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Heroines of Cinema: Ava DuVernay and 10 More Trail-Blazing Black Female Directors

Heroines of Cinema: Ava DuVernay and 10 More Trail-Blazing Black Female Directors

Who won this year’s Best Director Award at Sundance? Who was the only woman to direct Marlon Brando in a feature film? Or the only woman to direct a music video for Jay-Z? If you don’t know the answer to any of these questions, read on. And if you are wondering why black female directors need to be lumped together in their own column, the answer is simple – visibility.

This week has seen a blaze of publicity for writer/director Ava DuVernay and her feature film “Middle of Nowhere”. Opening to stellar reviews and the highest per-theatre average in the US, DuVernay has received endorsements everywhere from influential bloggers Sasha Stone and Melissa Silverstein to Oprah Winfrey herself. But DuVernay’s success story serves to highlight a less auspicious truth – the infrequency with which black female filmmakers enter the conversation.

Despite this, DuVernay is not the first black woman ever to direct a successful feature film. While the road to recognition has not always been easy, it has been punctuated by critical and box office successes for decades. Here, alongside DuVernay, are ten woman who provide the evidence (and please excuse the shorthand “black” for a diverse group of ethnicities from North America, Europe and Africa):

Most famous for: being the first black woman to have a feature film screenplay produced
Her story: OK, that is not what Angelou is most famous for, but the legendary 84 year old writer is also a pioneer in the world of cinema. Her first foray into film was a mixed experience – after writing the screenplay for 1972’s “Georgia, Georgia” she was refused the right to direct it, and was decidedly unhappy with the finished film. She finally got her wish over twenty years later when she directed 1998’s “Down in the Delta” at the age of 70.

Most famous for: being the only woman ever to direct Marlon Brando
Her story: Hailing from Martinique, Euzhan Palcy was the first black woman to be produced by a major Hollywood studio when she helmed 1989’s “A Dry White Season”. Brando was so taken by Palcy and her project that he came out of a nine-year retirement and acted in the film for union scale pay, being rewarded with his eighth and final Academy Award nomination alongside BAFTA and Golden Globe nods. Palcy herself was no stranger to awards, becoming the first black artist to win a Cesar as well as Venice’s Silver Lion for her debut feature “Sugar Cane Alley”. The film gained her a slew of supporters from Francois Truffaut to Robert Redford, as well as Roger Ebert, who remarked “Euzhan Palcy strikes me as proof that great directors can come from anywhere – but they must know they are great directors and trust they are great”.

Most famous for: achieving the first general theatrical release for a film directed by an African American woman
Her story: Julie Dash broke new ground in 1991 when her film “Daughters of the Dust” was picked up for theatrical distribution in the US. She went on to direct films including “The Rosa Parks Story” starring Angela Bassett, which won Dash an unprecedented nomination from the Director’s Guild of America for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Movies for Television.

Most famous for:
being the first black open lesbian to direct a feature film
Her story: It seems reductive to define a filmmaker and artist by such an epithet, but look at it another way – until Cheryl Dunye wrote and directed “Watermelon Woman” in 1996, an entire demographic had never seen their stories told on the big screen. Arguably just as significantly, Dunye was able to avoid being pigeon holed, producing both lesbian-themed and non-gay-specific content in her subsequent work, including 2004’s “My Baby’s Daddy”. With fellow openly gay women Angela Robinson and Dee Rees currently pursuing diverse and successful careers alongside Dunye, her achievement is secured.

Most famous for: conquering the Independent Spirit Awards
Her story: Prince-Bythewood’s 2000 film “Love and Basketball” was a critically acclaimed success, produced by Spike Lee on a $20 million budget and marketed as a sports drama with appeal beyond a black demographic. Garnering Prince-Bythewood the Independent Spirit award for Best First Screenplay, it was – at the time – one of the largest scale and most high profile projects yet undertaken by a black woman. More recently, Prince-Bythewood led “The Secret Life of Bees” – produced by Will Smith and starring Dakota Fanning, Jennifer Hudson and Queen Latifah – to a $40 million worldwide gross.

