Spike Lee

The 6 Black Filmmakers Nominated for Academy Award for Best Director

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.

John Singleton

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 from a stroke at the age of 51.

Lee Daniels

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. 

Steve McQueen

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.

Barry Jenkins

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

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.

Spike Lee

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.

Filmmakers Whose Work Stands the Test of Time

There are occasionally filmmakers who break all barriers, whose work stands the test of time and continues to captivate audiences and critics even decades later. If you’re looking for a master class in original, timeless filmmaking, check out these filmmakers whose originality stands the test of time and offers experiences that are still relevant, riveting, and righteously entertaining.

Alfred Hitchcock

It’s impossible to have a list of enduring filmmakers without including Hitchcock. His silent film roots allowed him to innovate in the area of visual storytelling by mastering mise-en-scène, captivating use of music, and wise editing.

Hitchcock is perhaps best known for his innovative camera movement, and his knack for persuading audiences to feel as if they are a part of the story through the clever manipulation of perspective through close-ups, long takes, and more.

Click here to read more about why we think Hitchcock’s work will be enjoyed for years to come.

Timeless Hitchcock films to watch asap:

  • Notorious (1946)
  • Rear Window (1954)
  • Vertigo (1958)
  • North by Northwest (1959)
  • Psycho (1960)

Akira Kurosawa

Posthumously named “Asian of the Century” in in 1990 by AsianWeek, Kurosawa’s work did more than just put the Japanese film industry on the international map. His superb screenwriting abilities, dynamic style, and innovative techniques went on to influence all of Western cinema, including The Magnificent Seven, a reimagining of Kurosawa’s masterpiece Seven Samurai. From Americans like Steven Spielberg and George Lucas to fellow Asian filmmakers like Hayao Miyazaki and John Woo, countless notable filmmakers have expressed their admiration for Kurosawa’s cinematographic achievements.

Timeless Films

  • Rashomon (1950)
  • Ikiru (1952)
  • Seven Samurai (1954)
  • Kagemusha (1980)
  • Ran (1985)

Steven Spielberg

If there’s one reason Spielberg will be esteemed for ages to come, it’s for his versatility. From intense war stories and terrifying thrillers to adventure movies fun for the whole family, this man has probably done it all — and done it marvellously. While most directors find their niche and stay put, Spielberg’s storytelling prowess has been proven across an amazing range of genres while somehow still expressing his signature style. It’s hard to find anyone who doesn’t love at least one film from this iconic director who, at the ripe age of 71 in of 2018, is still behind the camera.

Timeless Films

  • Jaws (1975)
  • Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
  • E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
  • Schindler’s List (1993)
  • Saving Private Ryan (1998)

Spike Lee

This African-American filmmaker began impressing critics and viewers alike with his first feature film “She’s Gotta Have It,” a comedy drama shot in two weeks with a budget of $175,000. When it grossed over $7 million in America, people knew Lee was something special. He has since then delivered several classics that have earned him numerous accolades over the years. Many of his projects are renowned for examining important issues such as race relations, urban poverty, and discrimination even among black communities.

Timeless Films

  • Do the Right Thing (1989)
  • Malcolm X (1992)
  • The Original Kings of Comedy (2000)
  • 25th Hour (2002)
  • Inside Man (2006)

Stanley Kubrick

The late, great Kubrick made an impact on the film industry in a way few other directors have. His constant striving for perfection and mastery of the technical side of filmmaking allowed him to craft cinematic experiences that transcended genre and changed everything that followed. Along with working closely and intensely with his writers and performers, Kubrick was also known for requiring as many takes as it took in order to find what he called “the magic.”

Timeless Films

  • Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
  • 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
  • A Clockwork Orange (1971)
  • The Shining (1980)
  • Full Metal Jacket (1987)

Francis Ford Coppola

This American filmmaker is responsible for one of the most overwhelmingly praised trilogy of films ever to hit the big screen: The Godfather alone won nearly a dozen Oscars and is #2 in American Film Institute’s list of best American films. The trilogy’s influence inspired the creation of other notable gangster films such as Goodfellas and TV shows like The Sopranos.

