Why Black Women Film Directors?

NY Times article on Black Film in the early 1990’s titled “They’ve Gotta Have Us” by Karen Grigsby Bates

Note: There will be a few blog posts on Pariah and Black women’s directors over the next few weeks as I move like a squirrel with a flashlight trying to finish this paper. I cannot have boss bear calling me trifling.


The trouble with being erased for so long is that you come to think of your erasure as being natural. ~ Lorraine O’Grady in “The Cave, Lorraine O’Grady on Black Women Film Directors

Last week my homie James asked me why it was significant that Cooper and Rees fundraised to make Pariah when Black filmmakers were doing that waaay back in ’91.

The early 90’s were interesting years for Black films, but these films were primarily by black men directors featuring the narratives by and large of Black men and boys. To my knowledge and correct me if I am wrong the only films  that had major theatrical distribution that was directed by a Black woman were Leslie Harris’s Just Another Girl on the IRT and Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust.

The fact that Harris and Dash are the only Black woman from that era that directed a feature length film with major distribution must be noted. Furthermore, the other side of the Harris- Dash coin is the quasi over-representation of Black women’s stories in the recent economic market place.

I say quasi over-representation because we see stories being produce that feature Black women’s bodies but they are not the directors.

Chris Rock, Tyler Perry, Lee Daniels, Bill Duke and Tim Story are 5 black men who have released films in the last 3 years that feature stories about Black women. Which begs the question, where are the Black women directors, directing features with major distribution?

Then there is the Black Woman Can’t Get a Man industrial complex where “The Washington Post”, “CNN”, “MSNBC”, The Economist, scholars (Ralph Banks) and various other magazines explore possible reasons for the “low” marital rates for US heterosexual Black women. #jesusbeaFence. Every time I look up somebody has some something to say about the Who, Where, When, How and Why about Black women’s dating lives. I personally think that the these stories function as a way to make us seem deviant in this current historical moment.

Have Black women directors of feature films been erased for so long that we consider their erasure natural?

Hortense Spillers says that Black women are the beached whale of the sexual universe and that we are awaiting our verb.

Honestly, when I think about the politics of listening to Black women’s stories I am reminded of a scene in Ava Duvernay’s documentary “My Mic Sounds Nice” on women in rap music. In this documentary there is a moment where Stephen Hill states that in some ways the reason why there are very few Black women emcees rapping is because rap music is a male dominated genre where many of the stories are talking about women, so in other words, why would rap audience members want to hear these women speak back?

#Peace to Kasi Lemmons.

Pariah and Red Tails: Film Finance, Sexuality and Race.

I will be writing a series of posts about Pariah. This is the first of three or four.

Dedicated to @Very54. I missed you too.

The conversation around Red Tails and Pariah is interesting in it brings the politics of black stories and professional Black storytellers to the forefront. (Peace to James McBride for the language of professional Black storytellers.)

This post isn’t about the content of the films, but about how audiences perceive movies, the history of White hollywood and the politics of getting stories made and distributed that feature Black subjects.

George Lucas personally financed Red Tails, after the Hollywood establishment decided that a film with all Black leads isn’t viable.  Forrest Wickman in Slate writes,

George Lucas, who produced the movie, has said that he was forced to finance it on his own—to the tune of $58 million—when studios balked at the marketability of a film with all black leads.

Last week, after the release of Red Tails,  on John Stewart’s show, Lucas went on record saying that the Hollywood establishment did not know how to market Red Tails with an all Black lead casts.  Sofia Hernandez writes,

He continued, “They don’t believe there’s any foreign market for it and that’s 60 percent of their profit…I showed it to all of them and they said ‘No. We don’t know how to market a movie like this.’ ”

Unlike the Matthew BroderickDenzel Washington Civil War drama Glory or other films depicting black soldiers in battle, the World War II pic Red Tails does not feature a white protagonist, said Lucas, “It’s an all-black movie. There’s no major white roles in it at all. It’s one of the first, all-black action pictures ever made. It’s not Glory where you have a lot of white officers running these guys into cannon fire. They were real heroes.”

As a scholar, I do the political economy of culture, which is a fancy way of saying that I examine the way race, gender and institutional power impacts how art (music and films and books) is made.

The fact that the overseas market plays such a huge role in determining whether or not the Hollywood film establishment would support Red Tails is significant.

Filmmaking is capital intensive and historically the domain of White men. For me, it would have been interesting if Lucas mentioned that movies featuring Black subjects have a hard time within the Hollywood establishment and went on to mention the fact that it is a miracle that Pariah has been made. This would have opened the space to talk about films made featuring Black people by a seasoned White male filmmaker and a new comer Black woman filmmaker. It would have opened the space to ask how does money, and race, and sexuality impact their films similarly and differently?

I’ve seen Pariah twice. The first time was at a screening with the producer, Kim Wayans, Dee Rees the director, Nekisa Cooper the producer and Adepero Oduye the star. The second time was with a nearly all Black sold out crowd at an art house theater.  I’ll see Red Tails next weekend.

Based on my notes from the Q&A on Pariah, the film cost approximately five hundred thousand dollars to make, and it took them 18 days to complete it. As of January 22nd, 2012 it made $497,579. This is a second career for the director/producer duo as Cooper and Rees met while they were both in corporate America, working a Proctor and Gamble. Cooper and Rees also fundraised and used credit to get the film made. Lastly, many of the crew members were willing to work without pay (temporarily) because they believed in the project.

Given the fact that the birth of film in the United States is largely thought to be “Birth of a Nation” it is in fact a miracle that Pariah was made in the first place.

What is interesting to me is that Reese and crew’s narrative has been one of we did it, come out and support, I have been working on this story for a while, no it is not autobiographical, but there are parts of me in here and I am glad we were able to make it.

So my questions are.

Why were Black folks in social media spaces and in comment sections of the mainstream press seemingly more willing to rally around Lucas’s film but not Reese’s?

Yes, the films are two different audiences, but they both feature Black casts, they both have awesome and interesting back histories in terms of film finance and they both feature stories that need to be told.

Is Black homophobia working here?

If we take the statement “We need to support Red Tails because if we don’t the Hollywood establishment may not make anymore movies featuring us” then don’t we assume that we have more control over film finance than we actually do?

Why would a Black person in 2012 assume that they can control which films come out of Hollywood, when it is clear that “overseas marketing possibilities” have far more control, at least with Red Tails?

I love writing about movies the way I use to Love writing about rap music. I hope it shows.