Heroines of Cinema: Ava DuVernay and 10 More Trail-Blazing Black Female Directors

by Matthew Hammett Knott
October 18, 2012 10:17 AM
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CHERYL DUNYE
Most famous for:
being the first black open lesbian to direct a feature film
Her story: It seems reductive to define a filmmaker and artist by such an epithet, but look at it another way - until Cheryl Dunye wrote and directed “Watermelon Woman” in 1996, an entire demographic had never seen their stories told on the big screen. Arguably just as significantly, Dunye was able to avoid being pigeon holed, producing both lesbian-themed and non-gay-specific content in her subsequent work, including 2004’s “My Baby’s Daddy”. With fellow openly gay women Angela Robinson and Dee Rees currently pursuing diverse and successful careers alongside Dunye, her achievement is secured.

GINA PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD
Most famous for: conquering the Independent Spirit Awards
Her story: Prince-Bythewood’s 2000 film “Love and Basketball” was a critically acclaimed success, produced by Spike Lee on a $20 million budget and marketed as a sports drama with appeal beyond a black demographic. Garnering Prince-Bythewood the Independent Spirit award for Best First Screenplay, it was - at the time - one of the largest scale and most high profile projects yet undertaken by a black woman. More recently, Prince-Bythewood led “The Secret Life of Bees” - produced by Will Smith and starring Dakota Fanning, Jennifer Hudson and Queen Latifah - to a $40 million worldwide gross.

ANGELA ROBINSON
Most famous for: being the highest-grossing black female director in history
Her story: Directing “Herbie: Fully Loaded” was never going to turn Angela Robinson into an awards darling, but it is still a noteworthy milestone. Never before had a Hollywood studio handed the keys to a large commercial franchise to an African American woman. On a $50 million budget, Robinson steered the film to a $144 million worldwide gross. Why it took until 2005 for a black woman to helm such a large budget production could be explained by many factors, from depressing institutionalised racism to the fact that Cheryl Dunye or Maya Angelou never asked to tell a story about Lindsay Lohan and a car with a personality of its own. Nonetheless, it is clear that Angela Robinson shattered a very significant glass ceiling.

DARNELL MARTIN
Most famous for: directing Beyonce to a Golden Globe nomination
Her story: Martin’s 1994 feature “I Like it Like That”, produced by Columbia Pictures, was the first time an African American woman wrote and directed a film for a major Hollywood studio. Martin - who also has an extensive TV directing CV, from “ER” and “Oz” to “Grey’s Anatomy” - has spoken of her displeasure at being promoted at the time on account of her gender and ethnicity as opposed to her film’s qualities. But fourteen years later, when she directed Oscar winner Adrien Brody alongside Beyonce in 2008’s “Cadillac Records”, little publicity was attached to her sex or race - perhaps a healthy sign that it was becoming much less of an unusual occurrence.

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