Black Directors, Writers, and Actors Expand Television: Who and What To Watch During Black History Month

Black History Month artwork

February is Black History Month, a time to celebrate African Americans’ triumphs, innovations, and the fight to achieve equality throughout our country’s history. And that struggle isn’t only reserved for the history books. For decades, Black directors, writers, and showrunners have worked hard to break barriers on television, from the groundbreaking African American sitcoms of the 1970s to the premiere of Black Entertainment Television (BET) in the 1980s and The Oprah Winfrey Network in early 2011. 

But how are Black TV stars shaping the media landscape today? Let’s take a look at some of the talented Black directors, writers, producers, and actors who are reinventing American entertainment—and the shows that you’re not going to want to miss. 

Vanessa Middleton

Writer, director, and producer, the multitalented Middleton wrote for The Apollo Comedy Hour, Saturday Night Live, and Cosby before breaking through with her directorial film debut in the comedy 30 Years to Life in 2001. Among other projects, the Emmy-and-Sundance-nominated Middleton is currently a creator, showrunner, and executive producer on the hit BET series Games People Play, a too-hot-to-touch thriller that casts aside the curtain from the cutthroat world of professional sports.

Lena Waithe

A primetime Emmy-award recipient and one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People of 2018, Waithe is an actor, screenwriter, and producer. With acting credits in the HBO series Westworld and the Steven Spielberg film Ready Player One, Waithe leaped to prominence as the creator of three hit shows: Showtime’s The Chi, about life in a south-side Chicago neighborhood; the BET series Boomerang, which explores changing gender roles and conflicts in the workplace; and Twenties, a semi-autobiographical series featuring a queer Black woman and her two straight best friends. In her Emmy speech, Waithe, who has also come out as a lesbian, addressed her “LGBTQIA family” by stating, “The things that make us different — those are our superpowers.”

Donald Glover

Also known by his stage name Childish Gambino, this writer, comedian, rapper, singer, and director paved new ground with the FX sitcom Atlanta, which follows the exploits of music manager “Earn” Marks and rapper Paper Boi as they try to make their way to the top of the Atlanta rap scene. In the words of TVLine, this “wildly imaginative Emmy-winning comedy us[es] surreal humor to shed light on tough topics like police brutality and racial profiling without relying on stereotypes.” Glover’s extensive film credits also include The Lazarus Effect, Magic Mike XXL, The Martian, Spider-Man: Homecoming, and Solo: A Star Wars Story.

Matthew Cherry
Matthew Cherry

No discussion of Black directors would be complete without mentioning Matthew Cherry. The former professional football player broke a Kickstarter record for most money raised for his animated short film, Hair Love, which went on to win an Academy Award. Cherry then developed an animated sequel series Young Love, which was picked up by HBO Max. Among other television credits, he has also directed episodes of Black-ish, The Unicorn, and Saved by the Bell, and has a first-look deal with Warner Brothers Television.

Celebrating Black Media (and Not Just in February)

Black History Month didn’t happen overnight—it was the result of decades of effort by thousands of activists and allies. In the same way, the successes of the Black directors, writers, and actors mentioned above were also made possible by years of work overcoming racial barriers, prejudices, and stereotypes that kept people of color out of prominent positions in television for far too long. 

This month, we’re asking our audiences to remember that celebrating Black history isn’t reserved for the month of February. Increasing Black representation on television (and beyond) is important all year long. To find out more about our work to promote greater diversity on television, click here.