With the recent rise of more independent black women directors, such as Ava DuVernay (I Will Follow) and Dee Rees (Pariah), it stands to reason that the spectrum of black female stories being told will only continue to diversify. As such, it would be great to see these groundbreaking new writers and directors tackle some of our oldest and most neglected narratives—those of the pioneering African American women who have helped to weave the rich tapestry of this country.
Here are five historical giants who deserve the glitz and glam of the silver screen:
In 1848, Ellen Craft escaped slavery with her husband… by disguising herself as a white male slaveowner traveling with her manservant. The couple published an account of their “hiding in plain view” escape and faced the threat of recapture under the fugitive slave act. They eventually fled to England and raised five kids.
Talk about a happy ending.
This is a story perfect for the screen, and since we’re now in the business of retrofitting slavery to suit our new millennium cinematic purposes, it’s a wonder no one’s optioned it.
Casting suggestions: Jennifer Beals is Hollywood’s go-to biracial-lady-who’s-able-to-pass. So she’d be a contender for Ellen. But if we’re going younger, Rashida Jones is an obvious choice and Jurnee Smollett would be an inspired one. For Ellen’s husband, Michael K. Williams, if we’re sticking to Beals; Michael B. Jordan or Columbus Short otherwise.
Alice Dunbar Nelson
The erstwhile wife of famed poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, Alice Dunbar Nelson was an accomplished poet and novelist in her own right. Her love affair with Dunbar was well-documented in letters, but their marriage was marred and ultimately doomed by his alcoholism. Though they never officially divorced, they separated for good four years before his death. Alice went on to marry twice more.
Alice, a graduate of the college now known as Dillard University and a member of the New Orleans’ Creole community, led a storied and possibly scandalous life (Paul claimed that she took female lovers during their marriage) that the right actress could do a great deal of justice.
Zora Neale Hurston
One of the most dynamic black women in modern American history, Zora Neale Hurston’s life deserves the high-budget silver screen treatment. Her story has it all: fame, intrigue, scandal, penniless demise, and posthumous artistic revival.
Though her most beloved work, Their Eyes Were Watching God got the Oprah treatment a few years back, so few of us know all that there is to know about Hurston: one of the country’s first black PhDs in anthropology; an enthusiastic folklorist; and a Fulbright scholar.
Casting suggestions: In a sense, Jenifer Lewis would be great for this; it could be the role that reignites her dramatic career.
Ida B. Wells
Ida B. Wells has one of the most compelling back-stories of our time. Best known for her pioneering work as an anti-lynching activist, journalist, and educator, Wells lost her parents and a brother to a yellow fever epidemic and managed to secure a teaching job while also continuing her college studies and raising her remaining siblings. That she was able to accomplish so much thereafter is remarkable and inspiring. Late in life, she ran for Illinois State Legislature, making her one of the first black women to run for public office in this country.
Casting suggestion: Community’s Yvette Nicole Brown would be sublime.
The daughter of sharecroppers, Bessie Coleman was forced to drop out of college after one year for lack of tuition funds. Destiny took over from there and Coleman, who began her professional life as a manicurist, would go on to become the first African American, male or female, to earn an international pilot’s license (having been denied an American one because she was black and a woman). Trained in Paris, Coleman took on air show work in the U.S. to earn enough money to start a flying school, but her dream was never to be; she died at age 34 in a horrific crash while practicing for an air show parachute jump.
Casting suggestion: Taraji P. Henson. It would be great to see what she’d do with this.
Which real-life African American heroines would you like to see in a feature-length film? Who do you think should play them onscreen?