As representation has expanded for Black women in Hollywood, both in front of and behind the camera, it might appear to some that Black women only recently began contributing to the cinema landscape. As we praise prolific directors like Ava DuVernay, Kasi Lemmons, and Gina Prince-Bythewood for their stunning films, which offer varied views of Black womanhood, it might seem as though there was a scarcity of Black women directors who preceded them. However, that couldn’t be farther from the truth.
Oscar Micheaux is noted as the most prolific Black American filmmaker of the first half of the 20th century. The 1980s and 1990s paved the way for a new generation of Black male filmmakers like Spike Lee, John Singleton, and countless others, gaining the recognition they deserved for their gritty and telling depictions of Black manhood in the inner city. As a result, the contributions of Black women before and during this period have nearly been erased.
Black women have been defining cinema since the advent of the medium. Zora Neale Hurston’s films Children’s Games (1928), Logging (1928), and Baptism (1929) were a part of her work as an anthropologist studying Black culture. Eloyce Gist and her husband James Gist collaborated on the 1930 drama Hellbound Train. Jennie Louise Touissant Welcome, known as Madame E. Touissant, co-directed and produced the 12-part documentary Doing Their Bit on Black soldiers in World War I. Decades later, Madeline Anderson became the first Black woman to direct a short film within the industry with her 1970 film I Am Somebody.
Despite the sexism, misogynoir, and racism that relegated Black women to stereotypes on screen or left them credit-less despite their contributions, they have always had a hand in movie making. Many of these women, from Darnell Martin to Alile Sharon Larkin, have yet to get the recognition they deserve, so we put together a list of 10 who warrant more attention. Read on for 10 Black women filmmakers who shaped the cinema landscape of the 20th Century and the films they made to showcase Black stories from their perspective.
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In the early ’90s, Hollywood had become preoccupied with the Black male psyche, especially amid depictions of the increasingly violent inner city. During this time, Dr. Ayoka Chenzira was more interested in the dynamic between Black mothers and their daughters. A dazzling coming-of-age story, Alma’s Rainbow is set in Brooklyn in the 1990s and follows Rainbow Gold (Victoria Gabrielle Platt), a vibrant teenage girl trying to express herself under the stern grasp of her straight-laced, beauty salon-owner mother, Alma (Kim Weston-Moran). When Alma’s worldly sister Ruby (Mizan Kirby) arrives at their Brooklyn brownstone, having spent years overseas living in Paris, Rainbow’s eyes open to a new path of womanhood. Ruby’s life is full of glamorous clothing, gorgeous men, and a more carefree existence than Alma’s. Sumptuously shot and beautifully acted, Alma’s Rainbow is about the fragile bond between mothers and daughters and what it means to define yourself for yourself.
“Chenzira and cinematographer Ronald K. Gray use the camera to showcase the many ways in which Black women move, collectively and individually, to express various emotions and moods including attraction, joy, and confidence.” – Ronda Racha Penrice, TheWrap
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While Black female representation in cinema is in the middle of a resurgence, depictions of Black queer women are still sorely lacking. With the debut of her 1996 film The Watermelon Woman, Cheryl Dunye would become the first Black lesbian to direct a feature film. It would be another 15 years for that to happen again, with Dee Rees’ Pariah. Dunye stars in the film as Cheryl, a young woman working in a video store who happens upon an uncredited actress in a 1940s film portraying a Mammy. Determined to uncover the woman’s identity, Cheryl decides to make a documentary about the subject, which unearths long-hidden secrets and bitterness. An exploration of Black, LGBTQ, and Hollywood histories, The Watermelon Woman is both light and moving. It’s a film about a Black woman examining the Black women before her who were forced to live on the margins.
“Watermelon Woman is about the images people create and/or allow others to create, and what these images tell future generations seeking to find a history. It is also about the obstacles facing black Lesbian artists of any generation.” – R. Erica Doyle, Washington Blade
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Set in the South Bronx, Darnell Martin’s 1994 flick I Like It Like That centers on an Afro-Latina mother, Lisette Linares (Lauren Vélez), whose daily life goes up in flames when she discovers her husband Chino’s (Jon Seda) extramarital affair. Devastated, Lisette abandons her duties as a mother, moves in with her sister Alexis (Jesse Borrego), and talks her way into a job at a major record label. An authentic view of the trials of marriage and motherhood, Martin’s film is unapologetic and daring. She allows all of Lisette’s flaws to be put on display without crucifying her for them.
“Martin pries spirited performances from her young cast. She shepherds the striking Velez winningly from her stage work into an inspired film performance, and she wrenches both machismo and vulnerability from Seda. Rita Moreno also does a fine turn.” – Anderson Jones, Detroit Free Press
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Six years after her debut feature film Sugar Cane Alley won the César Award for Best First Feature Film, Euzhan Palcy turned her lens toward the apartheid crisis in South Africa. Set in 1976, A Dry White Season follows Ben du Toit (Donald Sutherland), a teacher who becomes politically mobilized when his gardener’s son is killed at school by a corrupt police officer. Emboldened to do something about the apartheid system and social unrest, Ben hires human rights attorney Ian McKenzie (Marlon Brando) to try the long-shot case against the police officer. Searing and disturbing, A Dry White Season never shies away from the horrors of apartheid and racism and how they have nearly destroyed us all. Palcy’s work is an example of why Black women may be the best people to explore race, colorism, and gender bias.
