Top 10 directors of color
In an ever-changing landscape like Hollywood, there are many directors who emerge as trendsetters in the industry. We’ve gathered the top ten diverse directors making moves in the industry, and counted them down below. The rankings are based on number of films, total box office draw and critical approval for wide releases, awards, and other career accomplishments. Whether you’ve heard of them or not, these individuals are making a difference from behind the camera (and some, in front of it). See our countdown below:
10. Patricia Riggen Total Box Office: $126,637,480 Ratings Average: 47.5%
Notable movies: Under the Same Moon, Girl in Progress, The 33, Miracles from Heaven
Growing up in Guadalajara, Mexico, Patricia Riggen began her career as a journalist before crossing over to film, teaching her how to gather information on several of her films inspired by true stories. Earlier this year, she released Miracles from Heaven, a Christian drama film following the true story of the Beam family, whose daughter miraculously recovered from an incurable disease after a near death experience. The film made over $73 million on a $13 million budget and won her a Teen Choice Award for best drama. She also worked on biographical drama The 33, which recounted the story of 33 Chilean miners trapped in the Copiapó mine collapse in 2010.
Riggen hadn’t even considered she could be a film director at first, especially since English was not her first language. She pursued her master’s degree in film at Columbia University where she wrote dialogue-free short films. One of her first short films depicted an impoverished African American family struggling to survive in Harlem. Her directorial debut La Misma Luna (Under the Same Moon) followed a mother working illegally in Los Angeles to provide for her family who live in Mexico. The movie was snatched up at its premier at Sundance, and went on to make over $23 million at the box office.
Riggen’s own inspiring story, as well as the inspiring stories she tells, easily places her on this list.
Notable movies: Belle, A Way of Life, A United Kingdom
She may not have as many credits as other directors on this list, but Amma Asante has been involved with filmmaking her entire life. One of CNN’s 2014 Leading Women, she only has two directorial features so far, but her career began as a child actress, when she appeared in British drama Grange Hill. Asante grew up in London, where her parents immigrated from Ghana. When she crossed to the other side of the camera as director and screenwriter, she immediately gathered critical acclaim. Her 2004 debut A Way of Life attracted 17 international awards after premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival, including a BAFTA award for British filmmaker debut.
She didn’t release her next film for another decade, but it was time well spent. Belle, a British period piece, made $16.5 million at the box office, and earned her a nod at the NAACP 2014 awards. Asante said she hopes to promote sisterhood with her films, and enjoys putting smart women on screen. Her next film, A United Kingdom starring David Oyelowo, premiered at this year’s TIFF, and will hit theaters in the United States next year.
Notable movies: The Best Man, Undercover Brother, Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins, Barbershop: The Next Cut
Malcolm D. Lee’s talent for directing action and comedy has made him a mainstay at the box office. He’s directed and written hits since 1999, including The Best Man franchise, the second Barbershop, and Scary Movie 5. Cousin of Spike Lee, he grew up as the only non-white student in his school. “I was thought in my mind the life I was leading was an interesting one, because from fifth grade until twelfth grade I was the only black male in my class, and that was eight years,” he said.
Lee’s movies tend to turn large profits on small budgets. This year’s Barbershop: The Next Cut turned a $20 million budget into a $55 box office hit, while scoring 90% approval from critics. The success of The Best Man ($34 million return on $9 million budget) turned it into an unlikely franchise, with The Best Man Holiday hitting screens fourteen years after the original, and a third installment in its pre-production phase. Lee’s knack for churning out hits earned him his place on this list.
Notable movies: Salaam Bombay!, Mississippi Masala, Monsoon Wedding, Queen of Katwe
Mira Nair started her directorial career boldly. After years of creating documentaries, her first feature film, Salaam Bombay!, tackled the issue of children growing up on the streets of India, where she grew up. The film used documentary styling to tell the real story of an 11-year-old boy forced to grow up without a home. Nair won 23 international awards for the film, which was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, India’s second nomination ever. While filming the movie, Nair set up an organization called Salaam Baalak Trust to help support homeless children all across India.
Nair went on to direct over ten more features, including Queen of Katwe, which is currently in theaters and stars Lupita Nyong’o. The filmmaker uses her medium to tell controversial stories and create opportunities for others. She helped found Maisha Film Lab in Uganda to give young East African filmmakers an opportunity to grow. The lab’s motto is, “If we don’t tell our stories, no one else will.” Nair’s activism and accolades make her an important director who tells important stories.
Notable Movies: Training Day, Olympus Has Fallen, The Equalizer, The Magnificent Seven
It’s no small feat that, after nearly two decades of directing films, Antoine Fuqua achieved his highest debut a few weeks ago with The Magnificent Seven. The 50-year-old director rose to prominence in 2001 when crime thriller Training Day bowed, winning Denzel Washington the Academy Award for Best Actor. Since then, Fuqua has churned out numerous box office draws with his buddy Denzel. Now, box office trends point to Magnificent besting all previous records he set during his impressive career.
