10 Promising Young Black Directors Who Are Going to Be Huge

Black leaders in the film industry have continuously broken barriers with their films in order to pave the way for upcoming voices, and many do so by forming their own production companies. Case in point—Oscar Micheaux, noted as America’s first Black filmmaker, was the only man of color to ever produce a feature-length film in 1919. Micheaux, regarded as the most successful African-American filmmaker during the first half of the 20th century, worked as a film director and independent producer on more than 44 existing projects. He produced both silent and sound pieces throughout his career, creating opportunities for hundreds of artists along the way.

Spike Lee transformed the industry in ’86 with his directorial debut, the acclaimed romantic comedy film She’s Gotta Have It, centering on sexuality in the Black community; the main character, Nola Darling (Tracy Camilla Johns), explores sexual relationships with three different men. Although deemed as controversial by some, many critics looked at the film as inspiring, telling the story of a woman of color who is sexually liberated in a time period that didn’t follow the same sentiment.

Similar forms of criticism have been made when analyzing Tyler Perry, for example. Many criticize his depiction of Black women and men on screen due to the heightened level of trauma and pain his Black characters typically endure before arriving at a place of contentment by the film’s end. Although unsettling, it’s important to see these aspects of life reflected within Perry’s works. In life, if we truly strive to achieve something beyond our current circumstances, we will 99.9% endure forms of trauma; it just is what it is. Perry certainly doesn’t illustrate those struggles perfectly in every single film, but he does show the difficulties that life can bring forth before welcoming growth and success. Like Spike Lee, Perry created his own production company, and the two Black filmmakers have incorporated countless new voices into their work.

The inclusion of POC (people of color) both on and behind the screen is essential due to the fact that it reflects diversity. Representation in media and its various art forms allows viewers (especially the younger generation) to see people who look like them mirrored within the content they consume. There was once a time when the voices of Black directors were pushed out by mainstream media, but an emergence of Black-owned distribution companies (like Spike Lee’s 40 Acres and a Mule, Tyler Perry Studios, Ice Cube and Matt Alvarez’s CubeVision, and Oprah’s Harpo Productions) began to rise, evoking a “for us by us” mentality. Let’s look at ten promising Black film directors who are taking Hollywood by storm while incorporating an accurate portrayal of diverse representation on screen.

Update March 23, 2024: If you are eager to learn more about young Black voices in cinema, this article has been updated by Samuel Cormier with even more great filmmakers, including a recent Academy Award winner.

Kay Oyegun

Talented writer, producer, and director Kay Oyegun is a proud Nigerian-American woman. She has a bachelor’s degree in Journalism from the University of Pittsburgh and an MFA in Producing from USC. In January 2021, she made her official directorial debut, directing the “Birth Mother” episode for the ABC series This is Us, leading to her direction of several additional episodes of the hit series. Beforehand, she also wrote for OWN’s drama series Queen Sugar, produced by Ava DuVernay (who directed the groundbreaking Selma and 13th) and Oprah Winfrey as an executive producer.

What Makes Them Great

Kay is all about breaking barriers for the next generation of women of color. Despite very little industry experience and not a drop of nepotism, she has managed to land amazingly big projects helmed by other powerful black women. Even though she is still at the very beginning of her career, Paramount recently purchased the rights to distribute Oyegun’s script for Assisted Living into a feature-length film, and rapper Cardi B is set to debut as the leading actress in the comedy.

Savanah Leaf

Savanah Leaf‘s directorial debut, Earth Mama, opened in theaters in 2023, first premiering at the Sundance Film Festival before opening in theaters in the summer of that year. MovieWeb gave the film a positive review and highlighted Leaf’s directorial efforts. Her music video for Gary Clark Jr.’s single This Land was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Music Video; at just 30 years old, she had already made an impression, and it appears she is just getting started.

What Make Them Great

Leaf has one of the most fascinating careers. British-born Her mother, Alison Leaf, is an animator and set-dressing artist who has worked at Pixar and Industrial Light and Magic, but that did not inspire her to go to films originally. She graduated with a degree in psychology from the University of Miami and was an athlete. She was a professional volleyball player and competed for Great Britain at the 2012 Summer Olympics at the age of 19. While she has no projects lined up, it seems almost certain that she is a rising star and will become one of the next great voices in film.

Nia DaCosta

Regarded as the first African-American woman to have a film debut at number one upon opening weekend, Nia DaCosta has already directed some serious gems, including Little Woods and Candyman (2021), not to mention The Marvels. DaCosta’s crime drama Little Woodsdetails the story of two sisters driven to extreme circumstances when their mother suddenly dies, leaving them with one week to pay back her mortgage. Little Woods was awarded the Nora Ephron Prize for Female Filmmakers at the Tribeca Film Festival.

