BEHIND THE LENS
The Black Women of Film
Guerrilla filmmaking. It is the only alternative when Hollywood banishes you to the far edges of its privileged community. It's never easy; artistic rebellion in the old-boys-network of cinema still requires blood, sweat, tears and sacrifice. Above all, it requires a fresh vision.
Black Women Behind the Lens celebrates the uncompromising cinematic labors of love created by a group of brave African-American women committed to speaking truth to power while offering criticism of and alternatives to the stereotypical images of black women found in mainstream media. Their filmic manifestos address the challenges encountered and eventually surmounted by this burgeoning community.
Many of these women left behind stable jobs to charter new territory, fueled only by the faith in their hearts and the fire in their bellies. Some tried for many years, though countless doors were slammed in their face. Some were rejected from film schools, and others told their stories were "too intelligent for blacks." But still they persevere.
It's natural for pangs of frustration to creep in at the thought of being female and black in an industry that's not particularly enamored with either. However, a new crop of black women filmmakers has emerged, challenging old cinematic perceptions and using their art to erect new visions of their people, their heritage and their world.
Beginning with Tressie Souders' film A Woman's Error in 1922, black women have had a long, slow path to the director's chair, yet their evocative work manages to satisfy and challenge all at once, breaking racial barriers, and allowing successive generations access to more and more opportunities.
Some of the films in this exhibit have been directed or produced by recognizable names - Oprah Winfrey, Queen Latifah, Halle Berry, Maya Angelou, and Debbie Allen, but many are more obscure. Familiar, or soon-to-be, they have all created a complex, diverse, and challenging body of work, tackling fire-brand issues like apartheid, civil rights, incarceration, lesbian relationships, homelessness, and even their own absence from the Hollywood machine. Instead of alienating audiences by focusing on our dissimilarities, they seek to remind us that we are all more alike than different. That our experiences are universal, and often what makes us stumble and fall, is also what gives us the strength to rise.
"I never had dreams of Hollywood," said celebrated filmmaker Julie Dash. "I made films because that's what I enjoy to do. You get bitten by this bug and just keep standing up every time you're knocked down."
Dianne Houston was the first black woman nominated for an Oscar for Best Short Film, Live Action for her 1995 film Tuesday Morning Ride. "Black women historically have been presented as either subhuman or superhuman," said Houston. "Now we are starting to emerge as simply human, and that's a wonderful thing."
"People say it is very hard to do films. Yes, that is true. And more difficult when you are a woman." said inspirational filmmaker Euzhan Palcy. "But if a woman loves film, if a woman wants to be a director, she must fight hard, very hard, to do that."
These are the women seeking to transform African-American consciousness, fighting to tell their stories, despite all the cynics, closed doors, and conflicts.
These are Black Women Behind the Lens.
SUGAR CANE ALLEY (RUE CASSES NEGRES)
Orion Pictures, 1984
Euzhan Palcy was born in Martinique in 1957. Her father struggled in a pineapple factory, but would take time at the end of the day to encourage his daughter, who wrote poetry and created shadow-plays.
From a young age, Palcy was impressed by the power of film to incite feelings. "And when I saw the way black people were portrayed it made me so mad," she recalled, "I decided I must be a filmmaker." By 17, she wrote and directed The Messenger for Martinique television. Palcy went on to earn a degree in French Literature at the Sorbonne in Paris in 1975, and later a film degree from the Louis Lumiere School of Cinema.
While in school, Palcy's roommate introduced her to the daughter of renowned director Francois Truffaut. The meeting was fortuitous: Truffaut became Palcy's mentor and helped her raise funding for her first feature, Rue cases negres (Sugar Cane Alley.In 1983, at 26, Palcy returned home to Martinique to begin her film. On a miniscule budget, using borrowed equipment, Palcy assembled two professional actors and 800 local residents. Adapted from the novel by Martinique writer Joseph Zobel, the film centers on colonialism and racial oppression in the 1930s. One ageing but determined woman vows to save her eleven-year-old grandson from the grueling life of the sugar cane fields. The film is shot in sepia tone not simply to evoke the past but to mute the lush landscape of this island paradise, so that the emphasis rests on the agonized lives of the sugar cane workers.
Sugar Cane Alley won over one dozen international awards, including the Venice Film Festival's Silver Lion, and France's Cesar Award. The praise for this film brought her to Hollywood where, in 1989, she became the first black woman to direct a film for a major studio. The film, MGM's A Dry White Season (also in this exhibit).
A DRY WHITE SEASON
Metro Goldwyn Mayer, 1989
Euzhan Palcy, known for her life-affirming films focusing on social change, was the first woman of African descent to direct a mainstream Hollywood movie. This riveting film, adapted from the novel by South African writer Andre Brink, retells the events of the Soweto Massacre in 1976, unflinchingly depicting the insidious institution of apartheid. Committed to the accuracy of her film, Palcy traveled to Soweto undercover to conduct research on the riots.
"Doing a movie like A Dry White Season was a very serious thing on many levels. It put lives on the line," says Palcy. "To get visas, all of the actors that we cast had to pretend that they were cast for a play in England. So they left South Africa, flew to England, and came back to Zimbabwe, next door, for security reasons. The set was closed. No press was allowed." The movie so enraged the government of South Africa that it was banned from all theaters.
The cast included powerhouse actors Marlon Brando (whose performance received an Oscar nomination), Donald Sutherland and Susan Sarandon.
Addressing her reputations as a political director, Palcy offered no apologies, "Yes, I am political, because I'm not insensitive to the misery and sufferings of people. Sexism, racism - I am passionately against those things."Palcy continues to craft films that deftly balance art and politics. In 1998, she produced and directed for television Ruby Bridges, about the first African-American child to attend an all-white elementary school in New Orleans in 1960.
