The Stories We Tell
The 28 days of February are reserved in the United States to celebrate some of our nation’s greatest sources of pride. We unite over game day snacks while watching the Super Bowl and celebrate George Washington’s birthday with a three day weekend. But for the 43 million American citizens of black descent, February signifies something far more personal - the national recognition of our greatest historical achievements, a month of black praise.
The arrival of Black History Month typically comes with the inspiring stories of Dr. Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Malcolm X - the established leaders of our Civil Rights Movement. The lesser known accounts of black achievement in STEM, politics, and the arts are often relegated to BHM-themed trivia listicles scattered throughout the web.
So here’s our trivia prompt of the day: Name the six black directors that made films in 2017.
Go on, really think this one through.
If your response was F. Gary Gray, Jordan Peele, Malcolm D. Lee, Tyler Perry, Benny Boom, and Stella Meghie then you are correct. However, the prize goes to those who share my bewilderment that there were only six black directors with films on the big screen last year. Six. That translates to just 5.5% of all Hollywood directors working in 2017, a three-year low. There were more black directors working in 2007 than today, a signal that black advancement in cinema has quite a ways to go.
Still, our future is bright. We’re just five weeks into 2018 and records are already being set in the realm of black moviemaking. After shattering the all-time record for ticket presales, Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther has become the most anticipated superhero film ever made. With the creation of A Wrinkle in Time, Ava Duvernay has also broken down boundaries as the first black woman to ever direct a film budgeted over $100 million. And we’re just getting started. One look at this year’s slate of upcoming theatrical releases reveals that 2018 is well on its way to becoming this decade’s most bustling year of black cinema.
2018 Film Releases by Black Directors
Film - Director - Release Date
- Black Panther - Ryan Coogler - Feb 16
- A Wrinkle in Time - Ava Duvernay - Mar 9
- Acrimony - Tyler Perry - Mar 30
- Traffik - Deon Taylor - Apr 27
- Slender Man - Sylvain White - May 18
- Uncle Drew - Charles Stone III - Jun 29
- The Equalizer 2 - Antoine Fuqua - Aug 3
- White Boy Rick - Yann Demange - Aug 17
- Alpha - Albert Hughes - Sep 14
- Night School - Malcolm D. Lee - Sep 28
- Widows - Steve McQueen - Nov 16
- Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse - Peter Ramsey (one of three directors) - Dec 14
- A Madea Family Funeral - Tyler Perry - Expected Fall 2018
- If Beale Street Could Talk - Barry Jenkins - Expected 2018
- Black Klansman - Spike Lee (and produced by Jordan Peele) - Expected 2018
At first glance, the presence of fifteen Hollywood-made films directed by black filmmakers looks like progress, the signaling of a much needed sea change in the industry.
However, the data indicates a more complex story.
Of the fourteen unique individuals reflected in 2018’s upcoming films made by black directors, only one (Ava Duvernay) is a woman. Not a single film is made by a first-time black director, despite the fact that Hollywood studios have already backed the debuts of seven white directors. It should come as no surprise that black directors have a hard time getting hired for studio films. They must have a proven audience and evidence of a growing body of work to be considered for the role.
Just three of this year’s black directors (Ava Duvernay, Ryan Coogler, and Barry Jenkins) started their feature film career within the last decade, suggesting that Hollywood is hesitant to take chances on new black directing talent. Instead, the industry looks to make safer bets. The 2018 cohort of black directors is the resulting effect - they have a combined portfolio of 121 feature films made over the last 41 years. Among them are some of the most accomplished filmmakers in American cinematic history - Spike Lee (Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X), Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, Olympus Has Fallen), and Albert Hughes (Menace II Society).
Without a doubt, this year’s lineup of black directors reflects progress. But the true breakthrough lies within the stories that these filmmakers have chosen to explore, and the protagonists that they have deemed worthy of being leading men and women. 87% of the 2018 black film lineup feature black actors in principal roles, a reality that means viewers will get to enjoy a wide array of stories about the black experience. The movies span all genres, with horror/thriller films and action films leading the pack. Collectively, these two categories comprise 60% of this year’s films made by black directors. Horror and action are two modes of sensational escapism. Respectively, they transport viewers into the most euphoric and tormented worlds.
Perhaps the genre trend indicates a newfound freedom of expression, a period in which black filmmakers can move beyond historical slave narratives and civil rights biopics. Those stories are important, no doubt. They are integral to the preservation of our past, and critical to the understanding of our present. Nonetheless, I am glad to see a year of exploratory storytelling. 2018 should be celebrated as a milestone chapter of black history, a time when filmmakers can create worlds where black characters can be superheroes, space travelers, basketball champions, vigilantes, and detectives.