Lights, Camera, Action! Black Female Directors

It’s a small club, but you’d never know that from the breadth of their work.

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    Dee Rees (Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images); Debbie Allen (Frederic J. Brown/Getty Images); Darnell Martin (Bryan Bedder/Getty Images)

    Belle, a new movie about a biracial woman’s experience as a quasi-aristocrat in 18th-century Great Britain, is piquing the nation’s interest in a boatload of topics, including the real-life woman on whose story the film is loosely based, how the abolition of slavery in the United Kingdom differed from the history in the United States, and how Belle will fare at the box office, since it is a rare movie that features a biracial female lead (actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and a black British woman at the helm as director: Amma Asante.

    Asante told The Root that black female directors constitute less than 1 percent of the industry. She describes how that representation—or lack thereof—can be difficult: “I am neither the color or the shape that some people are comfortable with seeing in their directors, and that makes it hard.”

    Black female directors are few and far between, but here’s a lean sample of an elite group that contributes high-quality work to film and television.

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    David Buchan/Getty Images

    Amma Asante

    Asante has no tolerance for the idea that being a black woman somehow limits her ability as a director. She recently told The Root that “no one can come to me with the argument I cannot direct,” she explains, adding, “They may not like the directing, but in terms of can I hit a budget, can I hit a deadline, can I do all those practical technical things? Yes, I can do that.” She won several awards for her directorial debut, 2004’s A Way of Life.

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    Evan Agostini/Getty Images

    Kasi Lemmons

    Eve’s Bayou had such poignant cinematography that it felt like a visual novel. Lemmons’ directorial work in that 1997 film remains a pivotal point on the spectrum that is African-American filmmaking.

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    Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images

    Dee Rees

    Rees went from being a New York University graduate film student working as a production staffer on her professor’s movie set—Spike Lee’s Inside Man—to gaining national acclaim for Pariah, a 2011 film about an African-American teenager who comes to terms with her sexuality.

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    Bryan Bedder/Getty Images

    Darnell Martin

    Martin directed Mary J. Blige and Q-Tip in 2001’s Prison Song, and Beyoncé and Columbus Short in Cadillac Records, from 2008. TV fans might be surprised to know that Martin may also have directed a few of your favorite episodes of Law & Order or even Grey’s Anatomy. Martin is of mixed descent: Her mother is Irish American and her dad is African American.

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    Ava DuVernay

    In 2012 DuVernay became the first African-American woman to win the best director award at the Sundance Film Festival. She won it for Middle of Nowhere, about a woman’s efforts to support her imprisoned husband. DuVernay also founded AFFRM, the African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement, to support independent black filmmakers.

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    Frederic J. Brown/Getty Images

    Debbie Allen

    A prolific TV director, Allen caused a stir on Twitter recently while everyone was live-tweeting Scandal when it was revealed that she had, in fact, directed the episode. It was a minireunion of sorts for her, actor Joe Morton (Papa Pope) and actress Khandi Alexander (Mama Pope). All three worked on the TV sitcom A Different World, which ran from 1987 to 1993. After the first season, Bill Cosby had helicoptered Allen in to revamp the series to depict life at a historically black college more realistically. She remixed the theme song to incorporate an urban feel and was the creative force behind the decision to address key issues affecting black communities, like apartheid, HIV/AIDS and domestic abuse.

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