What Makes Them Great

DaCosta has an interesting background, as her mother originally immigrated to America from her home country of Jamaica as the leader of hip-hop girl band Worl-A-Girl. Raised in Brooklyn and receiving her degree in London, she cites Scorsese (whom she had the chance to meet while being a television production assistant) and Heart of Darkness and its inspired film Apocalypse Now by Francis Ford Coppola as her primary inspirations. Her second big project, the supernatural slasher remake Candyman, unpacks issues tied to racial injustice, gentrification, and disregard towards Black people. It was profound seeing DaCosta and fellow writer Jordan Peele bring to the forefront Black trauma in America and the generational traditions of exploiting Black beings through horrific murders, lynch mobs, and other atrocities. Many sadly tried to spin The Marvels box office disappointment on her, which is a shame because DaCosta’s style was one of the most praised elements of the movie. Despite the box office failings of that film, she still has plenty of exciting projects on the horizon, and this will likely be a minor footnote in her career.

Related: Here’s Why Candyman is the Most Underrated Horror Franchise

Stefon Bristol

Stefon Bristol created his own path through unapologetically being himself. His time-travel themed 17-minute student thesis, See You Yesterday, follows a group of teenage science prodigies turned superheroes who spend excessive amounts of time working on a homemade invention: backpacks enabling time travel. After screening at a total of 35 film festivals, premiering at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival, the short film was picked up by Netflix & HBO, generating a multitude of successful reviews and subsequently a full-length adaptation directed by Bristol.

What Makes Them Great

The Brooklyn-born filmmaker graduated from Morehouse College & New York University’s Graduate Film program, Tisch School of the Arts. While studying at NYU, he worked under mentor Spike Lee, who has assisted Bristol with most of his projects, including producing the feature-length version of See You Yesterday. Bristol’s upcoming projects include the adventure-themed film produced by Netflix, Gordon of Hemingway & The Realm of Cthulhu (although, since being announced in early 2021, there is a chance that this project may unfortunately never see the light of day); in addition to the fantasy-catastrophe thriller Breathe by Thunder Road Films, set to star Sam Worthington, Jennifer Hudson, Milla Jovovich, Quvenzhané Wallis, and Common.

Blitz Bazawule

Blitz Bazawule is a future household name that is most definitely worth keeping on your radar. Bazawule wrote and directed his first feature film, The Burial of Kojo, in 2018, which tells the story of Kojo, a man who is left to die in an abandoned gold mine by his brother. Through visions, Kojo’s young daughter Esi goes on a spiritual quest to save him. The story is conveyed delightfully, depicting the connection between a Black father and his daughter. Most recently, Bazawule directed the musical dramedy remake of the revolutionary 1985 film The Color Purple.

What Makes Them Great

Hip-hop musician, filmmaker, novelist, and visual artist, Ghanaian native Bazawule has it all. In fact, he went on to work with Queen Beyoncé herself, co-directing Beyoncé’s Black Is King, the 2020 visual album for Disney+. In production for over a year, the film was recorded across six countries and on three continents. Black Is King celebrates diversity and heritage, taking pride in the identity of Blackness. The experimentation with music, dance movements, colors within costumes, and regal set designs were all implemented to showcase the richness of cultures throughout the continent of Africa.

Related: Best Beyoncé Movies, Ranked

J.D. Dillard

J.D. Dillard is perhaps best known for his 2022 biographical war film Devotion, which tells the friendship of naval officers Jesse L. Brown and Tom Hudner during the Korean War, a Black man and a White man, respectively. Despite not making much of a splash at the box office, critics rated the film favorably. In addition to Devotion, Dillard also wrote and directed the 2016 crime drama Sleight for world-famous horror production company Blumhouse and the 2019 survival-horror film Sweetheart. 2019 was a particularly successful year for Dillard, as he also sold his story Mastering Your Past (purchased by Legendary Entertainment), wrote a promising supernatural film titled Stray, and directed an episode of Two Sentence Horror Stories. He went on to direct several other episodes of famous series in the following years, including The Outsider, The Twilight Zone, and Utopia.

What Makes Them Great

J. D. Dillard’s first big project was a 2013 trailer for electronic duo Empire of the Sun’s album Ice on the Dune. But his later 2022 feature is no surprise, as he himself was born to a naval officer father. As far as recent projects go, even though it was reported in 2020 that Dillard would helm a new Star Wars project (after a cameo in the ninth installment of the series), the current news is that he is no longer attached to such a project. When questioned on the film’s status, he simply replied it was no longer coming to fruition, “although not for a lack of trying.” Another project announced that has not yet been updated (or canceled, either) is a remake of David Cronenberg’s The Fly.

