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Untold Stories: History Through the Eyes of Black Filmmakers

By Kevin Nelson · February 28, 2022

“We must never forget that Black History is American History.” — Yvette Clarke

All too often, the contributions and achievements of Black filmmakers in the early days of film are left out of the history books completely. The white power structure of the Hollywood studios actively used the medium as a propaganda tool to perpetuate dehumanizing and stereotypical caricatures of Black culture. 

Which is why it’s important to celebrate the artists that helped birth, evolve, and challenge the medium. Before we highlight the work of modern Black filmmakers who are reinvigorating cinema today, let’s take a look at the pioneers that first stepped behind the camera.

A Brief History of Black Cinema

Determined to take ownership of their own stories, Black entrepreneurs saw potential in the new burgeoning film industry. Bill Foster founded the first Black-owned independent film company, the Foster Photoplay Company, in 1910. Brothers Nobel and George Johnson created the Lincoln Motion Picture Company in 1922. These independent production companies created films that uplifted their community and combated the negative depictions by their white filmmaker counterparts. These visionaries weren’t the only ones to take matters into their own hands.

Oscar Micheaux

One such pioneer from the early days of film history is Oscar Micheaux. Micheaux should be regarded as one of the most successful and prolific filmmakers of all time. Born in rural Illinois, Micheaux moved to Chicago at the age of seventeen like so many other young Black men and women coming into adulthood.

This new generation, many of which were the first generation to be born into freedom, migrated to cities like Chicago and New York to escape the oppression of the South during the height of Jim Crow. There were tales of creative expression and community where Black people can thrive coming back on the wire. Working various manual labor jobs in the city, Micheaux became disillusioned with the good life promised by so many. He was barely existing and was tired of being short-changed for his efforts. 

Oscar Micheaux

Oscar Micheaux

He decided to become his own boss and bought land in rural South Dakota, where he became a homesteader. He explored themes of isolation and identity in his novels, including The Homesteader, which got the attention of George Johnson at the Lincoln Motion Picture Company. Micheaux insisted on being directly involved with the film adaptation so — Johnson backed out. 

Always one to adapt and overcome, Micheaux founded the Micheaux Film and Book Publishing Corporation in Chicago in 1918. After writing, directing, producing, and debuting The Homesteader in 1919 to high critical acclaim, Micheaux would go on to create 44 feature films over the course of his legendary career.

Early Black Female Voices

Black women were vital in the founding of the film industry as well. Although there are disputes over who arrived first, Tressie Souders is often credited with being the first Black woman to write, direct, and produce a feature film titled A Woman’s Error in 1922. 

Maria P. Williams wrote and produced Flames of Wrath in 1923. She married an entrepreneur by the name of Jesse L. Williams, who owned a movie theater. The couple was able to produce and distribute their own films, proving that Black-owned businesses could thrive independently outside of the Hollywood system.

Zora Neale Hurston also contributed greatly to film history through her documentary films, anthropological work, plays, novels, and so much more. Zora Neale Hurston traveled throughout the Caribbean and the American South to document the folklore and lives of the African diaspora to provide some of the most intimate accounts of Black life in the early 20th Century. Her work shows the importance of Black stories being told by those that are actually experiencing it — before they’re gone and can no longer tell their stories. 

Tressie Souders_Maria P Williams_Zora Neale Huston

Tressie Souders | Maria P. Williams | Zora Neale Huston


As Black History Month comes to a close, let’s look back at some films and series that show pivotal moments in Black History, and the creators who continue to carry on the legacy of those who lit the torch. 

Scripts from this Article

One Night in Miami

Kemp Powers adapted his debut play, One Night in Miami, by tearing down the 85-page one-room stage play and rebuilding the foundations to show what the characters were dealing with leading up to their time together in that room. Regina King read the play, then read the screenplay immediately afterward. She was attracted to how Powers showed an intimate side to these iconic, larger-than-life historical figures.

King told The New York Times:

“I also thought Kemp’s words were a love letter to the Black man’s experience. As an audience member, I feel like I don’t often get the opportunity to see our men realized onscreen the way we see them in real life.”

It’s a fictional account of real events surrounding an evening when four icons met after a monumental fight. Malcolm X, Cassius Clay, Sam Cooke, and Jim Brown all under one roof. It’s a daunting task to fill such mythical shoes.

So how did Powers create dialogue that acted like a boxing match between such iconic men when there isn’t much known about what actually was said?

All of the characters are at a crossroads of sorts and are about to crossover to new phases of their legend while trying to come to terms with their place in the world. So Powers drew on his own experiences. Being the only person of color in the writers room for Star Trek: Discovery, Powers found himself grappling with a similar dilemma. 

Powers told IndieWire:

“How much of myself do I have to sacrifice to be accepted in this environment, in this world? My psyche was split down the middle. I put these arguments back into the mouths of the men who inspired that way of thinking.”

