Film and activism are almost synonymous to each other, they have allowed black voices to be heard in such powerful ways that has changed the trajectory of how people of color are seen in society. This month we want to highlight amazing black film activists that have inspired change through their work. Not only have they put a spotlight on black life and culture but they have shifted the mindsets and perspectives of how black people are represented in media. On top of creating a video on our top four black film activists but we have a list of honorable mentions below.
Oscar Micheux is considered to be the first black feature filmmaker. Starting in 1916 he wrote, produced, and directed over 44 race, silent, and sound films. Micheux was the first director to release a feature film with a full black cast in 1919, called The Homesteader. Micheux’s film were controversial with topics such as lynching, job discrimination, rape, mob violence, and economic exploitation were depicted in his films, even abortion.
Gordon Parks is a renowned photographer and film director, he was truly a renaissance man also known for being a music composer, poet, and author. He was a photographer for Life magazine from the late 1940s to late 1960s capturing the black ghettos of America. Parks is considered the co-founder of black exploitation after he became the first black mainstream film director with the movie Shaft. This film helped create new opportunities for black actors after Hollywood saw what a black action hero could look like.
Stanley Nelson is an award winning documentary filmmaker. He has a long list of films some include Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool (2019), Freedom Riders (2010), winner of three Primetime Emmy Awards, Freedom Summer (2014), earning a Peabody Award, and The Murder of Emmett Till (2003). Two of Nelson’s most recent films, Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities (2018) which chronicled the 150-year history and impact of HBCUs, and The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution (2016), the first comprehensive feature-length documentary portrait of that iconic organization, broke audience records for African American viewership on the PBS series Independent Lens.
Dawn Porter is another award winning documentary filmmaker, producer, and writer. Her work has aired on networks like OWN, HBO, PBS, Discovery Channel, and The New Yorker magazine. Porter’s other films include Spies of Mississippi (2014), and Rise: The Promise of My Brother’s Keeper, a documentary film chronicling President Obama’s program to help young men and boys of color succeed. Her most recent projects include Netflix’s Bobby for President along with John Lewis: Good Trouble, chronicling the 60-plus years career of social activism and legislative action on civil rights, voting rights, gun control, health-care reform and immigration work of the civil rights leader and politician.
Melvin Van Peebles – Known for his film Sweet Sweetback’s Badass Song, Van Peebles not only directed, scripted, and edited the film, but wrote the score and directed the marketing campaign. Bill Cosby helped fund the project with a $50k investment. Sweet Sweetback’s Badass Song was an X-rated indie action thriller about a male prostitute taking on corrupt and racist cops. The film later became acclaimed by the Black Panthers for its political resonance with the black struggle. The film also coined Van Peebles as the founder of blackplotation movies with its release in 1971.
He also co-directed, acted, and produced Gang in Blue (1995), a film about a police officer that finds out a white supremacist group is within his department and they are trying to set him up for a crime to get rid of him.
Ava Duvernay is an award winning director, producer and writer. Selma is probably Duvernay’s first activist film, about Martin Luther King Jr. and the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. This march helped lead to the passing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Moving from scripted film Duvernay released Netflix’s 13th about the history of incarceration and the workings of the industrial prison complex in America. Her most prolific work is probably Netflix’s When They See Us, a four part series on the trial and wrongful incarceration of five teenage black boys, the “central park five”, in Manhattan.
Spike Lee is a bold, unapologetic director, producer, and writer. One of his first “film activist” films, Do The Right Thing (1989), has been considered one of his greatest films. Centered around racial tensions in Brooklyn on the hottest day of the summer where things eventually escalate to a head by the end of the movie. Almost thirty years later, Lee’s unapologetically black and political award winning film, Blakkklansman (2018), is based on real life events about the first black detective to serve in the Colorado Springs Police Department, as he plots to infiltrate and expose the Ku Klux Klan with the help of colleague Flip Zimmerman in the early 1970s. Lee has a long list of work that showcases the black experience, the good, the bad and the ugly, he is not one to shy away from being authentic, raw, and controversial.
Raoul Peck is the director of I Am Not Your Negro, the Oscar nominated documentary about the unfinished work of James Baldwin. Remember This House, was Baldwin’s unfinished 30-page manuscripts about Baldwins’s deep thoughts on the lives and murders of Medgar Evans, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr.
Marlon Riggs was a poet, professor, filmmaker, and gay rights activists. He produced, wrote, and directed several documentaries that examined the past and present representations of racism and sexuality. His film Tongues United was an experimental documentary that highlighted the struggles of black, gay men in America. Some of his other works include Ethnic Notions, Color Adjustment, and Black Is…Black Ain’t, currently held at Stanford University Libraries within The Marlon Riggs Collection.
The list is endless but feel free to research and look into some more notable film activists, here is a list!
Mario Van Peebles