5 Black Women Directors To Celebrate
Despite their unequivocal talent, black female directors remain one of the most underrepresented and systematically stifled demographics in the entertainment industry.
Director Kasi Lemmons once said to the Huffington Post, “We just want to create. We just want to be appreciated in the environment in which we’re working, like everyone does. We want to work. We want to get paid for it, [and] we want to get acknowledged for good work…like everybody does.”
As we celebrate Black History Month and prepare for the Academy Awards, we look to five of our favorite black female directors who not only create art despite adversity, but also forge a movement for change.
By: Emily Dinenberg
1. Amma Asante
Amma Asante is best known for her films, A Way of Life, Belle, and A United Kingdom, but this BAFTA award-winning writer and director’s path to filmmaking was unlike most. Growing up in London, Amma was born to two Ghanaian parents and attended the Barbara Speake Stage School, training in drama and dance. She even appeared on television shows such as the British drama, Grange Hill.
Amma eventually strayed from her acting career to pursue screenwriting, and wrote and produced two series of Brothers and Sisters for BBC2. However, her directorial debut began in 2004 with the critically acclaimed film, A Way of Life. The film follows Leigh-Anne Williams, a teenage mother, as she raises her baby while living with the threat of her child being taken by Social Services or her child’s paternal grandmother. A Way of Life was met with much praise, earning Asante 17 international awards for her writing and directing, Newcomer Awards from the BFI London Film Festival, and the prestigious South Bank Show Awards, Times Breakthrough Artist of the Year.
She also received the Carl Foreman Award for Special Achievement by a British Writer, director, or Producer in Their First Feature Film at the 2004 BAFTA’s.
— Amma Asante (@AmmaAsante) January 8, 2018
Amma’s 2014 feature film, Belle, is based on the real-life story of that woman, Dido Elizabeth Belle, who was the daughter of a
Royal Navy captain and the slave he met after capturing a Spanish ship. Amma first discovered the story through artist Johann Zoffany’s 18th century portrait of two British women dressed in silk—one of whom is biracial.
As Asante explained to NPR, the painting provided her with a unique storytelling opportunity.
“Around the time of the 18th century, we really were — people of color were — an accessory in a painting. We were there rather like a pet to express the status of the main person in the painting, who was always white. And for anybody who’s lucky enough to see the painting, what you see is something very, very different.”
Like A Way of Life, Belle was also met with critical acclaim, and led Amma to be named one of CNN’s Leading Women of 2014, and earning her nominations for various awards worldwide, including nods at the National Film Awards, UK, alongside NAACP 2014 awards in the United States.
— Amma Asante (@AmmaAsante) January 11, 2018
Amma’s most recent film, A United Kingdom, tells the story of King Seretse Khama of Botswana and Ruth Williams, from London, whose marriage caused uproar in the 1940’s as apartheid was introduced into South Africa. The film was selected to open the 2017 London Film Festival.
When speaking with Harper’s Bazaar on representation in Hollywood, Amma put it best when she said:
“I don’t just want to make movies. I want to be able to go and see movies, and I want to be able to go and see all kinds of movies that I connect with.”
Check out how Rupi Kaur inspires us to be the author of our own stories, and connect with others through our shared experiences.
2. Dee Rees
This year, Mudbound director Dee Rees made history by becoming the first black woman to be nominated for the adapted screenplay category. Rees explained to POPSUGAR that as she grew up, storytelling was always part of her life.
“…her mother stored books by Alice Walker, Maya Angelou, Toni Cade Bambara, Gloria Naylor, and ‘a lot of black, womanist writers’ in a suitcase under the stairs in the house where Rees grew up…she began to relate to authors like Audre Lorde, who used literature to embrace a queer identity while challenging the confines of what it meant to be black, female, and lesbian.”
After graduating from Florida Agricultural & Mechanical University and moving to New York City in 2001, Dee worked at a pharmaceutical company. But discovered her dreams of entertainment after visiting the set of a TV commercial.