The director's work has been honored numerous times. Among the awards: the 1989 Orson Welles Special Achievement Award and the 2001 Cannes Film Festival Sojourner Truth Award. In 2004, President Jacques Chirac awarded her France's highest distinction, the Legion d'honneur.
Future projects include The Bessie Coleman Saga, about the first black female aviator and Toussaint Louverture, the leader of the eighteenth century Haitian Revolution.
LOVE YOUR MAMA
Hemdale Film Corp., 1989
Ruby L. Oliver's independent film debut is a gutsy drama focusing on a determined mother of a family living in the ghetto of Southside Chicago. The bedrock of her troubled brood, Mama struggles to keep her family intact, despite a catalogue of urban social pressures familiar to all low-income denizens of American urban slums. Through the myriad tribulations - her husband drinks and cheats, two sons become criminals, her teenage daughter becomes pregnant - Mama clings to her religious faith for the strength to cope.
Audrey Morgan stars as Mama, supported by an ensemble cast which includes Glenn B. Collins, Norman D. Hoosier, Kearo Johnson, Ernest Rayford III, Linda Roberson, Andre Robinson Jr., Pat 'Soul' Scaggs, Kevin C. White, Jacqueline Williams and Artavia Wright.
Oliver was working as a Chicago day-care operator, when she began working on her screenplay, drawing on certain incidents in her own life. In the end, she spent $1 million of mostly her own money to finance this independent work. "In terms of shooting a film, the difficult part is getting the money," she said. "All else seems to fall into place. In America you can get anything, if you have the money."
The Chicago Tribune called Love Your Mama a "film of great strength and sincerity."
DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST
Kino International, 1992
Julie Dash's film Daughters of the Dust is a beautifully photographed and lyrical saga of three generations of women in an African-American family.
It takes place in 1902 at Ibo Landing on the Sea Coast Islands of Georgia and South Carolina. The area served as an entry point for ships transporting Africans to the slave markets of Savannah and Charleston, and then sent to work in rice fields. The captives who remained on the Sea Islands, known as Gullah or Geechee, retained much of their African culture.Daughters of the Dust is a celebration of a family, but it is much more. It celebrates the history and consciousness of the African-American community. Saturated with rich colors, period costumes, African symbolism, and traditional Gullah dialect, the film captures the resonant sounds of ancestral voices.
The narrative follows the lives of several family members and the conflict that arises when some decide to leave their home for the prosperity of the mainland.
Daughters of the Dust pays tribute to the racial and ethnic identity of Gullahs, but its message is a universal one: While life tears at family ties with a myriad of temptations and hardships, it is important to know yourself and your people.
Written, directed and produced by Dash, the film took more than three years to complete. It was the first feature-length film by a female African-American filmmaker to receive theatrical release in the United States. Daughters of the Dust was awarded for its stunning cinematography at the Sundance Film Festival.
Lewco Productions, 1993
When filmmaker Audrey King Lewis was making the rounds of distributors with her feature film about supernatural powers in a southern family, she got a first-hand look at a lingering stripe of Hollywood bigotry. One industry veteran bluntly explained that The Gifted was "too intelligent for blacks."
It would take two more years of rejections before writer-director-producer Lewis broke through. Even then, she had to rely on a friend who paid the expenses for a movie house to screen her film. But her persistence was rewarded; The Gifted won the 1993 Black Filmmaker's Merit Award and the Best Feature Film Award at the Black Filmmaker's Hall of Fame Festival.
The Gifted introduces a family who learns that inheritance can sometimes mean more than passing down a gaudy piece of furniture or the gene for curly hair.The people realize that they have inherited frightening powers passed on by their ancestors, the Dogon tribe of Mali, West Africa. What transpires is a fantastic showdown between Earthlings and alien invaders.
While classified as a science fiction tale, The Gifted is grounded in fact. Although they are primitive humans lacking modern technology, the real-life Dogon tribe developed a startling gift for astronomy. Modern scientists proved long-held beliefs by the Dogon about certain constellations correct only in 1970. That year, high-powered telescopes located the stars discussed accurately by the tribe centuries ago.
The all-black cast of The Gifted is led by Ed Cambridge, a founding member of the Negro Ensemble Company.
JUST ANOTHER GIRL ON THE I.R.T.
Mirimax Films, 1993
In 1993, Just Another Girl on the I.R.T. won the Sundance Film Festival Special Jury Prize for Distinction and signaled the arrival of Leslie Harris as a fresh new voice in independent cinema.
Her film focuses on a hapless but sensitive soul named Chantel, a high-school girl from Brooklyn determined to stand out from the crowd. That is, not to become "Just Another Girl on the IRT". Misinformed about birth control, she struggles with an unplanned pregnancy, and eventually abandons her newborn. After serious introspection, Chantel reaches an uneasy alliance between her dreams and her duties and tentatively embraces the responsibilities of motherhood. Despite the familiar mechanics of the narrative, Harris brings an intimate, gritty perspective to her film. Bottom line: it isn't just boys who suffer in the hood.
It took three years of struggling to raise funds for the film, which was distributed by Miramax. Why did Harris persist? "So young, urban African-American women could start seeing themselves on film," she explains. "Black female characters are often on-the-arms-of-their-boyfriends in movies, never having their own personalities."
Harris graduated from Denison University in Ohio in 1982 and relocated to New York City to pursue her film career. She was working in advertising when the plot of Just Another Girl came to mind. Harris decided to quit her job, found work in a film-processing lab, and labored on the script every evening until dawn. To ensure accuracy, she conducted research at a teen-pregnancy center in Brooklyn.
