BHMEM. That’s Black History Month Every Month to you!  Surely, you may be reading this after Black/Afrikan American His/Herstory Month has come to a close in February—the shortest month of the year. (Particularly sans Leap Year.)  None-the-less, we at Picktainment are still “reeling” from the afterglow of the 83rd Academy Awards, and, well, I just thought I’d add a splash of color, or Film Noir, to our palette au cinema.

11. Prince

This ain’t no typo.  You read correctly: Number Eleven is Prince.  No.  This is NOT simply because my life has been forever changed since: The Day I Had My First PRINCEXPERIENCE. (OK, yes, seeing the artist formerly known as “The Artist Formerly Known as Prince” Live & in Concert at the Oracle Arena in Oakland, CA last Thursday, February 24th, 2011 has made me see through Purple-colored lenses.)  Leave it to the artist who lived his life for years as a Sym†bø∫ to be #11 on a Top 10 List.

Why Prince?  Have you seen the film Purple Rain? (No. Seriously. Have you? Because if you haven’t, you must.)  No.  Prince did not direct this 1984 flick, Albert Magnoli did. (Wait, hear me out!)  Prince did however, compose the masterpiece of a soundtrack Purple Rain, which won the last Academy Award ever given for Best Original Song Score, with Number 1 chart-topping hits such as “Let’s Go Crazy”, “When Doves Cry”, and of course “Purple Rain”.  And “The Kid”, as he’s known in Purple Rain, did write, direct and star in the 1990 sequel Graffiti Bridge. Even better, His Purpleness also directed the Pop Culture—and Cult—Classic films, Under the Cherry Moon (1986) and Sign o’ the Times (1987). Yes!

Charles Burnett

10. Charles Burnett

While you may not have heard of this artist, described by the New York Times as, “the nation’s least-known great filmmaker and most gifted black director”, UCLA Film School Alumni Charles Burnett has certainly made waves as both an “indie” and mainstream filmmaker.  Burnett’s first full-length feature film was Killer of Sheep (1977).  Other works include: The Glass Shield (1994), starring Rapper/Actor Ice Cube, and the TV Movie Oprah Winfrey Presents: The Wedding, starring Academy Award winner—and Sista—Halle Berry.  (Much more about Ms. Berry, Race and The Oscars right here.)

9. Denzel Washington

Primarily known for his outstanding work as an actor, the fine and foxy Denzel Washington has garnered 5 Academy Award Nominations thus far—the most of any Afrikan American actor, tied only with Morgan Freeman—and is a two-time Oscar winner for his smooth moves in front of the camera.  What you may not know is that Mr. Washington also “performs” behind the camera, particularly while holding it, as Film Director.  In 2002, Washington made his directorial debut, and co-starred in the acclaimed drama, Antwone Fisher, based on a true story, and the best-selling book Finding Fish.  For his second film, he directed and starred in The Great Debaters (2007), telling the riveting story of the real debate team of the Historically Black Wiley College.  The Great Debaters also starred Actor/Director, and Oscar winner, Forest Whitaker, making it the first film to feature two Academy Award Winning Black Actors at once!

8. Antoine Fuqua

Speaking of behind the camera, this is the man who directed Training Day, the gritty flick that earned Denzel Washington his Academy Award for Best Lead Actor in 2001.  This is actually news to me—that Training Day’s Director is Black—and, in light of the fact that I was none too pleased that (my beloved) Mr. Washington received his Oscar for playing a low-down, dirty, grimy, crooked cop, I now feel much better about supporting this action-packed, blockbuster movie.  Though Training Day was not his premiere film, it has helped Antoine Fuqua, who directed Bait (2000), starring Academy Award Winner Jaime Foxx, direct bigger budget films such as King Arthur (2004), Shooter (2007), and Brooklyn’s Finest (2009).

Julie Dash

7. Julie Dash

The first female to represent on this list, Julie Dash is officially the first African American Woman to direct and release a full-length motion picture with “general theatrical release in the US”. This milestone was achieved with Daughters of the Dust in 1991, shedding light on the story of three Generations of Gullah women in South Carolina. Wait, 1991?!?!  Yes.  1991, just 20 years ago, was a HUGE first for Sistas—and everyone—in film.  Ms. Dash has also directed a number of TV Movies including SUBWAYStories: Tales from the Underground (1997), and the Rosa Parks Story (2002), showcasing the talented—and buffed—Academy Award Nominee Angela Bassett.

6. Melvin & Mario Van Peebles

Papa Melvin Van Peebles, and his son Mario Van Peebles are a badass family act of Actors and Directors!  Melvin, who’s also a novelist, screenwriter, playwright, painter, and former San Francisco Cable Car driver, is best known for Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, which he starred in and composed the scored for, circa 1971. This movie, with such an “outta sight” title, opened the doors for Blacksploitation (or Blaxspolitation) Films—kickin’ em down with a platform heel!   Other films with tight titles and heavy themes directed by Melvin include: Watermelon Man (1970), Classified X (1998), and Confessionsofa Ex-Doofus-ItchyFooted Mutha (2008). A “Chip” off the old “Block” (Mario’s and Melvin’s nicknames respectively), Mario Van Peebles is a talented sight for soar eyes, primarily know as an actor.  Still, he’s made a name for himself with dramatic features such as New Jack City (1991), Posse (1993), Panther (1995), and BAADASSSSS! (2003), in which Mario pays homage to—and actually plays—his pop, going into the mind of his dad’s Cult Classic, and Sweet film.

