As we celebrate Black History Month at The A.V. Club, we wanted to highlight Black women filmmakers who have worked tirelessly to bring memorable projects to life, while breaking barriers along the way.
The 12 filmmakers profiled here have overcome a lack of support within the industry, funding challenges, and institutional racism. Some are cinema pioneers, who blazed trails for others to follow. Others are active today, continuing the quest to bring stories from Black women to the forefront.
In Losing Ground, one of the first feature films directed by a Black woman in the United States, Kathleen Collins examines a marriage in disrepair. Seret Scott and Bill Gunn star as Sara and Victor, a couple who differ in their philosophies of life. For the majority of their marriage, Sara’s been the analytical, sensible professor while Victor works as a lively, brutish painter who ebbs and flows with the waves of life.
While away from the city in a country home, the two experience professional and personal transformations which change the way they see themselves and each other. The film was released quietly in 1982 and Collins did little work afterward, but she’s since been recognized for her pioneering work.
Losing Ground is available to stream on The Criterion Channel.
With A Dry White Season, Martinique-born director Euzhan Palcy became the first Black woman to direct a Hollywood studio film, as well as the first Black director of an Oscar-nominated film. Starring Donald Sutherland, Susan Sarandon, Marlon Brando, Janet Suzman, and Zakes Mokae, A Dry White Season takes a stark look at apartheid.
Sutherland plays Ben du Toit, a South African teacher who becomes radicalized after the young son of his school’s gardener goes missing and later turns up dead. Du Toit joins the efforts of a group of local activists made up of his driver (Mokae), a lawyer (Brando), and a journalist (Sarandon) to expose the wrongdoings of the racist police force. Fearless in her approach to making this film, Palcy put her life on the line time and time again to share the stories of those suffering under apartheid. Palcy’s previous film, Sugar Cane Alley, won numerous awards at film festivals throughout the world, and she would go on to make another feature, titled Siméon.
A Dry White Season is available to watch on YouTube.
Famously recognized as the first film by a Black American woman to earn a theatrical release in the United States, Julie Dash’s Daughters Of The Dust remains a spellbinding film about time, family, and roots. A core inspiration for Beyonce’s Lemonade, the project is known for its rich visuals, non-linear storytelling, and inclusion of Gullah traditions and Yoruba folklore.
Daughters Of The Dust is available to stream on Kanopy and Prime Video.
In the early 1990s, Leslie Harris was one of the few Black women making films from her own perspective, a rarity in the expanse of independent cinema at the time. Shot in 17 days with a self-financed budget of $130,000, Just Another Girl On The I.R.T. follows a high-achieving Black girl named Chantal (Ariyan A Johnson) who has set her eyes on a career in medicine. Harris won the special jury prize at Sundance for Just Another Girl On The I.R.T. and brokered a wide release deal through Miramax. After that initial success, though, Harris has yet to direct another film due to lack of funding from production studios.
Just Another Girl On The I.R.T. is available to stream on Apple TV+ and Prime Video.
Kasi Lemmons’ directorial debut, starring Samuel L. Jackson, Lynn Whitfield, Debbi Morgan, Diahann Carroll, and Jurnee Smollett, follows one girl as she learns the rich secrets of her family. Set in Louisiana, the Southern Gothic film spins a tale of infidelity, marriage, and the sacred art of hoodoo.
Eve’s Bayou was the highest grossing independent film of 1997 and won the Film Independent Spirit Award for best first feature. The National Board of Review created a special first-time director award just for Lemmons. Eve’s Bayou has since been selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry for being culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant.
Eve’s Bayou is available to stream on Prime Video.
Back in 1997, The Watermelon Woman became a landmark in New Queer Cinema as the first film in the U.S. directed by an out Black lesbian. The Watermelon Woman takes a meta approach as Cheryl Dunye examines film history itself, and how Black women have often been left out of the narrative.
