In its 92-year history, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) has only ever nominated six filmmakers of color for the Best Director Oscar, with half of the nominations occurring in just the last five years. As the Academy, and the industry as a whole, pushes harder than ever to become more inclusive to writers, cinematographers, producers, and directors of color—as well as women and LGBTQIA+ filmmakers—New York Film Academy (NYFA) takes a brief look at the first six black visual artists to be nominated for Best Director. To date, no black filmmaker has won the prize.
In 1991—not even 30 years ago—John Singleton became the first-ever African American to be nominated by the Academy for Best Director for his work on the seminal South Central, LA drama Boyz N the Hood. With the nod, the then 24-year-old Singleton also became the youngest nominee ever in the category—a record still unbroken today. In 2019, Singleton went on to direct films like Poetic Justice and Rosewood, as well television series including Empire, American Crime Story, and Snowfall. Singleton died tragically as a result of a stroke at the age of 51.
It was nearly two decades until another African American was nominated for a Best Director Oscar; Lee Daniels broke the streak by earning a nod for his work on Precious, the 2009 gritty study of an overweight young woman who endured years of poverty and abuse. Daniels followed Precious with the critically-acclaimed drama The Paperboy and created the hit television series Star and Empire, both of which featured predominantly black casts.
British filmmaker Steve McQueen had already made a name for himself on the indie scene with dramas like Hunger and Shame before landing a mainstream hit with the harrowing true drama 12 Years a Slave in 2013. The film was nominated for nine Academy Awards, including Best Director, and won three, including Best Picture. Since his Best Picture win, McQueen has directed and produced the star-studded Widows and the British miniseries Small Axe.
Like 12 Years a Slave three years prior, the 2016 drama Moonlight by Barry Jenkins also secured several Oscar nominations while still not earning a Best Director win despite earning Best Picture. Director Barry Jenkins did pick up an award for Best Adapted Screenplay however, and has since made the Oscar-winning film If Beale Street Could Talk and the period dramatic series The Underground Railroad.
Jordan Peele started out as an actor and comedian on sketch series MadTV and Key & Peele before pivoting to producing, screenwriting, and directing, making a huge splash with his debut film, the horror-thriller Get Out, which combined genre filmmaking with a thoughtful exploration of race relations in America. Peele lost Best Director and Best Picture for the film but won a Best Original Screenplay Oscar, and has since become a major force in the industry, producing numerous films and television projects, including BlacKkKlansman and the latest reboot of The Twilight Zone. Additionally, Peele sat in the director’s chair again for the haunting horror film Us, starring Lupita Nyong’o.
In 1989, there was some expectation that filmmaker Spike Lee would be the first African American to earn a Best Director nomination for his work on Do the Right Thing, but that didn’t come to pass. Despite earning an honorary Oscar in 2016, Lee didn’t earn a nod in that category until 2019, when he was finally recognized for his film BlackKlansman, starring John David Washington and Adam Driver. A Hollywood icon who many filmmakers and especially those of color have cited as an influence, Lee has earned multiple nominations over the years, but it was for BlackKlansman that he finally earned his first non-honorary Oscar—for Best Adapted Screenplay.