After three years of directing cheap, late-night TV commercials for local beauty shops, and chasing down grant money, Harris raised $130,000 (a pittance by film standards). In 1991, she shot the entire film in 17 days in Brooklyn and edited it in her apartment.
OUT OF SYNC
Black Entertainment Television, 1994
Houston-born dancer, actress, and choreographer Debbie Allen can now add another accomplishment to her career- feature film director.
Allen agreed to direct Out of Sync because she wanted to help Robert Johnson (CEO of Black Entertainment Television Network) create a film empire movie venue in which blacks had some ownership." Out of Sync, which was shot in twenty-five days for $1.5 million is set in the underground club scene of Los Angeles. The film features rap star LL Cool J as a popular, but troubled disc jockey, whose drug-fueled past catches up with him.
Concerning the difficulties of being a female director, Allen said, "Honey, it's the first time I really felt that breasts were a hindrance." Even during a time of greater opportunity for male African American filmmakers, Allen finds it tough for a woman in Hollywood to get an even break. "We just got suffrage in the '20s," she jokes, "so directing can't be far behind."
Allen was the first recipient of the Lena Horne Award for Career Achievement in 1995 and also won the 1992 and 1995 Essence Awards. From Broadway to television to feature film, she continues to be one of the most respected and versatile talents in the entertainment industry today.
I LIKE IT LIKE THAT
Columbia Pictures, 1994
Darnell Martin paid her dues long before directing I Like it Like That, her 1994 debut as a director. Martin cut her teeth as a camera assistant to cinematographer Ernest Dickerson on the films of Spike Lee. Optioned by Columbia Studios, the film made history even before hitting screens: it was the first major studio movie directed by an African-American woman.
A Bronx native born to a single mother, Martin developed an interest in filmmaking when she attended Sarah Lawrence College. Her hopes faded, however, when she was rejected from every film school she applied to. While working at a camera store, Martin met Dickerson, who offered her a dream job: second assistant camera on an Anita Baker music video. Encouraged by her skill and energy, Dickerson made Martin a production assistant for Lee's groundbreaking 1989 feature Do the Right Thing. Lee helped Martin gain entrance to his alma mater, New York University Film School.
It was there that she wrote her first feature. Inspired by her difficult childhood in the Bronx, I Like it Like That follows the ups and downs of a young Latino couple, Chino and Lisette. As they struggle for a place in a hostile world, the pair face problems with kids and in-laws, economic desperation, marital difficulties, even prison.
The laurels for I Like it Like That included being named Best First Film by the New York Film Critics Association and official selection for the Cannes Film Festival.
Martin subsequently directed episodes of Law & Order: Criminal Intent and SVU, as well as Homicide, Dragnet, and ER. She also helmed the pilot of HBO's critically acclaimed prison series Oz. In 2001, Martin co-wrote and directed A Prison Song for New Line featuring Q-Tip and Mary J. Blige. She recently completed Their Eyes Were Watching God (also included in this exhibit) and has begun work on Paradise, a mini-series based on the book by Toni Morrison and produced by Oprah Winfrey.
Red Carnelian Films, 1994
A compelling and witty rite-of-passage film, written, produced and directed by prolific filmmaker Ayoka Chenzira. Alma's Rainbow is a vibrant character study of a devoted, yet repressed single mother threatened by both the arrival of her free-spirited sister and by her teenage daughter's sexual awakening. In the end, the film proves that mothers can learn as much from their daughters as vice versa.
Chenzira, whose wide array of films span features, documentaries, performance and experimental narratives, is one of the first African-American women to write, produce and direct a 35mm feature film. She is also noted for being the first African-American woman animator.
As an educator, Chenzira has trained many people from around the world to make films and she continues to work in Africa to encourage a new generation of filmmakers. In 2001, Spelman College recruited Chenzira to serve as the first William and Camille Cosby Endowed Chair in Fine Arts where she has created the Digital Moving Image Salon, which develops stories and productions for digital platforms.
Kindred Spirits Productions, 1996
The emotional tale of a young actress struggling with her self-image, Naked Acts, was inspired by writer/director Bridgett Davis' own experiences of discomfort with her body. Davis, an Associate Professor of English at City University of New York's Baruch College, took a screenwriting course out of curiosity and soon found herself immersed in filmmaking.
Naked Acts centers on Cicely, a young actress, who fights several battles simultaneously. Not only does she struggle with her weight, but she also fights with her mother, a former 1970s Blaxploitation film star, and a memory of sexual abuse. Cicely recognizes that her poor body image affects all aspects of her professional and personal life: she has trouble disrobing for her boyfriend, as well as in a sauna with other woman. The biggest conflict arrives when she must play a nude scene as an actress. Eventually Cicely discovers that emotionally, nakedness is far more difficult than taking off clothes.
Davis culled the subject matter for her screenplay from her familiarity with siblings and friends who had weight problems, as well as from one of her college classes, where several students writing journal assignments discussed sexual abuse.
"It took me more than two years to write it," says Davis. "Somewhere along the line I got this notion that maybe I should direct it too." Davis eventually distributed the film herself. It screened at numerous film festivals, garnering awards for Best Feature Film by the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame, Best Film at the Berlin Black Film Festival, and was an Official Selection at the '97 Festival PanAfricain Du Cinema. Naked Acts was one of the first films to air on the Sundance Channel.
Davis, a former reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer, has written for the Chicago Tribune, The Wall Street Journal, the Detroit Free Press, New York Newsday and the Columbia Journalism Review .
THE WATERMELON WOMAN
Dancing Girl Productions, 1996
Cheryl Dunye wrote, directed and starred in the first African-American lesbian feature film, The Watermelon Woman.
