Award winning and groundbreaking director Ava DuVernay is arguably the best known black woman director in the Hollywood game right now, and rightfully so. She has made everything from indie dramas (I Will Follow, Middle of Nowhere) to biopics (Selma) to TV series (Queen Sugar) and documentaries (Venus Vs., 13th) that remind us that the past is always present.
But as DuVernay herself has pointed out in countless interviews, she is far from the only one. “I don’t consider myself a woman of firsts,” she said in a recent interview with The Root. “All of the firsts are bittersweet. Because they shouldn’t be firsts.” Nikyatu Jusu, a Sierra Leonean-Lebanese-American filmmaker currently based in Brooklyn offered some insight into why.
“Black women filmmakers are still seen as anomalies, especially in the narrative realm—especially in the feature narrative realm. I don’t believe traditional filmmaking investors are as eager to invest in independent films helmed by black women,” Jusu said via email. “We have to be a lot more creative about how we aggregate funds.”
In spite of all of this adversity, Jusu, whose films African Booty Scratcher, Say Grace Before Drowning and her latest, Flowers, have all been acquired by HBO, added, “It has been quite rewarding to fight the odds and create a body of work that features nuanced black women protagonists whom black women audiences can identify with. We’re often tasked with the unfair burden of making political statements rather than simply creating unfettered art with carefree black characters.”
Even with those very real challenges, there is a rich tradition of filmmaking by black women directors who reside around the globe. And the work covers a broad range of genres—from science fiction to coming-of-age dramas, to documentaries, to romance, to comedies.
As we prepare for the upcoming Academy Awards ceremony — in which several black directors are up for awards: DuVernay for 13th, Denzel Washington for Fences, Barry Jenkins for Moonlight, Raoul Peck for I Am Not Your Negro, and Ezra Edelman for OJ: Made in America — let’s take a closer look at 10 black women filmmakers who have brought to the screen challenging, intelligent, funny and engaging stories both within and outside the Hollywood system.