Timeless Films

  • The Godfather (1972)
  • American Graffiti (1973)
  • The Godfather: Part II (1974)
  • Apocalypse Now (1979)
  • Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)

Sofia Coppola

The daughter of Francis Ford Coppola, Sofia has emerged as one of the most talented female directors of all time. She was the first American woman to win Venice Film Festival’s top prize and receive a Best Director nomination at the 2003 Academy Awards, while also serving as the second woman to win best director at Cannes Film Festival. Her Oscar-winning Lost in Translation a great starting point for film fans to witness Coppola’s impressive ability to balance humor and drama.

Timeless Films

  • The Virgin Suicides (1999)
  • Lost in Translation (2003)
  • Marie Antoinette (2006)
  • The Bling Ring (2013)
  • The Beguiled (2017)

Orson Welles

What’s there to say about Welles that hasn’t been said before? The legendary director changed the game with Citizen Kane, a film ranked by many as the best of all time. The 1941 drama went on to influence even the most prominent directors with its nonlinear storytelling, powerful use of themes and motifs, and phenomenal cinematography. Welles would go on to direct several more films, many of which are also worthy of viewing almost a century later.

Timeless Films

  • Citizen Kane (1941)
  • The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)
  • The Lady from Shanghai (1947)
  • Touch Of Evil (1958)
  • Chimes at Midnight (1965)

Up-and-Coming Timeless Filmmakers

Christopher Nolan

Still arguably near the beginning of his illustrious career, Nolan came into prominence at the turn of the millenium with Following, a neo-noir crime thriller he funded personally. Since then, the English filmmaker has made a name for himself by producing hit after hit, making him one of the highest-grossing directors of all time. His use of nonlinear storytelling and enticing themes surrounding human morality and identity have allowed him to create films that will likely be watched in film classes for a long time.

Timeless Films

  • Memento (2000)
  • The Dark Knight (2008)
  • Inception (2010)
  • Interstellar (2014)
  • Dunkirk (2017)

Catherine Hardwicke

Hardwicke got her start in the business as a production designer, where she was able to study the techniques of skilled directors like Cameron Crowe. She first proved her own directing talents with 2003’s Thirteen, which won six awards and nearly a dozen nominations. Highly successful films like Twilight and The Nativity Story have only helped cement Hardwicke’s legacy as one of the best female directors of all time.

Timeless Films

  • Thirteen (2003)
  • Lords of Dogtown (2005)
  • The Nativity Story (2006)
  • Twilight (2008)
  • Red Riding Hood (2011)

Ava DuVernay

Leading the new generation of great African American filmmakers is DuVernay, who in less than two decades has already made a name for herself behind the camera. This includes being the first black woman to win the Sundance Film Festival’s directing award. She is also the first African-American woman to be nominated for a Golden Golden Globe award and Academy Award for Best Picture. With so many accomplishments at the ripe age of 45, we’re confident that DuVernay’s best work is yet to come.

Timeless Films

  • Saturday Night Life (2006)
  • I Will Follow (2010)
  • Middle of Nowhere (2012)
  • Selma (2014)
  • 13th (2016)

What other directors would you add to this list? Let us know in the comments below, and learn more about Filmmaking at the New York Film Academy.


Directors Essentials: 6 Spike Lee Masterpieces Everyone Should Watch

Previously in the Directors Essentials series:

Every now and then, we delve into the filmography of not just directors who have a few great movies under their belt, but who have revolutionized an entire genre or pushed the art of cinema forward in unprecedented ways. Spike Lee is one director who definitely falls into that camp.


For over quarter of a century, Lee has amassed an entire laundry list of awards for his subversive, often highly-politicized works holding a mirror up to a wide range of societal… and here’s six of the best.

Malcolm X (1992)

Arguably the most celebrated of Lee’s movies to date, and for good reason; the partnership with long-time collaborator Denzel Washington hit all the right notes, resulting in the biopic being hailed as “one of the greatest screen biographies” by Roger Ebert. And it was something of a miracle it ever got released, let alone to critical success. Production-killing arguments over budget and length, extreme difficulties in securing permission to film in Mecca and intense pressure from black nationalists to honor X’s legacy properly nearly broke the project. Fortunately for cinema, Lee received enough donations from black celebrities to finish the film as he’d envisioned it, and did indeed do Malcolm X’s legacy justice.

