Film is pitiful when it comes to representing the work of black women. People from this multifaceted minority group directed less than 1% of the top 1,300 movies from 2007 to 2019 according to a study by USC Annenberg, compared to the 82.5% of directing roles in this selection filled by white men. In the UK, research published by LSE in July 2020 found that the British Film Institute (BFI)’s new Diversity Standards failed to comprehensively account for the intersection between gender and race; this means when it comes to monitoring the numbers of black women behind the scenes in this sector, it can be difficult to pin down accurate data.
Shrouded in a pervasive structural invisibility, visual storytelling by black women is often not adequately valued. As a person who loves watching movies and is both black and a woman, this devaluation is deeply disheartening. As a result, it makes me gravitate to films where the presence of a black woman behind the screen is something I don’t have to squint to find. Here are some of the black female directed movies I’ve enjoyed most this inter-semester break.
- Atlantics (2019) dir. Mati Diop. Streaming on Netflix UK
This film bears a hypnotic quality that’s mesmerising to watch. It follows Ada (Mama Sane) a young girl who is betrothed to one man but is in love with another, Souleimane (Ibrahima Traoré), a construction worker lured by the promise of migration to a better life across the sea. This film has some of the most beautiful lighting of black skin I have seen this year. As the mysterious elements of the plot develop, the film transfixes you in the gaze of its central Senegalese youth, the pictures moving with the rhythmic ebb and flow of the Atlantic Ocean.
- The Forty Year Old Version (2020) dir. Radha Blank. Streaming on Netflix UK
The directorial debut by Radha Blank, the film follows Radha, a playwright who was once on the brink of New York City greatness, but now desperately seeks revival by embarking on a new project. Exploring white bourgeois gatekeeping of creativity and the boundaries that writers must set for themselves, the film has a quiet confidence that pulls the audience into its message of resilience. It’s triumphant and full of satirical humour. As director, writer and star, you can see how much the film means to Blank in every moment the camera is on her, particularly by the ending.
- The Watermelon Woman (1996) dir. Cheryl Dunye. Streaming on Amazon Prime UK
Set in 1990s Philadelphia, this feature film is the debut by Cheryl Dunye, who plays Cheryl, a young black lesbian filmmaker desperate to know more about black women in early cinema. In an eclectic blend of documentary and fictional narrative, the elusive figure of the ‘Watermelon Woman’ (who was created from archive material by Dunye for the film), serves as a metaphor for the invisibility of black lesbians on screen and in Hollywood archives. It’s quick, well written and confidently crafted.
- Dọlápọ̀ is Fine (2020) dir. Ethosheia Hylton. Streaming on Netflix UK.
My final offering is a 15-minute short film by London based director Ethosheia Hylton. I include this film as encouragement to also engage with black female storytelling close to home; pieces that are not necessarily feature-length studio fare, but also independent work that simply takes elements of black British female experience and expands on these visually. Dọlápọ̀, a young girl of Yoruba heritage attending a predominantly white school, aspires to enter the corporate world of work, but first must confront how she presents her hair and herself to others.
I thoroughly enjoyed watching these films and more during the holiday, thinking about the plethora of black female stories waiting to be told. Despite statistical invisibility and the systemic barriers to entry for black female directors, the work produced by these women certainly deserves recognition.