Told in documentary fashion, the film follows Cheryl, a struggling black, lesbian filmmaker working in a video store in Philadelphia. Cheryl becomes obsessed by an obscure 1930's black actress known only as the 'Watermelon Woman'. Cheryl finally locates the women and becomes enamored with her, only to learn she had a white lesbian lover. Audacious in its premise, The Watermelon Woman explores the power of celebrity, the challenge of historical myth and the thorny politics of filmmaking.
"I consider myself a filmmaker, an artist and an activist," Dunye said. "My strategy has been to use the 16mm format to get a message across about the multiplicities that are inside all of us, the kind of cultural schizophrenia we either accept or pay tons of therapy money for." In 1993, her videos were included in the Biennial Exhibition at the Whitney Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
The Watermelon Woman includes a mock interview with hyperactive feminist historian Camille Paglia, who gleefully seems to parody her signature persona. Contributing a cameo performance is lesbian novelist-activist-playwright Sarah Schulman, who portrays a psychotic lesbian archivist with a "jones" for 12-Step programs.
The Watermelon Woman was awarded the Teddy Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival and Best Feature in L.A.'s OutFest, Italy's Torino, and France's Creteil Film Festivals.
Trimark Pictures, 1997
After a string of supporting roles in films such as School Daze (1988), Silence of the Lambs (1991) and The Five Heartbeats (1991), Kasi Lemmons makes her screenwriter-director debut with Eve's Bayou. Spinning a ghost story steeped in voodoo, Lemmons introduces us to an unlikely set of film characters: an affluent black family in in the Tennessee Williams countryside of the Louisiana bayou.
"Memory is a selection of images, some elusive, others printed indelibly on the brain. The summer I killed my father, I was 10 years old." From those engaging opening words, spoken in voice-over narration by Eve Baptiste, the film recalls her childhood in haunting flashbacks to the tragic summer of 1962 and the events that led up to that dreadful moment.
The story for Eve's Bayou had taken hold in Lemmons' head years ago. Inspired partly by childhood memories, specifically about a pair of aunts with psychic powers in Alabama, it grew larger and more baroque with each retelling to family and friends. Frustrated by the quality of roles coming her way, Lemmons finally put pen to paper in 1992 to record the tale. It would become the first draft of her screenplay.
After a year of looking for a 'real director,' Lemmons woke up one morning and realized the ideal director was no one but herself. Her husband, actor-director Vondie Curtis-Hall, supported her decision.
"I thought, it's a very delicate piece of material, and it'll never stay intact unless I direct it," Lemmons said. "Every writer has this Great Novel they want to write one day. This was my Great American Story."Samuel L. Jackson, Lynn Whitfield and Diahann Carroll star in this chilling but oddly beautiful tale. Curtis-Hall was cast in the key role of the mysterious stranger.
Eve's Bayou was the top-grossing independent film of 1997, winning a number of important awards from The National Board of Review, The Broadcast Film Critics Association and The Acapulco Black Film Festival. National film critic Roger Ebert named it the best release of 1997.
DOWN IN THE DELTA
Miramax Films, 1998
A powerful story, which marks the directorial debut of preeminent poet Dr. Maya Angelou, Down in the Delta follows a troubled African-American family whose journey to Mississippi allows them to rediscover their history and self-worth.
Alfre Woodard (the most-honored African-American actress in television history, with four Primetime Emmy awards) stars as Loretta, a Chicago mother suffering from drug abuse, alcohol and apathy. Her mother Rosa, played by Emmy and Tony Award winning actress Mary Alice, intervenes and sends Loretta and her kids Thomas and Tracy to live with Uncle Earl in rural Mississippi. Her fervent hope is that the calming, supportive environment of the ancestral home will help rehabilitate Loretta. The film's tagline is "Sometimes, the last place you expected to be is the one place you've always belonged."The impressive cast of includes Wesley Snipes and Loretta Devine, as well as noted veteran actors Al Freeman Jr. and Esther Rolle.
"The message of my life's work is that human beings are more alike than different," says Dr. Angelou, who directs this uplifting story with sentimental clarity. "Everyone in the world wants a good job, to be paid a little more than they're worth, to be loved and to accept love in return. Everyone wants safe streets and for children to be healthy. This is what drew me to Down in the Delta. It is a story of these very kind of human truths, a story to remind us that, as human beings, we are all more alike than different."
"The story is about connecting to a support system, be it in Chicago, Mississippi or in your own neighborhood," said Alfre Woodard, who served as co-producer of the film. "Sometimes one just needs to be reminded of the value of family _ of belonging."
Miramax Films, 1998
Often, out of the worst disasters, come the greatest blessings.
When Millicent Shelton was transporting a busload of unruly teenagers from Harlem to a music-video shoot in Miami, everything went wrong. The bus broke down and several young passengers became sick. But when Shelton related the story to Reggie and Warrington Hudlin, producers of the hit movie House Party, they had a different take on her tale of woe, she recalled. "That would make a funny movie. Why don't you write it?'" Shelton took their advice, and a miserable experience became the fodder for Ride, a hip-hop comedy which Shelton wrote and directed.
For her first feature film, the director assembled a dream cast, including Cedric the Entertainer, Ed Lover and Doctor Dre', Downtown Julie Brown, Luther Campbell, Snoop Dog and Redman. However, art echoed reality on the thirty-one day shoot, which was plagued with severe weather, illness and technical problems. Shelton surmounted the problems to wrap the film, demonstrating the tenacity that originally got her into the film business.
A 1988 Princeton graduate who wanted to work in film, she cold-called Spike Lee. The maverick director put her to work as a production assistant on Do the Right Thing. Shelton took a course in filmmaking at New York University, and eventually directed music videos for Salt-N-Pepa, R Kelly and MC Lyte.
