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Remembering Jessie Maple, the Trailblazing Black Filmmaker of Cinema

Remembering Jessie Maple, the Trailblazing Black Filmmaker of Cinema

Jessie Maple, who broke barriers and impacted Black women’s access to cinematography and directing, passed away on May 30. She was 86 years old.

Maple’s career as a trailblazing cinematographer led her into directing. She was the first Black woman to write and direct an independent feature-length film in post-civil rights America.

Prior to becoming a journalist for the New York Courier, Maple ran a laboratory during the 1960s and 1970s. Yet, after attending Ossie Davis’ Third World Cinema at the National Education Television Training School, Maple quickly turned her attention to the entertainment industry. In 1974, Maple and her husband, Leroy Patton, founded LJ Productions and operated a venue in Harlem that screened films by independent Black filmmakers.

Also in the 1970s, Maple became the first Black woman to join the International Photographers of Motion Picture & Television Union and to be a member of the Film Editor’s Union and the Cinematographer’s Union. She compiled her experiences of breaking into the profession in a film videotape entitled, How to Become a Union Camerawoman. Maple talks in detail in the film about the lengthy legal battle that led to her admission into the New York Camera Operators’ union. Even after she was admitted, they told the studios not to hire her, which led to her being blacklisted. What they didn’t count on was the fight she had inside of her. So, she sued all the major networks — ABC, CBS, and NBC — and won.

Maple ran into many obstacles making her films, and struggled with finding a venue that would premiere them. So, in 1982, she founded 20 West Theater, Home of Black Cinema in Harlem for showcasing films created by independent and Black filmmakers.

When we talk about Black women breaking barriers, I always connect that with Black freedom, which has been an uphill battle in all aspects of society, including the entertainment industry. Black people have certainly made strides in front of and behind the camera in recent years, but Black women — who are a double and sometimes a triple minority — have often faced more obstacles than their male counterparts, especially when the stories center Black women.

Maple worked for years as a new camerawoman and realized she could “edit the story in the camera and prevent the editor from taking a positive story and making a negative one out of it,” particularly in stories with a race element where Black people were often left out of the news story. In the book Shooting Women: Behind the Camera, Around the World, she explains, “I would shoot the story in a way they couldn’t cut the Black person out of it. They had to see both sides of what happened and what they had to say.”

Moviemaking became a way for Maple to bring a different representation of Black people to the world. Her 1981 film Will featured a then-unknown actor Loretta Devine in a story of a girls’ basketball coach battling heroin addiction while raising a 12-year-old adopted boy. The film included graphic depictions of drug use, including a scene where the boy snorts cocaine and explores the effect of drugs on individuals, their families, and their communities. But more importantly, it shared the positive results of overcoming addiction.

Maple also wrote and directed the 1989 film, Twice as Nice, about twin sisters who play basketball. In addition, Maple discussed her career experiences in two documentaries — Sisters in Cinema (2003) and Women Behind Camera (2007).

Film is really a transformation of ideas and narrative into something we can understand and enjoy cinematically. Despite the sexism, misogynoir, and racism that reduced Black women to stereotypes on screen or left them unrecognized despite their contributions, they have always had a hand in making movies. As representation has expanded for Black women in Hollywood, both in front of and behind the camera, it might appear that Black women only recently began contributing to the cinema landscape. It might also seem as though there was a scarcity of Black women directors who preceded them. However, Black women writers, directors, and cinematographers have made an indelible impact on the cinema landscape.

Zora Neale Hurston’s films Children’s Games (1928), Logging (1928), and Baptism (1929) were a part of her work studying Black culture. Eloyce Gist’s films Hellbound Train (1930) and Verdict Not Guilty (1933) both focused on religious themes. Jane ‘Jennie’ Louise Van Der Zee Touissant Welcome, known as the “Legendary Harlemite”, co-directed and produced the 12-part documentary Doing Their Bit on Black soldiers in World War I. Decades later, Madeline Anderson became the first Black woman to direct a short film within the industry with her 1970 film I Am Somebody.

Ava Duvernay, Gina Prince-Bythewood, Issa Rae, Quinta Brunson, Michaela Coel and more are creating prolific work that offers varied views of Black life and Black womanhood. They are actually trailblazers in their own right, opening doors and breaking barriers.

Jessie Maple Patton’s films, books, and unapologetic push to highlight discrimination and injustices within the news and entertainment industries will remain with us and continue to inspire generations of writers, directors, and filmmakers.

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