A communal grievance among black Americans is inaccurate representation of our communities and culture on the silver screen. We’ve had several brilliant churns with Love Jones, Love & Basketball, and other treasured gems, but caricatures of our collective swag largely outweigh the rare pieces done with flair.
The answer to this issue is complex, but one solution is placing black folks in the executive and directors’ chairs. We can begin to shift our depiction in media when we’re calling shots and making crucial decisions. These opportunities have been presented to Tyler Perry, Spike Lee, Antoine Fuqua and an influx of other black men. Black women haven’t been as fortunate.
Maya Angelou, Julie Dash and a few other sisters have been successful as film directors. We’re celebrating the relentless success of Shonda Rhimes, who is altering the media landscape with Scandal, Grey’s Anatomy and her other ventures. However, these ladies are anomalies. Black women filmmakers are the exclusion within the exclusion. It has been difficult for them to convince studio executives to invest in their projects. But despite the odds, there are some ladies still making ripples in tinsel town. Here are five of them.
Dr. Yvonne Welbon
Dr. Yvonne Welbon went on a quest to discover other black women filmmakers while pursuing her Ph.D. at Northwestern University. She was only aware of one black woman director when she began film school, so she began finding her peers in the industry. This led to “Sisters in Cinema,” her dissertation-turned-documentary. Dr. Welbon is an esteemed director and producer. She has been at the helm of several important films, including Living with Pride: Ruth C. Ellis @ 100, which focused on the first “out” black lesbian. It garnered several accolades, including the GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Documentary.
Dr. Welbon is also dedicated to educating black women. She helms the Journalism and Media Studies Department at Bennett College, a HBCU designed to educate and celebrate women. She is also an assistant professor who teaches courses that analyze media. I am a recent graduate of that program.
Her latest project is “The New Black,” a documentary that examines the complex relationship between African-American and LGBT civil-rights movements. It specifically focuses on homophobia in the black church and how Christian-right extremists are exploiting the church to fulfill political agenda. Dr. Welbon is producing “The New Black,” which is directed by Yoruba Richen. She is also embarking on her first trans-media project, “Sisters in the Life: 25 Years of Out African American Lesbian Media-making (1986 – 2011).” “Sisters in the Life” is a web-based community building project. It will also include a book of essays, a mobile application, a documentary, and an archive.
Glennisha Morgan is a neo in the directing world, but her work is worth commemorating. The Huffington Post Gay Voices intern is preparing to release her first documentary, “Turn Me Up,” which examines the underground hip-hop landscape for women artists. Morgan – whose work has been featured on Clutch in the past – is also a multimedia journalist and leader of “The Fembassy,” a site dedicated to reporting news and other tidbits about women rappers.
This gifted filmmaker is a veteran in the game. She is responsible for “Cadillac Records,” “Their Eyes Were Watching God” and the Q-Tip driven, “Prison Song.” But that’s just the beginning of her resume. In 1994, Martin became the first black woman to direct and produce a movie that was funded by a major studio. “I Like It Like That” was distributed by Columbia Pictures and set a new bar of achievement for black women in film. Darnell Martin has also diversified her arsenal by directing episodes of “Law & Order” and “Grey’s Anatomy.” Her latest project is “Wish You Well,” a feature-length film that is currently in production.
Acclaimed director Dees Rees believes that “screenwriting is a way of actually seeing your writing come to life.” This might explain her decision to leave a comfortable career in marketing to pursue a master’s degree in film at New York University. Her graduate thesis was a shortened version of a full-length script that focused on a black girl’s struggle to be comfortable with her sexuality. In 2007, that thesis won 25 short awards, including the L.A. Film Festival’s “Audience Award.”
It was the beginning of “Pariah,” the critically-hailed movie starring Adepero Oduye in a breakout role.
This independent film thrust Rees into the spotlight, which has led to other opportunities. Currently, she is working on an HBO series that will star Viola Davis. She is also directing a thriller, “Bolo,” and “Large Print,” a feature film.
All hail Ava DuVernay! She is the first black woman to score the coveted Sundance Film Festival’s Best Director Prize. It was awarded to her for “Middle of Nowhere,” a feature film focusing on the impact of mass incarceration on families. “This is the Life,” a 2008 documentary, was DuVernay’s directorial debut. She has quickly ascended into the upper echelons of director’s excellence. Her first feature film, “I Will Follow” was theatrically-released in 2011. DuVernay is also the curator of AFFRM, a guild for black filmmakers to showcase their work.
Her last project was the silent short film, “The Door.”