11. Melvin Van Peebles
Born on August 21, 1932, in Chicago, Illinois, Melvin Peebles (he would add the ‘Van’ to his name when he lived in the Netherlands in his 20s) was a pioneering actor, filmmaker, playwright, novelist, and composer. He had a wealth of talent and had a lot to say with it. His first feature-length film, 1967’s ‘The Story of a Three-Day Pass,’ featured a black US soldier demoted for consorting with a white girl in France. He caught the attention of Hollywood producers who mistook him for a French auteur.
His Hollywood directing debut came with the 1970 Columbia Pictures comedy about a white, racist 60s-era insurance salesman who wakes up to find he’s black titled ‘Watermelon Man.’ The following year would see Van Peebles take control of his career as he would write, direct, edit, write the score, direct the marketing campaign, and of course star in his self-funded 1971 classic ‘Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song.’ The movie became so popular and profitable that it ushered in the blaxploitation genre. Van Peebles died on September 21, 2021, at his home in Manhattan, New York, at the age of 89.