Black American Firsts in Film and Theatre

Actor, film director, author and diplomat Sidney Poitier, African-American jazz vocalist, songwriter and actress Abbey Lincoln, Beau Bridges, Lauri Peters, Nan Martin and Carroll OConnor during filming of the movie For Love Of Ivy, August 31, 1968.
Sidney Poitier (seated left), during filming of the movie “For Love Of Ivy.”.

Afro Newspaper / Gado / Contributor / Getty Images

Who was the first Black American to produce a full-length feature film? Who was the first to win an Academy Award? 

Learn about several influential Black Americans in the entertainment industry.

01
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Lincoln Motion Picture Company: First Black American Film Company

Poster for "A Man's Duty" (1919) by Lincoln Motion Picture Company
Poster for "A Man's Duty" (1919) by Lincoln Motion Picture Company. Public Domain

In 1916, Noble and George Johnson established The Lincoln Motion Picture Company. Founded in Omaha, Nebraska, the Johnson Brothers made Lincoln Motion Picture Company the first Black American film production company. The company's debut film was entitled "The Realization of the Negro's Ambition." 

By 1917, Lincoln Motion Picture Company had offices in California. Although the company was only in operation for five years, the movies produced by Lincoln Motion Picture Company featured Black Americans in family-oriented films.

02
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Oscar Micheaux: First Black Film Director

Filmmaker Oscar Micheaux and a poster of the movie, Murder in Harlem
Filmmaker Oscar Micheaux and a poster of the movie, Murder in Harlem. Public Domain

Oscar Micheaux became the first Black American to produce a full-length feature film when The Homesteader premiered at movie houses in 1919.

The following year, Micheaux released Within Our Gates, a response to D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation. 

For the next 30 years, Micheaux produced and directed films that challenged Jim Crow Era society.

03
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Hattie McDaniel: First to Win an Oscar

Hattie McDaniel, first Black American to win an Oscar, 1940
Hattie McDaniel, first Black American to win an Oscar, 1940. Getty Images

In 1940, actress and performer Hattie McDaniel won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of Mammy in the film, Gone with the Wind (1939). McDaniel made history that evening as she became the first Black American to win an Academy Award.

McDaniel worked as a singer, songwriter, comedian, and actress and was well-known as she was the first Black American woman to sing on the radio in the United States. She appeared in more than 300 films.

McDaniel was born on June 10, 1895, in Kansas to formerly enslaved parents. She died on October 26, 1952, in California.

04
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James Baskett: First to Win an Honorary Academy Award

James Baskett, first Black American to receive an honorary Oscar, 1948
James Baskett, first Black American to receive an honorary Oscar, 1948. Public Domain

Actor James Baskett received an Honorary Academy Award in 1948 for his depiction of Uncle Remus in the Disney film, Song of the South (1946). Baskett is best known for this role, singing the song, "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah.”

05
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Juanita Hall: First to Win a Tony Award

Juanita Hall in South Pacific first Black American to win a Tony Award
Juanita Hall in South Pacific first Black American to win a Tony Award.

Carl Van Vechten / Public Domain

In 1950, actress Juanita Hall won a Tony Award for Best Supporting Actress for playing Bloody Mary in the stage version of South Pacific. This success made Hall the first Black American to win a Tony Award.

Juanita Hall’s work as a musical theatre and film actress is well regarded. She is best known for her portrayal of Bloody Mary and Auntie Liang in the stage and screen versions of Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals South Pacific and Flower Drum Song.

Hall was born on November 6, 1901, in New Jersey. She died on February 28, 1968, in New York.

06
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Sidney Poitier: First to Win an Academy Award for Best Actor

Sidney Poitier, holding Oscar and looking in mirror backstage at the Academy Awards, 1964
Sidney Poitier, holding Oscar and looking in mirror backstage at the Academy Awards, 1964. Getty Images

In 1964, Sidney Poitier became the first Black American to win an Academy Award for Best Actor. Poitier’s role in Lilies of the Field won him the award.

Poitier launched his acting career as a member of the American Negro Theater. In addition to appearing in more than 50 films, Poitier has directed films, published books, and has served as a diplomat.

07
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Gordon Parks: First Major Film Director

Gordon Parks
Gordon Parks, 1975.

Getty Images / Hulton Archives

Gordon Parks' work as a photographer made him famous, but he is also the first Black director to direct a full-length feature film. 

Parks began working as a film consultant for several Hollywood productions in the 1950s. He was also commissioned by National Educational Television to direct a series of documentaries focused on Black American life in urban environments.

By 1969, Parks adapted his autobiography, The Learning Tree into a film. But he did not stop there. 

Throughout the 1970s, Parks directed films such as Shaft, Shaft’s Big Score, The Super Cops and Leadbelly.

Parks also directed Solomon Northup's Odyssey in 1984, based on the narrative "Twelve Years a Slave." 

Parks was born on November 30, 1912, in Fort Scott, Kan. He died in 2006. 

08
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Julie Dash: First Black Woman to Direct and Produce a Full Length Film

Poster for the movie, Daughters of the Dust
Poster of "Daughters of the Dust," 1991.

John D. Kisch / Separate Cinema Archive / Getty Images

In 1992 Daughters of the Dust was released and Julie Dash became the first Black woman to direct and produce a full-length film.

In 2004, Daughters of the Dust was included in the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress.

In 1976, Dash made her directorial debut with the film Working Models of Success. The following year, she directed and produced the award-winning Four Women, based on the song by Nina Simone.

Throughout her career, Dash has directed music videos and made for television movies including The Rosa Parks Story

09
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Halle Berry: First to Win an Academy Award for Best Actress

Hallie Berry standing with her Oscar
Halle Berry, first Black woman to win Best Leading Actress, 2002. Getty Images

In 2001, Halle Berry won an Academy Award for Best Actress for her role in Monster’s Ball. Berry became the first Black woman to win an Academy Award as a leading actress.

Berry began her career in entertainment as a beauty pageant contest and model before becoming an actress.

In addition to her Oscar, Berry was awarded an Emmy Award and Golden Globe Award for Best Actress for her portrayal of Dorothy Dandridge in Introducing Dorothy Dandridge (1999).

10
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Cheryl Boone Isaacs: President of AMPAS

Cheryl Boone Isaacs
Cheryl Boone Isaacs, first Black American to be appointed to President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Jessie Grant / Getty Images

Cheryl Boone Isaacs is a film marketing executive who was appointed as the 35th President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS). Isaacs is the first Black American and the third woman to hold this position.