The history and success of black filmmakers from Africa and the African diaspora
Indeed, it is a wonderful revelation in world cinema history that immensely talented African and African diaspora filmmakers are succeeding in innovative cinema. Not only are they challenging old movie recipes, they are also using their superior art of cinema to create and establish new visions of their people and the world. The journey of black filmmakers began as early as 1922 when Tressie Saunders, a black director, made the exemplary film ‘A Woman’s Mistake’. It was the first attempt of its kind at that time to decolonize the gaze and base the film on black female subjectivity. Yet today, even after a long history of evocative work, black female directors have had a long, slow path to the director’s chair, where only a handful of black filmmakers have been able to break down racial barriers in Hollywood.
But apart from Hollywood, many of the black women of Africa and the United States have managed to stand out in world cinema. In fact, filmmakers like Julie Dash (originally from New York City) long ago won the award for best cinematography with their highly acclaimed film “Daughters of the Dust” at the 1991 Sundance Film Festival. On the other hand , Cheryl Denye from Liberia has received worldwide fame and recognition with her film The ‘Watermelon Woman’ (1996), which happens to be the first African-American lesbian feature film in the history of world cinema. Another female filmmaker, Safi Faye from Senegal has to her credit several ethnographic films that gave her international recognition and earned her various awards at the Berlin International Film Festivals in 1976 and 1979. In addition, there are independent black filmmakers like Salem Mekuria from Ethiopia who produces documentaries focusing on her native Ethiopia and African American women in general. In 1989, Euzhan Palcy became the first black woman to direct a mainstream Hollywood film, ‘A Dry White Season’. Despite all this success, it remains true that the situation is not so rosy for African-American filmmakers. A documentary called “Sisters in Cinema” by Yvonne Welbon has tried to explore why and how the history of black women behind the camera has become strangely dark throughout Hollywood.
“Sisters in Cinema” is the first one-of-a-kind documentary in world cinema history that attempts to explore the lives and films of inspiring black women filmmakers. To commemorate the success and colossal achievement of female film noir throughout the centuries, a 62-minute documentary by Yvonne Welbon titled “Sisters in Film” appeared in 2003. The film attempted to trace the careers of inspiring African-American filmmakers from the early 20th century to the present day. The first documentary of its kind, ‘Sisters in Cinema’ has been regarded by critics as a robust visual history of the contributions of African American women to the film industry. ‘Sisters in Cinema’, they say, has been a seminal work that pays tribute to African American women who made history against all racial and social barriers and obstacles.
During the interview, filmmaker Yvonne Welbon admitted that when she set out to make this documentary, she hardly knew there were black female filmmakers other than African-American director Julie Dash. Yet in search of such inspiring directors, he set out to explore the fringes of Hollywood, where he discovered a phenomenal film directed by an African-American woman Darnell Martin. Aside from that ‘I Like It Like That’ movie, he discovered only a handful of movies produced and distributed by African Americans. That said, Hollywood’s monopoly by white filmmakers, producers, and distributors inspired her to go down the independent film path. Surprisingly, here she discovers a wide range of truly remarkable films directed by an African American woman outside of the Hollywood studio system and thus discovered her sisters in the cinema.
Within the 62-hour documentary, the careers, lives and films of inspiring female filmmakers, such as Euzhan Palcy, Julie Dash, Darnell Martin, Dianne Houston, Neema Barnette, Cheryl Dunye, Kasi Lemmons and Maya Angelou are showcased, along with rare, in -In-depth interviews interwoven with movie clips, rare stock footage, and production photos and videos of the filmmakers at work. Together, these images give voice to African American female directors and serve to illuminate a story of the phenomenal success of black female filmmakers in world cinema that has remained hidden for far too long.
In recent times, the Eighth Annual African American Women in Film Film Festival was held in New York City in October 2005. It was another notable event that showcased exceptional feature films and documentaries, as well as short films made by African American filmmakers such as Aurora. . Sarabia, a fourth generation Chicana (Mexican American) from Stockton, CA, Vera J. Brooks, a Chicago producer, Teri Burnette, a Socialist filmmaker, Stephannia F. Cleaton, an award-winning New York City newspaper journalist, and the Staten Island Advance Business Editor, Adetoro Makinde, Director, Screenwriter, Producer, Nigerian-American first generation actress, among others. And more recently, from February 5 to March 5, 2007, the Film Society of Lincoln Center & Separate Cinema Archive celebrated Black History Month, in which the center presented “Black Women Behind the Lens.”
A seething documentary, “Black Women Behind the Lens” celebrates the uncompromising cinematic labor of love created by a group of brave African American women. Gifted with uncommon determination and a fearless spirit, these black filmmakers were committed to speaking truth to power while offering alternatives to the stereotypical images of black women found in mainstream media. They turned to guerilla cinema, an artistic rebellion against Hollywood’s long-established network, and have challenged old cinematic perceptions, using their art to erect new visions of their people, their heritage, and their world. Leading theorists, sociologists, writers and directors say it’s good to know that African women filmmakers and the African diaspora are challenging old movie recipes and creating their own visions in the cinema they love to make.
However, while significant numbers of women in Africa and here in the United States have been able to build successful careers in film, the obstacles are particularly daunting. The problem, says Elizabeth Hadley, president of Women’s Studies at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, is not particularly about black women making movies, but issues of marketing, distribution and financing. As a result, most of these women find money independently and work on tight budgets. However, all said and done, it is quite encouraging to know that at least some of these women dare to decolonize the Hollywood gaze and base their films on black female subjectivity. Any attention or recognition that comes when these women wish to communicate their ideas about Black history and heritage, with an emphasis on the experience of women, should be welcomed!