10 Black Women Filmmakers Who Have Shaped the Cinema Landscape of the 21st Century
From historical dramas to romantic films that display Black love, Black women directors have offered varied narratives to the cinema landscape in the past two decades. These countless contributions center the Black female experience, offering moviegoers a unique perspective into Black womanhood while providing Black women and girls the rare opportunity to see themselves spotlighted on-screen.
Gina-Prince Bythewood ushered in the 21st century with her classic romantic drama Love & Basketball and more recently delivered the commanding and powerful historical drama The Woman King. Meanwhile, Dawn Porter has delivered rousing examinations of conservative attacks on women’s health care and a retrospective on the late Civil Rights activist John Lewis.
Black women directors often introduce film lovers to a more nuanced understanding of Black life. More than that, since these films stretch across different genres and honor the perspectives of vastly different characters, they are a reminder that Black women — like Black people — are not a monolith.
Despite critical acclaim for these films, including Prince-Bythewood’s The Woman King and Chinonye Chukwu’s Till, Black women filmmakers and their projects are continually left out of the conversation during awards season. While we’ve got a long way to go to rectify this, these 10 Black women filmmakers have helped define the cinema of today and propel it into the future.
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Though her first films — I Will Follow (2010), Middle of Nowhere (2012), and Selma (2014) — established Ava DuVernay’s command as a filmmaker, 13th was something more. The sobering Netflix documentary offers an eye-opening view into American history. Though slavery has been abolished since 1865, DuVernay’s film outlines the loopholes in the US Constitution’s 13th Amendment, which has enabled slavery and involuntary servitude through our ever-eroding penal system.
Prison labor is mainly made up of Black and brown bodies. 13th highlights the present-day ramifications that have emerged due to the policies of the Nixon, Regan, Bush, and Clinton administrations while highlighting the wretched state of our prison system. The film also unpacks where race and modern-day race relations fit into the narrative. Since the release of 13th, DuVernay has also created and directed various TV series, including Queen Sugar, Colin In Black & White, and her $100 million adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle In Time.
“DuVernay has made a film that is less about easy catharsis or reignited fury than it is a drama that speaks of the vision, strategic discipline, and political wrangling required to maintain and grow democracy.” – Lisa Kennedy, Denver Post
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Following her directorial debut, Clemency, which spotlights an emotionally bereft prison warden played by Alfre Woodard, Chinonye Chukwu turned her lens on another powerful Black woman. With the painful but impactful Till, the director centers on Mamie Till-Mobley (Danielle Deadwyler), a young Black mother living in Chicago in the 1950s. When her 14-year-old son, Emmett, is murdered during a summer visit with family in Mississippi, Till-Mobley takes it upon herself to force America to look at the atrocities continually inflicted upon Black people while demanding justice for her only child.
Till is based on the real-life story of Emmett Till. However, placing Till-Mobley at the center of the narrative highlights the anxieties and traumas around Black motherhood in a country where Black women still die from childbirth at astronomical rates and Black children are continually murdered by police.
“There are a lot of familiar faces in Till, but the film’s effectiveness depends on two factors: Deadwyler’s performance and Chukwu’s direction. The two go hand in glove.” – George M. Thomas, Akron Beacon Journal
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Years before the United States Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, southern states and pro-birthers passed a flurry of legislation limiting abortion access. In her 2016 documentary Trapped, documentarian Dawn Porter took a closer look at these TRAP (Targeted Regulations of Abortion Providers) laws. She also examined the limits placed on women’s healthcare — which should be a fundamental right — and how they disproportionally affect impoverished women and women of color.
The documentary follows several women who were forced to jump through hoops for healthcare while examining the shame around abortion and the misogyny that has only continued to explode in our present-day political climate. Looking at Trapped seven years after its premiere now feels like an omen of what has come to pass. Since Trapped, Porter has directed a number of other projects, including the acclaimed John Lewis: Good Trouble.
“Porter’s thoughtful visit to the frontlines of this battle serves up much-needed breaths of fresh air in a toxic media environment that minimizes women’s struggle for legal healthcare.” – Peg Aloi, Arts Fuse
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While representation for Black women has expanded in the film industry in front of and behind the camera, certain stories are still marginalized. Fifteen years after Cheryl Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman, Dee Rees presented her breathtaking feature debut Pariah. Set in Brooklyn, New York, Rees’ coming-of-age story follows 17-year-old Alike (Adepero Oduye), a high school student coming to grips with her sexuality under the purview of her religious-minded parents. Oduye’s performance is astonishing.
While the film spotlights Alike’s sexual awakening, it also unpacks harmful religiosity, parental expectations, and rampant homophobia in the Black community. Rees also examines the perils of respectability and why anti-Blackness cannot be combated by being “good.” Since Pariah, Rees’s work has included Bessie, Mudbound, The Last Thing He Wanted, and a number of television projects.
“The first word I muttered under my breath after watching writer/director Dee Rees’ Pariah, an expansion of her award-winning short film of the same name, was, ‘Wow.’” – Sara Michelle Fetters, MovieFreak.com
(Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images, ©TriStar Pictures)
In 2000, Prince-Bythewood offered filmgoers an homage to Black love with her debut feature, Love & Basketball. Her latest film, The Woman King, is a love letter to Black sisterhood.
Set in the 19th century in the West African Kingdom of Dahomey, now Benin, The Woman King follows General Nanisca (Viola Davis), who leads the all-woman army known as the Agojie. These women warriors are tasked with keeping Dahomey safe from enemy kingdoms and slave traders. Fearsome and focused, Nanisca’s impenetrable armor begins to crack when she connects with Nawi (Thuso Mbedu), a rebellious recruit.
