When it comes to leading positions in the world of film and television, women have been overlooked. In 2019, women accounted for only 15.1% of directors in mainstream film and television — just over 1% higher than in 2018. Since the Time’s Up movement brought issues of sexual harassment and mistreatment of women in the workplace to light, new initiatives have emerged in the film industry, such as Made in NY’s NYC Women’s Fund, which supports arts and entertainment projects created by women.
While we still have a long way to go, directors like Nia DaCosta (Little Woods), and Regina King (One Night in Miami) are pushing past barriers, while others, like Chloé Zhao (Nomadland), are finally getting the recognition they deserve. Here are 15 women of colour directors who’ve overcome systemic roadblocks and are blazing a trail for other women in the industry.
Dee Rees directed the critically acclaimed film Mudbound, which follows two rival families sharing farmland in the Mississippi Delta. She also directed Bessie, a biopic on the life of Bessie Smith starring Queen Latifah, and the short film Pariah, about a young lesbian woman leading a double life to avoid rejection and ridicule. I suggest watching Mudbound for its engaging story and a prime example of Rees’ directing style.
Nia DaCosta made her feature film debut directing Little Woods, a drama about sisters who try to save their late mother’s home. As sisters Ollie (Tessa Thompson) and Deb (Lily James) try to work together despite their estrangement, they must navigate the opioid epidemic in North Dakota. The story was well-received by critics, making for a strong foundation to DaCosta’s career. Since Little Woods, she has directed the latest Candyman film, co-written by Jordan Peele. Disney and Marvel Studios have also tapped the young director for the second instalment of the Captain Marvel series, currently in pre-production.
Regina King made her directorial debut this year with the Golden Globe-nominated film One Night in Miami, starring Kingsley Ben-Adir, Eli Goree, Leslie Odom Jr., and Aldis Hodge. The film, based on Kemp Powers’ stage play, portrays a fictional meeting of Malcolm X, Jim Brown, Cassius Clay (aka Mohammed Ali), and singer Sam Cooke. One Night in Miami is Regina King’s first feature film, but she has already tried her hand at directing for television with episodes of Being Mary Jane, Shameless, and HBO’s Insecure.
This year’s Golden Globe winner for Best Director of a Motion Picture, Chloé Zhao (also known as Zhao Ting) has been active behind the camera since 2008. She began directing short films and worked her way to feature-length movies with Songs My Brother Taught Me. That feature tells the story of a young girl living with her mother on the South Dakota Pine Ridge Reservation after her brother is sent to jail.
She won the Golden Globe this past weekend for Nomadland, a story about a woman who makes the decision to quit her job and live as a nomad traveller. The film stars award-winning actor Frances McDormand and won the Golden Globe for Best Picture (Drama) and Best Director. Zhao is just getting started: her next feature film, Marvel’s Eternals, is currently in post-production and scheduled for release in November of this year.
Ava DuVernay is the award-winning director of the Civil Rights period film Selma, which followed Martin Luther King and key figures who fought for equal voting rights during Jim Crow as they marched from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. DuVernay has also tried her hand at fantasy, directing the film adaptation of the popular young adult novel A Wrinkle in Time — a job that made her the first women of colour director to helm a movie that made $US100 ($128) million dollars at the domestic box office.
After A Wrinkle in Time, DuVernay went on to direct 13th, a documentary on the prison system as it relates to slavery, and When They See Us, about the five youth wrongfully convicted of assaulting a white woman in Central Park in 1989. When They See Us is an emotional account of the wrongful conviction that highlights the true lives of the victims involved.
Chinonye Chukwu directed Clemency, which follows Bernadine Williams (Alfre Woodard), a prison warden who administers sentences for inmates on death row. One man is only days from getting lethal injection while his lawyer fights for clemency. Chukwu’s direction in this film produced phenomenal performances from Woodard and Aldis Hodge, who plays inmate Anthony Woods. Chukwu is currently signed on to direct the movie Till, a film based on the murder of Emmitt Till and his mother’s heroic fight for justice.
Known for her documentaries, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy amplifies Pakistani women’s voices while highlighting injustices. Obaid-Chinoy directed the film A Journey of a Thousand Miles: Peacekeepers, which features three Muslim female police officers who were deployed to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. Her film Saving Face follows plastic surgeon Dr. Mohammad Jawad and his initiative to help victims of acid attacks in his homeland of Pakistan. Saving Face earned her the Academy Award for Best Documentary Short. She is the first Pakistani to win two Oscars.
Obaid-Chinoy will soon be directing the Disney/Marvel television series Ms. Marvel, starring the first Pakistani superhero. Her drive to promote awareness and representation will bring a dynamic element to the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the industry at large.
Early in her career, Gina Prince-Bythewood worked in television, directing episodes of the sitcom like A Different World, but she quickly found acclaim with her debut film, Love & Basketball, a low-budget feature about two Black athletes determined (Sanaa Lathan and Omar Epps) who pursue careers in basketball while falling for one another off the court. Spike Lee produced the film, which earned a dozen awards and gave the director the clout to take on an adaptation of the bestselling novel The Secret Life of Bees and the musical drama Beyond the Lights. Last year saw the debut of her most recent film, the comic book action-adventure The Old Guard, starring Charlize Theron, on Netflix.
Writer and director Stella Meghie has been making short films since 2012, but made her big screen directing debut with The Weekend. She also wrote the awkward romantic comedy, which follows Zadie Barber (Sasheer Zamata) on a weekend trip with her ex and his new girlfriend. She is also known for directing the romantic drama The Photograph, starring Issa Rae and LaKeith Stanfield.
Catalina Aguilar Mastretta
Mexican director Catalina Aguilar Mastretta directed the bi-lingual film Everybody Loves Somebody, following the young single daughter in the family Clara (Karla Souza) as she tries to decide whom to love when someone from her past arrives at the family wedding in Mexico. Cardoso continues to direct television, including episodes of Almost Family, NBC’s Superstore, and the new Netflix series Ginny & Georgia.
Playwright Radha Blank earned acclaim for her theatrical productionsHappyFlowerNail, Nannyland, and SEED. Her work as a writer on television runs the gamut from cartoons like The Backyardigans to popular mainstream dramas Empire and Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It.
Her breakout directorial feature The Forty-Year-Old Version tackles the issue of age discrimination in the arts and entertainment industry. Radha plays a version of herself as a hopeful playwright who has failed to get her work produced in the premiere playhouses of New York City. She finds herself making sacrifices for recognition while at the same time rekindling her love of rhyming, finding her true voice once again. The film gained critical acclaim after winning an award at Sundance just last year. Blank is just beginning her directing journey, and it will be interesting to see where she goes next.
Currently working in television, Patricia Cardoso has most recently directed episodes of All Rise, a judicial procedural starring Simone Missick. But she is most widely known for her film Real Women Have Curves, starring a young America Ferrera as Ana Garcia, a young woman determined to go to college rather than fulfil her mother’s wishes for her to be married. Cardoso has continued to uplift Latin American stories, directing episodes of the rebooted Party of Five, a series focused on the devastating effects of deportation on immigrant families.
Channing Godfrey Peoples
Channing Godfrey Peoples made her feature directorial debut last year with Miss Juneteenth. The movie follows Turquoise Jones (Nicole Beharie) as she prepares her daughter Kai (Alexis Chikaeze) for the Juneteenth pageant. (The title refers to the June 19 holiday that marks the liberation of Black people from slavery in America.) The film won Best Narrative Feature at the Blackstar Film Festival, cementing a strong beginning for Peoples’ career. Her subsequent directing credits include Generation, a new teen drama about navigating sexuality as a young adult.