As we watch the U.S. law enforcement and legal systems display disgraceful racism through the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Rayshard Brooks, and countless others, we at agnès films want to honor those who’ve been murdered and abused and stand up for Black people around the country with a list of Black women filmmakers whose work provides rich and multifaceted stories about the Black experience. We believe that if we understand the humanity of someone, it is much harder to hurt and dismiss them. Film, with its images, sound, and storytelling prowess, provides a uniquely powerful medium in which to tell stories that counter stereotypes, if the right filmmakers are behind the camera.
Here we offer eight Black woman filmmakers—one for each minute that Derek Chauvin pressed his knee to George Floyd’s neck, although Floyd posed no threat to him, which prevented him from breathing and ultimately killed him. Join us in remembering the thousands of Black people whose lives have ended due to police brutality by watching the films and TV shows that make it impossible to continue to ignore the vitality of Black people to all aspects of American society.
By Alexandra Hidalgo
In 2017, I was fortunate to attend Women and Hollywood’s 10th anniversary celebration in New York City. We were led to an auditorium to honor the careers of women in the industry and to provide Trailblazer Awards to the women who made it possible for a publication like Women and Hollywood to exist. When Julie Dash walked to the podium, you could feel awe spread to every corner of the room. A living legend was among us and she had a message. “We have to continue to resist and to make the films that ought to be made,” she told us, and we all felt the call. Dash was born in Queens and attended film school at UCLA and in 1991 her lyrical film Daughters of the Dust was the first feature by an African American woman to be released in theaters across the United States. The film, irresistibly hypnotic and visually revolutionary, follows three generations of black women trying to decide between keeping their ancestral African traditions and joining mainstream American society, a conundrum that Black women and many people of color deal with as they navigate their identities in the U.S. The industry did not not open many doors to Dash in spite of her extraordinary work and talent, but she has continued making groundbreaking work, directing music videos for Tracy Chapman, Pebo Wilson, and Keb ‘Mo, among others. She also directed episodes for Queen Sugar in 2017. Let’s hope she continues to resist and make the films that ought to be made because we need her vision now more than ever.
By Alexandra Hidalgo
You’re not a real cinephile until you sit before the irreverent and majestic work that Cheryl Dunye weaves on the screen. Watching The Watermelon Woman is a right of passage for any human being wanting to learn how to tell the stories that matter to them, whether or not audiences think they’re ready to see those stories. As told through Dunye’s invigorating vision, Black lesbians are complex and fearless, seeking to understand a world that has systematically erased them, and to tell that world why their experiences are fundamental to all of us regardless of our race or sexuality. Having been born in Liberia but raised in Philadelphia, Dunye is able to see stories from various perspectives in ways that enrich her work with a pluralistic sense of how we craft our identities. She and her partner, feminist theorist and filmmaker Alexandra Juhasz, often collaborate, co-founding The Parliament Film Collective as a way to foster support for queer filmmakers whose projects the mainstream media refuses to tell. Make sure to check out Dunye’s second feature, Stranger Inside, which received a Best Director Independent Spirit Award nomination, and to enjoy the work she’s done directing groundbreaking Black-centric TV shows like Queen Sugar, Dear White People, and All Rise.
By Kara Headley
Saying “Ava DuVernay is a legendary and essential filmmaker” seems like an understatement, but I’m going to do it anyway. Ava DuVernay is a legendary and essential filmmaker. Her resume of film work is extensive and impressive. Her films often focus on the Black American experience, like her feature Selma about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s march from Selma to Montgomery and the work done to get President Johnson to sign the Voting Rights Act of 1965 or her show When They See Us, which chronicles the lives of the Central Park Five from when they were first questioned to the settlement of the case. In her Academy Award nominated documentary, 13th, she explores racial inequality in the United States from slavery, to the 13th amendment, to present day. It is often listed as a quintessential film on racial inequality in America. Throughout all her films, DuVernay masterfully chronicles real life events on the big screen as she illustrates the Black American experience in a respectful and factual way. In 2012, she became the first Black woman to win the directing award at Sundance for her second feature film, Middle of Nowhere. A Wrinkle in Time made her the highest grossing Black woman director in American box office history. She is also an activist for helping other women of color. She consistently hires black women directors to work on her shows and her film collective and distribution company Array, whose mission is to provide more visibility to films made by filmmakers of color and women filmmakers. Her work helps to educate on the Black experience in America so we can all better understand it and the American experience as a whole, in which it plays a vital, constitutive role.
By Kara Headley
I first became aware of Kasi Lemmons when her film Harriet was released, and what a way to be introduced. Lemmons grew up in Massachusetts, where she attended the Circle in the Square Program, a program where kids were trained to become professional actors. She started her career acting in commercials, and then was cast in many high-profile films, like The Silence of the Lambs and Candyman. Her directorial debut was with Eve’s Bayou in 1997, which she also wrote. The film follows the series of events that unfold when a young girl, Eve, catches her father having an affair. Rich characters and tangible emotions make their way across the screen as the film progresses, meriting its many awards, like the Film Independent Spirit Award for Best First Feature. The worlds that Lemmons creates in her films are both immersive and beautiful. Her directorial style has grown throughout the years with The Caveman’s Valentine, Talk to Me, Black Nativity, and most recently, Harriet. Harriet is a Harriet Tubman biopic, which chronicles the abolitionist’s life from when she first escaped slavery and throughout her work fighting to put an end to slavery. Lemmons creates a rich portrait of a woman who fought for her own and others’ freedoms, telling her story like I have never heard before. It’s a film that, even if you know Tubman’s story going into it, will have you holding your breath and cheering for her. With such an amazing portfolio of films under her belt, it is easy to be excited to see what Lemmons does next.
