Photo of Frances Bodomo taken by Paul Stone.
Oscars 2017: 10 Black Women Directors To Keep On Your Radar
Photo of Black Women Directors courtesy of Jacyln Kessel.
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.
Photo of Frances Bodomo taken by Paul Stone.
Ghanaian filmmaker Frances Bodomo's lo-fi, sci-fi short, Afronauts, tells the story of a group of Zambian exiles who try to beat America to the moon in 1969. Afronauts was recently screened at the Whitney Museum of American Art as part of the "Dreamlands: Immersive Cinema and Art, 1095-2016" exhibit.
Photo of Kathleen Collins courtesy of 'Tell It Like It Is'.
Unfortunately, Kathleen Collins passed away quite young in 1988 at the age of 46. However, she left a lasting impression with two films: Losing Ground, an intimate comedy-drama about a philosophy professor and her artist husband who are having a marital crisis, and The Cruz Brothers and Miss Malloy, an adaptation of a series of short stories by Henry H. Roth about three young Puerto Rican men whose lives are watched over by their father's ghost.
Photo of Julie Dash courtesy of Julie Dash TV.
Julie Dash is best known for her seminal 1991 film, Daughters of the Dust, which follows a family in the Gullah community of South Carolina as they prepare to migrate to mainland America in 1902. Daughters, which also has been restored and redistributed on DVD, was the first film directed by a black woman to be theatrically distributed in the United States. Dash is also a part of the L.A. Rebellion — a collective of radical black filmmakers at UCLA including her, Charles Burnett (The Glass Shield) and Haile Gerima (Sankofa), who worked on each other's movies and created critically acclaimed work throughout the late '60s and early '70s. Her influence can be seen on screens to this day.
Photo of Nailah Jefferson courtesy of Essence.
Nailah Jefferson's 2014 documentary, Vanishing Pearls: The Oystermen of Pointe a la Hache, was an immersive project that followed the struggles of Gulf Region fisherman trying to recover from the tragic Deepwater Horizon Spill of 2010. A powerful and much-needed exploration of the effects of environmental injustice—especially in light of the ongoing Flint Water Crisis and the #NoDAPL movement being led by Native Americans trying to protect their land.
Photo of Stella Meghie courtesy of YouTube.
Toronto native Stella Meghie made a splash in 2016 with her wry comedy, Jean of the Joneses, which followed the ups and downs of the Jones Family after one of their own dies on their doorstep. The film was picked up and later aired on TVOne. Stella also directed the soon-to-be released Everything Everything, an adaptation of the novel about a teenaged girl who is allergic to everything which stars Anika Noni Rose and Amandla Stenberg.
Photo of Nijla Muhammad courtesy of Indie Wire.
Filmmaker and writer Nilja Mu'min is currently directing her first feature film, Jinn, thanks to a successful Kickstarter campaign she launched in 2016. Jinn is a coming-of-age story that follows carefree teenager Summer, who has to confront her life and her identity after her mother converts to Islam.
Photo of Nefertite Nguvu courtesy of Mark Olalde / IPS.
Nefertite Nguvu's 2014 feature film, In The Morning, is a drama about four interconnected New Yorkers contemplating love, loss and friendship over the course of one day. It is beautifully shot (by none other than Arthur Jafa) and the cast features another black woman director, Numa Perrier of Black & Sexy TV.
Photo of Tchaiko Omawale courtesy of Hollywood's Black Renaissance.
Los Angeles-based Tchaiko Omawale is currently putting the finishing touches on Solace, a coming-of-age drama about two teenage girls, one of whom has an eating disorder, who bond over shared struggles. Solace, which began as a short film, boasts a stellar cast, including Lynn Whitfield and Glynn Turman.
Photo of Euzhan Palcy courtesy of YouTube.
Euzhan Palcy is a Martinique trailblazer in film who was the first black woman director to have her work produced by a major Hollywood studio. She is also the first black person to win the prestigious César, which is France's equivalent of the Oscar, for her 1983 film, Sugar Cane Alley. Last, but certainly not least, Euzhan Palcy is the first and only woman to direct Marlon Brando in the anti-Apartheid film, A Dry White Season. Palcy, who still writes, produces and directs her own work, splits time between filmmaking and humanitarian work, and certainly busted down more than a few doors and cracked more than a few glass ceilings for black women directors who have come after her.
Photo of Dee Rees taken by James Miller.
Dee Rees is the acclaimed director behind Pariah, a tender coming-of-age film about a black, queer teenage girl coming to terms with her sexuality and Bessie, the riveting, Emmy Award-winning biopic about blues legend Bessie Smith, played to the hilt by Queen Latifah. Her next project is Mudbound, an adaptation of the Hillary Jones novel set in post-World War II Mississippi. Netflix acquired it for $12 million.
Danielle A. Scruggs is a Chicago-based photographer and writer who runs the website Black Women Directors and is also the Director of Photography at the Chicago Reader, an award-winning alt-weekly newspaper. Follow her on Twitter at @dascruggs and view her site at daniellescruggs.com.