In 1989, the first film written and directed by a Black woman and produced by a major Hollywood studio was released. That Black woman was Euzhan Palcy, and her monumental, award-nominated film was A Dry White Season. Palcy was the first and only woman to direct Marlon Brando. He received an Oscar nomination for his role- also making her the first Black person to direct an actor to an Oscar nomination.
Just two years later, in 1991, Julie Dash wrote, directed, and produced the first film by a Black woman to get a widespread, US theatrical release. This film was Daughters of the Dust. Both of these films received critical acclaim, making them some of the most historically important and classic films to date. However, many people have 1.) never heard of them; and 2.) never heard of the amazing women behind them. Why is that?
It’s industry racism and prejudice. After Julie Dash released her beautifully ground-breaking film, she found herself unable to find work. “One agency told me I had no future,” Ms. Dash said. “Another company, a mini-major, said it was a fluke,” she told the NY Times. Julie Dash, unlike other White, Indie directors, did not get the industry support to catapult her career to where it should be today. She’s not the only one either. Darnell Martin, Leslie Harris, and so many more have been treated the same. Even Palcy herself stated that when pitching her films to studios after A Dry White Season, she’d been told ‘Sorry it’s too black. Our marketing department cannot sell it.’”
Black women who had directed Oscar nominees, received nominations for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, achieved awards for Sundance Excellence in Cinematography, Venice Film Festival awards, a Cesar award, and who had also gained box office as well as critical success, were not given the same opportunities for future success as their counterparts. Even if they hadn’t garnered as much acclaim on their first films, they still deserved the same chances as everyone else. Many Black directors- hell, Black creatives- feel that there is no space for error in their work. They work harder and longer because their stakes are higher, and even when they succeed, they can still just be seen as a token, a fad, or a fluke.
I wanted to use For My Culture 1 this month to highlight these works, not only because they deserve it- they are amazing works of art- but because I want to support Black women. I want their films to be a part of our discourse, our top 10 lists, our reviews, and daily conversations. These are all films directed by Black women that you can stream RIGHT NOW. The future of the film industry is slowly looking brighter when it comes to opening up diversity and opportunities for Black women, as well as other minorities, but the progress is too slow. We have to do our part with support and recognition, and I for one am more than happy to do so. Watching these films over the past few years and weeks was a blast for me. They are strong pieces. They evoked so much emotion, made me laugh, and filled me in places I didn’t know were empty. I hope you all enjoy this list as much as I did!
Atlantics (2019); Dir. Mati Diop- Watch on Netflix
Atlantics (2019) is an ethereal, haunting coming-of-age/love story. Directed by Mati Diop, the film is about Ada (Mame Bineta Sane), a 17-year-old girl who grows through the loss of love, her search for self-identity, and local injustices. It’s a beautiful story that uses powerful dialogue and cinematography, along with moving imagery of water, to pull its audience into the deep. Mati Diop received the Cannes Grand Prix for Atlantics in 2019. It can be watched on Netflix.
Little Woods (2018); Dir. Nia DaCosta- Watch on HULU
Little Woods (2018) was Nia DaCosta‘s directorial debut. Starring Tessa Thompson and Lily James– a masterclass duo- the film is an exciting, yet thoughtful, crime, western that tells the story of two sisters who are trying to find stability and a new life after the death of their mother. The two find themselves tossed into the world of cross-border drug trading to make money in this powerful and empowering film. You can watch it now on HULU. Nia DaCosta also wrote and directed the upcoming Candyman film, set to release when this pandemic is over!
A Wrinkle in Time (2018); Dir. Ava DuVernay- Watch on Disney+
A Wrinkle in Time (2018) is a visually stunning film adaptation of the 1962 novel. Directed by Ava DuVernay, the film follows siblings Meg Murry (Storm Reid) and Charles Murry (Deric McCabe) as they enter a world of astral traveling to find their missing father. Not only is the art and cinematography of the film magnificent, but the performance from Reid is so strong and dedicated to the core theme of love and sibling bonds. I love watching this movie with my 5-year-old sister. It’s a fun film for us both to watch, as well as a reflection of our own relationship. You can watch A Wrinkle in Time on Disney+.
The Watermelon Woman (1996); Dir. Cheryl Dunye- Watch on HULU, AmazonPrime, and Criterion Channel
The Watermelon Woman (1996) was the first feature film directed by a Black, lesbian woman and is truly a landmark in queer cinema. The Watermelon Woman is about Cheryl (played by Dunye), an aspiring, Black filmmaker who decides to make her first film about a Black actress from the 1930s, nicknamed the Watermelon Woman. Dunye created a truly engaging story that not only gives representation to Black, queer women, and cinephiles, but it also delves into a history- or lack thereof- of Black and queer women in the film industry. This film brought me so much comfort, I could watch a whole series of it. You can watch it now on AmazonPrime, HULUlive, and the Criterion Channel.
