black history month trailblazers

Black History Month: Blazing Trails in the Entertainment Industry Part I

Celebrated annually in the United States and Canada in February, Black History Month is a dedicated time to honor impactful people and events in the black diaspora. And while there have been countless contributions of African-descended people to world history, here at NYFA, we’re recognizing those who are blazing trails in the entertainment industry as they pursue their craft.

On the heels of the Screen Actor’s Guild Awards (SAG) and as we gear up for Oscar season, we’ve compiled a list of five history-makers to watch right now in 2017. So without further ado, drumroll please…

1. Mahershala Ali

An Oakland, California native, Ali was raised Christian by his mother, an ordained minister, before converting to Islam and changing his last name from Gilmore to Ali. While attending St. Mary’s College of California on a basketball scholarship, Ali decided to go into acting and landed an apprenticeship at the California Shakespeare Theater. He went on to enroll at NYU, where he earned a master’s degree in NYU’s graduate acting program.

Until this year, Ali was perhaps best known for his appearances in “House of Cards,” “Luke Cage,” “Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1,” “Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2,” and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” Now, Ali’s performance as a supporting character in “Moonlight,” which follows the coming of age of an African-American gay youth, earned him the Critic’s Choice Award for Best Supporting Actor in December 2016. This was followed by the Screen Actors Guild Award for Best Supporting Actor and an Oscar nomination in 2017.

2. Issa Rae

This former NYFA student was born Jo-Issa Rae Diop in Los Angeles to a pediatric doctor from Senegal and a teacher from Louisiana. Eventually attending Stanford University, where she majored in African-American Studies, she wrote and directed plays, music videos, and even a mock reality series while still in school. Fellow Stanford classmate, Tracy Oliver, would eventually produce “Awkward Black Girl” and star on the show.

After accepting a fellowship with The Public Theater, Rae joined Oliver in taking classes at New York Film Academy, while they continued to develop and produce “Awkward Black Girl” for YouTube, raising $56,249 through a Kickstarter campaign to release the rest of the first season due to popular demand. Rae continued to write, produce, and edit original content on her YouTube channel, working on Ratchet Piece Theater, ”The ‘F’ Word,” ”Roomieloverfriends,” and ”The Choir.” Rae partnered up with Pharrell to premiere season two of the series on his YouTube channel, ”iamOTHER.” Rae also began releasing other content on her original channel, predominantly created by and starring people of color In 2013, she began writing a comedy series pilot with Larry Wilmore, which was eventually titled ”Insecure” and was picked up by HBO. This year, the show — which Rae also produces — earned her a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress in a TV Comedy or Musical.

3. Ava DuVernay

Hailing from Long Beach, California, Ava DuVernay attended UCLA, where she majored in African-American Studies and English. Pursuing journalism at the start of her career, she was assigned to cover the O.J. Simpson trial, eventually turning to public relations and opening up her own firm, The DuVernay Agency, while producing documentaries to learn and hone the craft.

Her feature films include “I Will Follow” and Martin Luther King Jr.-based “Selma.” She was the first African-American woman to win Best Director at the Sundance 2012 festival for her feature, “Middle of Nowhere.” In 2010 DuVernay began AFFRM (the African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement), her own company to distribute films made by or focusing on black people, after which she later rebranded the company under a new name, ARRAY, to include a focus on women filmmakers as well.

Most recently, DuVernay’s documentary “13th,” which explores the 13th amendment abolishing slavery and our nation’s disproportionate incarceration of African Americans in prisons, was met with critical acclaim, as it sheds light on America’s history of racial inequality.

4. Raoul Peck

Born in Haiti and fleeing the Duvalier dictatorship as a young boy with his family to Kinshasa, Congo, Peck studied electrical engineering and economics at Berlin’s Humboldt University before attaining a degree in film from the German Film and Television Academy in Berlin. With a focus on socio-political themes in his documentaries and narrative films, Peck is well known for his feature films “Man by The Shore,” about the Haitian Duvalieriste regime, and “Lumumba,” which covers Congolese independence from Belgium. Both of these, along with his other films, were produced through his production company, Velvet Films.

In 2016, amidst the political and racial strife in the U.S., Peck released his “I Am Not Your Negro,” based on 30 pages of an incomplete manuscript by renowned African-American writer James Baldwin, which examines race in America from the Civil Rights era to the Black Lives Matter movement. This documentary has already earned him an Oscar nomination for best documentary feature.

5. Viola Davis

Born in St. Mathews, North Carolina, Viola Davis attended Rhode Island College and The Juilliard School, where she studied drama. After years of playing supporting roles in both television and film, it was Davis’ one scene in the film adaptation of “Doubt,” starring Meryl Streep and Phillip Seymour Hoffman, that earned her Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations. Soon after, Davis was inducted into The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Davis’ role in “The Help” earned her two SAG awards, a second Academy Award nomination, a BAFTA nomination and a Golden Globe award. Currently starring in ABC’s “How to Get Away with Murder,” she is the first black woman of any nationality to earn a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series.  

While 2016 has been quite a busy year for Davis — she starred in and executive-produced the courtroom drama ”Custody” as well as performing in the DC Comics adaptation “Suicide Squad” — it was her role opposite Denzel Washington in “Fences” that won her the Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress, yet another SAG Award, and her third Academy Award nomination. As she is continuing to expand her work behind the scenes through her production company JuVee Productions, Davis has just put a comedy series into development with ABC.

Stay tuned for a list of five more people to watch as we continue to honor Black History Month at NYFA.