Jessie Maple is the first African American woman to direct an independent feature-length film. She was a cinematographer and director who is recognized as a trailblazer for African American women in the film industry and in the fight for their civil rights.
Jessie was one of eleven and was born in 1947 in Louisiana. Jessie was initially a lab bacteriologist, but decided to work toward putting a positive image of African Americans on the screen after growing tired of seeing on the negative. She trained in programs run by WNET public television and with the Third World Cinema. She also handled camerawork and editing for NBC, ABC, and CBS affiliates in New York. Her film career began when she worked as an apprentice editor for Shaft’s Big Score! and The Super Cops. She was soon admitted to the Film Editor’s Union and passed the exam to be accepted into the Cinematographer’s Union.
Jessie faced a long legal struggle in order to gain admittance into the New York camera operators union in 1973. In 1974, she and her husband, Leroy, established LJ Films Productions to produce short documentaries. She became the first African American woman to join the membership of the International Photographers of Motion Picture & Television (IATSE) in 1975. The next year, she published How to Become a Union Camerawoman detailing her battle to be accepted into the camera operator’s union.
She released er first documentary, Methadone: Evil Spirit or Wonder Drug (1975-1976) in 1976. She released the independent film Will in 1981 and was cited as the “first African-American woman to direct an independent feature-length film in the post-civil rights era.” The film focused on a girls’ basketball coach who was struggling with heroin addiction. Jessie did not shy away from the drug issues facing Harlem, and she was lauded for capturing the essence and spirit of the people of Harlem. It was shot on a $12,000 budget and featured a young Loretta Devine. She won an award at the Athens International Film Festival for Will and it was used as an educational film by many drug rehabilitation centers in New York.
Jessie and her husband opened the 20 West Theater, Home of Black Cinema in their home in 1982 to show her film and others created by black artists. Jessie and her husband created the cinema to give people choice. They even premiered Spike Lee’s films there before anyone else.
Her second film, Twice As Nice, was released in 1989. Jessie is a powerful example of a woman who had to create her own opportunities when she faced obstacles to achieving her dreams. She persisted through a LOT OF CRAP. Jessie’s papers and personal collection are currently at the Black Film Center/Archive (BFC/A) at Indiana Bloomington.