Famed director/cinematographer Jessie Maple has passed away.
Maple made her transition on May 30, 2023, at her home in Atlanta, Georgia in the company of family members. She was 76 years old.
Jessie Maple is known throughout the film world for having been the first Black woman to join the entertainment industry’s camera operator’s union, the International Photographers of Motion Picture & Television (IATSE), in 1975. After becoming a camera operator, Maple published the book “How to Become a Union Camerawoman: Film-videotape” (1977) to help steer others toward information they needed to know to also join the union.
Maple was also the first Black women to direct a feature-length film. Her movie “Will” came out in 1981 and starred the future award-winning actress, Loretta Devine. Her second feature, “Twice as Nice,” came out in 1989: the film stars real-life twins Pamela and Paula McGee who play Columbia University basketball players who are trying to break into the world of women’s professional basketball. Ironically, WNBA star Cynthia Cooper-Dyke also had a central role in this film whose characters were concerned with trying to get into what was at the time only a fictional idea of a professional basketball league for women in the United States.
In the New York City area, Maple is also remembered for having owned and operated “20 WEST—Home of Black Cinema,” a small theater space she carved out in the basement of the Harlem townhouse she had owned at 20 West 120th Street. 20 WEST showcased the work of Black filmmakers from around the world. Maple and her husband, Leroy Patton, often personally welcomed visitors to the space: Leroy would run the film projector and Jessie supplied homemade cookies and popcorn for patrons. And, full disclosure, this writer also lived in the building and helped out at 20 WEST alongside both Jessie and Leroy. The small theater space was open and running up until 1992.
Indiana University’s Black Film Center & Archive, which maintains the “Jessie Maple Collection, 1971-1992” issued a statement from Maple’s family on May 31st, which announced her death.
“Jessie Maple is recognized as the first Black woman to write and produce a full-length film independently. She also holds the distinct honor of the first Black woman to join the filmmakers’ union. Her films, books, and unapologetic push to highlight discrimination and injustices within the news and entertainment industries will remain with us. The world through Jessie’s lens offers views of humanity that are often overlooked due to race and power dynamics.
“Jessie loved her family and left an extensive group of family and loved ones to cherish her legacy including husband Leroy Patton, only daughter Audrey Snipes, and grandson Nigel Snipes. She also leaves behind five sisters, two adopted daughters, and a host of loving nieces, nephews, cousins, and friends. Details for a public memorial to follow in the coming months.”