Shou (Pushing Hands, 1992), Hsi Yen (The Wedding Banquet, 1993) and Yinshi nan nu (Eat Drink Man Woman, 1994). The success of these films led to the opportunity to direct Sense and Sensibility (1995), based on the Jane Austen novel. Though Lee had limited English at the time, later saying, "I could only communicate in short sentences," the film was a box-office hit and received seven Academy Award nominations.
Since then, Lee has continued to demonstrate his range, shifting from intimate dramas to blockbusters and back again, with films such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), Life of Pi (2012) and Brokeback Mountain (2005). The latter film earned him an Oscar for best director.
New Zealand director Taika Waititi hails from a mixed heritage: His father was Māori—the indigenous Polynesian people of mainland New Zealand—and his mother was of predominantly Russian Jewish descent. Waititi’s films draw on his Indigenous heritage, using humor to address uncomfortable topics and, at times, the reality of his upbringing. One of his early full-length films, Boy (2010), an unsentimental view of Māori life, became an immediate hit in New Zealand and the country’s highest-grossing locally produced film.
The success of Boy and other movies led to Waititi being chosen to direct Thor: Ragnarok (2017), making him the first Indigenous person to direct a Marvel superhero blockbuster; he used his position to hire other Indigenous people for the film. Starring Cate Blanchett, Jeff Goldblum and featuring Waititi himself, the film broke from typical superhero fare, showcasing Waititi’s humor and versatility. It did so well that he was asked to direct its sequel Thor: Love and Thunder slated for summer 2022.
Waititi received the Academy Award for best adapted screenplay for his daring Jojo Rabbit in 2019, a movie about a boy whose eyes are opened to the realities of life in Hitler's Germany.
Ava DuVernay didn't have the money to attend film school, so she became a film marketer. The job let her learn about film production, so when she picked up a camera at the age of 32, she was ready. In 2010, she invested her own money in her first feature, I Will Follow, while also launching Array, a film collective that assists female filmmakers and filmmakers of color with distribution.
DuVernay's Middle of Nowhere, about a Black woman's struggles with having an incarcerated boyfriend, landed her the dramatic directing prize at the Sundance Film Festival in 2012. However, this success didn't lead to other jobs. David Oyelowo, who appeared in Middle of Nowhere, had to push for DuVernay to direct Selma (2014), about Martin Luther King Jr. and the historic civil rights march. The film’s success opened doors for DuVernay, who used the opportunity to make the Oscar-nominated documentary 13th (2016), an unflinching look at mass incarceration. Her 2018 A Wrinkle in Time, which featured a diverse cast, made her the first woman of color to direct a live-action movie with a budget of more than $100 million.
After Chloé Zhao's apartment was burglarized, with losses that included hard drives with early footage intended for her first film, she started over instead of giving up. The resulting Songs My Brothers Taught Me (2015), whose protagonist debates whether to leave the reservation where he grew up, was applauded for adding new life to Westerns while capturing amazing performances from untrained actors. This became a recurring theme in Zhao’s films: letting everyday people play a role in their own story.
After Songs My Brothers Taught Me went to Sundance and Cannes, Zhao arranged for the cast members to receive a share of profits the movie generated. The film didn’t make enough for them to receive anything, but she continued the practice of giving first-time, untrained actors a stake in her projects. “Most nonprofessional actors aren’t going to go on to be actors. Their career isn’t going to be benefiting from this,” she told Vulture. “You sleep better if you give them support that way.”
For her critically acclaimed Nomadland (2020), about a retirement-age nomad who moves from job to job to survive, Zhao cast actual traveling workers. With Zhao directing, writing, producing and editing the film, it doubled as an exploration of the lower working class while drawing attention to a lack of support for older workers.
Nomadland made Zhao the first woman of color to win the Academy Award for best director, and the second woman ever to triumph in that category. She was tapped to direct Marvel’s Eternals in 2018, which featured the first sex scene and first gay kiss in a Marvel movie.
Though he first gained popularity as half of the comedy duo Key & Peele, Jordan Peele said making movies was always his first interest. With his script for Get Out (2017), Peele combined his comedic talent and interests in horror to deliver a film that’s equal parts suspense thriller and commentary on how racism still runs through American society.
Later, Peele said he was skeptical that Hollywood would let him make a film that balanced humor with such a divisive, politicized topic. Despite his concerns, the movie reached a broad audience and made more than $250 million worldwide. Get Out was not only a refreshing addition to the horror genre, playing on tropes including abduction and psychological terror, but added a palpable layer of fear known first-hand to Black audiences who experience micro-aggressions and the fear of being attacked by police on a regular basis.
Peele became the first African American to win an Oscar for best original screenplay for Get Out. The movie's success resulted in multiple studio offers, but Peele wanted to tell his own stories. With Us (2019), a horror film told from the point of view of a Black family who meets their doppelganger, Peele continued to expand his horror portfolio while putting his stamp on the genre.