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Belle

Screenwriter Misan Sagay first encountered the painting that would inspire Belle while studying at university. In her op-ed for The Huffington Post, Sagay wrote that for ten years the painting acted as, “a metaphor for why Black people have to tell our own stories.”

When she was ready to write Dido Belle’s story (and internet research was more accessible), she decided to explore the complications of love while navigating the intricacies of Belle’s position within society. Sagay explores themes of class, feminism, race, and slavery. Her main character is very much on a path of self-discovery. Yet, it was a hard sell for producers. Eventually, it found the right director in Amma Asante, who also helped rewrite the script.

Sagay wrote:

“… a Jane Austenesque love story that allows us to explore the Black British presence in a surprising way. It was very difficult because in those days everyone I met said that no one was interested in slavery. So I went on alone.”

Many of the heroes of these stories, both on the screen and behind the scenes, overcame great adversity in order to accomplish their excellence. Sagay is a perfect example of that exemplary determination.

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Malcolm X

Producer Marvin Worth bought the rights to Alex Haley’s The Autobiography of Malcolm X in 1967 and worked for over 25 years to see it made. James Baldwin was hired to write the original screenplay in 1968 and Arnold Perl, who was Blacklisted during the McCarthy Era, later joined the efforts. Both writers died prior to the script reaching its full potential, and other writers attempted drafts to no avail.

It wasn’t until Spike Lee took over the project and rewrote Baldwin and Perl’s original draft that the project found the perfect champion for Malcolm X’s story. Baldwin’s estate requested his name be removed because of the revisions, but his contributions are still there. Spike Lee’s writing and directing styles match Malcolm X’s fearlessness. 

After all those years, it had to be Lee.

In many ways, Lee’s film shows how Malcolm X’s era paralleled the era in which the film was made (1992), in the wake of the LA riots to protest the police brutality of Rodney King and so many others like him. Just as Malcolm’s past echoed into his present, thirty years later we’re still marching over the same issues.

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If Beale Street Could Talk

If any filmmaker has the ability to capture the beauty of James Baldwin’s words on the screen, it is Barry Jenkins — who demonstrates a poetic virtuosity on every page. Jenkins delivers a love story where the two characters are torn apart by a wrongful conviction. Instead of focusing strictly on the trauma at the center of these characters’ lives, Baldwin and Jenkins center the story on how love, optimism, and family support will see you through your darkest days.

Although the novel was written nearly 50 years ago, the story still resonates. 

Jenkins explained to Roger Ebert,

“In 1974 we didn’t even have the Internet, computers, and cameras and all these things to document it, so I can imagine how rapid the injustice was then. But something like what happened to Kalief Browder can still happen today.” 

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The Underground Railroad

Based on Colson Whitehead’s 2016 historical fantasy novel The Underground Railroad, the limited series adaptation created by Barry Jenkins features writing from Jenkins as well as Jacqueline Hoyt, Nathan C. Parker, Allison Davis, Adrienne Rush, and Jihan Crowther and offers an alternate history that juggles magical realism with hyperrealism. 

Like many kids, myself included, when Jenkins learned about the Underground Railroad, he pictured an actual train that runs underground. Our creative imaginations just go to that literal definition of the phrase. When reading the book, Colson’s words brought Jenkins back to that feeling. The project terrified Jenkins. He wanted to create something that touched on slavery, but also knew he needed to get it right and honor those who died so that he could fly. 

This was not lost on longtime collaborate and cinematographer James Laxton, who told The New York Times

“Dealing with what we saw will probably stick with me for a very long time, if not forever, but I hope these images stick with the people who see this show, too, because it’s important for us all to recognize our history.”

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Harriet

Written by Gregory Allen Howard & Kasi Lemmons and directed by Lemmons, Harriet is another passion project that took over 25 years to bring to fruition. Screenwriter Gregory Allen Howard found his lane turning historical stories into entertainment and as fate would have it, Harriet was Howard’s first assignment at Disney.

He wasn’t interested in writing merely history lessons though. He felt a responsibility to be true to the spirit of the story, but Tubman’s own life offered everything he needed. He saw Harriet Tubman as a superhero and approached Harriet like an action-adventure. 

Howard told Focus Features:

“For me, this is my valentine to Black women. I wanted them to be able to go to the movies on Saturday and see this young Black woman take on this incredible power structure and triumph over it.”

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Judas and the Black Messiah

Brothers Kenny and Keith Lucas had been kicking around the idea of a Fred Hampton Sr. movie for a while when they found their way into the story through the perspective of William O’Neal, the informant responsible for aiding the FBI and Chicago police in the targeted assassination of the civil rights leader. 

They put together an initial treatment and sent it around town. When director and co-writer Shaka King read it, he was immediately in. They worked together to build out the outline, and King approached screenwriter Will Berson, who had also written a spec on Hampton. Berson’s script was more of a biopic, so King pitched him the idea of telling the story more like a crime drama similar to The Departed. Berson was down.