Most famous for: being the highest-grossing black female director in history
Her story: Directing “Herbie: Fully Loaded” was never going to turn Angela Robinson into an awards darling, but it is still a noteworthy milestone. Never before had a Hollywood studio handed the keys to a large commercial franchise to an African American woman. On a $50 million budget, Robinson steered the film to a $144 million worldwide gross. Why it took until 2005 for a black woman to helm such a large budget production could be explained by many factors, from depressing institutionalised racism to the fact that Cheryl Dunye or Maya Angelou never asked to tell a story about Lindsay Lohan and a car with a personality of its own. Nonetheless, it is clear that Angela Robinson shattered a very significant glass ceiling.

Most famous for: being the first black American woman to write and direct for a major studio.
Her story: Martin’s 1994 feature “I Like it Like That”, produced by Columbia Pictures, was the first time an African American woman wrote and directed a film for a major Hollywood studio. Martin – who also has an extensive TV directing CV, from “ER” and “Oz” to “Grey’s Anatomy” – has spoken of her displeasure at being promoted at the time on account of her gender and ethnicity as opposed to her film’s qualities. But fourteen years later, when she directed Oscar winner Adrien Brody alongside Beyonce in 2008’s “Cadillac Records”, little publicity was attached to her sex or race – perhaps a healthy sign that it was becoming much less of an unusual occurrence.

Most famous for: getting a shout out from Meryl Streep
Her story: Meryl Streep has always used her easy access pass to the awards podium to promote those she feels are equally deserving but less in the spotlight. In 2009, her famous “Give this woman a movie!” behest on behalf of Viola Davis pre-empted Davis’s Best Actress Oscar nomination two years later for “The Help”. At last year’s Golden Globes, Streep took the time to praise the un-nominated and little-seen performance of Adepero Oduye in Dee Rees’s “Pariah”. A low budget lesbian coming-of-age drama shot in just 18 days, “Pariah” currently holds a 95% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, making it one of the best-reviewed films ever made by a black woman. Its success has presented Rees with an exciting range of follow-up options, including a series in development at HBO with none other than Viola Davis attached, and a feature from the writer of “Eyes Wide Shut”. As Rees said herself of her film’s success, “hopefully this will be a marker in the road, and there will be many more to add to the landscape. There’s not a lot out there”.

Most famous for: scoring 300 million views on YouTube / directing Jay-Z
Her story: Moroccan-born Hamri can claim to have conquered the traditionally macho world of hip-hop with the ultimate accolade of directing a music video for Jay-Z – the only woman ever to do so. Other clients have included Mariah Carey, Prince and Lenny Kravitz – with her video for Nicki Minaj’s Super Bass among YouTube’s most popular at nearly 300 million views. Alongside a TV career directing multiple episodes of “Desperate Housewives” and “Grey’s Anatomy”, Hamri has directed feature films including “Something New” and “Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants 2”. Still in her thirties, Hamri’s career is diverse and productive by any standard and unprecedented for an African woman.

Most famous for: winning a BAFTA / reinventing the period romance
Her story: Despite a large black population, British film had seen precious few black female voices break out until Amma Asante arrived on the scene with her debut feature “A Way of Life”. Winning the BAFTA award for Best Debut Feature, Asante has attracted a star cast to her follow-up “Belle”, including Matthew Goode, Miranda Richardson, Tom Wilkinson and Emily Watson. Starring Gugu Mbatha Raw as a mixed race woman raised as an aristocrat in 18th century Britain, it is set to reinvigorate the traditionally stuffy British period genre when it enters production this year.

Most famous for: winning the Best Director award at Sundance
Her story: DuVernay made her name in distribution, founding an agency which handled releases from Stephen Spielberg and Clint Eastwood among others. But her move behind the camera is rapidly turning into a spectacular success. Her second feature as director, “Middle of Nowhere” has been steadily building buzz since it bagged its ground-breaking award at Sundance in January. The Academy Awards are no barometer of quality, and shouldn’t be used as a measure of achievement for DuVernay and her film. Nevertheless, the fact that she seems to now stand an outside chance of breaking through with a screenplay nomination – which would make her the first black woman to do so for a solo-authored script – is no mean feat. More significantly, the rave reviews and widespread support for her film suggest that those who remain ignorant of black female filmmakers and the stories they tell are becoming ever more the minority.

Matthew Hammett Knott is a London-based filmmaker and writer and contributor to Indiewire’s Lost Boys blog. Follow him on Twitter.

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