Sunday, January 24, 2010

Lee Daniels the first African American trumpeted by DGA in the feature film category

Lee Daniels made history earlier this month when the Director’s Guild of America nominated him for its annual trophy, as the first African American trumpeted by DGA in the feature film category. The director of “Precious” could only describe the phone call notifying him of the honor as “a surreal, humbling, out-of-body experience.”

Here’s a rundown on five of the pioneers who paved the way:

Oscar Micheaux was a self-published novelist who insisted on directing—despite no prior experience—when his book “The Homesteader” was turned into a film in 1919. He went on to write, produce and direct dozens of films in the ‘20s and ‘30s, earning the title The Father of Black Independent Filmmaking; he was honored posthumously with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1987.

Spencer Williams was as versatile as any African American in show business, in his time or since. He not only directed such black-audience films as “The Blood of Jesus” (1941) and “Juke Joint” (1947), he wrote, edited and produced; he also worked as a sound technician when the Talkies first arrived in Hollywood. He is ultimately best remembered as an actor, for all-black westerns like “Harlem Rides the Range,” and especially for his role as Andy in the ‘50s TV version of “Amos ‘n’ Andy.”

George Randol was a producer-director of black-audience films, including the pioneer 1937 black gangster movie “Dark Manhattan” (on which he collaborated with actor-writer Ralph Cooper), “Midnight Shadow” and “Darktown Strutters Ball.” He was also a singer, and performed in such Broadway productions as “Anna Lucasta.”

Gordon Parks, renowned as a photographer for “Life” and “Vogue,” made his Hollywood debut in 1968—by which time such pioneers as Micheaux and Williams had been largely forgotten—with the film version of his novel “The Learning Tree” (writing, producing and composing the music, as well as directing). He went on to direct pictures like “Shaft,” which featured a black hero in the mode of James Bond, and “Leadbelly,” the story of the great blues singer.

Melvin Van Peebles made a name for himself as a novelist and filmmaker in France before gaining entrée to Hollywood. He made his mark in the early ‘70s with films like “Watermelon Man”—which mocked African American stereotypes long before Spike Lee’s “Bamboozled”—and the revolutionary, X-rated “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song,” which provoked controversy in and outside the black community.

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