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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DEE REES

Most famous for: getting a shout out from Meryl Streep
Her story: Meryl Streep has always used her easy access pass to the awards podium to promote those she feels are equally deserving but less in the spotlight. In 2009, her famous “Give this woman a movie!” behest on behalf of Viola Davis pre-empted Davis’s Best Actress Oscar nomination two years later for “The Help”. At last year’s Golden Globes, Streep took the time to praise the un-nominated and little-seen performance of Adepero Oduye in Dee Rees’s “Pariah”. A low budget lesbian coming-of-age drama shot in just 18 days, “Pariah” currently holds a 95% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, making it one of the best-reviewed films ever made by a black woman. Its success has presented Rees with an exciting range of follow-up options, including a series in development at HBO with none other than Viola Davis attached, and a feature from the writer of “Eyes Wide Shut”. As Rees said herself of her film’s success, “hopefully this will be a marker in the road, and there will be many more to add to the landscape. There’s not a lot out there”.

SANAA HAMRI

Most famous for: scoring 300 million views on YouTube / directing Jay-Z
Her story: Moroccan-born Hamri can claim to have conquered the traditionally macho world of hip-hop with the ultimate accolade of directing a music video for Jay-Z - the only woman ever to do so. Other clients have included Mariah Carey, Prince and Lenny Kravitz - with her video for Nicki Minaj’s Super Bass among YouTube’s most popular at nearly 300 million views. Alongside a TV career directing multiple episodes of “Desperate Housewives” and “Grey’s Anatomy”, Hamri has directed feature films including “Something New” and “Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants 2”. Still in her thirties, Hamri’s career is diverse and productive by any standard and unprecedented for an African woman.

AMMA ASANTE

Most famous for: winning a BAFTA / reinventing the period romance
Her story: Despite a large black population, British film had seen precious few black female voices break out until Amma Asante arrived on the scene with her debut feature “A Way of Life”. Winning the BAFTA award for Best Debut Feature, Asante has attracted a star cast to her follow-up “Belle”, including Matthew Goode, Miranda Richardson, Tom Wilkinson and Emily Watson. Starring Gugu Mbatha Raw as a mixed race woman raised as an aristocrat in 18th century Britain, it is set to reinvigorate the traditionally stuffy British period genre when it enters production this year.

AVA DUVERNAY

Most famous for: winning the Best Director award at Sundance
Her story: DuVernay made her name in distribution, founding an agency which handled releases from Stephen Spielberg and Clint Eastwood among others. But her move behind the camera is rapidly turning into a spectacular success. Her second feature as director, “Middle of Nowhere” has been steadily building buzz since it bagged its ground-breaking award at Sundance in January. The Academy Awards are no barometer of quality, and shouldn’t be used as a measure of achievement for DuVernay and her film. Nevertheless, the fact that she seems to now stand an outside chance of breaking through with a screenplay nomination - which would make her the first black woman to do so for a solo-authored script - is no mean feat. More significantly, the rave reviews and widespread support for her film suggest that those who remain ignorant of black female filmmakers and the stories they tell are becoming ever more the minority.

This article was originally published on Indiewire proper.

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