Now, more important than ever, it’s critical for Black creators—and the stories they tell—to be highlighted atop the lists of the critically-acclaimed.
Hollywood banks on Black originality at the box office, but perennially continues to sleep on today’s stars of tomorrow. For many veteran and up-and-coming superstars, the final straw has been broken. They are building their own production companies, directing their own stories, and cinema-lovers are standing up to advocate with their dollars and sense in the name of Black cinema. In addition to citizens stepping out onto the front lines to stand up for the lives of Atatiana Jefferson, Breonna Taylor, Sandra Bland, and far too many other victims of police brutality, films have become another way to focus the demands of widespread protesters and educate viewers about the art, impact, and originality that lies within the Black filmmaking community.
This year’s crop of filmmakers want all the smoke. They are bold, brilliant, funny, fierce, and ready to tell the stories that will define the next generation of classic films. In no ranking order, ESSENCE’s 15 Directors to Watch in 2021 don’t just represent this year, they’re a sign of where the future storytellers might be hiding. This crop of directors is rewriting the playbook and evolving how the world reacts to the new purveyors of the culture.
The Nicole Beharie-starring drama is currently in development for TV, but this auteur is not to be considered a one-trick whodini. Her unique brand of visual sophistication will next find audiences in awe of her talents very soon. Up first, she steps behind the lens for HBO’s Genera+ion, which stars Justice Smith and Nathanya Alexander, and centers on a group of high school students exploring their sexuality during the Insta-Age. She also has a short film called Doretha’s Blues which, led by Tonea Stewart (Just Mercy, Girls Trip), promises to keep Godfrey Peoples’ reputation for authentic storytelling in tact.
Starring Jonathan Majors (Lovecraft Country, Ant-Man & The Wasp: Quantumania) and Christina Jackson (Outsiders, Bull), the true tale follows a pair of U.S. Navy pilots who risk their lives during the Korean War and become some of the Navy’s most celebrated wingmen. If that doesn’t sound like a fun morsel to have on your production plate, Dillard is following his sophomore Sundance hit Sweetheart with another dabble into horror, remaking 1986’s classic The Fly.
Most recently, Legendary Pictures won a bidding war over Dillard’s racially charged thriller Mastering Your Past, which sounds like something that will be on everyone’s future Oscars predictions list. Rapidly cementing his name amongst his mentor and others on this list, J.D. Dillard is also rumored to be involved with Star Wars’ upcoming trek to the dark desert planet, Exegol.
After graduating from Swarthmore College, Poe has continued to rewrite narratives that paint teenagers as one-note, relationship-prone characters. For those who can’t wait to see what wealth of rich life she creates for the screen, stream her fantastic work on The Twilight Zone (“Among the Untrodden”) and Two Sentence Horror Stories (“Little Monsters” is a personal fave.”) whenever you can. While mum seems to be the word from Poe, her future endeavors all look to be promising, original, and will keep her very busy for 2021 and beyond.
The dazzling project, which was produced by Ava DuVernay and ARRAY, was watched on Netflix by Quincy Jones, Oprah Winfrey, and Steven Spielberg, inspiring the legendary trio to tap Bazawule to helm the new movie musical version of The Color Purple.
Zola, better known as “The Thotyssey” by Black Twitter, is the 148-tweet thread that, in Bravo’s capable hands, became a thrill-a-minute ride that is slated to wow audiences this coming June. Co-written with Jeremy O. Harris (Slave Play), Bravo put her flag at the top of the list of fiery filmmakers with the project. Her blend of dark comedy and color commentary on what one would think are the mundanities of life are things that make Bravo one of the most exciting up-and-comers out right now.
Despite the lackluster reviews, Onah said “oh, nah,” and followed-up that film with the critically heralded, locally acclaimed, Luce. Chronicling a star-turn by Kelvin Harrison Jr., this project interrogates violence, rape culture, and race through the journey of an accused star athlete and student from a war-torn country. Consider Onah our generation’s Mamet with the panache and power to create commentary where others would never attempt. An utterly mesmeric filmmaker, if you’re looking for a savant that leaves us with questions to consider, he’s your guide.