By Mimi Anagli
When looking back at Melina Matsoukas career, it is apparent that her art has always worked towards empowering people of color and educating the world on racial injustices. Matsoukas entered the industry as a music video director. Since 2006, she has directed videos for black women icons like Whitney Houston, Beyoncé, Rihanna, Solange, and Ciara. Some of her most notable creative direction is the music video for Beyoncé’s song “Formation.” Her compelling imagery that depicts the origins of Beyoncé and the black experience in America won Matsoukas six MTV VMA awards, a Grammy, and a music Grand Prix at the Cannes Lions. I personally became a fan of Matsoukas after watching “Formation.” The empowerment that radiates in this video and much of her work is beyond captivating and has inspired my own filmmaking style. After many years of music video and commercial directing, Matsoukas recently brought her talent to film and television. She has directed episodes of Insecure and Master of None, and in 2019, she made her film debut with Queen & Slim. Telling a story of police brutality, Queen & Slim is a timely masterpiece that does not stray far from the events that are currently unfolding across the US. Directed by Matsoukas and written by Lena Waithe, the film is a poetic injustice that is an act of social activism in itself. We have only seen the beginning of what remarkable and diverse stories Melina Matsoukas has in store and I can’t wait to see what’s next.
By Alexandra Hidalgo
Dee Rees burst into the screen with her feature Pariah, about a Black 17-year-old getting in touch with her lesbian sexuality and struggling to explain that version of herself to family and friends. Like that film, Rees’s career has been vibrant and rebellious, tackling ignored topics with endless attention to craft and to the ways in which films can voice that which words struggle to make sense of. Being a Nashville native who was mentored by Spike Lee while attending film school at NYU, she is the kind of auteur who has a vision and is able to adapt it to a plethora of projects, from Bessie, her 2015 Queen-Latifah starring biography of Bessie Smith, to Mudbound, the story of two families—one black and one white—coming to terms with a post-WWII racist America in rural Mississippi. Mudbound not only won Rees a screenwriting Academy Award nomination, but Rachel Morrison was the first woman to ever receive a Best Cinematography nomination for her work in the film. Rees is currently working on her first musical, a re-envisioning of George Gershwin’s classic Porgy and Bess, that is sure to introduce this timeless story to millions of new fans. Stay tuned for this and other projects, including the dream of doing “a futuristic fantasy and a sci-fi allegory” that she discussed with Entertainment Weekly in their “Pride Forever” issue this month.
By Mimi Anagli
As the mastermind behind some of television’s greatest hits, Shonda Rhimes is a pioneer for women of color in TV. She is the creator, writer, and executive producer of Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, and Private Practice, and executive producer of How to Get Away with Murder, The Catch, Off the Map, and Station 19. Rhimes and her television production company, Shondaland, have had a vital role in shaping ABC network’s reputation and following in the last decade. Rhimes’s love for storytelling and writing started early on in life. While majoring in English and Film Studies at Dartmouth College, she spent her college years directing and performing in student productions, writing fiction, and writing for the college newspaper. She started working in advertising, then attended University of Southern California for a masters in screenwriting. As one of the top students in her class, she received the Gary Rosenberg Writing Fellowship. Rhimes is an example of the many people of color who have worked hard and made a name for themselves, despite the discrimination they undoubtedly face. Growing up, Rhimes was one of the few women of color behind the screen that I knew about. Her accomplishments showed me that there is a place for my voice as a Black woman in the film and television industry. I remember in 2014, she had a program block on ABC where the entire Thursday primetime lineup was television series produced by Shondaland. Known as TGIT, this lineup was a weekly reminder for me, and probably many other women of color, that our lack of visibility will not last and that if we demand it and support each other as we make compelling content, our voices will be heard.
By Alexandra Hidalgo
I became aware of Lena Waithe’s infinite talent while watching Asiz Ansari and Alan Yang’s Netflix series Master of None, where she plays the childhood best friend of Dev, the series protagonist played by Ansari. Her scenes lit up an already outstanding show with humor and delicious confidence. I soon discovered that this magnetic actor was also a gifted screenwriter and producer. She and Ansari won a Primetime Emmy for “Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series” for the episode where he and Waithe’s character spend Thanksgiving with her family over multiple years, finally revealing that she is a lesbian to her mother and aunt. Waithe’s writing is crisp, funny, and full of so much heart that it’s hard to stay dry-eyed as she opens emotional wounds we didn’t know we carried. I couldn’t wait to watch last year’s Queen & Slim, which she wrote and Melina Matsoukas directed, and which anticipated many of the responses we are having to police brutality this year. Lyrical, romantic, and inviting us to stand up to the interconnected systems that refuse to see Black people as full members of society, this was one the most impactful cinematic experiences I’ve had in the last decade. You can continue to watch Waithe’s work in The Chi, Boomerang, and the upcoming feature, Beauty.