Filmmaker Jessie Maple © LeRoy Patton. Black Film Center Archive, Indiana University, Bloomington
Anjola Fashawe explores the groundbreaking work of Jessie Maple, who elevated the representation of Black voices in cinema
Black History Month in the UK carries a profound significance, and this year’s theme, ‘Saluting Our Sisters’ resonates deeply with me. It’s a personal celebration of the powerful Black women who have paved the way for young women like me.
I have grown up in London, as a British-Nigerian woman of Yoruba descent, surrounded by extraordinary female role models including my aunties, older sister and my mother. Their resilience, wisdom and love have played a pivotal part in shaping who I am today, watching the way they never give up and continue to find positivity even when life doesn’t always go to plan.
Among the remarkable Black women who influence me, Jessie Maple stands out as a true trailblazer. Her story is not just an inspiration but a source of motivation for me as I share her passion for filmmaking and journalism.
Maple’s journey in the world of communications took a significant turn in the 1970s when she shifted from writing a column to pursuing a career in broadcast journalism. She was the first Black woman to join the cinematographers’ union in 1975, in New York, which marked a significant moment in cinematic history for Black women.
Jessie Maple’s determination and legacy are a constant reminder that Black History Month extends way beyond a single month
Filmmaker Jessie Maple © LeRoy Patton. Black Film Center Archive
What stands out to me about Maple’s work is her commitment to presenting important narratives and challenging conventions. She insisted on showing all sides of the story, offering dignity and respect to the Black experience.
Maple’s films reinforce the possibility that storytelling is a universal language that can bridge cultural gaps and connect people across backgrounds and borders. Storytelling has always played a part in making sense of my life, allowing me to freely explore my heritage and identity, as well as connecting me with like-minded people.
My passion for film often clashes with my family’s belief that STEM careers offer financial stability compared to the arts. However, I think it is important that Black communities celebrate both creativity and practicality, recognising that they can coexist harmoniously.
Maple broke barriers, becoming the first Black woman to produce, write and direct an independent feature film, ‘Will’ (1981). Her film explores pressing issues such as addiction and homelessness – a testament to her dedication to shedding light on difficult and taboo topics.
Jessie Maple in 2020 © Black Film Center Archive
She also explores themes of sisterhood, community and Black achievement in her feature film ‘Twice as Nice’. The importance of uplifting one another and highlighting important issues within the Black community is a message that’s close to my heart as a young Black woman.
Maple’s films continued to break racial and gender barriers, challenging existing stereotypes. Her spirit never wavered despite numerous obstacles, including blacklisting and lawsuits. Her determination and legacy are a constant reminder that Black History Month extends beyond a single month – it’s a year-round celebration of the remarkable achievements of Black people.
Sadly, Maple died earlier this year (May 2023) at age 86. Her work stands as evidence of the formidable impact of creativity and commitment to authenticity. She boldly demanded respect and honour for Black people in cinema, inspiring new generations of filmmakers, storytellers and creatives, including me.
She not only preserved our cultural heritage but also paved the way for a more inclusive and diverse future.
Check out more here about Jessie Maple’s amazing life and works.