"Now I am an illusion, just like the films. They see me but they can't recognize me." —Mignon Duprée (played by Lonette McKee), Illusions, directed by Julie Dash, 1982
Director Julie Dash's critically acclaimed short film Illusions examines the precarious role that black women play in the Hollywood film industry. In it, black women exist along the periphery of the industry, even though their talents are central to the success of the studio. Although Illusions was made almost 30 years ago, the challenges that black women face in the film industry have changed very little.
Why? Because patriarchy pretty much rules. Hollywood is thought to be this liberal, diverse space that welcomes creativity and difference. The reality, of course, is that the film industry remains overwhelmingly white and male. Just this year, Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to win an Academy Award for directing — even though women have been making movies for more than 100 years. Dorothy Arzner, a white lesbian, and Eloise Gist, a black woman, were both prolific presences directing films during the 1920s. But despite this history, women filmmakers of any race have yet to experience the same levels of success as men. Today only 6 percent of films in Hollywood are directed by women.
Why? Two words: money and trust. Observes filmmaker and publicist Ava DuVernay, "Hollywood is a patriarchal structure that values men. Even in the independent film industry, you have to be able to convince someone, usually a man, to trust you with his money and that he will actually make it back."
Veteran actress Lonette McKee agrees. Hollywood, she says, is no different from corporate America, where women routinely bump their heads against a financial glass ceiling. Filmmaking is a reflection on society. "We live in a racist and sexist society. Why expect Hollywood to be any different?" She adds, "Hollywood is a good ol' boys' club, and black women are not privy to entrance, and that's a fact."
But while black women in Hollywood are finding the door to the old boys' club is locked shut, there's an interesting phenomenon at work: Black male filmmakers like Tyler Perry and Lee Daniels are able to get stories about black women from script to screen in a way that black female filmmakers have not been. Ironically, it is stories about black women that have catapulted both men into the studio system and superstardom. This is not to suggest that Perry and Lee have not faced obstacles. Of course they have. But more often than not, from Diary of a Mad Black Woman to Precious, they're the ones who are telling black women's stories on the big screen.
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Gibbs' comments reflect the complex issues that black women filmmakers face when trying to get films about black women made. In this economic climate, Hollywood isn't taking very many creative risks. Stories about black women are thought of as risks because they do not "guarantee" success — that is, make money overseas. (Meanwhile, Will Smith is the biggest international box office draw.) While other filmmakers, like Michael Mann and Kathryn Bigelow, get to make films that perform extremely well and some that do not, most black women do not get that type of leeway or the ability to grow as artists. Some blame the business model, but there's something else at work.
Gramercy Pictures' Something New (2006) boasted an all-black, all-female slate, from Moroccan-American director Sanaa Hamri to writer Kriss Turner to lead producer (and Hollywood studio veteran) Stephanie Allain. And it had the very appealing Sanaa Lathan as its star. But the movie grossed only $11 million, meaning that it underperformed in terms of box office receipts. Contrast that with, say, Tyler Perry's Madea Goes to Jail (2009), which grossed more than $90 million at the box office. It stands to reason that Perry will be the go-to guy to make films about black women. It helps that he helps finance his films, too.
Still, others like indie filmmaker Tanya Steele don't buy the it's-just-business argument. "People's views of black people are so narrow. People argue that it's a business model. I don't think that's what it is. I think it's what people think that black people are. Enter Tyler Perry."
She elaborates, "The characters in Perry's films are the type that make money, so his characters become the model. When you're shopping around your screenplay, they're looking at that as the model that makes money. You hear that black people aren't going to go for this, and that is problematic." She adds, "Perry is determining what black representation is going to be for a while."
So why is it that black female audiences gravitate to Tyler Perry's films but not to Something New or Fox Searchlight's Just Wright, which was also directed by Hamri? Could it be the church model at work? That is, the phenomenon in which black women support men and institutions (like the church) that often participate in and benefit from their oppression?