"Part of the struggle of being a woman and being black - but more being a woman - is it's hard for people to see you. You have to work harder," Shelton said.
LOVE & BASKETBALL
New Line Cinema, 2000
Gina Prince-Bythewood, Emmy-winning TV writer for A Different World and Felicity writes and directs her feature film debut about two young athletes from an upper middle-class African-American neighborhood of Los Angeles. Love & Basketball concerns a sports rivalry between Monica (Sanaa Lathan), and her neighbor, Quincy (Omar Epps). Basketball, however, is a mere vehicle for a tough-and-tender love story.
The film is divided into four quarters, as in a basketball game, and tracks Monica's life from a talented teen to an adult who achieves her dream of playing professionally.
An exceptional athlete in her youth, Bythewood wanted her film to smash the stereotype of the black female sports figure. "One of the things I wanted to attack was the stigma attached to female athletes, that you can't be strong and feminine," she says.
It wasn't an easy slam dunk getting Love & Basketball made, however. "In the beginning, studios were saying, 'You need more scenes like they had in Soul Food , where Vanessa L. Williams chases her husband with a kitchen knife,'" she recalls. But Prince-Bythewood persevered and got her biggest break when Spike Lee's production company signed on.
Love & Basketball premiered at the 2000 Sundance Film Festival, where it won The Humanitas Prize. It also received The Independent Spirit Award for Best First Feature, The BET Award, The Black Reel Award, and The NAACP Image Award. But the most rewarding reaction to the film, Prince-Bythewood says, came from an audience preview card. "One 17-year-old boy wrote that it taught him how to love."
Home Box Office, 2000
"I'm a control freak, so directing is the perfect job for me," confesses writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood. In 1998, the Los Angeles native ditched her job as writer and co-producer of WB's popular college drama Felicity to pursue her true passion. The result was the wildly-acclaimed debut Love & Basketball .
Executives at HBO were knocked out by Prince-Bythewood's debut and offered her the chance to helm a small-screen adaptation of best-selling writer Terry McMillan's 1989 novel "Disappearing Acts". ("Acts" sold more than 2 million copies and The New York Times Book Review hailed it as a "love story waiting to explode".) Prince-Bythewood accepted, making her the first African-American woman to deal with this top-shelf "chick lit" author's work.
Disappearing Acts is an intimate look at a modern urban couple trying to pursue their dreams and still stay together. It stars Wesley Snipes and Sanaa Lathan. Prince-Bythewood deemed it crucial to the spirit of the work to hire as many women as possible for her Disappearing Acts supporting crew. Fellow females on set included an executive producer and producer, director of photography, production designer, first assistant director and many key behind-the-scenes personnel.
Gina Prince-Bythewood studied at UCLA Film School, where she received the Gene Reynold's Scholarship for Directing and the Ray Stark Memorial Scholarship for Outstanding Undergraduate.
Her television directorial debut was the CBS Schoolbreak Special, What About Your Friends, which won her a NAACP Image Award for Best's Children's Special and two Emmy nods for writing and directing. In 1987, Prince-Bythewood met her husband-to-be, writer-director Reggie Rock Bythewood, when both were staff writers on A Different World. They subsequently collaborated on Love & Basketball(2000) and Biker Boyz (2003). She has also directed episodes of The Bernie Mac Show .
GOTTA GIT MY HAIR DID
7th Child Entertainment, 2000
Coquie Hughes is not only a determined filmmaker, but a generous one, as well: creating films since she was just 12, Hughes has taught theater and acting classes to disadvantaged youth throughout her native Chicago. Hughes is also founder and executive director of Urban Chi Filmmakers, a non-for-profit program where individuals learn to create their own short digital films.
The author of eight feature screenplays and several short films, Hughes has created four feature films through 7th Child Entertainment, her own production company: Hell's Most Wanted, If I Wuz Yo Gyrl, Daughters of the Concrete and the 2000 work Gotta Git My Hair Did .
In 2003, the 39th Annual Chicago International Film Festival honored her with inclusion in their "Reel Sisters in Film" at DePaul University.
Recently, Hughes produced and directed the Making of Documentary of The Unseen , a film that explores racial bigotry from the perspective of a blind man. Her next film is Granny Ballers , an urban tale story about a group of elderly women who enter a basketball tournament in hopes of winning the purse that will help a friend keep her home.
Hughes has a motto the she cites as helping her forge ahead in a business still resistant to women of color: "If God is for you, who can stand against you."
ALL ABOUT YOU
Faith Filmworks, 2001
Christine Swanson and husband Michael feel that the medium of film offers an effective conduit for moral and faith-based teachings. Driven by that religious imperative, the couple established Faith Filmworks, a film production studio based in Los Angeles. Their first feature, All About You , was an award-winning film in 2001. Steering clear of the drugs-and-violence storylines that dominate black cinema, All About You is a romance about two people coming to terms with their past. The cast includes Debbie Allen, LisaRaye, and Vanessa Bell Calloway.
Eventually, All About You drew admirers on the film festival circuit, and won awards at the American Black Film Festival, Hollywood Black Film Festival, and the Pan African Film Festival.
"It can be difficult to receive support from Hollywood when your story line lacks the traditional stereotypes found in black cinema," she said, "but the overwhelming support I received only reinforces our vision to provide entertaining, values-based films."
When Swanson was at Notre Dame (where she met her husband), she had no plans for a career in filmmaking; she was a business major. But when Spike Lee came to campus to speak, Swanson was inspired by his lecture. She became a film student -- and found herself the only woman in film class. Undeterred, Swanson learned the basics of film direction and production and soon found her own voice.
