Shattered glass ceilings throughout Hollywood are allowing opportunities for promising Black filmmakers. Billion-dollar box office blockbusters like Black Panther incentivize studios to collaborate with African American directors to capture a unique vision that can inform and entertain a mainstream audience.
The quest for success for Black directors has been a lengthy pursuit. Oscar Micheaux was the first major Black filmmaker and set a blueprint for African American directors to gain notoriety through niche films. Building on his legacy, novice Black creatives have broke ground with high-grossing directorial debuts that resonated with mainstream movie-going audiences.
F. Gary Gray
F. Gary Gray initially flew under the radar while lending his eye to directing music videos. The Hollywood prospect aimed to transition to feature films by directing a short film. Gray’s plan was interrupted when Ice Cube penned a script for a buddy stoner comedy, Friday, and recruited Gray to direct. Following the commercial success of his first film, Gray directed many tentpole films, including the 21st highest-grossing movie of all-time The Fate of the Furious.
With South Los Angeles roots, Gray connected with the script and the cast. The young director had also worked with Ice Cube on several music videos, so they had established rapport. After Friday‘s release, Gray’s directorial inauguration was commenced with a #2 opening at the box office and brought in $27.4 million worldwide by the end of its theatrical run.
The Hughes Brothers
Two heads are better than one regarding the career path of the twin directing duo Albert and Allen Hughes. The siblings dropped out of high school to pursue careers in directing, and at the age of twenty, the Hughes Brothers directed their first film, Menace II Society.
The tag team helped lay the foundation for the Hood film genre popularized in the ’90s with their directorial debut Menace II Society. With the tagline “this is the truth, this is what’s real,” the twins were selling authenticity, and the audiences wanted in. Raking in $30 million, their debut was one of the three films directed by African American filmmakers to finish in the top sixty highest-grossing films of 1993.
The stand-up comedian and SNL alum have crafted a well-rounded career for himself. Chris Rock hoists three Grammy Awards for his comedy albums and four Primetime Emmy Awards. The renaissance man had always tackled different challenges, so it was no surprise when he accepted the challenge of directing his first film Head of State. The comedy is about an underdog selected by the Democratic Party to become the first Black president.
The idea for Head of State was sparked when Rock reviewed the 1984 democratic ticket with Walter Mondale and Geraldine A. Ferraro. Rock eyed the starring role and elected himself to direct the film—Chris Rock’s first attempt at directing garnered $38.6 million at the box office. The experience has prompted him to take on more directing responsibilities with feature films, television, and music videos.
Antoine Fuqua was affirmed by legendary film director and producer Jerry Bruckheimer. Bruckheimer handpicked the newcomer to direct the”Gangster’s Paradise” music video to promote Bruckheimer’s film Dangerous Minds. Eight years and forty-one music videos later, Fuqua started his feature film journey with The Replacement Killers, a story about a hitman being hunted by contract killers.
Sony’s concern with Fuqua’s lack of experience in feature films was softened by the director’s unique vision. Fuqua envisioned The Replacement Killers as a modernized Taxi Driver, and the studio and actors supported his take. The movie opened the second place to Titanicopening weekend and took in $39.5 million worldwide during its theatrical run.
Darren Grant has 80 music videos under his belt for artists such as Beyoncé, Jay-Z, and Aaliyah. After the rise in popularity of the stageplays by Tyler Perry, Grant was granted the opportunity to direct the adaptation of the first installment in the Madea franchise Diary of a Mad Black Woman.
Serving as the writer and producer and playing three different characters in the film, Perry wore many hats in Diary of a Mad Black Woman, but this is the only film Perry does not direct in the Madea franchise. Grant got the ball rolling with the series, and his directorial debut was commemorated with a number-one ranking at the box office opening weekend. The movie was later capped at $50.7 million worldwide.
While contemplating a major at USC, John Singleton paused at the fork in the road that split computer science and film. The future filmmaker veered towards a career in filmmaking and sold his first script to Columbia Pictures upon graduation. The script for Boyz N The Hoods borrowed elements from John Singleton’s childhood, and he was adamant that he direct the motion picture.
The 24-year-old Singleton got off to a hot start with his debut and became the first African American and the youngest director ever to receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Director. Boyz N The Hood was a commercial success and finished in the top 20 highest-grossing films of 1991 with $57 million.
Tyler Perry cut his teeth as a playwright, and after gaining a massive following, Perry parlayed his popularity into a seven-picture deal with Lions Gate Entertainment. Perry is hands-on with his properties and typically acts, writes, and produces his feature films. Madea’s Family Reunion was Perry’s first attempt in the director’s seat.
Bringing in $63.4 million at the box office, Madea’s Family Reunion was one of the highest wide-release openings for an independent film at the time. The sequel finished the year in the top 40 highest-grossing films of 2006 despite only being shown in 2,194 theaters.
In 1993, Forest Whitaker directed an HBO drama, Strapped, and received Best New Director honors at the Toronto Film Festival. Following the success of the television crime drama film, Whitaker was the unanimous decision for a director for Waiting To Exhale by the movie’s producers and writers.
With Whitaker at the helm, the new director guided Waiting to Exhale to a number-one boxing office ranking opening weekend. The 26th highest-grossing film of 1995 brought in a total of $82 million during its theatrical run.
A box-office superstar of the ’80s and ’90s, Eddie Murphy, attempted to sidestep stardom for the challenge of directing. “I just wanted to direct, just to see if I could do it. And I found out that I can’t and won’t do it anymore,” Murphy said, reflecting on his directorial debut, Harlem Nights.
Gifted with the Midas touch, Eddie Murphy’s Harlem Nights was was the recipient of $95 million at the box office. Murphy admitted quickly throwing a script together, hoping to direct his idol, Richard Pryor. Pryor had been secretly battling multiple sclerosis during filming, and his aloofness is one of the reasons Murphy’s first opportunity at directing “wasn’t a pleasurable experience.”
It was a head-scratcher when Jordan Peele announced his pivot from sketch comedy to directing horror. Since then, Peele has gone on to forge a footprint in the horror genre, and his first film, Get Out, is regarded as one of the best debuts by a director to date.
Peele won an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay with Get Out. Along with being showered with critical acclaim, his debut eclipsed the record for the highest-grossing original debut of all time amassing $255 million.
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