The History And Success Of Black Women Filmmakers

It is indeed a wonderful revelation in the history of world cinema that immensely talented women filmmakers of Africa and the African Diaspora are making it really big in innovative filmmaking. Not only are they challenging old cinematic prescriptions, they are also using their superior art of cinema to create and establish new visions of their people and the world. The journey of black women filmmakers began as early as 1922 when Tressie Saunders, a black woman director made the exemplary film ‘A Woman’s Error’. It was the first Filmmaker attempt of its kind in that era to decolonize the gaze and to ground the film in the black female subjectivity. However, today even after a long history of evocative work, black women directors have had a long, slow path to the director’s chair, where only a handful of black woman filmmakers have been able to break through the racial barriers in Hollywood.

But apart from Hollywood, many of the black women from Africa and in the United States have been able to stand out in respect of world cinema. In fact, filmmakers like Julie Dash (originally from New York City) has long ago won the Best Cinematography Award with her much acclaimed film “Daughters of the Dust” at the 1991 Sundance Film Festival. On the other hand, Cheryl Denye from Liberia has received worldwide fame and accolade with her film The ‘Watermelon Woman’ (1996), which happens to be the first African American lesbian feature film in the history of world cinema. Another woman filmmaker, Safi Faye from Senegal has to her credit several ethnographic films that brought her international acclaim and earned her several awards at the Berlin International Film Festivals in 1976 and 1979. Besides, there are independent black women filmmakers like Salem Mekuria from Ethiopia who produces documentary films focusing on her native Ethiopia and on African American women in general. In 1989, Euzhan Palcy became the first black woman to direct a mainstream Hollywood film, ‘A Dry White Season’. In spite of all this success, it is still true that the state of things isn’t all that rosy for African American women filmmakers. A documentary named “Sisters in Cinema’ by Yvonne Welbon has tried to explore why and how the history of black women behind the camera has been made strangely obscure in all of Hollywood.

“Sisters in Cinema’ happens to be the first and a one-of-its-kind documentary in the history of world cinema that attempts to explore the lives and films of inspirational black women filmmakers. To commemorate the success and the colossal achievement of black women filmmakers throughout the ages, a 62-min documentary by Yvonne Welbon named “Sisters in Cinema” came up in 2003. The film attempted to trace the careers of inspiring African American women filmmakers from the early part of the 20th century to today. As the first documentary of its kind, ‘Sisters in Cinema’ has been regarded by critics as a strong visual history of the contributions of African American women to the film industry. “Sisters in Cinema”, they say, has been a seminal work that pays homage to African American women who made history against all racial, social barriers and odds.

While being interviewed, the filmmaker Yvonne Welbon admitted that when she set out to make this documentary, she had barely knew there were any black women filmmakers apart from the African-American director Julie Dash. However, in pursuit of seeking those inspirational directors, she set out to explore the fringes of Hollywood where she discovered a phenomenal film directed by an African American woman Darnell Martin. Apart from that film ‘I Like It Like That’, she discovered only a handful of films being produced and distributed by African Americans. Thus saying, the monopoly of Hollywood by white filmmakers, producers and distributors inspired her in a way to travel the path of independent filmmaking. Surprisingly, here she uncovers a wide range of really remarkable films directed by an African American woman outside of the Hollywood studio system and thus she found out her sisters in cinema.

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