Daryle Lockhart, CEO of TheBlackBoxOffice.com, believes that it is more of a function of marketing than anything else. "Tyler Perry's brand is popular to a certain segment of society. He communicates in his messaging that his films are made by, for and about black people. We are programmed to respond when his movies come out in a way that isn't done in other marketing for black films." Perhaps black women need to be "programmed" to support films by black women in the same way that they support Perry and Daniel's films? It seems that black men and women should be able to work together instead of canceling each other out.
DuVernay agrees. "I don't have a problem with black men telling stories that deal with black women as protagonists. My problem is that there are only half a dozen that are being made. It's not the man; it's the amount."
Indeed, the numbers are not in our favor. If Hollywood is making only 225 to 250 films per year, 6 percent of which are being directed by women, that means that approximately 14 films will be available for women to direct in general. Where does that leave black women directors, let alone writers? Nowhere, is the answer, particularly when box office receipts don't offset the cost of making a film.
Still, there are those, like Lockhart, who argue that you can't use the box office to measure a film's worth. "We've got to stop giving the box office so much weight. It doesn't speak to film as art. We've got to go back to telling real stories — and honestly, on the indie side, from Julie Dash on down, the best filmmaking is being done by black female filmmakers."
If black audiences in general and black women specifically are willing to support Perry's films, then they should also support Hamri's films, especially if they want to see more black women making movies and telling stories in Hollywood. Then again, it's not just black female audiences who need to support black women filmmakers. Black women filmmakers need to be stronger advocates for their own projects.
Filmmaker Nzingha Stewart, executive producer of the upcoming film For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf, based on the play by Ntozake Shange, interned with director Brett Ratner (X-Men: The Last Stand) when she was first starting out. Watching Ratner in action taught Stewart a lot. "As women, I kind of think that there is an area where men do a little bit better than us, which is being more aggressive when getting a film made. [Ratner] talked about his projects in a way that women do not."
The process of adapting For Colored Girls to the big screen is one example of what can happen when black female filmmakers try to make movies centered around the lives of African-American women. Stewart is matter-of-fact as she recounts what happened: "I wrote a draft. The draft enabled me to option the script. I started sending it out to actresses, and everybody was really excited. We then took it to a studio. Tyler [Perry] became involved, and now the movie is getting made."
What she doesn't say is this: The blogosphere blew up with outrage when it was reported that Stewart originally had been tapped to direct but Perry pushed her out of the director's chair. Stewart declined to comment on the circumstances surrounding how decisions were made, which raises another issue.
If black women can't speak freely about being black women, what affects them and what they need in order to succeed as filmmakers, then is it any wonder that black women are underrepresented in Hollywood filmmaking? How ridiculous is it to be silenced in a profession that is about giving voice?
Still, black women who make movies are a resilient lot. They have to be. DuVernay insists that filmmaking is not for the faint of heart — or for those looking for instant fame and fortune. "It is what it is. No one is really checking for us. It's going to take sisters saying it doesn't matter. I am going to die if I don't make this movie. Until we're the cat's meow as filmmakers, which we will be, then we've gotta do what we have to do to keep making movies."
McKee echoes DuVernay's sentiments. "It's hard work, it's thankless most of the time and it's not a friendly climate for black women. I keep going because I'm a creative person — a thinking person. If you sit down, you die, so you've got to keep going."
To keep going, collaboration may end up being their best option. Stewart recently formed a production company with actress Gabrielle Union called StewU Productions to make films by, for and about black women. Black women are doing what needs to be done in order to tell their stories. If we want to see more movies by black women, black audiences — especially women — will have to support films by black women in the same way they support films made by black men. If we don't, we'll be having this same discussion 30 years from now.
Nsenga K. Burton is editor-at-large and a regular contributor to The Root. She recently completed the film Four Acts, a documentary on the 2007 public servants' strike in South Africa.