THE CAVEMAN'S VALENTINE
Universal Pictures, Franchise Pictures, 2001
There are some plots that Hollywood just naturally shrinks away from: stories of the infirm, the handicapped, the forgotten and people of color. Kasi Lemmons, was already a critical darling for her auspicious debut Eve's Bayou. But she knew she was pushing the envelope when shopping around her follow-up project, entitled The Caveman's Valentine.
"I think if you went anywhere and said, 'I've got a movie with a homeless lead,' it's hard automatically," said Lemmons. "Even without him being African American and homeless. That's a really hard sell. But African American, schizophrenic and homeless? I mean, who are you kidding?"
Nonetheless, Lemmons persevered and won support for her film, a combination 'who-dunnit' and mystical thriller. In The Caveman's Valentine, Samuel L. Jackson is a former Juilliard-educated pianist, now a schizophrenic homeless man living in a cave in a New York City park. Through a series of coincidences and possible psychic events, he is drawn into a murder investigation.
"It's almost impossible to get anyone to commit to making a black film that doesn't fall into the action or boyz-'n-the-'hood genres," laments Lemmons, who chose to direct The Caveman's Valentine after she read the screenplay adapted from George Dawes Green's mystery of the same name. Lemmons secured Jackson for the starring role, and after two frustrating years and a pair of false starts she finally got the green light. "I was enchanted by this story because it's unconventional," she said. "It is a completely different kind of black movie; it's brilliant." A self-described "magic-spell type of person," Lemmons chose to start production of her film on Valentine's Day. The Caveman's Valentine premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and opened the Hollywood Black Film Festival.
"I feel very strongly about it," said Lemmons about her film, which has a strong political point of view. "I feel there are a great many crimes on the establishment's part, but I feel the biggest crime is to look through people like they're not there."
THE KILLING YARD
Showtime TV- Paramount Network Television, 2001
Euzhan Palcy, the director who dissected the evils of apartheid in the acclaimed A Dry White Season, continues her commitment to film as a tool for social justice with the 2001 made-for-television release The Killing Yard.
The film delves into a trial following the bloody siege at Attica, a penitentiary in upstate New York. Outraged by inhuman living conditions, 1200 inmates staged a protest in 1971. The action escalated and thirty-nine guards were taken hostage. In the stand-off that followed, prisoners invited journalists, clergy, lawyers, and activists to Attica to hear their grievances.
However, negotiations soon broke down, and Governor Nelson Rockefeller, an infamous hardliner on penal matters, ordered police to retake the prison. In the end, thirty-nine lay dead, including ten guards. The resulting trials involved numerous cover-ups and lies by attorneys for the state of New York.
The Killing Yard dramatizes one of these trials, concerning defendant Shango Bahati Kakawama (Morris Chestnut) and the valiant efforts of his lawyer Ernie Goodman (Alan Alda). During the trial, Goodman faces several fearsome challenges: the underhanded tactics by the state, his own precarious health, pleas by colleagues to drop the case, and the fiery behavior of Kakawama himself. When lawyer and client meet for the first time, Kakawama asks if he's supposed to be just another chapter in Goodman's autobiography, "with you as the hero and me as the poor oppressed nigger." However, Goodman, who battled anti-Semitism in his own life, perseveres in defending his client, supported by his assistant Linda (Rose McGowan).
The true story of Attica is yet to be told. In 1976, Gov. Hugh Carey issued a blanket pardon for everyone involved and sealed the records until 2026.
Home Box Office, 2001
Award-winning filmmaker Cheryl Dunye's Stranger Inside, shot in 35mm, is a study of life in prison. It tells the story of a young black lesbian who orchestrates her own 'graduation' from Youth Authority to a state penitentiary on her 18th birthday, because she hears that her mother, from whom she has been separated since birth, is incarcerated there. The film is ultimately a meditation on the value of family.
Dunye's motivation to make the film began in 1999, when she attended a conference by Critical Resistance, an Oakland-based organization seeking to close down prisons. She learned that Incarcerated women comprise the fastest growing demographic in today's America. The award-winning director of The Watermelon Woman wanted to explore the lives of forgotten women in society.
"I felt that the most contemporary marginalized woman of color is a female who is incarcerated. And nobody is telling that story at all," said Dunye. "In approaching this piece I was interested in how connected a lot of these women are to the outside world and how they find that balance to being an inmate, being a mother, being a member of a family or a clan."
After conducting research with ex-convicts, lawyers and social workers, she discussed the screenplay with inmates and staff at the Shakopee Correctional Facility for Women in Minnesota. "It was empowering all around," Dunye said. She also drew from the writings of Angela Davis and from Rhodessa Jones's Medea Project: Theater for Incarcerated Women. In all, Dunye spent four years conducting research on women in prison.
Stranger Inside garnered Dunye an Independent Spirit award nomination for best director in 2002. It was the winner of audience awards at the Philadelphia Festival of World Cinema and the San Francisco International Film Festival, and also received the Special Jury Award for Outstanding Achievement at the Miami Gay and Lesbian Film Festival.
MAMA AFRICA - GROWING UP URBAN
Independent Television Service, 2002
Mama Africa is a dynamic omnibus of short films, each directed by an African woman. While the films originate from different countries and regions, they are connected by their unstintingly frank examination of femininity. Mama Africa is a unique cinematic portrait of what it means to be a woman in Africa.
Nigeria's Ngozi Onwurah, who directed the award-winning Welcome II the Terrordome, offers Hang Time, a tale of a young Nigerian basketball player who is prepared to sell his soul to play in the United States. Bridget Pickering, from Namibia, charts the story of a young mother's acceptance of new responsibilities in Uno's World.