While The Woman King is rooted in West African history, Prince-Bythwood offers a story about the bonds between Black women, humanity, and embracing change. More than that, the film showcases the importance of Black women taking charge of their own lives.
“With its A-list cast and $50-million budget, the film still retains Prince-Bythewood’s commitment to character and to Black love, both platonic and romantic. It is her Hollywood opus, complete with the thrilling action set-pieces and swelling score to prove it.” – Sarah-Tai Black, Globe and Mail
(Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images, ©A24)
Based on the saga chronicled over 144 tweets by A’ziah “Zola” King in 2015, Janicza Bravo’s second feature film, Zola, delivers grit, tenacity, and Black girl magic. Set in Tampa, Florida, the film follows Zola (Taylour Paige), an exotic dancer who finds herself on a trip from hell after befriending Stefani (Riley Keough), a fellow dancer who entices her on a weekend adventure to make some “easy” money. What could have amounted to a pseudo-buddy comedy becomes, in Bravo’s hands, an electric narrative that examines white women’s cultural appropriation of Black women, the nuances of Black womanhood, and the ties between women across all walks of life. Working within a sparse narrative structure, Bravo puts the spotlight on her performers to deliver a brilliant and unique film.
“From the writing and directing to the costuming and production design, Bravo and her team transform the famed series of tweets into an of-the-moment film that captures the same frenetic energy of the story.” – Cate Young, The Muse/Jezebel
(Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images, ©Universal Pictures)
With the debut of her second feature film, Candyman, Nia DaCosta became the first Black woman to have a No. 1 movie at the box office. Written with executive producer Jordan Peele and screenwriter Win Rosenfeld, Candyman is a sequel to the original 1992 film. The narrative follows Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), an artist living in Chicago who becomes so obsessed with the legend of the Candyman that it consumes him.
Thrilling and terrifying, the film is more than just a horror movie. By unpacking race relations in Chicago, DaCosta’s film addresses the monstrosities that racism and white supremacy have inflicted on Black communities and the Black body while reimagining how Blackness fits into the horror genre. Next, DaCosta will direct The Marvels, becoming the youngest filmmaker of the franchise and the first Black woman director in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
“DaCosta’s Candyman is haunting, powerful, and is another reminder that the racist sins of the past leave behind a legacy that still reverberates strongly today.” – Joshua Mackey, Geeks of Color
(Photo by Cindy Ord/Getty Images, ©Netflix)
An ode to grief and Black womanhood, Radha Blank’s The Forty-Year-Old Version is a stunning debut. Shot in 35mm black and white, the film follows a fictionalized version of Blank, who has seemingly given up on her dreams following the devastating loss of her mother. With her 40th birthday approaching, Radha is determined to put herself back on a path to success. However, she quickly realizes the white-washed New York City theater scene she once revered isn’t something she can stomach anymore.
Hilarious and heartbreaking, The Forty-Year-Old Version grapples with deferred dreams, the crushing weight of parental loss, and the false life markers tied to aging. Blank won the U.S. Dramatic Competition Directing Award at the Sundance Film Festival for the film, making her only the second Black woman to do so following DuVernay.
“In her feature debut, Blank explores what it means to move on to the next stage of life, and how to stay true to yourself. Witty and relatable, The Forty-Year-Old Version is one of the best films this year.” – Adriana Gomez-Weston, We Live Entertainment
(Photo by Daniele Venturelli/Getty Images, ©Amazon)
With her feature film debut, Academy Award-winning actor-turned-director Regina King turned her lens on one impactful day in Miami. In 1963, four commanding men — Muhammad Ali (Eli Goree), Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.), and Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir) — at different phases of their lives and with differing ideologies, came together for one night of brotherhood and discussion.
By allowing the men the space to breathe just for one evening, King’s story addresses the nuances of the Black community that were present then and echo into the current day. History had already determined the fate of these men, but in One Night In Miami, they are allowed to exist and to be vulnerable with one another, grappling with all they’d endured and had to overcome.
“Here King lets narrative ingenuity permeate each frame as she remains behind the camera, drawing us inside this circle of legends, each of whom represents distinct aspects of Black identity and struggle. ” – Melanie McFarland, Salon.com
(Photo by Jim Spellman/Getty Images, ©Universal Pictures)
Stella Meghie, a filmmaker who has always centered Black romance in her films, pushed her work to the next level in The Photograph. Gorgeously shot and full of sensuality and romance, the narrative follows Mae (Issa Rae), an art curator grappling with the death of her estranged mother, Christina (Chanté Adams), a famed photographer. Enchanted by Christina’s work, Michael (Lakeith Stanfield), a journalist, also finds himself intrigued by the reserved Mae.
While much of The Photograph is straightforward, Meghie juxtaposes Mae and Michael’s present-day romance in New York City with a love affair between Christina and her former sweetheart Issac (Y’lan Noel) set in Louisiana in the 1980s. Without the hardships or deep-seated traumas that often plague Black-led films, The Photograph is about the softness of courtship, mutual accountability, and what’s possible.
“Stella Meghie’s The Photograph adds to the canon of Black Love on screen and shows that Black sensuality, romance and love stories can be beautifully illustrated without the backdrops of financial hardships or jilting trauma.” – Aramide Tinubu, Shadow and Act
Archival curation and research for this feature was led by Tim Ryan. Additional review curation by Ivette Garcia Davila, Rob Fowler, Steven Louis, and Dom Pembleton.
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