No other industry in America has been touched by so many diverse and talented trailblazers as the film industry. Although “Classic Hollywood” was primarily dominated by white male producers, directors, and actors, countless black women are among the most profound and courageous pioneers responsible for the film today. Women such as Madeline Anderson, Julie Dash, Kathleen Collins, and Cheryl Dunye have all gone unrecognized or have been underappreciated by the masses for decades. The #MeToo movement and Black Lives Matter protests fighting for gender and racial equality across the board, however, are likely to bring these women and their works into a well-deserved spotlight.
One of the most “provocative, humorous, and important filmmakers of our time” is Cheryl Dunye, who is best known for her mixture of narrative and documentary techniques as seen in one of her earliest works, “Watermelon Woman.” As a queer black woman, Dunye focuses her films on issues of race, sexuality, and identity all of which have played major roles in her own personal journey. Equally as important to Dunye, however, are the works of the women who came before her, like Kathleen Collins, Madeline Anderson, and Julie Dash. Kathleen Collins, best known for her work, “Losing Ground,” was an activist during the Civil Rights Movement who went on to become a playwright and filmmaker, and eventually became the first black woman to direct a feature-length drama in the U.S. Collins focused on issues of marital malaise, male dominance and impotence, and freedom of expression and intellectual pursuit. Similarly, Madeline Anderson– the first black woman to direct a documentary film– began filming in the 1950s, a time when it was particularly difficult to be anything in Hollywood but a white man. But Anderson was determined to make it in the film as she quickly grew weary of seeing her people only depicted as “savages and servants”; she wanted to show another side of Black History. Then there is also Julie Dash, best known for her 1991 film “Daughters of the Dust” and who was the first black woman to direct a theatrically-released feature-length film in the U.S. Dash’s “Daughters of the Dust” was added to the Library of Congress in 2004, and received a restoration in 2016 causing many to discover the film for the first time. The film was even cited as an inspiration for Beyoncé’s song “Lemonade” and several other filmmakers, like Dunye, throughout the years.
Most black women filmmakers have consistently chosen a documentary style of film that highlights their own stories and adds a “realness dimension” that is so essential to their works. Thus, women like Dunye, Anderson, Collins, and Dash demonstrate how black women have defiantly created their films despite countless obstacles and restrictions, and, ultimately, have impacted the film industry since the mid-1900s. This is because the women mentioned above, and other black women filmmakers, are all connected in a very important way: they insist the film industry be representative of black lives and black struggle.
Megan Kern is a second-year law student at Case Western Reserve University School of Law in Cleveland, Ohio.