Special Pages | African American Women Directors I: Collins, Dash, Prince-Bythewood, and DuVernay

By Tyler Patterson

Kathleen Collins (1942–1988)

Thirty years after director Kathleen Collins’ death, her landmark film Losing Ground finally received a wide release. Its belated moment in the spotlight is all the more astonishing as it flourished along the festival circuit. To people who are familiar with the film, it is known as one of the first feature films made by an African American woman, if not the first. It is also one of the first times audiences saw an all-black middle class cast on screen, as Nina points out in an interview. The significance of this achievement is easy to overlook in our age of media overstimulation and saturation but mustn’t be, because to do so would be to forget the enormous service that Kathleen Collins did by breaking ground for women filmmakers and filmmakers of color with Losing Ground.

The film’s resurrection and subsequent discovery by heavyweight critics is the work of Collins’ daughter, Nina Collins. In a moving video interview for PBS, Nina shares how she came into possession of much of her mother’s work, both finished and in progress, after Collins’ untimely death from cancer at the age of 46. Almost a decade later, Nina began going through her mother’s works and had the film restored “so it wouldn’t be lost.” Stories like this remind us of the lasting power of art, how recovering works of art from near oblivion and sharing them with the world can be a form of necessary connection and opening.

Julie Dash (b. 1952)

Julie Dash’s first and only feature film, Daughters of the Dust, is a meditative, nonlinear story about a family descended from slaves taken from West Africa and living off the South Carolina-Georgia coast at the beginning of the 20th century. The story of the Peazant family is based loosely on Dash’s own family’s history. The overarching drama of the film is whether they will move to the mainland, a choice that would lead to leaving behind one way of life and adapting to a newer one. Doing so would most likely mean no longer speaking Gullah Creole, the unique strain of Creole that developed in that region. Language plays an especially interesting role in this film. During its production, Dash worked closely with a language consultant to help her actors (none of them spoke a lick of Gullah) achieve mastery over the language. The effect is startling. Dash’s film thoroughly revives a critical and underexplored moment in America’s history. Another enthralling decision of Dash involves the situation of the film in a liminal space where the Peazant family is caught between not merely places but worlds and ways of being.

Daughters of the Dust is Dash’s only feature film simply and sadly because, despite the film was initially released to critical acclaim, she was unable to secure funding for another one, which should give pause to anyone who is interested in equal representation of all people in the arts. The film had gone largely unseen for a decade and a half until a timely re-release in 2016.

Gina Prince-Bythewood (b. 1969)

Writer/director Gina Prince-Bythewood might just become the first woman of color to direct a superhero movie. Her next project Silver & Black is about Silver Sable and Black Cat from the Spider-Man series, and it is currently slated for release with Sony in early 2019. It might seem insignificant until one (re)considers the enormous influence of superhero movies, which stems from the seamless fusion of narrative and ideology, in addition to the mass distribution and the automatic fan/viewer base. The significance of this point grows in light of the fact that the genre of the superhero movie strives for a sort of narrative and economic omnipotence and has thus far excluded the visions of women directors of color. Although it is possible that the project will change hand before Prince-Bythewood begins shooting, the possibility of her contribution is already a cause for excitement.

Prince-Bythewood’s previous work has focused on female characters who fight for what they love and desire, sometimes to tragic ends. Her 2000 debut, Love & Basketball, follows Quincy McCall (Omar Epps) and Monica Wright (Sanaa Lathan) who are childhood neighbors and aspiring basketball players. The film achieves a remarkable matter-of-factness in its representation of the obstacles faced by female athletes while pulling the viewer in through an alluring romance story. Her most recent film, Beyond the Lights (2014), was made with a key crew consisting of all female members. It follows Noni, a rising pop star played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, as she forges her path as a singer. The great feat of this film is the way Prince-Bythewood levels a critique against the objectifying aspects of the music industry while gracefully weaving a love story and eliciting astonishing performances from her leads.

Ava DuVernay (b. 1972)

In recent years, Ava DuVernay has become one of the most talked about directors in cinema. And rightfully so: in the era of Black Lives Matter and an unstoppable women’s movement, it is difficult to think of a cinematic viewpoint as vital to the variety of the historically homogenous (white, male) American film industry as hers. DuVernay’s directorial debut was 2008’s This Is the Life, a documentary about The Good Life Café, a Los Angeles food scene staple where the alternative hip hop movement flourished in the 1990s. DuVernay performed there as part of the group Figures of Speech. The more recent work of hers, Selma and 13th, has fearlessly tackled America’s always tangled and often hostile relationship to race. Selma depicts the voting rights marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama organized by Dr. Martin Luther King played by David Oyelowo. Receiving almost unanimously positive reviews from critics, Selma was nominated for Best Original Song, which it won, and Best Picture at the 87th Academy Awards, making DuVernay the first black woman director to be nominated for the Academy’s most prestigious award. Watching Selma, one can’t help but notice the poignant similarities between the image of violence that we saw in the days around the film’s release (Ferguson happening months before and Baltimore months afterwards) and 2017’s horrifying uptick in displays of white supremacism.

If Selma deals with racism as an overt and pervasive force in interpersonal relations in the U.S., then 13th examines its subtler iterations in the so-called criminal justice system. The documentary takes its title from the corresponding Amendment in the U.S. Constitution, which abolished slavery except as punishment for a crime. The film points out that politicians, the police, and the judicial system have exploited this loophole to grow and feed the voracious prison-industrial complex. For anyone seeking to better understand the almost clandestine yet systemic forms of oppression that are practically built into the American political-economic project, 13th is required viewing.

DuVernay’s next project, a film adaptation of the classic young adult fantasy novel A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle, will be released early next year by Walt Disney Pictures. With an all-star cast and a budget of over a million dollars (which means another first for DuVernay: she’s now the first black woman filmmaker to make a movie with a budget of such scope), it is certain to make DuVernay a household name in places where she isn’t already.

 

Tyler Patterson is a filmmaker and writer from Massachusetts. He also volunteers his time to the Brattle Theatre as the Editorial Assistant for the Brattle Film Notes. 

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