Do the Right Thing (1989)

Usually high up on the list of greatest movies of all time (and definitely one of the most important of the 80s), Do the Right Thing endures as a breathtaking exercise in craftsmanship. Set on the run up to the hottest day of the year in Brooklyn as both the mercury and racial tensions rise, the movie’s stifling atmosphere is punctuated by levity thanks to an all-star ensemble cast, a tight screenplay and exceptionally formed characters. A huge tip of the hat goes to cinematographer Ernest Dickerson, who managed to brilliantly translate the sweltering heat to film.

She’s Gotta Have It (1986)

Spike Lee’s first ever feature film, and as far as career debuts go, it’s something of a monolithic achievement. Shot independently on a budget of less than $200k, the landmark comedy ended up being a seminal moment in the history of cinema upturning the status quo – for one of the first times on screen, African American characters were portrayed as erudite and cosmopolitan urbanites. To boot, Lee’s depiction of Brooklyn’s Fort Greene neighborhood as one of prosperity and opportunity actually resulted in more talent being discovered due to increased media interest.

4 Little Girls (1997)

Originally destined for a HBO release, the television run was cancelled once executives saw the finished product… because they decided it was too important to not get a theatrical release first. Centered around the story of the 1963 terrorist bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Alabama (and the eponymous victims who were killed), 4 Little Girls is as much about exploring the human condition as it is a documentary on the KKK attack itself. Nominated for an Academy Award for best Oscar, the film was also notable as the first in a long line of collaborations between Lee and editor Sam Pollard (which is of little surprise given that the documentary itself is a master work of editing.)

Inside Man (2006)

Dubbed as the “Spike Lee movie for those who don’t watch Spike Lee Movies”, Inside Man is a straight-forward heist movie albeit one which stands head and shoulders above the rest. With Denzel Washington (in his fourth Lee collaboration) joined by Clive Owen, Jodie Foster and Willem Defoe, the movie’s exceptional performances are matched only by the killer pacing and slick camera work. Arguably Lee’s “straightest” movie, it was also his most profitable to date but sadly repeated attempts at developing a sequel have failed.

With a filmography as extensive and successful as Spike Lee’s, we had a tough time narrowing it down to just five must-watch joints, so over to you…Know of a criminally under-watched classic that every film fan should see? Drop your suggestion down in the comments below!

Interview With Editor Leander Sales

Leander SalesNYFA: Hi Leander, would you mind telling us a bit about your background and what drew you to filmmaking and editing in particular?

Leander Sales: I was born in Winston-Salem, NC. I attended University of North Carolina School of the Arts for a year then decided to move to New York City. I was very restless and desperate to see the world. After living in NYC for almost two years, I moved to Florence, Italy for two years. While in Florence, I attended an Italian language school, Centro per Stranieri. We had to watch a lot of Italian films as a way to constantly train our ears to the language and appreciate some of the Italian cinematic classics. These movies were very fascinating to me. Being in another country, having to deal with another culture, taught me so much about myself. I met many Italians who had many questions about America, about me, about slavery, American racism, Michael Jackson, Michael Jordan, Jazz music. It was very rare for them to have an African-American living in Florence for two years. In fact, there was one other African-American living there for so long, about four years by the time I met her, Charlitta. She was an artist living there with her African boyfriend and we got together often to talk about everything under the moon. At some point, I came across a book, This Life, an autobiography about Sidney Poitier. I remember he wrote the best place to learn filmmaking is in the editing room. I had no idea of what an editing room was. I thought the director just went out and shot exactly what we saw on the screen. This made me very curious because I think Sidney Poitier is pretty smart and talented and if he said the best place to learn filmmaking is in the editing room then it must be true. I had not decided to become a filmmaker at this point but that phrase set off an insatiable curiosity. What is this editing room that Mr. Poitier says is so important?

NYFA: You started as an apprentice sound editor on Spike Lee’s School Daze. How did you land that job?