Dunye also stars in the film as Cheryl, a 25-year-old filmmaker who works at a video rental store in Philadelphia with her friend Tamara. After watching a movie where a Black actor is only credited as The Watermelon Woman, Cheryl goes on a deep dive to construct a documentary about the unnamed woman and sets out to track her down.
The Watermelon Woman is available to stream on Showtime
In her feature directorial debut, Dee Rees explores the life of a teenage poet (played by Adepero Oduye) living in the Bronx as she comes into her own as a lesbian. Pariah premiered at Sundance Film Festival in 2011, winning the award for excellence in cinematography. Rees would go on the make more award-winning features, including Mudbound and The Last Thing He Wanted, as well as television series like Empire, Bessie, and Space Force.
Pariah is available to stream on Hulu and Prime Video.
Prior to Ava DuVernay’s work on Selma—for which she became the first Black woman nominated for the Golden Globe for Best Director and the first Black woman director whose movie was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar—she directed the drama Middle Of Nowhere. The film follows a woman named Ruby, who sacrifices her own life and dreams to support her incarcerated husband. Middle Of Nowhere made DuVernay the first Black woman to receive the top prize for directing at Sundance Film Festival.
Middle Of Nowhere is available to watch on Netflix.
It wasn’t until 2019 that a Black woman director earned a place in competition for the Palme d’Or at Cannes. That’s when Mati Diop broke through with Atlantics, her feature directorial debut.
The film, adapted from a short film Diop made in college, tells a romantic ghost story through the eyes of a 17-year-old named Ada (Mame Bineta Sane). When her lover Souleiman (Traore) sets off on the Atlantic in hopes of finding a better future, Ada becomes wrapped up in a tale of grief, class struggle, and possession.
Atlantics is available to stream on Netflix.
Nigerian American director Chinonye Chukwu’s death row drama Clemency is the stark telling of the emotional struggle of prison warden Bernadine Williams, (Alfre Woodard). With Clemency, Chukwu became the first Black woman to win the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, the festival’s highest honor.
In our review of the film, Roxana Hadadi writes, “the strong performances of the ensemble support Chukwu’s unsettling examination into the many ways the criminal justice system implicates, shames, and corrupts those ensnared by it, regardless of whether they’re inside or outside the bars.”
Clemency is available to stream on Hulu and Prime Video.
Miss Juneteenth was released in 2020 to critical acclaim, marking Channing Godfrey Peoples as one of the new faces of Black women in cinema. Centering around the Texas-originated holiday of Juneteenth, Peoples channels her love for the Southern Black community into the story about a mother and her willful daughter, played by Nicole Beharie and Alexis Chikaeze.
In her review of Miss Juneteenth for The A.V. Club, Katie Rife writes, “Peoples views [the Miss Juneteenth pageant] itself with a lightly satirical eye, particularly in terms of class and respectability politics. But her love for the community surrounding the pageant comes through with enough warmth and familiarity to make Miss Juneteenth feel celebratory.”
Miss Juneteenth is available to rent on Prime Video and Apple TV+.
After its release was delayed multiple times due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Nia DaCosta’s reimagining of Candyman brought people to the theaters again. DaCosta calibrates the story of the supernatural slasher for today’s world, drawing on violent forces like gentrification and police violence that harm Black people in the United States. In August 2021, DaCosta’s Candyman became the first film directed by a Black woman to open at the top of the U.S. box office.
In our review of the film, Anya Stanley writes:
Names of Black men in Cabrini’s history cut down by white apparatuses get their own brief but insistent eulogies, a more somber version of Spike Lee’s pop activism. As those same apparatuses attempt to write another Black man’s story for him and create yet another bogeyman to fear and revile, testifying on their behalf becomes not just necessary but empowering. That power comes through in the performances, most notably the tremulous resolve of Vanessa Williams, reprising her role from the original, and the gravity [Colman] Domingo brings to his weary, growling lines. Meanwhile, [Yahya] Abdul-Mateen II tackles his starring role with the right balance of intensity and grace, aiming not to top Tony Todd’s iconic turn as the hook-handed killer but to complement it.”
Candyman is available to rent on Prime Video.