Besides being behind notable shows such as Hello Cupid, RoomieLoverFriends, TheCouple and more — it is her first feature film, Jezebel, that has everyone talking excitedly. The semi-autobiographical drama focused on a 19-year-old girl named Tiffany who begins to do sex work as a cam girl to financially support herself quickly became a hot ticket by studios and critics, finally being acquired by ARRAY and dropped on Netflix last year.
Not resting on the acclaim from Jezebel, Perrier is currently in pre-production on The Perfect Find, which stars Gabrielle Union and Keith Powers.
By making a short film into a proof of concept, See You Yesterday hit big as a full-length project. Bristol and his writing partner, Fredrica Bailey, took home an Independent Spirit Award and he cemented himself as someone whose vision is much needed in the culture. Up next for him is Breathe, a sci-fi thriller that follows a mother and daughter who are forced to fight for their survival when two strangers arrive desperate for an oxygenated haven. As an artist who loves to lace a lot of social, political, and interpersonal layers into his work, Bristol is someone whose work will manhandle your attention in a good way.
Whether subconsciously or consciously, her participation in cinema means a great deal to those on the rise and others currently in the trenches. King, who will play Shirley Chisholm in John Ridley’s upcoming biopic of the same name, is donning the executive producer’s hat in this impressive story. But, don’t fret, the multi-talented multi-hyphenate will be a welcomed addition to any upcoming project that will have her name on it.
He also was commissioned by New York City’s The Shed, in association with Tribeca Studios, to direct November, a film that examined white male privilege and Black joy in the U.S. today. Written by Claudia Rankine, November adapts Help, and Youmans is clearly showing his focus when picking these projects. The future is bright for this under-21-talent who is exemplary as a director. Currently developing a feature about the New Orleans Black Panther chapter, Phillip Youmans’ name is one you’ll be hearing talked about often for the next decade or so.
The native New York took home the Best Director prize at last year’s Sundance, which means 2021 has some explaining to do as to why Radha Blank doesn’t have something announced. She may be considered a “newcomer who’s been around the block,” but her refreshing voice and astounding creativity makes her an accomplished name to keep on your must-watch list.
Accolades aside, Wignot’s work exemplifies what happens when changes to the industry give Black filmmakers the space to create. Her body of work includes projects that speak to the history of our community here and abroad (check out A Stray, which she produced). And with artists documenting the culture like that, audiences end up growing due to the effort of talents like Wignot.
To say the activist and filmmaker made an auspicious debut would be an understatement. To double down on those sentiments, Riley has partnered with Amazon for I’m a Virgo, an absurdist coming-of-age story starring Jharrel Jerome as a 13-foot-tall Black man who lives in Oakland. While I like the original title — An Episodic Joy Ride With Boots Riley Starring Jharrel Jerome — the half-hour series represents another positive moment in this new-ish Golden Age of Black Creativity.
A writer at heart, Jordan Peele called the New Yorker to helm his highly anticipated Candyman reboot, and there isn’t anyone more excited than yours truly for that one. Next fall, Nia DaCosta will double down on her frightful adventure by making history as the first Black woman and the youngest filmmaker to direct a Marvel film. That film — Captain Marvel 2 — is already leading the hype train regarding the MCU’s Phase Four production slate. With Brie Lawson returning as the superpowered title character, DaCosta is putting together a stellar cast featuring characters of color such as Ms. Marvel (Iman Vellani), Captain Monica “Photon” Rambeau (Teyonah Parris), and the mysterious, as-yet-to-be announced villain played by Zawe Ashton.
Details are still considered classified, but Nia DaCosta, much like the other members of this list, is a name to be familiar with from here on out.
Kevin L. Clark is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer and curates ESSENCE’s The Playlist. Follow him @KevitoClark.