In my latest Industry Beat column for Filmmaker Magazine, I caught up with a number of filmmakers who broke out big 20 years ago at Sundance 1991. It was a damn fine year for indie film, with the premieres of Richard Linklater’s "Slacker," Gus Van Sant’s "My Own Private Idaho," and Todd Haynes’ "Poison," as well as Hal Hartley’s "Trust," Jennie Livingston's "Paris is Burning," Julie Dash's "Daughters of the Dust" and Matty Rich’s "Straight Out of Brooklyn."
It's those latter five I'm most concerned with, however, because, as I write in the piece, "while Linklater, Van Sant, and Haynes remain household names in the independent sphere, the rest have become far lesser known. Why does one filmmaker go on to fame, while others remain in their niches? Is it a coincidence that the three who found more mainstream acceptance were all white men? Is industry prejudice to blame, the filmmaker’s own particular ambitions, or just plain bad luck?"
While the article doesn't focus explicitly on issues of racial and queer bias, such concerns were certainly implicit in my conversations, particularly, with Julie Dash and Jennie Livingston, neither of whom have made feature films since 1991.
As Dash said, "I’m an African-American woman talking about events, issues, dreams, and desires that I guess don’t conform to the men and women who are making films. They tell me they don’t think there’s an audience. But I know that I have a large fan base."
“It’s hard to make a film on a queer subject,” echoed Livingston, who has completed three shorts since "Paris is Burning." “If the only way you can make a film about queer female sexuality is to make a short, then that’s successful.”
Matty Rich was a bit more resistant to suggesting discrimination had anything to do with his career path: "I don't make excuses about race and color," he told me. "I came from nothing, and I made something of myself. So it's like, you deal with the hand you're been dealt, and you live with it."
Still, the numbers of African American and female directors working in Hollywood -- and even in independent film -- remains woefully low. In a Variety article about this year's Spirit Awards, I noted the preponderance of female-helmed nominated pics, but they still represented just 40% of the honors' major accolades. "It's still not something to brag about, because it's not even half," former Film Independent exec director Dawn Hudson told me, "but it's still consistently higher than the mainstream awards."
As for African Americans, Barry Jenkins broke out in 2008 with "Medicine for Melancholy," and I'm happy to see that he's been actively making shorts since then, but what's the status of his follow-up feature (maybe someone can tell me)? It'll be interesting to watch the career trajectory of Dee Rees, whose "Pariah," a black lesbian drama, was picked up by Universal subsidiary Focus Features. Where is the announcement for the new feature from Tanya Hamilton ("Night Catches Us")?
Other than Spike Lee and Lee Daniels, what other African American auteurs are getting support from the industry to make their features? African American audiences have shown, time and again, that they're highly active moviegoers, and yet, artistic, director-driven projects continue to find a hard time getting made. Where's the support for Charles Burnett? Leslie Harris ("Just Another Girl on the I.R.T."). Did anyone see Cheryl Dunye's 2010 lesbian thriller "The Owls"?
And where is the next Rose Troche? Guinevere Turner? Mary Harron?
I suppose it's difficult to make artistic films in the industry no matter your race, gender or sexual preference, but perhaps it's even harder if you're an African American, woman of color or lesbian, trying to tell bold personal stories that don't fit the mold.