Who won this year’s Best Director Award at Sundance? Who was the only woman to direct Marlon Brando in a feature film? Or the only woman to direct a music video for Jay-Z? If you don’t know the answer to any of these questions, read on. And if you are wondering why black female directors need to be lumped together in their own column, the answer is simple - visibility.
This week has seen a blaze of publicity for writer/director Ava DuVernay and her feature film “Middle of Nowhere”. Opening to stellar reviews and the highest per-theatre average in the US, DuVernay has received endorsements everywhere from influential bloggers Sasha Stone and Melissa Silverstein to Oprah Winfrey herself. But DuVernay’s success story serves to highlight a less auspicious truth - the infrequency with which black female filmmakers enter the conversation.
Despite this, DuVernay is not the first black woman ever to direct a successful feature film. While the road to recognition has not always been easy, it has been punctuated by critical and box office successes for decades. Here, alongside DuVernay, are ten woman who provide the evidence (and please excuse the shorthand “black” for a diverse group of ethnicities from North America, Europe and Africa):
Most famous for: being the first black woman to have a feature film screenplay produced
Her story: OK, that is not what Angelou is most famous for, but the legendary 84 year old writer is also a pioneer in the world of cinema. Her first foray into film was a mixed experience - after writing the screenplay for 1972’s “Georgia, Georgia” she was refused the right to direct it, and was decidedly unhappy with the finished film. She finally got her wish over twenty years later when she directed 1998’s “Down in the Delta” at the age of 70.
Most famous for: being the only woman ever to direct Marlon Brando
Her story: Hailing from Martinique, Euzhan Palcy was the first black woman to be produced by a major Hollywood studio when she helmed 1989’s “A Dry White Season”. Brando was so taken by Palcy and her project that he came out of a nine-year retirement and acted in the film for union scale pay, being rewarded with his eighth and final Academy Award nomination alongside BAFTA and Golden Globe nods. Palcy herself was no stranger to awards, becoming the first black artist to win a Cesar as well as Venice’s Silver Lion for her debut feature “Sugar Cane Alley”. The film gained her a slew of supporters from Francois Truffaut to Robert Redford, as well as Roger Ebert, who remarked “Euzhan Palcy strikes me as proof that great directors can come from anywhere - but they must know they are great directors and trust they are great”.
Most famous for: achieving the first general theatrical release for a film directed by an African American woman
Her story: Julie Dash broke new ground in 1991 when her film “Daughters of the Dust” was picked up for theatrical distribution in the US. She went on to direct films including “The Rosa Parks Story” starring Angela Bassett, which won Dash an unprecedented nomination from the Director’s Guild of America for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Movies for Television.