Radha Blank

Having been a rapper since she was a child, Radha Blank wouldn’t see recognition for her art until she was in her forties. This prompted her to create her semi-autobiographical 2020 film The-Forty-Year-Old Version, which chronicles a struggling playwright as she navigates New York’s art scene. A story about self-discovery, Version was acclaimed by critics and audiences for its sincere depiction of dealing with a midlife crisis, adapting to the challenges of middle age, and not allowing one’s past failures to define their present. At the Sundance Festival, the film won the U.S. Dramatic Competition Directing Award, making her the second black woman to do so after Ava DuVerney and her 2012 film Middle of Nowhere.

What Makes Them Great

New York’s own Radha Blank is living proof age is nothing but a number, and she likes to tell Black stories that celebrate Black history and culture rather than exploit it. After refusing to focus her films on Black pain at the behest of White investors, Blank reinvented herself as a rapper and told her life story on her terms. Interestingly, The-Forty-Year-Old Version was shot in black-and-white, potentially as a representation of how she views race. Before cinema, she wrote a number of plays and got to bring some of them to life. With no new projects on Blank’s itinerary as of yet, here’s to hoping the filmmaker’s next project is as captivating as The-Forty-Year-Old Version. Based on her Instagram handle, she is a Transformers fan. Who knows where the industry might take her?

Cord Jefferson

Cord Jefferson is best known for his 2023 film American Fiction. Based on the 2001 novel Erasure by Percival Everett, this deep dark comedy tells the story of a professor who writes painfully obviously “black” books, and is frustrated by critics taking him seriously rather than understanding the satire behind his work. The film received positive reviews and grossed over twice its supposed budget at $22.9 million. It was named one of the top 10 films of 2023 by the American Film Institute. Jefferson himself won Best Adapted Screenplay for his work on American Fiction, solidifying him as one of the most exciting new voices working today.

What Makes Them Great

Jefferson was born to a white mother and a black father, and his maternal grandmother greatly resented her daughter for this choice. Such an extreme reaction in the late 1980s surely influenced Jefferson in his vision of race and society in his formative years. American Fiction is quite clearly pursuance of Jefferson’s own understanding of Black culture, literature, and filmography in mainstream media, resulting in a bold first project. Before his directing debut, Jefferson worked as a journalist and then contributed to quite a few high-end projects as a writer, producer, or editor, such as Master of None, The Good Place, or Watchmen. Jefferson’s acceptance speech at the 96th Academy Awards was a call for studios to take more risks on smaller films like American Fiction and many of the movies that the filmmakers on this list have made. Jefferson said:

“I understand that this is a risk-averse industry, I get it but $200 million movies are also a risk. And it doesn’t always work out, but you take the risk anyway. Instead of making one $200 million movie, try making 20 $10 million movies. Or 50 $4 million movies.”

Related: The Importance of Black Joy in Film, Explained

A. V. Rockwell

In 2023, A. V. Rockwell made her directorial debut with A Thousand and One, a drama where a New Yorker single mother decides to kidnap her son who is in foster care. The bittersweet film highlights the personal and systemic difficulties that a single black mother may encounter in America. The film was shot (with some hardships) during the pandemic, but this was not felt in the final product, as the project received quite a few accolades from several film festivals, including a Grand Jury Prize at Sundance.

What Makes Them Great

Rockwell is a first-generation immigrant born to Jamaican parents. She studied filmmaking at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, including some time in France. Besides her feature film debut, Rockwell found recognition with her short film Feathers, which debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival. She also shot a black-and-white series called Open City Mixtape and worked with Alicia Keys on her short film The Gospel for Keys‘ sixth studio album. She said that she has been inspired by a few other Black Filmmakers, such as Spike Lee, but also Martin Scorsese (not unlike Nia DaCosta). Unfortunately, she currently does not have any announced projects, but when she does, it should be on everyone’s radar because A Thousand and One was one of the most underrated movies of 2023.

Raine Allen-Miller

Although she has been putting out content since 2014, Raine Allen-Miller only showed up on mainstream media with her 2023 feature RyeLane, a dramatic comedy where two recent singles tell each other about their past relationships. Not unlike other creators on this list, Allen-Miller’s Rye Lane debuted at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. The interesting factor, however, is that the film was picked up and released by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.

What Makes Them Great

Allen-Miller is a British filmmaker whose upbringing was largely influenced by her Londoner setting and her grandmother’s Jamaican references. In fact, she considers that London is the third main character to the duo who helms RyeLane. After working in advertising, her first short film, Jerk (2018), dealt with a lesser-known part of her culture and history: the “Windrush Generation”, inhabitants from British islands who were offered to come to the UK after the labor shortage caused by WWII. Style-wise, Allen-Miller pays especially close attention to set design; inspired by old fashion designer, she tries to use sets to tell a part of the story.


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