Fuqua started his career as a music video director, working with the likes of Usher, Stevie Wonder and Prince. His first feature, The Replacement Killers, bombed hard, drawing negative reception and earning about $10 million less than its budget. It opened next to Titanic, which went on to be the top-grossing movie in history for many years, as luck would have it. Fuqua was able to bounce back with Training Day, though, cementing his long-standing reputation as an action director. If Magnificent is any indication, we haven’t even seen the best from him yet.
Notable movies: Fruitvale Station, Creed
He may only have two feature films to base it off of, but Ryan Coogler’s sterling 94% approval average is a promising start to what is sure to be a long-lasting career. When Coogler graduated college, he was torn between playing football and pursuing a career in film. He apparently made the right decision, as his directorial debut, Fruitvale Station, won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and also scored him the Best First Film trophy at Cannes in 2013. It tells the true story of an unarmed man shot by a cop. “If I can get two hours’ of people’s time, I can affect them more than if they threw a trash can through a window,” he said.
Coogler’s next step had big boxing gloves to fill. He wrote, directed and produced Creed, spinoff to Sylvester Stallone’s famous Rocky films. The film was a critical and financial success, attracting almost 50 award nominations and even slotting Stallone back in the Oscar race. Coogler will next work on Black Panther, an upcoming Marvel film starring the franchise’s first black superhero in a leading role. Alongside fellow director Ava DuVernay (who may or may not be higher on this list), Coogler is one of the leaders of the Blackout For Human Rights campaign, using his accelerated career start for good.
Notable Movies: El Mariachi, From Dusk Till Dawn, the Spy Kids series, Sin City, Machete
Robert Rodriguez is famous for his work ethic. In his decade-spanning career, Rodriguez uses what he calls “one-man crew” directing technique, in which he has a say in every aspect of the film, including directing, writing, editing, advertising and special effects. “Creativity, not money, is used to solve problems,” he writes on the back of his book Rebel Without a Crew. His first feature El Mariachi was created on a $7,000 budget, on which it earned a $2 million turn.
Something must work, because the director has spawned numerous critical and box office hits throughout his career. The original Spy Kids trilogy each returned big financial numbers. They were little kid fare compared to his other work, though, with action movies like Machete and Sin City proving to be more violent, but equally successful. The filmmaker frequently collaborates with Quentin Tarantino and Danny Trejo, and his work ethic has laid the foundation for his successful career.
Notable movies: The Fast and the Furious franchise, Star Trek: Beyond
As far as box office accumulation goes, Justin Lin is the untouched king on this list. Born in Taipei, Taiwan, Lin became the standard actor for The Fast and the Furious movies with his third feature film, Tokyo Drift. He directed the next three installments of the franchise, and while they weren’t necessarily nominated for Best Picture (he’s one of the lowest rated on the list, after all), he brought in hundreds of millions for the series, nearing a total gross of a billion domestically.
Lin established himself as a directorial force when he crossed over into the Star Trek franchise for its third installment, Beyond. As a kid, Lin and his family immigrated to America and lived in fear of immigration each day after their visa expired. Even after he began his career, he faced adversity as a director; in a Q&A after the premier of his film Better Luck Tomorrow, Roger Ebert himself scolded a few critics for asking him racially skewed questions.
Lin’s successes extend far beyond the number he has earned from ticket sales. Despite his beginnings, the director has blazed a trail in commercial film performance.
Notable movies: I Will Follow, Middle of Nowhere, Selma, 13th
Despite just starting out her directing career, Ava DuVernay is somehow already omniscient in the directing landscape. The director, who was the first black female to have her film be nominated for Best Picture, broke through with 2014’s historical drama Selma. Since then she’s been frequenting the awards circuit and dabbling in other types of film such as television and documentaries. Queen Sugar is a ratings hit on OWN, and her doc 13th about race in the United States criminal justice system releases on Netflix this week.
DuVernay uses film to empower females and people of color. Her first notable critical success came when she won Sundance’s best director prize in 2012 for Middle of Nowhere. In Selma, her direction and David Oyelowo’s performance humanized Martin Luther King Jr. Each episode of Queen Sugar sees a different female director stepping up to the helm. She also started a film company ARRAY in order to give more colored voices a platform.
A voice like DuVernay’s is just what film needs in order to cultivate and grow in the right direction.
Notable movies: Sense and Sensibility, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hulk, Brokeback Mountain, Life of Pi
Ang Lee is one of the most revered directors in Hollywood. He’s collected nine Golden Globes, twelve Academy Awards, and 14 BAFTA awards during his career. Lee is an example of someone who puts great value into their art. After graduating from Tisch School of Arts, he remained unemployed for six years while looking for work to not give up on his film career. During this time, thirty production companies rejected his script, but his wife supported him financially and emotionally to continue making film.
Never giving up on his dream paid off for Lee. He debuted his Father Knows Best trilogy in Taiwan before crossing over to Hollywood with Sense and Sensibility, which earned a healthy $134 million on $16 million. It was all uphill from there. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon became the highest grossing foreign language film in American history, a surprising international hit for a movie with entirely Mandarin dialogue. Lee won the Oscar for Best Director twice with Brokeback Mountain and Life of Pi. Growing up in Taiwan, he features diverse cultures and settings in his films.
His next film is Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, which will open November 11 and is already looking to do heavy damage this upcoming awards season. Lee is a true example of what a diverse director can hope to accomplish in Hollywood.