Black History Month is a perfect time to expand your horizons and explore work by black filmmakers. So today, we’ll look at the contributions to cinema by incredible African-American women. However, these women are just the tip of the iceberg. Whether you want a fun blockbuster, feel-good romance, or artsy indie, you’ll find a film for you in the list below.
Julie Dash – Blazing the Trail
We’ve already talked about Julie Dash in our Cinema Herstory series, but no list of black women filmmakers would be complete without her. Dash proved to be one of the foremost filmmakers in the L.A. Rebellion movement. This movement began when UCLA’s film school increased diversity as a response to the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. The resulting filmmakers revolutionized the film industry, challenging the depiction of race in film. Dash’s debut film, Daughters of the Dust, made history as the first feature-length, theatrical film directed by a black woman. It explores the legacy of slavery through a Gullah family as they debate leaving their home island of the coast of South Carolina. A powerful feminist filmmaker, Dash makes for a great starting point in black feminist film.
Cheryl Dunye – Playing with Gender
Like Dash, Cheryl Dunye pioneered exploration of identity in film. As a black lesbian, Dunye examines issues of sexuality and gender expression as well as race. Her films blend fiction and documentary for a playful interplay the art and the artist. A prolific filmmaker, Dunye has directed short experimental films, television episodes, and feature-length films. But my favorite of her works has to be The Watermelon Woman (1996), in which Dunye plays a fictionalized version of herself searching for the lost history of a black actress from Classic Hollywood. From a depressing history of racism in Hollywood, Dunye extracts a joyful reclamation of black women. A perfect theme for Black History Month.
Ava Duvernay – Celebrating Black History
With a background in journalism and public relations, Ava Duvernay came late to filmmaking but quickly excelled. She made history as the first black woman to win Best Director at Sundance, direct a film nominated for Best Picture Oscar, and helm a film with a budget of over $100 million. Despite her mainstream popularity, Duvernay never shies from themes of social justice, which come to life in her work. For example, her most recent work, the Netflix documentary mini-series When They See Us (2019) explores the racism at work in the “Central Park Five” case. Perhaps her most famous work, however, is Selma (2014) a feature film following Martin Luther King Jr. on his historic march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965. For lighter fare, try A Wrinkle in Time (2018), an adaptation of the famous children’s sci-fi novel.
Gina Prince-Bythewood – Changing the Game
The global pandemic of 2020 challenged the film industry, but also saw some historic moments. One such example is The Old Guard, the first comic book film directed by a black woman, Gina Prince-Bythewood. The Old Guard, a feminist and LGBTQ-friendly action film starring Charlize Theron and Kiki Layne brought some much-need diversity to the superhero genre. But Prince-Bythewood is no stranger to making great films that explore human drama. Like Dash, Prince-Bythewood graduated from UCLA’s film school. She made waves with her debut film Love and Basketball (2000). This semi-autobiographical film follows Sanaa Lathan and Omar Epps as they fall in love and pursue careers in basketball. The unique move, which told a sports story from a female point of view, touched audiences and won numerous awards. So for a feminist but accessible film, Prince-Bythewood is your director.
Dee Rees – Telling Important Stories
Like other directors on this list, Dee Rees’ adapted aspects of her life for her debut feature film. Pariah (2011) follows a black lesbian teenager (Adepero Oduye) coming of age in Brooklyn. This touching movie won awards and led Rees to her next film, Bessie (2017), a biography of the famous blues singer, Bessie Smith (played by Queen Latifah). But Rees’ most successful film is probably the Oscar-nominated Mudbound (2017). This film follows two families, one white and one black, coping with poverty in rural, post-WWII Mississippi. Mudbound harks back to classic films about the American Dream like Grapes of Wrath (1940) or Giant (1956), making it essential viewing and adding Rees to the canon of great directors.
To learn about more amazing black women directors, explore this excellent website. You can also explore charities and nonprofits that promote black health, education, and rights here. In the meantime, I hope this humble blog has helped make your Black History Month that much more educational!