LS: I told my uncle, Ron Dortch, who’s a wonderful actor, about Sidney Poitier’s book and what he said about the editing room and my uncle told me he knew a sound editor. I bugged him to introduce me to him. His name was Rudy Gaskins. I asked him to let me sweep his editing room or run errands for him just so I could hang around his editing room. That didn’t workout because he was finishing the film he was working on and there was nothing to do, but he would keep me in mind since I was willing to work for free. What I didn’t know is that Rudy had gone to NYU with Spike Lee. A few weeks passed and I got a call from Rudy who was going to be working on School Daze and Spike would be looking for an apprentice sound editor. He gave me Spike’s office number. I called the office immediately and asked to speak with Spike. His office manager, Tracy Willard, told me to hold on and surprisingly, Spike came to the phone. I introduced myself and told him I would like to apply for the apprentice sound editing job. He told me to get in touch with Maurice Schell, the supervising sound editor. Tracy gave me the number and I called Maurice Schell and set up an interview. During the interview, he asked me what I had worked on and the room fell silent. I felt embarrassed. Maybe he noticed me squirming and searching for something to impress him. I said, “I’ve worked on nothing. You see, the last two years I’ve been traveling.” The entire fifteen minute interview, we talked about traveling, places he had traveled and places I had traveled. I think he spoke French because he had spent some time in France. I left his office thinking I wouldn’t get the job because I’d never worked on anything. I had no editing experience. A few days later, he called to tell me I got the job and it was a four month schedule and asked if I was available for the entire time. Hell yeah!!!! I was so excited! I was on time every day and didn’t mind working late. We were working at Sound One which has since gone out of business. I loved going to the Brill Building, 1619 Broadway, 7th floor. This is the building where Miles Davis met Duke Ellington for the first time. I met so many wonderful people in that building. After School Daze ended I worked on Full Moon Blue Water and met the legendary producer David Brown who is now deceased. After that movie, I got a call from Barry Brown, who had edited School Daze. He wanted to know if I was available to work on Do the Right Thing as apprentice picture editor. Hell yeah!!!!

NYFA: With Do the Right Thing recently celebrating its 25th anniversary last year, what opportunities do you see for African-American filmmakers that didn’t exist in 1989?

LS: More people are making digital movies and those directors and producers need editors. Filmmakers are crowd funding to get their movies made. There are reality shows and I know some African-American editors who are getting opportunities there. The are webisodes. There’s Netflix, Hulu and other internet companies producing original content and they all need editors. There are way more opportunities today.

What hurdles still exist for getting black voices on screen?

LS: There are still hurdles getting those stories on the screen. George Lucas couldn’t get a studio to back Red Tails, the story of the Tuskegee Airmen. He financed it himself. Selma is a great movie directed by Ava Duvernay, an African-American female director. Kevin Hart is building his brand. I’m very proud of Shonda Rhimes and what she’s doing on network TV. She’s a very talented writer/producer/showrunner. Lee Daniels’ new show Empire is doing great in the ratings. The Walking Dead has a very diverse cast. Ernest Dickerson, Spike’s former director of photography, directs some of those episodes. The small screens are more diverse than the big screen. Let me go in another direction for a minute. We have our first African-American president and Black people are under attack, especially Black males. For us, the question is bigger than Hollywood. We have to worry about returning home alive. We still have a long way to go.

NYFA: What did you learn working as an associate and assistant editor on such films as Malcolm X and Crooklyn that you found yourself applying as the editor on feature length films like Get on the Bus and the documentary Hookers at the Point?

LS: Working on those movies taught me about process and shaping the story. Each one had its own process. We would spend months editing, then we would do test screenings for the studios. That’s when we would screen for audiences who would fill out a questionnaire and then do a focus group Q and A. I found that part of the process to be very interesting. I loved watching people respond to the movie. I’m always thinking how an audience is going to respond to the movie I’m working on. It’s like sending your child out into the world. I hope they find wonderful friends to love them.

NYFA: You’ve worked extensively as a film editor, but also have directed two of your own films that were well-received, The Life I Meant to Live and Don’t Let Your Meat Loaf. What themes or messages do you seek to get across in your filmmaking?

