With the announcement of the Oscar nominations, many were angry to not see Ava DuVernay’s name among the best director nominations, but most were not that surprised to see the omission. In an industry dominated by middle-aged white men, it can be difficult for anyone who doesn’t fit that designation to receive support and recognition for their work. It is particularly difficult for women of colour to break into the ranks. They often must work twice as hard to receive a fraction of the recognition afforded to men in the industry.
This is to the detriment of film as a whole because while each individual filmmaker beings their own experience to a film, similarities between filmmakers who identify as part of the same group become very apparent the more films you watch. This is why diversity behind the camera is just as important as diversity in front of it. Films directed by women have a distinctly different sensibility than those directed by men and this difference becomes even more pronounced when you add race to the equation. So with that in mind, TFS would like to take the time to acknowledge some of the contributions of black women in film.
Amma Asante is a British writer director born in London in 1969. Her first feature film, A Way of Life, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2004. In addition to playing at several film festivals, the film received good critical reviews and some award recognition, the most significant of which was a BAFTA for best newcomer. Despite the critical success of A Way of Life, it was almost a decade before she debuted her second feature Belle once again at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2013. The story of a mixed race woman who was the daughter of a Royal Naval Admiral, Belle is one of the most prominent feature films creatively driven by black women as they occupy the roles of writer, director and lead.
The film did surprisingly well at the American box office, especially considering the difficulty in having it made. The producers were told that no one would want to see the film due to its subject matter of race and slavery in Britain and once Asante was attached to the project, funding became even more difficult to come by as she was relatively unknown, female and black. Fortunately the producers stuck by their decision to let Asante take the reigns of Belle as it offers a fresh take on the period drama. Although there has been criticism for the direction not being radical enough to break from the classical Hollywood tradition, that is exactly why Belle is such an effective film.
Asante manages to show us something that is both familiar and brand new and in the process helps to break down the male/female, black/white binary. While at first glance the film could have been made by someone like Tom Hooper, it is in the little details that Asante makes the film uniquely hers. The images that her camera lingers on are not the ones we have become accustomed to, and the details she highlights are not the ones that are usually considered significant. With her subtle approach, Asante shows that not only can women direct large-scale, successful films, but also that there is something new and interesting to be gained from a perspective that is completely unique, but also not so different from what we have been taught is the norm.
Ava DuVernay is a critically acclaimed documentary and feature filmmaker from the United States. Her first film, This is The Life, a documentary on hip-hop culture won audience awards at the ReelWorld Film Festival in Toronto, the Los Angeles Pan African Film Festival and the Hollywood Black Film Fesitval. Her second feature Middle of Nowhere won the best director award at the Sundance Film Festival making her the first African-American woman to do so. In addition to her work in film, she has also contributed documentaries to ESPN and BET, and directed an episode of Scandal. In 2011, DuVernay founded the African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement (AFFRM) an independent distribution collective dedicated to promoting and distributing black independent films. DuVernay’s work is dedicated to bringing the stories of African-Americans to a wider audience. Her work, like Asante’s, brings a different sensibility to both familiar and unfamiliar stories.
Her latest film Selma takes the events of Martin Luther King Jr’s campaign for equal voting rights centred on Selma, Alabama and provides a human look at the people involved. There are no heroes or martyrs, simply people fighting for their rights as human beings, complete with their flaws and troubles. DuVernay draws parallels between the past and the present and while Selma celebrates the triumphs of the civil rights movements and the bravery of all evolved, black, white and otherwise, she also shows that what King and his contemporaries started isn’t done.
We still have a long way to go. This is a perspective that is needed on film. Films are an important component to shaping our world view and in a world as diverse as ours, we can’t afford to rely on a closed group of individuals to dictate the societal framework. Through the work of Asante, DuVernay and countless others, we are given a new way of seeing the world. What is most fascinating is how similar, but different their views are from the accepted standard. With these women paving the way, we are heading towards an expanded world of film, which can only be to everyone’s benefit.