It was then that Dee enrolled in NYU’s graduate film program and began working on Pariah, a semi-autobiographical story of a teenager struggling with her sexual identity.
In 2015, Dee created Bessie, the HBO TV movie about blues singer Bessie Smith, starring Queen Latifah. Rees went on to win an Emmy for best TV movie and an outstanding director of a TV movie honor from the Directors Guild of America.
Inclusivity has always played a role in Dee’s work. In her 2017 Drama, Mudbound, Dee collaborated with screenwriter Virgil Williams, focusing on racism in post-World War II rural Mississippi. Even behind the camera, on the set of Mudbound itself, many of the key crew members were women and people of color. As Hillary Jordan, author of the novel Mudbound, said,
“Rees shows us the terrible costs of injustice while offering a glimpse of the brighter, more inclusive future that is possible if we recognize our common humanity.”
3. Stella Meghie
Originally from Toronto, Canada, Stella Meghie quit her job as a fashion and beauty publicist to pursue her dream of becoming a writer and director. She completed her screenwriting degree at the University of Winchester in London in 2011. Her career immediately began to skyrocket as she hit the festival circuit with her first film, Jean of the Jonses, premiering at South by Southwest in 2016.
The film follows Jean Jones and her multi-generational Jamaican-American family of strong women who came after her estranged grandfather dies on the doorstep of the family’s brownstone, and was lauded for its fresh voice in the independent filmmaking world.
“#SXSW changed my life by giving me a platform to premiere my feature debut Jean of the Joneses! I love SXSW because they love true independent cinema!” – @stellamink #SXSWFilm25 pic.twitter.com/KwV96PCpxr
— SXSW (@sxsw) December 19, 2017
Stella later moved to studio film, becoming one of 16 female filmmakers to have a studio-backed film hitting theaters in 2017 with her film, Everything, Everything, based on Nicola Yoon’s young adult novel.
The film follows Maddy Whittier, a teenage girl with a disease that weakens her immune system, keeping her confined in a hermetically-sealed house.
— Kate Erbland (@katerbland) December 22, 2017
The film’s star, Amandla Stenberg, praised Stella for her unique vantage point that could be found in “the ‘black girl hair moments’” her character has in the film or the shots of melanin peeking out of an unzipped top or the “sneaky game we’d play in terms of handheld camera shots.”
When talking to the LA Times about her accomplishment, Stella said,
“There’s a conversation that’s happening right now that is helpful, but things are [only] going to change when projects like [‘Everything, Everything’] are made and they hire more women and minorities to direct and write. Otherwise, it’ll be up to us, like I did with ‘Jean,’ to do it for ourselves.”
Learn more about Everything, Everything star, Amandla Stenberg, and how she embraces girl power and her blackness!
4. Kasi Lemmons
Kasi began her career in Hollywood as an actor, premiering in the 1979 television movie, 11th Victim. She later attended New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts but then transfered to University of California Los Angeles to study history. However, she was soon drawn back to entertainment, later enrolling in the film program at the New School for Social Research.
— Kasi Lemmons (@kasi_lemmons) May 28, 2016
In 1997, Kasi directed her first film, Eve’s Bayou, starring Samuel L. Jackson and Jurnee Smollett, telling the story of a Louisiana family threatened to be torn apart after 10 year-old Eve witnesses her father having an affair.
Kasi won the 1997 National Board of Review Award for Outstanding Directorial Debut, and an Independent Spirit Award for Best First Feature.
The next film she directed, The Caveman’s Valentine, starred Samuel L. Jackson as a homeless man in New York who sets out to solve a murder, all the while battling with hallucinations and mental illness.
When speaking to The Atlantic, Kasi emphasized that she doesn’t shy away from complicated material, but rather, is interested in working on it.
“I’m an artist. I know my history, I know my roots, I know I can be an artist. Of course I’m a minority, but that makes it interesting. You know what I mean?”