LS: Don’t Let Your Meat Loaf was about three young comics trying to start a comedy club and failing, but not giving up. I think it’s important to get up after falling down. We’re all going to fall, but we’re not all going to get up. I want to be with the people who get up and keep going. I try to surround myself with people who get up after failure. Those people who stay down sometimes want you down there with them to keep them company. Life is way too short for that kind of pessimism. By nature, I’m a very optimistic person. The Life I Meant to Live is about living your life to the fullest. Most people don’t enjoy what they’re doing. I’ve been lucky enough to have found something that I really love. I’ve been to Africa six times and I know exactly who I am. When I think of our history, I think beyond slavery because I’ve been to Senegal, Ethiopia and Eritrea. I made some great discoveries about myself while traveling in Africa. People would look at me and start speaking to me in their native tongue. That’s a great feeling. To me, it says welcome home. You’ll notice that I have a habit of drifting into very personal stuff that you didn’t ask, but I think filmmaking is very personal. I wouldn’t want to work with a filmmaker who didn’t have a point of view.

NYFA: How do the skillsets required to see a film from pre- through post-production differ from those required of editing?

LS: When I’m directing, I’m thinking about editing and sometimes run the edit in my mind while I’m shooting, then when I actually start editing, I have to be objective. I always show the edit to someone who wasn’t part of the process in any way. I’ve even shown cuts to Facebook users who don’t know me. It’s easier to be objective when I’m not the director. The skillset as a director is having a vision and being passionate enough to see it through to the end. The skillset as an editor is to be an objective storyteller.

NYFA: Both in your work with Spike Lee and other filmmakers, what is an essential lesson you’ve learned in your career as an editor that you continue to apply to your work today?

LS: Nothing is too precious. If it’s not working, then cut it out. Some directors have to live with the footage for a certain amount of time before they’re ready to reshape the movie. The editor has to be sensitive to that process and the director has to trust the editor because they both should be trying make the best movie the footage will allow.

NYFA: You’ve worked with both traditional film editing and digital film editing. What are the main differences/advantages/disadvantages you’ve found in making the transition to digital?

LS: I had no problems going digital, but I’m glad I learned on film because shooting film is expensive and it really forces you consider what’s essential to the story. Syncing the footage took way longer in traditional film editing. Syncing digitally is super easy, screening digital dailies takes longer because much more is shot. On the flip side of that, I love the fact that anybody can pick up a camera or cell phone and go make a movie. Sometimes when I’m watching the news and someone records some incident on their cell otherwise we would’ve never seen. Very empowering.

NYFA: What film editors and/or filmmakers do you personally look up to, past and present?

LS: I am thankful to the filmmakers who took the time to train me, Kevin Lee (not related to Spike), Rudy Gaskins, Tula Goenka, Barry Brown, Sam Pollard, and Spike Lee. I respect many people, but it’s different when someone takes the time to get to know you and teach you.

NYFA: In teaching digital editing at NYFA, what do you think is the most crucial element or theory for students to understand about the editing process?

LS: I think it’s important to start with something you are passionate about. Passion goes a long way. I think we’re all experts at something. I love it when a student invites me into a world they are passionate about. Most teachers like learning knew things.

NYFA: It’s often said there are three distinct phases in creating a film: writing the script, filming the script, and then editing the footage. How would you define the role of an editor and how central is the editor in shaping the final tone and feeling of a movie?

LS: No audience wants to see your dailies. They only want to see a story that’s gone through the editing process. That tells you how important an editor is to the filmmaking process. There’s something magical about editing. Along with the director or producer, we select the best performance, shape the story, then pace it. If the audience is talking about the editing then we have not done our jobs well. They should be talking about the characters and the story.

NYFA: What is the best way to learn the craft and what tools should every aspiring editor be familiar with?

LS: Working as an assistant editor to a nurturing editor is the best way to learn the craft. Learn Avid, FCP and Premiere Pro, Protools but remember those are only tools to show people the art of storytelling that comes from your soul.

NYFA: Do you have any parting advice for students and individuals seeking a career in editing?

LS: Live your life to the fullest and at the end of the day you may have something to say.