King rented a place in Los Angeles where he’d meet with Berson over the course of a week to fill up a wall of sticky notes, taking pieces of each script. From that, Berson wrote up a new outline and delivered a mammoth first draft that King edited down. 

The point-of-view of the narrative is what sets this screenplay apart. It flips the conventions of the typical protagonist/antagonist relationships on its head. 

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Selma

In 2008, Paul Webb wrote an original screenplay about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Lyndon B. Johnson for producer Chrisitan Colson. The project stalled after Lee Daniels decided to direct The Butler over Selma. When Ava DuVernay was hired to direct, she rewrote 90 percent of Webb’s script, but due to a stipulation in his original contract, he retained sole writing credit. 

Another hurdle in DuVernay’s way was that DreamWorks and Warner Bros. owned the licensing rights to Dr. King’s estate, so DuVernay couldn’t use Dr. King’s actual speeches. She’d spend hours listening to his speeches while hiking the canyons of Los Angeles in an attempt to get his cadence and speech patterns down. She sure fooled me. Shows how incredible she really is.

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Hidden Figures

Margot Lee Shetterly’s nonfiction book Hidden Figures tells the true story of the Black women mathematicians responsible for helping NASA win the Space Race. Screenwriter Allison Schroeder’s grandparents worked at NASA and she grew up by Cape Canaveral, so she felt a personal connection to the story. 

Here’s a case where sometimes characters are created to help streamline the story. Kevin Costner’s character Al Harrison was an amalgamation of different real people. He assumes the role of a white savior type of character, and his presence should in no way take away from the important role that Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan had on American history.

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The United States vs Billie Holiday

Suzan-Lori Parks studied under James Baldwin, who encouraged her to become a playwright. While continuing to write for the stage, as well as novels and essays, Parks crossed into film with Spike Lee’s Girl 6 in 1996. She also adapted Their Eyes Were Watching God by Nora Zeale Hurston, and Native Son by Richard Wright. In 2015, she became the first African American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for her play Topdog/Underdog.

During the FBI’s COUNTELPRO campaign, it wasn’t only political activists who were targeted and harassed by the government. After reading Johann Hari’s book, Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs, Parks saw a way to break Holiday’s story.

Parks spoke with IndieWire about the inspiration she found from the book:

“It allowed me to talk about Billie Holiday and Black America’s relationship with America. It really gave me an opportunity to talk about how Black excellence is often rewarded with persecution.”

Lee Daniels directed this raw and intimately real look into one of the most legendary voices to ever capture the world’s heart. 

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Mudbound

Co-writer and director Dee Rees grew up in the South and used her own grandmother’s journals to draw inspiration from. What she found intriguing about Hillary Jordan’s novel by the same name, was the duality of the American dream vs the American reality. We don’t often get stories that depict the relationships between World War II veterans of different races in the rural South. 

Rees told The Los Angeles Times:

“I’m trying to get behind this mythology of the ‘greatest generation,’ who we were, what we really did and what did it cost. The American educational system has a reductive, simplified view of history. But things didn’t end with [the abolishment of] slavery. This period is our link between our then and our now.”

Rees and co-writer Virgil Williams were able to capture a snapshot of an era in American history often overlooked.

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12 Years a Slave

Director Steve McQueen had long wanted to make a film about slavery but wasn’t quite sure how to approach the subject. When McQueen met screenwriter John Ridley at a screening of his film Hunger, the two started batting around ideas. It wasn’t until his partner Bianca Stigter introduced him to Solomon Northup’s 1853 memoir that inspiration struck.

McQueen told NPR

“It was like a bolt coming out of the sky; at the same time I was pretty upset with myself that I didn’t know this book. … Slowly but surely I realized that most people, in fact, all the people I knew did not know this book. I live in Amsterdam where Anne Frank is a national hero. She’s not just a national hero, she’s a world hero, and for me, this book read like Anne Frank’s diary but written 97 years before — a firsthand account of slavery. I basically made it my passion to make this book into a film.”

McQueen went on to talk about how it was a film he wanted to see but no one was making. He took an intimate, little-known true-life account of a major part of American and world history and made an epic film of trauma and triumph.

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Get Out

Although Get Out doesn’t examine a historical moment in Black History, the film itself made history in revitalizing the horror genre. The success of the film allowed Jordan Peele to open the gate for other incredible filmmakers to finally get a chance to explore the genre from their perspectives, like Nia DaCosta’s masterful Candyman sequel.

Coming from a background in comedy, Peele surprised everyone. Although they probably shouldn’t have been. Comedy and horror are similar genres in that they both provoke a physical reaction from the reader/viewer. Laughing and jumping in fear are both heightened emotions. The script comes from a deeply personal place, and from that premise, Peele veers off into a genre piece that cuts deep at the racism still plaguing us. 

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Black Excellence should be celebrated every single day of the year, for there isn’t a day in history that wasn’t influenced in some way by the accomplishments of people of color. American history is Black History, just as film history is Black History. 

It’s time to rewrite the history books and include all the voices that have been missing.

Scripts from this Article