In 2007, Kasi directed Talk to Me, the story of an ex-convict turned talk show host and activist, starring Don Cheadle, forwhich she won an Image Award for Outstanding Directing in a Motion Picture. She also adapted the Broadway musical Black Nativity into a film in 2013. While there is no doubt that Kasi has achieved greatness, she is also aware that, in oder to allow black women like herself to reach new heights, there is always work to be done.
— Kasi Lemmons (@kasi_lemmons) May 18, 2016
“This was an evolutionary thought of mine: We have to be a little bit more aggressive and more overtly supportive of each other…We have to be more willing to say, ‘You know what? Look at this picture, what’s wrong with this picture? If you don’t see it, I’m going to tell you.’”
Moving forward, Kasi advises at NYU’s Tisch School of The Arts, where she said she “has the chance to help participate in the education of women filmmakers and interesting filmmakers and filmmakers of color.” She explained,
“I want them to be inspired, to stay positive and focused, because that’s what it takes. It’s perseverance and stamina and a love and interest in the process.”
Learn how #WCW Rosario Dawson, inspires change like Kasi Lemmons.
5. Gina Prince-Blythewood
Gine Prince-Blythewood grew up in California, graduating from UCLA’s film school in 1991. After graduation she went on thewrite and direct her first film, Love & Basketball, about two next-door neighbors in Los Angeles, pursuing their basketball careers and falling in love.
The film was lauded for its ability to surpass the genre of “sports movie” into raw and emotional territory that not only resonated with the multifaceted nature of athletes, but with that of women who are shown as strong and not delicate. Love & Basketball was also notable for transcending race, attracting a global audience of all backgrounds.
In an interview with Huffington Post, Gina remarked,
“It was just an idea that was in my head, it was a very personal story, a lot of it is autobiographical. Growing up, ball was everything to me. I’m an athlete first and always have been, and it’s been so much a part of my life. And I just didn’t feel that I ever saw that woman or girl reflected on screen.”
Gina went on to direct the film The Secret Life of Bees in 2008, receiving several NAACP Image Award Nominations, and winning the Image Award for best Motion Picture as well as “Favorite Movie Drama” and “Favorite Independent Movie” at the 35th People’s Choice Awards.
One of my favorite things about being a director is working with dope actors like @justsanaa. I love the journey of building characters and making them real. I am inspired by their craft and courage. #femalefilmmakerfriday #shotsfired pic.twitter.com/INvsACSn3z
— Gina Prince-Bythewood (@GPBmadeit) February 9, 2018
Gina next wrote and directed Beyond the Lights, a 2014 film about a pop star facing the pressures of fame, and how she comes back to reality with the help of a bodyguard, as their respective parties try to keep them from falling in love and straying from the courses planned for their lives.
Gina made it clear that this film not only focuses on a woman becoming her own savior, but also representing the struggle black women face in the music industry.
As she explained to Jezebel,
“I grew up hating my curls. I mean, hated it. Hating looking in the mirror. Everyone around me, my parents being white—one of my sisters has blonde hair, blue eyes, and I was so jealous of her growing up. It wasn’t until later in life that I was able to embrace and fall in love with my curls. That was this character, Noni, as a little girl being told that the way she is, is not good enough and needs to be fixed. You think of little girls sitting in the salon and getting their hair straightened and the pain of going through that.”
Check out these 7 ways to fall in love with your natural hair.
In 2017, Gina directed the Freeform series pilot for Cloak and Dagger, and was announced as director of the Marvel film, Silver & Black, making her the first woman of color to direct a superhero movie.
— Gina Prince-Bythewood (@GPBmadeit) January 26, 2018
Despite lack of representation, the black women working behind the camera have proven time and time again that their ingenuity, creativity, and passion is unmatched.
Although Black History Month ends with the passing of February, we celebrate the achievements of these women, and the rest of the African American community today and every day!
Which black female-directed film is your favorite? Share your thoughts in the comments!