In honor of Black History Month, the On Air Design team is spotlighting Black pioneers of the entertainment industry and celebrating change-makers of the present.
William D. Foster
William Foster (b. 1884) was a pioneering film producer and an influential figure in the Black film industry during the early 20th century. In 1910, Foster formed the Foster Photoplay Company, the first independent Black film company. Over his career, Foster created movies that addressed the pervasive stereotypes of Black Americans in film while also opening the door for Black filmmakers. He is credited with helping to lay the groundwork for the modern Black film industry as we know it today.
Lauded as the father of Black filmmaking, Oscar Micheaux (b. 1884) was a writer turned filmmaker who directly challenged the derogatory images of Black Americans on screen. He wrote, directed, and produced the first Black-made film in 1919 and went on to create over 40 movies that examined issues of racism and classism. Micheaux is celebrated for his entrepreneurism, challenging the status quo, and telling stories that Hollywood would not tell.
Learn more about Micheaux's life story and filmography here.
Actor, activist, and journalist Fredi Washington (b. 1903) performed in nine films and a number of Broadway productions throughout her career, including the Oscar-nominated movie Imitation of Life (1934). After her film career ended, she became a Civil Rights activist, working closely with NAACP president Walter White and becoming a founder of the Negro Actors Guild of America. Washington kept a foot in the entertainment industry working as an editor for The People's Voice, a progressive Black newspaper, and a casting consultant.
Sidney Poitier (b. 1927) was the first Black actor to be nominated for an Academy Award (Defiant Ones, 1958) and the first one to win best actor (Lilies of the Field, 1963). Poitier's performances changed the industry and perception of Black Americans with his portrayal of honorable, stoic, and self-respecting characters. In 1967, he was the biggest film star in the country with the release of three huge hits that year (To Sir, With Love, In the Heat of the Night, and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner), a feat made more remarkable considering it was the peak of the civil-rights movement and widespread unrest.
Learn more about Poitier's historic career here.
Art Sims (b. 1954) is an influential graphic designer and art director who made a name for himself designing movie posters in Los Angeles, CA. "I love doing work for and about African Americans. I feel I am reshaping history to show our beauty," says Sims who's work includes iconic poster art for Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X. Today he is the founder and CEO of his own firm, 11:24 Design Advertising, a full service entertainment design agency that specializes in creating art that promotes Black art and culture.
Learn more about Sims' design journey here.
Black filmmaking would not be what it is today without Spike Lee (b. 1957). From Lee's groundbreaking first film She's Gotta Have It (1986) to today, he has made an unwavering commitment to documenting Black culture and creating opportunities for Black creatives both in front and behind the camera. His production company, 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks, has produced more than 35 films since 1983.
See Lee's entire filmography here.
Ava DuVernay (b. 1972) first picked up a camera at age 32, and during her relatively short career has already made history as a writer, director, and producer. She was the first Black woman to win Best Director at the Sundance Film Festival, be nominated for a Best Director Golden Globe, direct a film nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, and direct a film with a budget over $100 million. Her work has made her the highest grossing Black woman director in American box office history, and with no signs of slowing down, will no doubt continue to make history in the entertainment industry.