The past few years have been referred to as somewhat of a renaissance for Black storytelling, specifically Black cinema. The artistic vision from the likes of Berry Jenkins, Ava DuVernay, Jordan Peele, Dee Rees, and Ryan Coogler, to name a few, have captivated the minds and hearts of audiences worldwide. Building on the cinematic traditions and art forms from legendary Black directors like Julie Dash, Spike Lee, Kasi Lemmons, and John Singleton. These filmmakers of the Black cinematic renaissance of recent have laid new ground for fresh voices and visions from another crop of talented Black directors.
These up-and-coming directors are multi-faceted in skill, diverse in upbringing, and were introduced to the craft of filmmaking in a variety of ways. One commonality they share is the desire and need to tell the stories of Black people that add humanity and nuance, whether that be through political or social commentary, generational observations, or familial explorations.
These filmmakers to watch are sure to provide thought-provoking and entertaining cinema for years to come. Here are eight up-and-coming Black directors that should be on your radar.
Cameron J. Ross
Filmmaker Inspirations: Donald Glover, Lena Waithe, Issa Rae, Martin Scorsese, Theodore Witcher
Favorite TV Shows/ Movies Right Now: Atlanta, Lovecraft Country
Best Advice Received as a Filmmaker: “Always protect the vision. Stay true to it and remain clear.”
Cameron J. Ross started out as a professional actor on the stage with dreams to become a Broadway star. It wasn’t until an audition that he considered becoming a writer.
“I was auditioning for [a] Law & Order role of Thug two, and I remember complaining to my friend, asking why are we forced to audition for stupid shit like this?” Ross said. “I’m not Thug two at all!”
His friend suggested instead of complaining, he should create the types of roles he wanted for himself. At the time, Ross was touring, part of the play Dream Girls. But he decided to quit and pursue writing full time. He started working in production as a digital content producer at Viacom for BET and Centric.
Ross made his directorial debut with his short film They Come. They Go starring Broderick Hunter. The idea for the short was inspired by Ross’ observation on the evolution of relationships within his generation. “We meet someone, we fall in love with them, and literally the next week we can be over them,” Ross said. “It all happens so quickly — like two freight trains passing.”
Watching Joe Talbot’s 2019 film Last Black Man In San Francisco inspired Ross to direct the short himself. It was a scary endeavor to approach, but it was also exciting for him to protect the vision of the film.
Around the same time that Ross worked on They Come. They Go, he was asked by his friend and director Dime Davis — executive producer and showrunner of BET’s Boomerang at the time — to attend a table read for some of the show’s episodes. He originally thought he was simply there to read as a favor. But Davis ended up offering him the role of Dre.
“It was a crazy time. They Come. They Go premiered on Amazon two weeks before Boomerang premiered on BET,” Ross said.
Since then Ross has served as the assistant director for The Fresh Prince Reunion on HBO Max and recently completed the writers’ room for Netflix’s Gentefied where he was also offered a role for the show.
Filmmaker Inspirations: Kasi Lemmons, Julie Dash, Malcolm D. Lee, Gina Prince-Bythewood, Ann Fletcher
Favorite TV Shows/ Movies Right Now: Miss Juneteenth, One Night in Miami, David Makes Man, Queen Sugar, Judas and the Black Messiah
Best Advice Received as a Filmmaker: “Breathe life into your characters and then let them live and breathe on their own.”
As the eldest of seven grandchildren, Shayla Racquel was instilled with a sense of responsibility at a young age.
“I was always directing my cousins and family members for plays,” Racquel said. “Writing things for my family and having cousins act it out. Or I would film music videos with them. Then in high school, I wrote a play and had the opportunity to direct it.”
It wasn’t until college that Racquel realized her interest in directing was a career path she could pursue. While attending Florida A&M University, Racquel was known as the person with a camera. She would shoot videos for organizations on campuses and local businesses to make extra money. She went on to study film in graduate school at American University and took advantage of The Consortium Program for students in the DMV to take film courses at Howard University. There, Racquel learned the histories, methods, and skills of Black filmmaking, including how to light Black skin.
It was in D.C that Racquel started her very first web series, Quarter Century.
“It came from a very dark place,” Racquel said. “I was not happy working in customer support in IT. I wasn’t doing what I promised myself I was going to do, which was be a filmmaker. I felt so stuck. So I just started writing.”
Racquel realized the feelings she was experiencing were similar to how many of her peers felt; they were going through a quarter-century crisis. Many of her friends encouraged her to create the series and helped her throughout the process. “We had no idea what we were doing, but knew the industry was not going to call our line,” Racquel said. “So we had to use YouTube as a space to tell the stories we wanted to tell.”
