In many ways, it has already been a historic year for black women in Hollywood.
Ruth Carter, the 30-plus-year veteran of film costume design, received her first Oscar win and third nomination for her work on 2018’s “Black Panther.” Hannah Beachler, who also worked on the film, is the first African American to win an Oscar for production design.
In non-acting categories, black women have amassed only three wins in the Academy Awards’ 91-year history.
The number of awards for black women behind the camera in television is not much better. In its 77-year history, the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences has nominated fewer than 75 black women for Emmys in non-acting categories.
These awards aren’t the barometer for black women’s success, but acknowledgment from these academies opens doors for black women working behind the camera.
Beyond accolades and praise, it is meaningful that black women are increasingly at the helm of telling stories featuring women of color as fully actualized, flawed, multidimensional characters.
Last year, Ava DuVernay became the first woman of color to direct a live-action film with a budget over $100 million with her vibrant, black-girl-centered “A Wrinkle in Time.” Shonda Rhimes continues to be one of most powerful forces in Hollywood and inked a nine-figure deal with Netflix to develop new content. Janet Mock became the first black, transgender woman to write and direct an episode of television, Pose’s “Love Is the Message.”
These milestones were individually acknowledged and celebrated, but combined they show the collective progress of black women in Hollywood. Only 28 years ago, Julie Dash became the first black female filmmaker to have a full-length general theatrical release with her historical drama “Daughters of the Dust.” Initially rejected by Hollywood executives, the independent film garnered critical praise upon release.
“Racism and gender issues equally” affected the production and release of her film, Dash told Vogue in 2016.
Nearly three decades after “Daughters,” many of the barriers Dash faced remain intact, making the recent accomplishments of black women behind the camera even more astonishing. The stories they have elected to tell explore the fullness of black womanhood.
Friendships between black millennials are central to Issa Rae’s “Insecure” and contemporary life in a black neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago on Lena Waithe’s “The Chi.”
Similarly, Shondaland on ABC remains a juggernaut anchored by many black women behind the camera. And, after three seasons, DuVernay’s lush and layered Southern family drama “Queen Sugar” remains one of the few television shows to routinely employ black women as directors and writers.
Although Rhimes and DuVernay are two of the most well-known black women behind the camera, there is a growing community of black women producing, directing, writing, designing, scoring and casting.
This year brings the final season of “Being Mary Jane” — a show that sheds light upon a single black woman’s personal and professional life — and new seasons of “Insecure,” “The Chi” and the stand-up comedy series “2 Dope Queens.”
DuVernay’s “When They See Us,” a miniseries telling the story of the boys known as the Central Park Five will premiere in May.
A new generation of artists is also in the mix. Marsai Martin, who plays Diane on ABC’s “Black-ish,” became the youngest person in Hollywood to ever produce a movie at the age of 13. “Little,” a film in which she co-stars, debuts in April. Martin, who is now 14 years-old, signed a first-look deal at Universal — establishing her as a history maker twice over.
There’s more: Tracy Oliver, who became the first African American woman to write a film that grossed over $100 million with the success of “Girls Trip” in 2017, is adapting the young adult novel “The Sun Is Also a Star” for film. It will feature a Jamaican girl facing deportation. Oliver is also behind the television adaptation of the movie “The First Wives Club,” centering on an African American cast.
In a time of such advancement and in the middle of Women’s History Month, it is fitting to remember the first known film directed by a black woman.
Ninety-one years ago, Zora Neale Hurston captured footage of African American folklore for “Children’s Games.” In the century since, black women have continued to break barriers behind the camera — though their stories have been somewhat untold and under-celebrated until now.