Jessie Mabel, who broke barriers for black women in entertainment and news as a cinematographer and director, died Tuesday in Atlanta. She was 76 years old.
Maple was recognized as the first black woman to be admitted to the International Motion Picture and Television Photographers Association in the 1970s. Her career as a leading cinematographer led her transition into directing, making the 1981 independent feature film Will. Maple has been said to be the first black woman to direct an independent feature film in post-civil rights America.
“One of the first black women filmmakers to complete a feature film – Giant. Her advocacy, mentorship, and care have influenced generations of black filmmakers. Her death is a real and profound loss,” Maya Kidd, Curator of the Black Film Archive, wrote.
Maple was born in 1947 in Louisiana. During the 1960s and 1970s, Mabel led a bacteriology and serology lab before moving on to write for the New York Courier.
Maple was diving into the entertainment industry after attending Ossie Davis’ Third World Cinema through the National Television Education Training School. She began working as an intern editor on projects such as Shaft’s Big Score! and “Super Cops”.
Her joining the New York Camera Operators Union came with a protracted legal battle, which Mabel recounts in her book How to Become a Photographer in the Union. She also joined the Association of Motion Picture Editors and the Association of Cinematographers, according to an Ebony profile in 1976.
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 1980’s Twice as Nice, another basketball-themed film, as well as multiple documentaries. Together with her husband, Leroy Patton, Maple founded LJ Productions and the two ran 20 West, the Home of Black Cinema in Harlem, a venue showing films by black and independent 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.