“Palcy’s narrative drive and the phenomenal editing make the story so kinetic that we accept its simplifications. A Dry White Season may wear its heart on its sleeve, but at least its pulse races.” – Tom Carson, L.A. Weekly
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With her debut feature, Daughters of the Dust, Julie Dash became the first Black woman to have a full-length nationwide theatrical release in America. Set in an island Gullah community of South Carolina at the beginning of the 20th century, the film follows the Peazant family, many of whom are set to move to the mainland for a more modern life. Told from the perspective of an Unborn Child, the film is a poetic tapestry of the past and the present woven by Dash. As each member of the family’s secrets unfold, they must decide whether to stay on the island or leave the life they’ve always known behind. Visually stunning, lush, and keeping to the authentic Gullah dialect, the film is a fusion of home and history.
“Let’s thank Julie Dash for her persistence in bringing us this jewel. This is a story we will tell our children again and again — and with each retelling, the colors will swell in our souls.” – Patricia Smith, Boston Globe
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Even with Black women at the helm, films that center on Black girlhood are few and far between. Kasi Lemmons changed everything with her stunning 1960’s set debut feature, Eve’s Bayou. Told through the perspective of precocious 10-year-old Eve Batiste (Jurnee Smollett), who recounts the summer her father was killed, the film unpacks the adultification of Black girls. At first glance, the upper-middle-class Baptiste family seems perfect. However, as Eve becomes privy to her father Louis’ (Samuel L. Jackson) rampant philandering and her mother Roz’s (Lynn Whitfield) deep-seated unhappiness, she decides she must do something about it, especially as it begins to affect her older sister, Cisely (Meagan Good). Striking and poignant, the 1997 film captures a specific time and place while examining what it means when girlhood is prematurely stripped away.
“[Lemmons] sets her story in Southern Gothic country, in the bayous and old Louisiana traditions that Tennessee Williams might have been familiar with, but in tone and style she earns comparison with the family dramas of Ingmar Bergman. That Lemmons can make a film this good on the first try is like a rebuke to established filmmakers.” – Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times
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One of the first feature films directed by a Black American woman, Kathleen Collins’ semi-autobiographical 1982 film Losing Ground follows Sara (Seret Scott), a philosophy professor who prides herself on her logic and level head. However, things begin to spiral out of control when Sara is overcome with jealousy about her husband Victor’s (Bill Gunn) relationship with his new muse, Celia (Maritza Rivera). In retaliation, she befriends a man named Duke (Duane Jones), who makes no secret of his attraction to Sara. Losing Ground is a romantic and dynamic film examining a Black woman’s inner life. Moreover, Collins never presses Sara to be extraordinary. Instead, she is allowed to be human.
“There are moments in Losing Ground that are so rich in mood, texture, and longing I can’t catch my breath.” – Angelica Jade Bastién, New York Magazine/Vulture
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While Hollywood was touting coming-of-age stories from the Black male perspective in the early ’90s, Leslie Harris’ feature film debut, Just Another Girl on the I.R.T., offered a new perspective from the lens of a Black teen girl. The film centers on bold 17-year-old Chantal (Ariyan A. Johnson), holding fast to her dreams of attending college and medical school. However, when Chantal begins dating the charismatic Tyrone (Kevin Thigpen) and eventually becomes pregnant, she must decide how to navigate a future that was once so clear. Just Another Girl on the I.R.T. is the first film to examine the unique social pressures of being a Black teen girl and what it means to be labeled as a victim or another statistic. Harris’s film would pave the way for Crooklyn (1994), Eve’s Bayou (1997), and more recently, films like Roxanne, Roxanne (2017), and Rocks (2019).
“Harris’ movie shows that girls like Chantel realty do struggle against the forces that seek to trap them, and that they are for more than just victims or statistics.” – Sheryl McCarthy, Newsday
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As prolific as the poet, author, and activist Maya Angelou was, many do not know that she contributed to the cinema canon as a filmmaker. Her first and only film, 1998’s Down in the Delta, is a refreshing take on family, optimism, and second chances. The film follows Loretta (Alfre Woodard), a single mother struggling with substance abuse while living with her ailing mother Rosa (Mary Alice) in a Chicago housing project. In a last-ditch effort to set her daughter on the right track, Rosa sends Loretta and her two children to Mississippi to stay with relatives for the summer. Though reluctant and resistant at first, Loretta’s worldview expands in Mississippi. While Down in the Delta is a straightforward tale, through Angelou’s direction, the film showcases the importance of Black women’s stories, even when they lack hyper-dramatic themes.
“Maya Angelou’s very deliberate blocking of the actors charges each movement and line of dialogue with emotion, and the expressive combinations of colors and textures in the settings convey a palpable sense of the environments in which the characters undergo big but believable changes. ” – Lisa Alspector, Chicago Reader
Inspired by the 1906 poem by Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Zeinabu Irene Davis’ 1999 film Compensation follows two parallel love stories, one set at the turn of the century and the other in modern-day Chicago, with both examining the relationships between a deaf woman and a hearing man. Michelle A. Banks portrays Malindy Brown and Malaika Brown, and John Earl Jelks stars as Arthur Jones and Nico Jones. The couples must contend with opposition and discrimination in both romances due to Malindy and Malaika’s hearing impairment. They also must deal with the effects of tuberculous and the HIV/AIDS epidemic, which dominated their respective periods. Davis’ film was initially shot in 1993 but was not released for another six years. A quiet movie rich in societal understanding, Compensation confronts love and death across the ages.
“Zeinabu Irene Davis’ [film is] beautiful and poignant… Compensation is an important achievement, illuminating and captivating, and it deserves the chance to reach the widest audience possible.” – Kevin Thomas, Los Angeles Times
Archival curation and research for this feature was led by Tim Ryan. Additional review curation by Ivette Garcia Davila, Rob Fowler, Steven Louis, and Dom Pembleton.