While reflecting on Black History Month, I began to think about African-American female directors, particularly after Kathryn Bigelow scored a best director Oscar nomination. Identifying them required more research than I’d anticipated, which further fed my curiosity about their current state in Hollywood and the film industry in general.
I recently attended a discussion with African-American female directors at Digital Laundry, a black-owned production facility in Harlem. On the panel were directors Neema Barnett, Leslie Harris, Bridgett Davis and Tanya Hamilton. You may not readily recognize their names, but you should, as they are very accomplished within the film industry.
It turns out that what I believed was true: African-American female directors are creating new work all the time. But the current state of the film business makes it challenging for the average consumer to find their work. One can view their films at black film festivals and, occasionally, at Sundance, or they go straight to DVD. Even when their work manages to reach the national market, they rarely receive the studio support necessary to sustain a lengthy theater run. It is equally as challenging to reconcile is the disparity between the films released with black-themed content and the number of black women who are called upon to direct them.
While Darnell Martin (director of Cadillac Records) is the first African-American woman to have a major studio release, with her 1994 Columbia Pictures film, I Like It Like That, there were several who paved the way for her. The first black woman noted to have directed/produced a film is Maria P. Williams, whose film Flames of Wrath was released almost 87 years ago in 1923. Julie Dash is the first black female director to have a nationally released film with Daughters of the Dust in 1991. Leslie Harris was the third one, when Miramax Films released Just Another Girl On The I.R.T. in New York, Los Angeles and other cities.
In 1986, Neema Barnett, who directed the feature film A Civil Brand, became the first black woman to ever direct a sitcom, called What’s Happening Now. When asked how this made her feel, Barnett says that while it was an honor, “It also made me angry. I thought, ‘Why am I the first?’ ‘Why is it this way?’ ” But thank goodness for Barnett’s breakthrough because, when not working on features, most of these filmmakers are now able to look to episodic television for interim jobs.
Bridgett Davis is one of the first African-American women to write, produce, direct and self-distribute a feature film. Her 1995 film, Naked Acts, broke box office records for a single-screen, exclusive release.
So, in light of all of this, some questions come to mind regarding the continuous lack of exposure for black female directors: Is Hollywood to blame? Are there simply not enough compelling stories for black women to direct? Is the black filmmaking community lacking talented female directors?
The short answer to all of these questions is no. And here are some of my reasons why.
While there is no doubt that the “old boy’s network” is alive and well in Hollywood, there have been recent opportunities that clearly could have been offered to black female directors. The upcoming film For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When The Rainbow Is Enuf, based on Ntozake Shange’s 1975 stage play, is scheduled for release next January. Tyler Perry is adapting the screenplay and directing this film. It’s undeniable that a defining moment in black film history would have been created if this powerful piece, starring all black women, was directed by an African-American female. Unlike the suits, Tyler Perry is aware of who they are: Kasi Lemmons, Neema Barnett, Debbi Allen, Sanaa Hamri, just to name a few. Had Perry seen fit to use his Hollywood influence to share this opportunity with one of his female colleagues, this could have been a defining moment in his own career as well. That’s how you work within the system to change it for the better.
Another missed opportunity is the upcoming 3rd Annual Essence Black Women in Hollywood Luncheon, which will be held during Oscar week. The first two years, Essence gave a Visionary Award (for behind-the-scenes work) to Suzanne DePasse and Gina-Prince Blythewood. That award doesn’t appear on the agenda for this year’s luncheon. The awardees list includes Queen Latifah, Zoe Saldana, Mary J. Blige and Gabourey Sidibe. While I am proud of this list of recipients and love their work, none of them are working behind-the-scenes. It is important to keep our black female directors front and center whenever possible because it so rarely happens. I urge Essence to reinstate the Visionary Award for next year’s luncheon.
What is Hollywood to do when we don’t fully support each other?
The panelists all agreed “it is not as much about the money as one may think it is. It is about the content.” In the 90s, there were 28 films directed by black women. Three of them were released nationally. Only one of them had a major Hollywood release, and that film was actually about a Latin-American family. In the last 10 years, Hollywood has delivered quite a few movies with African-American casts and subject matter. But since Julie Dash’s 1991 breakthrough, there have only been 10 Hollywood films directed by black women released nationally and with a decent enough marketing campaign to assist with it’s promotion. So, while there are certainly more than enough compelling stories for women of color to tell, and, as Bridgett mentioned “women are storytellers,” they are habitually excluded from the most important part in the story telling process.
Leslie Harris says it’s time for an immediate discussion about the state of black female directors, particularly in light of Bigelow’s nomination, and I agree. We need to strike while the iron is hot. You’d better believe that if Bigelow doesn’t win the Oscar, the mainstream female film community will definitely vocalize their disapproval throughout the media. We need to speak up for our black female directors as well. The DGA has two steering committees that need to put Hollywood on notice. The Los Angeles chapter has an African-American Steering Committee and the New York chapter has an Ethnic Diversity Steering Committee. Dan Cooperbey is the co-chair for the committee in New York and he also participated in the panel discussion. Both committees work to ensure equity and diversity in film directing on Hollywood sets. They have their work cut out for them.
We must make sure that our black female directors’ stories, which are actually our stories, reach the masses. It’s time that they are included on the short list of directors whenever black film projects get the green light. They have to move from primarily showcasing at film festivals and on DVD, to being released on 1,800 screens every month. It took 74 years for the Academy Awards to acknowledge a black female as best actress. How long are we willing to wait for a best director or best picture nomination for our black female directors? It’s going to be up to us to make it happen and close this gap. The silence around this situation is stifling our progress and that is simply unacceptable.