 

Darnell Martin

5. Darnell Martin

With a name like Darnell Martin, it’s awfully easy to neglect, or not even realize, the fact that this Black Director is all woman!  Newsflash to me, she directed one of my all-time favorite flicks I Like It Like That in 1994 about a passionate and chaotic Puerto Rican family trying to stay together with “No Drama” in NYC’s South Bronx.  Martin was also behind the camera with: Prison Song (2001) starring Queen of Hip Hop Soul, and 9-time Grammy Award Winner, Mary J. Blige; 2005 TV Movie Their Eyes Were Watching God with Halle Berry in the lead role; and Cadillac Records (2008), another fabulous film where Beyoncé Knowles actually plays Etta James, of “At Last” fame.

Albert and Allen Hughes

4. The Hughes Brothers

Twin Brothers Allen and Albert Hughes hit hard, and I mean hard, in 1993 with their breakout drama Menace II Society, including Larenz Tate (I used to love him!) as the heartless gansta O-Dog, and Academy Award Nominee Samuel L. Jackson.  The Hughes Brothers, who began directing together at age 12, recast Larenz Tate as the lead in 2005’s Dead Presidents, where a Vietnam Vet turns to a life of crime to support his family.  Other gripping “Tales from the Hughes” include From Hell (2001), starring 3-time Academy Award Nominee Johnny Depp as a detective in Victorian Era London investigating the murders of Jack the Ripper, and 2010’s The Book of Eli about life after the apocalypse, with Denzel Washington as the last man standing with a sacred book of secrets to save humankind.  (I mean if I had to pick the last man left standing on earth….)

3. John Singleton

First of all, let me start off by proclaiming John Singleton as the first Black Film Director ever to be nominated for a Best Director Academy Award for his superb shaping of the 1991 classic film Boyz n the Hood. Singleton was just 23 years old, becoming the youngest Director ever to be nominated.  In this powerful story of three friends growing up in the inner-city of LA, Tre Styles, played by a young Cuba Gooding Jr., who won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor five years later (Jerry MaGuire, 1996) and Ice Cube as “Doughboy” or Darren, the more thuggish sibling of Morris Chestnut’s wholesome, high school football playing character Ricky Baker.  If you manage to watch this film without at least getting misty eyed, then perhaps you’ve been watching one too many “Tales from the Hughes”… Singleton has also directed poignant and powerful films as Poetic Justice (1993) featuring Janet Jackson—with her infamous “Dookie Braids”—and the late, great Rapper/Poet/Actor Tupac Shakur, Higher Learning (1995), and 2003’s 2 Fast 2 Furious (Hey, we all make mistakes.)

2. Tyler Perry

Diary of a Mad Black Woman. Medea’s Family Reunion. Why Did I Get Married?  The Family That Preys.  I Can Do Bad All By Myself.  Medea Goes to Jail.  Why Did I Get Married Too? No.  These are not journal entries, rhetorical questions, or catchy bumper stickers.  Rather, these are just a smattering of works from Playwright/Actor/Producer/ Director Tyler Perry.  Standing next in line to Gayle King as the BFF of Academy Award Nominated Actress Oprah Winfrey (The Color Purple, 1985), this Black Film Director’s story is one deeper than mere “rags to riches”.  Perry’s life began humbly in New Orleans, where he was severely abused physically, emotionally, and sexually.  At about age 21, he moved to Atlanta, the Black Capital of the USA, finding himself through his writing, and finally “making it” in 1998 after six long years of being destitute, repeatedly homeless, and rejected, with his first play I Know I’ve Been Changed.  Surely, swiftly, Tyler Perry has become an icon, ranked by Forbes magazine as “the sixth highest-paid man in Hollywood”.  This is not to say he hasn’t had his share of criticism on the way to the top.  My Number One Black Film Director, who never sugar coats anything, has pointedly referred to Perry’s work as “coonery” and “buffoonery”, reminiscent of the “Blackface” and “Amos ‘n’ Andy” films that dehumanized Afrikan Americans during the Jim Crow Era.  Perry’s response: 2010’s For Colored Girls.  America’s response: silence.

And now, the moment you’ve been waiting for: The Number One Black Film Director is:

1. Spike Lee

Dear 4 Little Girls,

It’s the Summer of Sam, with Jungle Fever on the horizon, so Get on the Bus to Crooklyn, down the path to Mo’ Better Blues an brighter School Daze.  While it’s true Malcolm X got Bamboozled, his demise had little to do with Clockers; rather, his untimely-end was at the hands of an Inside Man. That was When the Leaves Broke, and everyone began to Freak. It was then that I realized: He Got Game, even though he got played.  Just remember: She’s Gotta Have It, even though She Hate Me.

Sincerely,

Girl 6

If this “letter” made little or no sense to you, rest assured: 1) It’s not supposed to, necessarily, and 2) It was a clever way for me to highlight 17 (Yes, 17.) of the more than 35 films produced by legendary—and infamous—Black Film Director Spike Lee, through his production company, 40 Acres & A Mule Filmworks, since 1983.  Nominated for two Academy Awards (Best Original Screenplay, Do the Right Thing, 1989 and Best Feature Documentary, 4 Little Girls, 1997), this radically risqué, racially and socio-politically charged Black Filmmaker is not one for small talk, small thoughts, small themes, small acting roles, or smiles for that matter.  No matter, Spike Lee seeks to shake our emotional core through his craft, “by any means necessary”.  In Lee’s epic film Malcolm X (1992), Denzel Washington utters this famous phrase in his Oscar-nodded depiction of the Black Leader with the same “slave name”.  Heavy.  I know.  Love him or hate him, Spike Lee has succeeded in film by doing more than just “the right thing”.

So, did I leave out an unsung hero of Black Film Directors?  Which Black Film Director should’ve made the Top 10 List?