Ask any director and they’ll tell you that getting your first feature funded and completed is no easy task. And when you’re a director of color, it’s even more daunting. Indeed, it’s no secret that white directors are often afforded greater opportunities to further their careers following their debut features. But for filmmakers of color, there’s the likelihood that their first film could be their last.
That’s what makes this list so special. Over the years, there have been a number of directors of color who have overcome obstacles to deliver brilliant first films. From Sundance premieres receiving standing ovations to history-making award winners, they made us sit up and take notice.
In honor of Awards Circuit’s 10 Year Anniversary, we therefore take this opportunity to celebrate 10 of the best debut films by directors of color since 2008. Whether they have gone on to do even greater things or they are still awaiting their follow-up projects, these talented artists have already left an indelible mark on cinema.
As Hollywood strives for greater inclusion of diverse voices, new directors of color are redefining our notions of what cinema could be. One such example is English-born Iranian-American Ana Lily Amirpour, who put a new spin on classic tropes with her debut feature “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night.” Indeed, this stylish film defies simple categorizations, blending romance, horror and western tropes with 1950s Americana aesthetics and Iranian culture and language. Couple that with some of the best cinematography of the past decade and it’s truly unlike anything we’ve ever seen before.
9. “Songs My Brothers Taught Me”
As Chloé Zhao’s sophomore effort “The Rider” continues to garner stellar notices on the arthouse circuit, it’s worth revisiting her equally outstanding debut feature “Songs My Brothers Taught Me.” Similarly turning our gaze towards life on an Indian reservation, “Songs My Brothers Taught Me” is an understated drama that follows a brother-sister pair with vastly different attitudes towards their native lifestyle. But while the older brother’s big city dreams clash with his sister’s more traditionalist outlook, they have an unbreakable bond. As Zhao explores their relationship as well as their ties to home, she crafts an honest, humane portrait of a quintessential American community.
8. “Get Out”
Released to major critical acclaim and audience enthusiasm, Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” was arguably the defining film of 2017. Satirizing the current sociopolitical climate with humor, wit and relatable terror, Peele’s debut proved that he was a unique cinematic voice waiting to be discovered. For his efforts, Peele was duly awarded for Best Original Screenplay (a first for a black screenwriter) at the Oscars, in addition to nominations for Best Picture and Best Director. We can’t wait to see what he does next.
While some filmmakers take a few films to hone their signature style, there are others like Alonso Ruizpalacios who seem fully accomplished right from the start. Indeed, when Ruizpalacios arrived at the 2014 Berlin Film Festival with his debut feature “Güeros”, you could easily have assumed that it was the latest effort from an established auteur. Immediately boasting a confidence and swagger from its opening frames, this incredibly assured road movie follows a pair of brothers on a vibrant odyssey through Mexico City. Shot in dazzling black and white, this must-see film appropriately won numerous first feature prizes along the festival circuit.
6. “I Am Not a Witch”
While African cinema is still jockeying for a more prominent place on the world cinema scene, the past ten years has proven that there is abundant talent among its budding filmmakers. One such rising star is Zambia’s Rungano Nyoni, who turned more than a few heads with her debut feature “I Am Not a Witch“. Brilliantly absurd yet culturally specific, it centers on a young girl who is banished to a witches’ camp after an incident in her village. As the girl proceeds to be alternately exalted and exploited, Nyoni constantly surprises us with this fascinating tale that won her a BAFTA this year for Outstanding Debut.
5. “Dear White People”
While filmmakers have traditionally followed up their breakout films with further cinematic efforts, Justin Simien took a different route to become a potential household name. As the creator of the buzzy TV series “Dear White People“, Simien has the enviable privilege of expanding and deepening the world of his debut feature of the same name, which aptly won him a special Sundance Jury Award for Breakthrough Talent. Indeed, Simien’s talent is obvious in this topical 2014 dramedy which sharply examines fraught race relations in one of the historical pillars of white privilege – an Ivy League college. As expected, the narrative that ensues is thought-provoking with a satirical premise. But perhaps even more impressively, Simien also displays a fresh comedic vision that is quirky, funny, sexy and oh so cool.
4. “Ilo Ilo”
One of the most common pieces of advice given to aspiring screenwriters is “write what you know.” In 2013, Singapore’s Anthony Chen did exactly that when he made his debut feature “Ilo Ilo.” Chen drew inspiration from his own childhood experiences to craft this tender portrait of a middle-class family in Singapore during the 1997 Asian financial crisis. Featuring a slew of brilliant performances – especially Angeli Bayani as the family’s Filipino maid – “Ilo Ilo” broke new ground for Singaporean cinema when it won a historic Camera d’Or award at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival.
At first glance, the basic premise for Haifaa al-Mansour’s “Wadjda” seems deceptively simple. In simplified terms, it is about a young girl who wants to buy her own bicycle. But set against the backdrop of a conservative and patriarchal Saudi Arabian society, the film takes on a deeper meaning. Directed with rare warmth and sensitivity, Haifaa al-Mansour strikes a delicate balance between challenging the status quo and respecting the culture. The result is a truly winning film that instills a sense of hope in those who watch it.
There’s no doubt that queer sexuality is becoming increasingly prevalent in the “coming of age” genre, with studio releases such as “Blockers” and “Love, Simon” bringing the experiences of gay characters to the forefront. But for one of the decade’s best examples of “coming of age while coming out,” you’ll have to look to independent film with 2011’s “Pariah.” This award-winning debut from Dee Rees is a complex portrayal of adolescence, as a black New York teen struggles to express herself as her lesbian sexuality causes friction with friends, family and society. Showcasing a synergy of expressive cinematography from Bradford Young, honest performances and the raw poetry of the overall filmmaking, “Pariah” was a harbinger of great things to come for the now Oscar-nominated Dee Rees.
Of all the directors on this list, the most impressive career trajectory so far belongs to Cary Fukunaga. You may know him from his work on Netflix’s “Beast of No Nation” or HBO’s “True Detective,” but this fast-rising auteur had already shown off his skills in his debut feature “Sin Nombre.” Indeed, it was through this American border-set crime drama that we first witnessed his impeccable knack for visual storytelling, complex characters, and almost unbearable tension. Fukunaga received raves and numerous awards for the film and has since gone from strength to strength.