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A new milestone for black women in movies — and why it matters

Director Ava Duvernay at the 2015 Berlinale Film Festival in Berlin. (Markus Schreiber/AP)

A woman rarely sits in the director’s chair of Hollywood’s biggest blockbusters. Last year, women accounted for just 9 percent of directors on the year’s top 250 grossing films. Having a woman of color behind the camera on those sets is even rarer.

Now Ava DuVernay is about to do something that no other woman of color has before: direct a live-action film with a budget exceeding $100 million.

We learned earlier this year that DuVernay would direct Disney’s “A Wrinkle in Time.” But the dollar amount came out just this week, when the California Film Commission released a list of projects receiving tax incentives, and mentioned the DuVernay film was a $100 million-plus feature.

DuVernay’s career has been one marked by firsts: first black woman to win Sundance’s best director prize; first black female director nominated for a Golden Globe; first black female director with a film nominated for a Best Picture Oscar.

So it’s not surprising that she would be the first to break the budget barrier. Since 1994’s “True Lies,” the first movie with a budget of more than $100 million, there have been at least 334 more films that exceed that mark (not adjusting for inflation). Just two women have directed films in this category: Kathryn Bigelow (“K-19: The Widowmaker“) and Patty Jenkins (the upcoming “Wonder Woman“).

Of the top 1,300 grossing films between 2002 and 2014, just 4.1 percent had female directors. But women are more represented at the beginning stages of a directing career. A University of Southern California study released last year found that women made up 28 percent of narrative short directors at the world’s top film festivals over a five-year period.

Financing barriers can thwart their progress, the study found. Among female directors who never directed a feature film, 58 percent reported financial obstacles to creating a feature.

“Female film directors face a fiscal cliff in their careers after making a short film,” study author Stacy Smith told Forbes last year. “For males opportunities grow, while for females, they vanish.”

The percentage of films directed by women is the same as it was in 1998

Producer Cathy Schulman, who also heads advocacy group Women in Film, has noted a similar experience. “My success rate is horrific in getting the movies with female directors made,” she told The New York Times in 2014. “I can’t get the money. It’s not the projects, it’s not the development, it’s not the writers, it’s not the directors and the actors. It’s the money.”

DuVernay now becomes one of the few women who have managed to go from directing microbudget indies to Disney spectacles. She released her first feature narrative, “I Will Follow,” six years ago — DuVernay produced, directed and financed it. The budget was $50,000.

Her breakout success came with “Middle of Nowhere,” earning her the Sundance award in 2012.

Then Lee Daniels dropped out of directing “Selma.” Star David Oyelowo floated DuVernay’s name as a replacement, but as he later recalled to Vulture, Oyelowo knew he’d encounter resistance from producers because DuVernay hadn’t directed a film with such a large budget.

But she was equipped to manage such an endeavor, reworking the script to fit within a tighter-than-expected budget.

“If we can’t make it work with her,” Oyelowo recalled to the Times, “this film is never going to work. It’s just never going to happen.”

The success of “Selma,” released in 2014 and made on a $20 million budget, catapulted DuVernay’s career. It grossed more than $66 million worldwide and earned an Oscar nomination for Best Picture.

It’s fitting that “A Wrinkle in Time,” her adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s novel, will star Oprah — who DuVernay has described as “a serial shatterer of ceilings that we can all look up to.”


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