Jessie Maple, Pioneering Black Filmmaker, Dies at 76

Jessie Maple, who broke barriers for Black women in entertainment and news as both a cinematographer and director, died on Tuesday in Atlanta. She was 76.

Maple’s family released a statement confirming her death via the Black Film Center & Archive. 

Maple was recognized as the first Black woman to be admitted into the International Photographers of Motion Picture & Television Union in the ‘70s. Her career as a trailblazing cinematographer led her move into directing, making the 1981 independent feature film “Will.” Maple was said to be the first Black woman to direct an independent feature-length film in a post-civil rights America. 

“One of the first Black woman filmmakers to complete a feature length film — is a giant. Her advocacy, mentorship, and care has touched generations of Black filmmakers. Her passing is a true, deep loss,” wrote Black Film Archive curator Maya Cade.

Maple was born in 1947 in Louisiana. Through the ‘60s and ‘70s, Maple led a bacteriology and serology laboratory before going on to write for the New York Courier. 

Maple would dive into the entertainment industry after attending Ossie Davis’ Third World Cinema through the National Education Television Training School. She began working as an apprentice editor on projects such as “Shaft’s Big Score!” and “The Super Cops.” 

Her admission into the New York camera operators union came with a lengthy legal battle, to which Maple recounted in her book “How to Become a Union Camerawoman.” She also joined the Film Editor’s Union and the Cinematographer’s Union, according to a 1976 Ebony profile. 

She directed the 1981 basketball drama “Will,” one of the first films directed by a Black woman in the post-civil-rights era, as well as the 1980 “Twice as Nice,” another basketball-themed feature, in addition to multiple documentaries. Alongside her husband, Leroy Patton, Maple founded LJ Productions and the pair operated 20 West, Home of Black Cinema in Harlem, a venue which screened films by independent and Black filmmakers.

Maple is survived by her husband; Patton, her daughter; Audrey Snipes, her grandson; Nigel Snipes, five sisters, two adopted daughters and several nieces and nephews.

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