Following two seasons of Quarter Century, Racquel shot her first short film, Life’s Checklist. Her second film, Riverment, an exploration of generational struggles between a grandmother’s experiences during the Civil Rights Movement in the ‘60s and her granddaughter’s experiences during the Black Lives Matter Movement of today, won Racquel a student Emmy.
“I made that specifically as a conversation between us,” Racquel said. “Not to get white sympathy, but for two different generations within the Black community. It was also important for me to tell this story from a Black woman’s perspective because, historically, in these movements, Black women are overlooked.”
Currently, Racquel is executive producing a horror-comedy series, Robyn Hood, starring Gail Bean.
Christian Nolan Jones
Filmmaker Inspirations: Barry Jenkins, Terrence Malik, John Singleton
Favorite TV Shows/ Movies Right Now: Snowfall, Judas and the Black Messiah, Hale County This Morning, This Evening
Best Advice Received as a Filmmaker: “Listen to and trust your voice. Don’t be afraid of people not relating to or understanding your work.”
Filmmaking started out as a hobby for Christian Nolan Jones. The repeated action of making videos for people and friends helped Jones realize it was something he was good at and enjoyed doing.
“When you enjoy something you start studying the craft more. And I studied more and more and kept getting better,” Jones said. “The more I studied I realized how film incorporated so many art forms.”
For Jones, music is the most powerful art form. But film inspires people. It can influence mindsets, bring about change, give people therapy, and be hallmark moments for people and culture. Even as he deepened his understanding of filmmaking, when he attended Howard University, he decided to be a pre-med major.
“Doctors seemed like people who had money,” Jones said. “I felt like I was good with kids and thought I could be a pediatrician.”
On campus, he was known as the video guy, and after taking a couple of film classes he fully transitioned to filmmaking. At Howard, he learned what cinema could do, particularly after watching films like Lumumba — chronicling the life of Congolese politician Patrice Lumumba — and films by Senegalese film director Ousmane Sembène.
“Filmmaking can be political, it can be cultural, it can be something that speaks more to a person’s humanity,” Jones said.
After two years at Howard, Jones transferred to New York University, which was a huge cultural shift for him. He from an extremely Black environment — reminiscent of his upbringing in Atlanta — to being one of the only Black students in his film classes. It forced him to focus on why he was there — to make films.
His first short film, Discernment, which Jones says, “can’t be found anywhere on the Internet,” screened at the short film corner at Cannes Film Festival. It was there, at the festival waiting in line to see a film, he met the DP for his most recent short, Brown With Blue.
The short, which he co-wrote with Dominick A. Cormier, was a story inspired by a couple Jones saw while riding the train in New York. The film premiered at Atlanta Film Festival and screened on Issa Rae Presents Short Film Sundays.
Filmmaker Inspirations: Ava DuVernay, Barry Jenkins
Favorite TV Shows/ Movies Right Now: The White Tiger, Small Axe, The 40-Year-Old Version
Best Advice Received as a Filmmaker: “Learn in the doing. ”
Winter Dunn has always been intrigued by the arts. “I’ve always wanted to express myself,” Dunn said. “I think most of my life has been spent trying to figure out the best way to express myself, or the best vehicle for expressing myself.”
Dunn discovered production and directing during the web series boom in the mid-2010s. She knew that creating a web series was the best way to be introduced to the industry, and she directed two, Platonic and Broke & Sexy.
For Dunn, each project she worked on became a step for another project. She started working on projects from an independent web series production company co-founded by director Numa Perrier. Dunn worked closely with Perrier on several projects and ultimately produced Perrier’s feature directorial debut, Jezebel. The film premiered at SXSW, was acquired by Ava DuVernay’s Array Releasing, and is now streaming on Netflix.
Along with producing and directing digital content for Conde Nast titles such as Vogue, Vanity Fair, and GQ, Dunn also directed All Her with Angela Rye in partnership with Soul Pancake and Overbrook for Quibi.
For her first short film, Junebug, Dunn collaborated with playwright Nicky Davis. Dunn felt she was ready to make her debut film and establish her voice artistic vision in the industry.
“We wanted to explore relationships between Black fathers and daughters,” Dunn said. “We couldn’t think of many films that have this as the core relationship of the story.”
The film will stream worldwide on Tubi later this month.
Filmmaker Inspirations: Abbas Kiarostami, Kahlil Joseph, Garret Bradley, Arthur Jafa, Andrei Tarkovsky, Béla Tarr
Favorite TV Shows/ Movies Right Now: Time, Yu Yu Hakusho, Demon Slayer
Best Advice Received as a Filmmaker: “Tell the stories you want to see as opposed to what others want to see.”