In Raya, by South African writer, author, playwright, and poet Zulfa Otto-Sallies, we travel into the ganglands of South Africa's Cape where a woman returns home after a spell in prison and tries to break the family cycle of crime.
Fanta Regina Nacro's film from Burkina Faso, A Close-Up on Bintou, recounts the upbeat tale of a woman who begins her own business.
One Evening in July is Tunisian Raja Amari's cleverly-woven story of an old beautician who prepares young brides for their wedding day. We observe the fears of women facing arranged marriages.
Ingrid Sinclair of Zimbabwe filmed Riches about a woman named Molly who finds a teaching post at a quiet rural school in Zimbabwe. However, since she holds progressive opinions, she encounters hostility from locals.
Sinclair strove to sidestep the facile portrayals of African women. "African Mamas are not always victims and salt-of-the-earth types," she said. "They have rage, frustration, humor, intellect and education."
THE ROSA PARKS STORY
On December 1, 1955, a black seamstress on a Montgomery, Alabama city bus was ordered to surrender her seat to white passenger. She refused. Rosa Parks, 42, was arrested and jailed. This simple but determined act of defiance galvanized the black community into one of the most successful non-violent protests in American history. The boycott, which lasted 381 days, gained national and international attention and ended when the U.S. Supreme Court declared segregation of its bus system as unconstitutional.
The events in Montgomery set the tone for the civil rights movement, proved non-violent protest was effective, and propelled the young minister Martin Luther King into a position of leadership.
The Rosa Parks Story, which was made for television, stars Golden Globe and NAACP Image Award winner Angela Bassett as Rosa Parks and features Cicely Tyson, Peter Francis James, and Dexter Scott King, the son of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in a cameo appearance as his father.
Julie Dash was asked by Bassett to direct the film. A pioneer in her own right, Dash was the first African-American female director to have a film in commercial circulation in the United States, Daughters of the Dust (also in this exhibit). The Rosa Parks Story won the 2003 NAACP Image Award, Black Reel Award, and Family Television Award. Bassett earned an Emmy nod for her performance.
Lions Gate Films, 2002
Civil Brand is a powerful and disturbing story about women in a maximum-security prison. Aggravated by intimidation, violence and rape, the inmates are forced to endure inhumane conditions while being worked like slaves. The convicts, played by MC Lyte, Da Brat, LisaRaye, Lark Voorhies and Monica Calhoun, eventually bond and re-direct their rage at the modern-day plantation, which exploits them to manufacture products and generate profits.
Prolific director and producer Neema Barnette shot Civil Brand in just 15 days and for under $500,000 -pocket change for Hollywood. Barnette, an Emmy Award winning veteran TV director was the first African-American woman to direct a TV sitcom, What's Happening Now (1985). A graduate of NYU, Barnette directed over 300 hours of television programming, including The Cosby Show, Gilmore Girls, China Beach, A Different World, Diagnosis Murder, The Sinbad Show, 7th Heaven and My Name is Zora.
Despite a lack of support from distributors for Civil Brand, the film festival circuit welcomed it enthusiastically. "It's a shame that black women filmmakers are not given the financial support to tell our stories," she said, as she introduced her film at the Sundance Film Festival. "We have so much to contribute to the world." When her film was released on DVD, Barnette said, "I'm elated that so many more folk are getting a chance to see Civil Brand, because the numbers of young third-world women going to prison continue to be on the rise. My hope is that the film will save some of them."
LOVE DON'T COST A THING
Warner Bros., 2003
In the nerd coming-of-age film Love Don't Cost a Thing, Troy Beyer tackles the dilemma that all teenagers eventually face: Is it worth changing your values in order to fit in with the cool kids?
A multi-ethnic remake of the 1987 teen-comedy Can't Buy Me Love, Beyer's Love Don't Cost a Thing introduces us to protagonist Nick Cannon, a high school outcast who hires popular cheerleader Christina Milian to pose as his girlfriend. But Cannon gets caught up in his newfound popularity and risks losing everything: his real friends, a scholarship, and the true girl of his dreams.
Discussing what he called "a transformation story," Beyer explained: "It's about a guy who starts here and ends up there. And I thought the arc was really interesting," said Beyer who said that her signature philosophy can be found in a Billy Joel song: "'Don't go changing to try and please me.' That's what the film's about. Because we meet people and we want to make them look this way or that way, and then they go changing -- and you look up and they're not the person you fell in love with."
The film took two years to complete on a budget Beyer estimates at zero. "It was sweat equity," she said. Beyer hopes audiences will want to see a familiar story from an African-American perspective.
SISTERS OF CINEMA
Our FIlm Works, 2003
Determined to give voice to a forgotten chapter of cultural history, Yvonne Welbon penned, directed and narrates Sisters in Cinema, an hour-long documentary celebrating black women filmmakers.
The genesis of this project occurred in 1991, when Welbon started film school. At the time, she was aware of only one black female director: Julie Dash. But it seemed unrealistic that there were no other women of color in the film industry. Had history made them invisible? Welbon needed to know why. "So, I set out to find my sisters in cinema." The quest yielded a dissertation, a Web site and a documentary film.
In a quest to identify the distaff history of independent filmmaking, Welbon discovers that only a handful of Hollywood films have been helmed by women of color. She explains how Zora Neale Hurston, Maria P. Williams and Eloyce Gist took part in more than 500 'race movies' produced outside the studio system by and for blacks until the mid-1940's.
When film production slowed considerably during the 1940's and 50's, many black theaters and black production companies were shut down. The revival of black films in the late 60s and early 70s did not readily provide access to women directors. It would be another two decades before women of color found a way back into filmmaking.
