Jessie Maple, Pioneering Black Filmmaker, Dies at 86

Jessie Maple Patton, who broke barriers for Black women in entertainment and news as both a cinematographer and director, died on Tuesday in Atlanta. She was 86.

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

Patton 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.” Patton 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.

Patton was born in 1937 in Louisiana. Through the ‘60s and ‘70s, Patton led a bacteriology and serology laboratory before going on to write for the New York Courier.

Patton 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 Patton 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 drama “Will,” one of the first films directed by a Black woman in the post-civil-rights era, as well as the 1989 “Twice as Nice,” a basketball-themed feature, in addition to multiple documentaries. Alongside her husband, Leroy Patton, Patton founded LJ Productions and the pair operated 20 West, Home of Black Cinema in Harlem, a venue which screened films by independent Black filmmakers.

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

“Be blessed. Hug the hugless, love the loveless. Feed the hungry, help the helpless. Encourage the sad and always give an encouraging word.” — Jessie Maple Patton

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