Black female directors defy Hollywood's odds and old rules

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Three black women released movies in 2014, more than ever before in a single year. And one of them is a contender for the motion picture academy’s top prize.

But that’s just three films in one year — out of the 373 that came out in theaters.

Black female filmmakers are one of Hollywood’s greatest rarities. In the past seven years, only three were connected to the top 700 movies, according to recent research by the University of Southern California’s Media, Diversity & Social Change Initiative.

“The ecosystem of filmmaking is problematic for women and people of color,” said initiative director Stacy L. Smith. More than 95 percent of the directors of top-grossing films during the past decade have been men, she said. Looking at the top 700 films over a recent seven-year period, almost 90 percent of them were white.

So while there’s been a lot of talk about the lack of diversity among this year’s Oscar acting nominees, the larger issue may be the overwhelming lack of diversity among those telling the stories on the big screen.

“Selma” director Ava DuVernay, as a black woman, defied incredible odds with her film’s best-picture bid at next Sunday’s Academy Awards. But was it merely an exception?

“The push for me is that it doesn’t stay an anomaly,” said Gina Prince-Bythewood, writer and director of “Beyond the Lights,” which earned an Oscar nod this year for its original song, “Grateful.”

“The Oscars are not the problem,” said Prince-Bythewood, whose credits include 2008’s “The Secret Life of Bees” and her 2000 breakthrough, “Love & Basketball.” ”It’s more so Hollywood and the films that are being greenlit.”

She finds the dearth of stories about women equally disheartening. “Belle” director Amma Asante agreed, noting that all of this year’s eight best-picture contenders are about men. And DuVernay is the only female director behind any best-picture nominee.

Asante, DuVernay and Prince-Bythewood credit coincidental timing and continued hard work for their accomplishments in 2014.

Asante suggests the success of “12 Years A Slave,” ”The Butler” and “Mandela” in 2013 may have contributed to their films being financed the same year.

“We were lucky that they all got greenlit at a time when the films that came before us were showing that these films were important and they were attracting audiences,” she said.

But there’s no momentum if the number of women and people of color behind the camera don’t continue to increase, DuVernay said.

“Three is not enough. While we celebrate the three, we’re talking three in the hundreds of films that came out last year between the U.K. and the United States,” she said. “Unless (our success) equals more women being able to do the same thing next year — which legacy says is probably not going to happen — then we’re still at the same place.”

So how can non-white, non-male voices speak more loudly in Hollywood?

Financing is often the first obstacle. Smith’s research finds a general perception in Hollywood that stories by or about women are more niche than mainstream, and therefore less profitable. Asante laughs at that.

“We’re half the population!” she said. Recent blockbusters like “Gone Girl” and “The Hunger Games” franchise show large audiences will come see female-led films.

The frustrating truth, DuVernay and the other directors said, is that the number of female filmmakers of any ethnicity working in Hollywood has remained essentially unchanged for the past two decades, hovering around five percent.

But they insist women have to keep making movies, despite the odds.

“Stop waiting for someone to say it’s OK to move forward,” DuVernay said. “You just have to find a way to make the work. … You have to make it with what you have and by any means necessary.”

Be sure to make them good movies, added Prince-Bythewood, since quality, heartfelt stories speak to everyone.

“People do not go to the theater out of guilt,” she said. “A film should not be medicine. … I want people to go to my films because they’re good.”

Even films with wide appeal across ethnicity and gender can be impeded by marginalized marketing based on the women-as-niche perspective, she said. “Beyond the Lights,” her contemporary story about a pop star who finds love outside the spotlight, was marketed almost exclusively to women, she lamented, even though early screenings were well received by both genders.

“Let’s not assume that an audience is not going to respond to a film,” she said. “Put it out there and make it enticing for men and women.”

It just makes good business sense, Asante and DuVernay said. Today’s broadening TV landscape — which has been quicker to embrace women and people of color — gives viewers hundreds of good reasons to skip the theater and stay home.

“When you allow a variety of people to look through their lens and tell a story through their lens,” Asante said, “what you get is a more interesting variety of films at your local cinema.”

Audiences want to see movies that reflect the world around them, DuVernay said.

“If you are a person … that has a human spirit looking to be enlarged, you cannot do that staying in the same room with the same people,” she said. “It’s not about diversity. It’s not about even inclusion or representation. It’s about reality.”


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