For Jamil McGinnis, an interest in filmmaking spurred from the stories and photos his parents showed him as a child. He was always intrigued by the juxtaposition of the world of his father, who grew up in inner-city Cleveland, and the world of his mother, who was born in a rural town in Turkey and raised in Germany.
“I always wondered what the before and after stories were for the pictures they showed me,” McGinnis said.
Growing up in a household speaking three languages — English, German and Turkish — McGinnis realized imagery had a tendency to invoke language beyond words. As a photographer, his work focuses on the depiction of what Black life is in America. His collections of photography include Souls of Black Folks, Crown, Ishwa, and Gramercy.
His first short, Things I Carry Into The World, was a film built around a poem of the same name by Brooklyn-based poet Cynthia Manick for the non-profit Motion Poetry. His documentary short, Fall River, focused on the hometown of his directing partner Pat Heywood. In 2016, Fall River was named the 5th worst city to live in by 24/7 Wall St., which was a blow to Heywood because he’s so close to the city.
“He lost his mother at a very young age and connects to the area for his mom,” McGinnis said. “It’s where he finds peace. so to demonize his home was a lot.” Throughout filming, the directing pair found the story of the short in Heywood’s relationship with his grandmother, the woman who raised him, and ultimately captured the beauty in a town that was deemed so terrible.
McGinnis’ first narrative short, Gramercy, was inspired by the filmmaking approach of Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami. “He’s less interested in Western cinema, and truly examines the human condition through a hybrid of narrative and documentary filmmaking,” McGinnis said. “When you watch his films you find yourself [asking] ‘is this real?’”
With Gramercy, McGinnis was interested in exploring a Black man’s psyche through things like depression. He didn’t necessarily set out to make a mental health film, but explore how Black men express feelings. “I feel a lot of times we aren’t really given the space to do that because it can be looked at as a sign of weakness,” McGinnis said.
Filmmaker Inspirations: Barry Jenkins, Wes Anderson, Alfonso Cuaron, Nia DaCosta, Ousmane Sembene, Julie Dash
Favorite TV Shows/ Movies Right Now: Search Party, I May Destroy You, They Ready, The Good Lord Bird
Best Advice Received as a Filmmaker: “I don’t think I’ve ever asked for advice… I feel like I have all the inspiration I need inside of me.”
Nina Lee doesn’t attribute watching TV or movies as her inspiration for becoming a filmmaker. Instead, it was playing with her dolls.
“I was a big Barbie enthusiast,” Lee said. “I would make up elaborate stories in my head and act them out with my Barbies. As I got older I started writing the stories out and got a cam recorder to record my Barbies. Every year the productions kept getting bigger and better.”
Soon Lee graduated from her Barbies to casting her cousins and eventually evolved to her church’s Christmas play. In high school, she thought she wanted to do theatre because she didn’t believe there was a space for her in film. But theatre felt too constricting. Lee loved location changes and several characters, so she enrolled in her high school’s film program and made her first film.
When she attended Spelman College there wasn’t a film program. So Lee decided to study theatre again and take the one screenwriting class Spelman had to offer. While there, she tried to get film to have a larger presence on campus. In her last semester, she founded and produced Spelman’s first horror film festival. By her senior year, Spelman added a screenwriting minor.
Lee co-created, wrote, and acted in the web series Sorry About That, which premiered in April 2020. Co-creator Zae Jordan approached Lee to write on the show while both of them performed stand-up in Atlanta. The anthology show is about characters that get themselves into bad situations and, because they are shitty people, they make their situations worse.
Lee’s next project, Artistic, is her directorial debut. The short film is about a little girl with Down Syndrome who is looking for a friend and ends up finding one in her neighborhood drug dealer. Artistic is executive produced by Lena Waithe and Marshawn Lynch who also stars in the short. Lee wrote the script in 2016 but knew she wanted at least $25,000 to shoot it. After allegations that a series called Girls Room created by Waithe in partnership with Dove copied Lee’s show The Girls Room, Waithe felt bad about the situation and reached, asking how she could help.
“I told her about my script that I needed funded, Lee said. “She asked me if I could have anybody in it who would I want, and I love Marshawn, so she set up a phone call for us. He was like, ‘You’re dope as hell,’ and agreed to do it. He also wanted to be an EP, so it just all came together.”
Filmmaker Inspirations: Regina King, Issa Rae
Favorite TV Shows/ Movies Right Now: Insecure, Black Monday, WandaVision, Sex Education, Lovecraft Country, The Crown
Best Advice Received as a Filmmaker: “Trust your gut and follow your vision. ”
Yvonne Sewankambo’s path to filmmaking was a roundabout journey. A publicist by profession, she didn’t go to film school, but always was a creative person and soaked up as much film as possible.
