Melvin Van Peebles
Though primarily known as a director, the multi-talented Melvin Van Peebles also distinguished himself as an author, theatrical director, actor, and even Wall Street trader. But it was his breakthrough film, "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song" (1971), that venerated him to generations of filmmakers and fans of the blaxploitation movement he spawned while making him an iconic figure within the African-American community. Though none of his subsequent directing work had a comparable impact to "Sweetback," Van Peebles remained visible as an actor and director with a variety of film and television projects while taking a detour down Wall Street as a successful trader and municipal bonds manager in the mid-1980s. While he returned to directing with films like "Identity Crisis" (1989) and the politically-charged "Panther" (1995), which was attacked by critics on both the left and right, Van Peebles was unable to duplicate past success. Nonetheless, he remained an iconic presence in films by a younger generation of black filmmakers: Van Peebles' career as a director was less important for its artistic finesse than for the fact that his grittier-than-Hollywood portraits of black America somehow made it through the system despite institutional and societal roadblocks.