Monday, November 05, 2007

What Happens to Female Film Directors of Color?

As I prepare to direct the book trailer for my novel PICTURE ME ROLLIN', I went to the video store to rents several films that might have the sensibility I wanted to emulate. One of the film's I rented to watch again was JUST ANOTHER GIRL ON THE IRT written and directed by Leslie Harris.

I found myself wondering what happened to Leslie Harris. Has she made any films since her debut? After all, JUSTANOTHER GIRL ON THE IRT won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 1993. That usually means that someone somewhere is going to gamble on the director's next feature.

I go to the Internet Movie Database and enter Leslie's name. According to, despite her auspicious debut, Leslie has yet to write or direct another film. She doesn't even have a website.

This made me curious about another woman of color whose debut film received critical acclaim. I entered the name of Karyn Kusama who wrote and directed GIRLFIGHT, the 2000 independent film that launched the career of Michelle Rodriguez. GIRLFIGHT also won Sundance and scores of other prestigious nominations and awards. But it took five years for Karyn to get a break in Hollywood helming the ill-fated AEON FLUX. Since then she has only directed a single episode of THE L WORD.

The continued success of Darnell Martin conjures mixed feelings in me. Darnell's debut film I LIKE IT LIKE THAT made history as the first feature produced by a Hollywood studio to be helmed by an African American woman. I LIKE IT LIKE THAT won many kudos, too. But it took seven years for Darnell to make another feature length film - PRISON SONG. If PRISON SONG ever received a theatrical release it was short-lived and received little to no marketing.

Since I LIKE IT LIKE THAT, Darnell has directed several television projects, including multiple episodes of critically acclaimed series such as OZ and LAW AND ORDER. However, it's a mixed blessing. It's heartening to see such a talented sister earning a living as a director yet anyone who has seen I LIKE IT LIKE THAT and knows anything about the craft of filmmaking can tell you (if they're honest) that a talent like Darnell should be making films with the same regularity as directors Charles Stone or F. Gary Gray.

In fact, there are some male directors regardless of race who helm feature films on a regular basis that can't touch Darnell's talent. I can think of a few hacks who find the financing and distribution to make one clich� after the other while years pass between features from women like Leslie, Karyn and Darnell. Whether in the independent front or the Hollywood scene, my business partner and our female peers are constantly told that our �urban� stories will never be produced unless we do it ourselves. �Urban� (whatever the hell that's code for, it always applies to our projects) doesn't sell, they tell us. It won't make money. But rarely a weekend passes where a project not unlike one of ours is released. They may or may not be particularly original or well done, but they are there, always dominated before and behind the camera by men.

Music videos have been a major springboard for many men - especially men of color on the hip hop scene - to receive an opportunity to direct a mainstream feature-length film. Names of such men easily come to mind - David Fincher (one of my favorite directors), F. Gary Gray, Brett Ratner, Spike Jonze, Hype Williams, Jessy Terrero. . . But I can't name a single woman of color who has leveraged a stint in music videos into narrative film. Hell, I don't know of woman of any race who directs music videos on regular basis. Directors Franc Reyes and Andy Tennant started their careers as dancers, but has anyone given Rocafella, Tina Landon or Laurie Ann Gibson an opportunity to direct a video let alone a feature?

To finally see a female music video director who worked consistently, I had to invent her for my novel EXPLICIT CONTENT.

Despite all its pretense of liberalism, the industry conspires to give men - regardless of race, genre or even skill - an opportunity to tell their stories. It matters little if those stories are fresh or clich�. Sometimes it doesn't even matter if the projects is a commercial failure. There still seems to be chance for a male director whose film fails to find another opportunity to redeem himself. I'm still waiting for Leslie and Karyn to be given that same chance.

The latest statistic is that less than four per cent of directors are women. Women of color don't even comprise a single per cent. Yes, in 2007, the number remains this low.

And it clearly isn't for lack of available talent. In the past fifteen years, we have seen quite a few amazing women of color emerge with promising debuts only to languish before being given the resources to direct a second feature. When they do, it is often with a weak screenplay plucked out of development hell then poorly marketed (e.g. AEON FLUX. Come to think of it, the studios didn't even properly market GIRLFIGHT so if you ask me, Karyn Kusama never got a full break. And despite some major flaws, Monique's PHAT GIRLZ was not the low-brow ghetto comedy it was promoted to be. All this for another blog at another time.) While producers and distributors continue to bank on the boys and their projects - some who undoubtedly deserve it, and others who clearly don't- sisters must continue to resort to doing it for themselves.

Leslie, I know a long time has passed since JUST ANOTHER GIRL ON THE IRT, BUT I hope the first time we heard from you won't be the last.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I feel you 100%. all of those movies (except Aeon Flux) were top notch.

Hollywood is a beast I wish I could kill. so much racism and sexism in there. gosh...