“Growing up in Uganda, filmmaking isn’t really a career option,” Sewankambo said. “It’s either doctor, engineer, lawyer, pharmacist.”
A close friend of Sewankambo did end up attending film school and would send Sewankambo her scripts to read. The more she read, she realized she had all these ideas but never took the time to write them down. She knew she wanted to tell Ugandan and African stories that she rarely, if ever, saw on the big screen.
“Not every African story has to be traumatic,” Sewankambo said. “Not all of us have been in a war zone or gone through insanely traumatic things. I sit with my girlfriends and we talk about careers, sex, social media, and current events.”
One of the first short films that Sewankambo worked on was her friend’s film Family Tree, where she handled casting and publicity. The film’s subject matter attracted Sewankambo to the project, which focused on the taboo topic of children born from extra-marital affairs. “In Uganda, nobody really talks about children born outside of the traditional family structure, yet everyone knows it happens. It’s this secret that’s not really a secret.”
After taking time to write her own stories, she submitted two of her scripts to The Fivefor5 fund, which supported five Ugandan female filmmakers by providing $5,000 to create their short films. Her film Satisfaction was chosen as one of the finalists. The story is about a woman who has this post-sex experience and has to choose between finding her sexual voice or shielding the witness to this event. The inspiration for the story came to Sewankambo after a conversation with a close friend.
“She said she had never had an orgasm, and I thought that was odd considering she had been in a long-term relationship for the past five years,” Sewankambo said. “She wanted to marry the person, yet that had never come up. Through conversations with other women, I found that a woman’s pleasure is secondary or not considered. If he is satisfied, we are satisfied, and that just doesn’t sound right.”
When it came time to shoot, Sewankambo, who is based in Sydney, planned to travel to Uganda for production. But COVID-19 disrupted those plans, and she ultimately ended up directing her first short film virtually via FaceTime and WhatsApp. Although she would have loved to physically be on set, she credits her amazing team for the success of the shoot.
“I missed being in the room and feeling the energy on set,” Sewankambo said. “But directing sex scenes virtually is probably the funniest thing I’ve ever done.”
Filmmaker Inspirations: Ava DuVernay, Dime Davis, Lacey Duke, Sade Ndya
Favorite TV Shows/ Movies Right Now: Insecure, P-Valley, Pose, The White Tiger, Outer Banks
Best Advice Received as a Filmmaker: “Make movies with your friends and if they aren’t your friends make them your friends.”
From a little disposable point and shoot in elementary and middle school to a video recorder in high school, filmmaking just came to Cierra Glaude naturally. But it wasn’t until she enrolled in a video journalism class that she was convinced she could pursue filmmaking as a career.
“All I wanted to do was shoot,” Glaude said. “My video journalism teacher told me I could study film in college. As a queer, Black girl from the South, I thought I had to be a doctor or lawyer. I ain’t think people really made movies. I thought they magically appeared.”
After some convincing, Glaude ended up declaring film as her major in college, and after taking her first class she was on board. “I was like people get paid to do this shit? I was like bet, sign me up.”
During her studies, Glaude joined an organization on campus called Creative Campus. One month before Ava DuVernay was set to film in Alabama for Selma, Glaude’s film professor asked DuVernay to come and speak to her students.
“I was enamored with her and had a fact sheet about her,” Glaude said. “Basically by the end of the weekend, I told her I’m going to work on your movies so what I gotta do?”
She first worked as a production assistant for Queen Sugar, then a walkie PA for A Wrinkle In Time. She came back to Queen Sugar and followed up with a writer’s PA position on the third season of the show. In that position, Glaude contributed a lot to the scripts and admitted that sometimes DuVernay’s notes to writers would literally be, “Ask Cierra.”
Following her work on DuVernay’s projects, Glaude received the opportunity to shoot her own film, Spilt Milk, while participating in a mentorship program Lena Waithe partnered with AT&T on called Hello Lab. The program paired five directors and five writers and gave each $100,000 to create a 15-minute short film.
Spilt Milk, starring Dascha Polanco and Zuri Adele, is about two lovers that tried to conceive a child together. Glaude says the script resonated with her the most, and after directing the short she was excited to see YouTube comments from viewers who felt like the film reflected their own experiences.
“I always say I want my work to be a pathway and a mirror. I want you to be able to see yourself and I want you to be able to get somewhere.”
Glaude is gearing up to see her television directorial debut on season five of Queen Sugar, where she directed three episodes.
Morgan A. Grain is an LA-based writer and producer with southern Atlanta roots whose work focuses on Black women’s contribution to entertainment, media, visual arts, and culture. You can follow her @writtenbymag.
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