Yvonne Welbon has created more than a dozen works that have screened on public television, cable TV and in film festivals. Her 1999 documentary Living With Pride: Ruth C. Ellis @ 100, about a pioneering black lesbian won many awards. She is currently working on a companion book to her Sisters in Cinema documentary, as well as Where Are We Now, a magazine-style series about accomplished black women in history.
Destination Films, 2004
Angela Robinson's feature debut D.E.B.S. asks film audiences the burning question, 'What happens when the top girl in spy school falls for a female criminal mastermind?' This humorous satire follows four vixens, recruited by the U.S. government into an underground academy of secret agents, for their unique ability to lie, cheat and scrap. Their mission: to save the world. But when one of the good girls falls for the ultimate baddie, the quartet's sisterly loyalty is tested. D.E.B.S. (which stands for Discipline, Energy, Beauty and Strength) was screened at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival.
"My aspirations are to direct big studio movies," said Robinson, who based this feature on her acclaimed 2003 Sundance short. After D.E.B.S., Robinson was tapped as director of the big-budget Disney feature, Herbie: Fully Loaded. Robinson graduated from Brown and went on to NYU Film School, where she made several short films and assisted Spike Lee. In 1995, she wrote and directed the comedy short Chickula: Teenage Vampire about a lesbian vampire.
"When I'm approaching a movie, it never occurs to me that somebody won't give me a job because I'm a girl," said Robinson. "I'm kind of happily clueless. I'll walk into the studio and they always send me to the messenger entrance. But a lot of women have helped me and been incredibly supportive in my career." Currently, Robinson is a staff writer for the hit Showtime series The L Word.
"For me, it's a tightrope," Robinson explained. "I'm a woman of color. I'm gay. I have lots of otherness. I don't want to be ghettoized. But I refuse to be anybody's poster child. I don't want to be in the position of serving different masters besides my own vision, which comes intrinsically out of my experience. So, for me, there's no right way to get films made. It's whatever way you can do it."
CHISHOLM '72: UNBOUGHT & UNBOSSED
Realside Productions, 2004
"I had something important to explain," recalls U.S. Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm in the documentary about her 1972 bid for the Democratic nomination for President. "I ran because somebody had to do it first. I ran because most people thought the country was not ready for a black candidate, not ready for a woman candidate."
Director/producer Shola Lynch's film Chisholm '72: Unbought and Unbossed combines archival footage, interviews and Chisholm's own commentary to recall Chisolm's groundbreaking campaign and the welter of support, opposition and flat-out bigotry, which met her unsuccessful race. (The Democrats ultimately named George McGovern.)
Lynch worked several years on this project, her directorial debut. "Our goal was to make a documentary as passionate and powerful as Chisholm herself," she said. The film was screened at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival,
Among those who bear witness in Chisholm '72 are author/activist Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones), Black Panthers co-founder Bobby Seale, authors Susan Brownmiller and Octavia Butler, and Rep. Barbara Lee. In addition, there is a wealth of newsreel footage of Chisolm herself. The woman's outspoken nature is a refreshing alternative to the sanitized and overly polished rhetoric dominating our current political landscape.
Shirley Chisholm initially resisted overtures by director Lynch to participate in a documentary of her life due to modesty, but finally relented when Lynch reminded her of the film's ultimate purpose: "it's really for the young people."
THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD
In 1993, when Halle Berry appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show, Oprah gave her the 1937 novel by Harlem Renaissance writer Zora Neale Hurston called Their Eyes Were Watching God. Winfrey explained that Berry reminded her of the classic book's protagonist, a spirited young woman named Janie Crawford. Twelve years later, Berry finally stepped into the role for a TV adaptation of the book.
A drama set in the 1920's, Their Eyes Were Watching God charts Crawford's search for personal integrity and happiness while refusing to cave in to the ignorance and conformity of her small town. Resisting a staid life and a loveless marriage, she seeks out adventure. For its time, the novel was sexually frank.
"She was struggling to live and discover who she really was and to discover her own sense of power," says Berry of her character.
Darnell Martin, who directed the 1994 film I Like it Like That, was tapped as director for the film, while Oprah Winfrey served as executive producer. "You have a great novel," says Martin. "You have Halle Berry and all these other amazing actors (including Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Terrence Howard and Ruby Dee), and an incredible producer (Winfrey) who is not only supportive of what you're doing, but has the power to give you what you need to tell the story. What's to be daunted by?"
The film was penned for the small screen by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks. It was nominated for two Emmys.
Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2006
A broad comedy in all senses, Phat Girlz, stars mouthy comedienne Mo'Nique (The Parkers, Queens of Comedy) as Jazmin Biltmore, a plus-size African-American woman whose struggle with self-esteem issues turns a corner on vacation, when she meets a handsome Nigerian doctor who thinks that bigger is better.
This is the debut film of Nnegest Likké. Born and raised in Oakland, California, Likké spent a significant amount of time as a child with her father's family in Ethiopia. Hers is an impressive lineage; Likké's father was the late Dr. Senay Likké, an Ethiopian freedom fighter who gave his life fighting for peace and socioeconomic equality in Ethiopia in the late 1970's.
Speaking of her rich but complicated cultural heritage, Likké explained, "On one side I am wholly African American. But flip me over and I am wholly African."
It took the director three years to chase after funding for her first feature film. She was forced to adopt a guerilla-style method of shooting. "That means stealing shots, working illegally without permits, and begging, borrowing and bartering to get equipment," she said. Her angel was Bobby Newmyer, the Hollywood producer of Training Day and The Santa Clause I, II & III. When no studio or outside investor would fund the film, Newmyer mortgaged his own house. Tragically, he suddenly died before the film was completed.
Likké is an advisory board member of The Nollywood Foundation, a non-profit organization that promotes contemporary African films.