Last week, the Twitterverse was gifted a priceless nugget when film director Ava DuVernay and her guild, AFFRM, released the second trailer for her anticipated movie, Middle of Nowhere. The acclaimed project, which highlights the women and families that mass incarceration leaves behind, earned DuVernay the coveted Sundance Film Festival award for Best Director. Around the globe, women rejoiced; in a male-dominated industry, it is rare for a woman to be bestowed with such an outward validation for her work. After all, women “comprised just 18 percent of all directors, executive producers, producers, writers, cinematographers and editors working on the top 250 domestic grossing films in 2011,” according to the Center for Study of Women in TV and Film.
But DuVernay’s feat is especially significant because she is the first African-American woman to be awarded this honor. Not only does a Sundance award elevate the film’s exposure and DuVernay’s influence, but it also ranks her in the elite assemblage of black women directors. There are a scarce number of successful black women behind the camera in Hollywood and there are even fewer who garner recognition for their gifts.
This is not a unique statistic. Minorities, including women, are underrepresented in media. A degree in rocket science isn’t required to realize that the seats behind the executive boardroom table aren’t filled with blacks, Hispanics or women, but without our support and investment during opening weekends, these films wouldn’t be as successful. The imbalance between studio executives’ need for us to propel their box office totals and the lack of black women’s input in these projects is immense. But why does this exist to begin with and what is the detriment caused by lack of representation?
Yvonne Welbon, Ph.D., a filmmaker and professor at Bennett College, an all-women’s institution designed to educate black women, went on a quest to discover other African-American women directors in her doctoral thesis turned documentary, Sisters in Cinema. On her website she writes:
I began this project because I only knew the name of one African American woman director when I started film school. And, even though I knew the name, Julie Dash, I had never seen any of her films, and had no idea why or how she became a filmmaker. I didn’t even know what she looked like. I learned that I was not alone. I heard over and over again, ‘I didn’t know there were any black women filmmakers.’ So, I set out to find my sisters in cinema.
In her interviews with leading directors, including Maya Angelou, Ph.D. and Julie Dash, Dr. Welbon discovered that the lack of black women behind the lens is a direct result of major Hollywood film studios being hesitant to distribute films for that demographic of viewers. Even as Tyler Perry and T.D. Jakes rake in millions at the box office (Perry’s latest effort, Madea’s Witness Protection, has grossed $60,289,622 since it was released one month ago), film studios are still unwilling to put their funding behind projects directed by black women.
Let’s put this into context: Warner Bros. Pictures, Paramount Pictures, Walt Disney/Touchstone Pictures, Columbia Pictures, Universal Pictures, and 20th Century Fox are the six top Hollywood studios in the United States according to research compiled by The-Numbers.com, a website dedicated to analyzing the market shares of movie studios. The “Big Six” are responsible for approximately 90 percent of the world’s film revenue. These companies also dominate the distribution of television, music and printed materials including books. In essence, these companies control what the world perceives as American culture. Combined, these six studios have released less than five major motion pictures directed by African American women according to Sisters in Cinema.
In 2011 alone, the Big Six released almost 20 films, which equals almost 200 movies in a decade when calculated. Since 1989, when Euzhan Palcy inked the first deal with a major film studio, only four other movies directed by black women have received studio funding. And that almost didn’t happen. Initially, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) was uninterested in producing and distributing Palcy’s movie, A Dry White Season, because they claimed that with the simultaneous release of A Cry for Freedom, movies on South Africa’s tumultuous history would oversaturate the film market.