Ava DuVernay (b.
1972) is the award-winning director of films such as Middle of Nowhere, Selma,
and 13th. She was the
first black female director to be nominated for a Golden Globe and an Academy
She won the Best Director Prize at the Sundance Film
Festival in 2012, the first African-American woman to do so. She directed a
number of documentaries, mostly focused on the African-American experience.
By Maureen Lee Lenker, who is an avid
TCM fan, and a Los Angeles based writer and actress who writes a monthly
column, “Dame in the Game,” about women in Hollywood history for Ms. in the
With the success of last year’s Selma, the first Best Picture nominee
directed by an African-American woman, Ava DuVernay and independent
African-American female filmmakers came more fully to international attention
than ever before. DuVernay had already made history as the first
African-American woman to win Best Director at the Sundance Film Festival for
her 2012 feature Middle of Nowhere, making
its TCM premiere tonight (though that success did not translate into the same
visibility and access that Selma has
DuVernay is an outspoken champion
of black female directors, recently challenging her Twitter followers to devise
a list of films starring a female protagonist and directed by a woman of color.
DuVernay regular points out inequities on her social media platforms and calls
for change in the entertainment industry.
This furthers an effort she began
in 2010 to distribute and promote independent films directed by women and
people of color. At that time, she founded the African-American
Film Festival Releasing Movement (AAFRM), now renamed ARRAY. The
organization is a distributor as well as a resource collective for independent
Though DuVernay calls the number of
female African-American filmmakers out there a “small sorority,” there are a
number of women who blazed the path before her, including tonight’s co-host
Julie Dash, whom DuVernay has named as a big inspiration.
In “Black Women Film-makers
Defining Ourselves,” Alile Sharon Larkin explains Hollywood’s role in excluding
people of color from telling their own story:
From the moment that Africans were
brought to the Americas and made slaves, we lost much more than our freedom. We
lost control of our image. Film and television have been crucial in this legacy
of loss, our loss of name and culture, for Hollywood has the power to rewrite,
redefine, and recreate history, culture, religion and politics. Hollywood has
the power of the spoken word and the visual image and all sounds and dreams.
It’s crucial then that women, especially women of color,
have the opportunity and agency to speak for themselves.
In a book on black women’s
literature and film, Judylyn S. Ryan describes how true equality requires “a
democracy of narrative participation.” Ryan goes on to explain how the work of
Julie Dash as a director demonstrates the need for “representation and
participation in national cinema and national history.” Ryan points
specifically to Dash’s Illusions (1982)
as a film that makes this argument by revising the history of classic
featured film Daughters of the Dust (1991),
which Dash fought to get made from 1975 through its 1991 Sundance debut,also speaks to this need for “a
democracy of narrative participation.” The film stresses family ties and
historical awareness as crucial to the women at its center, even keeping the
dialogue in Gullah without subtitles; it emphasizes a historical consciousness
that can be heightened by cinema. As Ryan explains, “black women filmmakers
frequently return to the past in order to reinscribe the history of Black
women’s agency as a basis for constructing future agency.”
tonight’s films focus on this construction of future agency for their black
female protagonists. Dash accomplishes it by reclaiming a narrative of the past
and figures traditionally marginalized in the historical record. Losing Ground (1982), Just Another Girl on the I.R.T. (1992)
and Middle of Nowhere (2012) tell the
stories of contemporary black women who already possess agency as a philosophy
professor, a girl with college aspirations and a medical student, respectively.
Circumstances in their life force them each to go on a further journey of
self-discovery to develop a more internal sense of agency.
color often feel excluded from the feminist conversation because of the
tendency of some white feminists to ignore issues of class and race. Audre
Lorde critiqued white feminist attitudes in the 1980s: “By and large within the
women’s movement today, white women focus upon their oppression as women and
ignore differences of race, sexual preference, class, and age. There is a
pretense to a homogeneity of experience covered by the word sisterhood that does not in fact exist.”
Thus, in a
programming series that celebrates sisterhood and Trailblazing Women behind the camera, it’s essential to include a
night of viewing dedicated to African-American independent female filmmakers—to
allow their voices to be a part of the conversation; to reclaim their history
and their stories. Only now, they’ve become a part of the historical narrative,
the story of women in film, themselves.
Larkin, Alile Sharon. “Black Women Film-makers Defining
Ourselves: Feminism in Our Own Voice.” In Female
Spectators: Looking at Film and Television, edited by E. Deidre Pribram.
London and New York: Verso, 1988.
Lorde, Audre. Sister
Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde. New York: Crossing Press,
Ryan, Judalyn S. Spirituality as Ideology in Black Women’s
Film and Literature, Virginia: University of Virginia Press, 2005.