13th (2016); Dir. Ava DuVernay- Watch on Netflix
13th (2016) is a Netflix documentary directed by Ava DuVernay. The film delves into the U.S. thirteenth amendment, which abolished slavery and involuntary servitude throughout the U.S. except as punishment for conviction of a crime. 13th explores mass incarceration, the prison industrial complex, and their relation to racism in America. It’s one of the more recently, powerful documentaries I have seen, and it offers so much context to conversations being had today. 13th was nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the 89th Academy Awards. You can watch it now on Netflix.
Daughters of the Dust (1991); Dir. Julie Dash- Watch on Criterion Channel
Julie Dash‘s Daughters of the Dust (1991) is a generational story about the women of the Peazant family of the Gullah. Dash’s non-linear storytelling has received critical acclaim because of its experimental, unique nature. The costume design, cinematography, and dedication to authenticity are what contribute to the beauty of this film. Daughters of the Dust speaks like poetry to audiences, and Dash even has the characters speak in Gullah dialect because she said she wanted to create something akin to a foreign film. You can watch Daughters of the Dust on the Criterion Channel.
Homecoming (2019); Co-Dir. Beyonce- Watch on Netflix
Homecoming: A Film by Beyonce (2019) received a Grammy for Best Music Film in 2020. This self-directed documentary shows Beyonce‘s journey to her iconic, culturally relevant Coachella performance- where she was the first Black woman to headline the festival. Her performance was the literal definition of a “cultural reset,” inspiring young Black creatives everywhere and her fellow artists alike. Nielson reported that 55% of viewers within the first 7 days of its release were Black, making it the highest of any original streaming series or film tracked by them to date. You can watch Homecoming on Netflix today.
Clemency (2019); Dir. Chinonye Chukwu- Watch on HULU
Clemency is a 2019 drama written and directed by Chinonye Chukwu. The film, which is heightened by the pained, passionate, and quiet performance by Alfre Woodard, has received critical acclaim since its release. Woodard plays Bernadine Williams, a prison ward overseeing the execution of a man named Anthony (Aldis Hodge) on death row. To match her skills, Aldis Hodge gave an equally powerful and emotional performance that truly left me stunned and heartbroken. Chukwu received the U.S. Dramatic Grand Jury prize at Sundance for Clemency. You can watch it now on HULU.
Jezebel (2019); Dir. Numa Perrier- Watch on Netflix
Jezebel (2019) is the directorial debut of Numa Perrier– a Las Vegas native. This film felt like home to me, since I am Vegas native myself, and Perrier caught the daily life there so comfortably. Jezebel is a coming-of-age about a girl named Tiffany (played by Tiffany Tenille) who finds confidence, sexuality, and self-worth through sex work. It also gives insight into fetishism and racism within the industry that often goes overlooked. It’s a deeply personal and intimate film that tells a new story from a new perspective. You can watch it now on Netflix.
A Dry White Season (1989); Dir. Euzhan Palcy- Watch on Amazon Prime
A Dry White Season (1989), directed by Euzhan Palcy, is the first film directed by a Black woman and produced by a major film studio- MGM. The film centers itself in 1976 South Africa and deals with the apartheid. Palcy was so passionate about the accuracy and the history of the film that she traveled to Soweto undercover, posing as a recording artist, and researched the riots. Her passion transcends the storytelling and creates a stinging political drama that lands heavily on your mind. You can watch A Dry White Season on AmazonPrime.
Selah and the Spades (2020); Dir. Tayarisha Poe- Watch on AmazonPrime
Directed by Tayarisha Poe, Selah and the Spades (2020) is a coming-of-age about Black teens of a new generation. The film centers around Selah (Lovie Simon) as she traverses being the head of a school faction, named the Spades, and their dealings with other school factions. Selah is not only a deeply complex, intriguing character- which is so refreshing to see in Black girls in film/tv- but the unlimited potential and freedom each character seems to possess makes this story one that resonates with so many people. And it’s something not seen often in films that portray Black teens. Poe’s Southern gothic cinematography only heightens the experience. You can watch Selah and the Spades now on AmazonPrime.
Eve’s Bayou (1997); Dir. Kasi Lemmons- Watch on Hulu/HBOMAX
The first time I saw Eve’s Bayou (1997), I was a young girl. I watched it on BET with my mom, and I’ll never forget believing at the time that this was a scary movie. Told from the perspective of a young girl, this film can be seen as a horror, but as an adult, the emotions of this story are so much more complex. Eve’s Bayou, written and directed by Kasi Lemmons, tells the story of the Batiste family in the Summer of the 1960s. Jurnee Smollett (who plays the younger sister, Eve, and who also narrates the story) received the Critic’s Choice Award for her performance as a young actress. This film is one that shaped my love for movies today and will always be a favorite of mine.
Professor Marston and the Wonder Woman (2017); Dir. Angela Robinson- Watch on HULU
Professor Marston and the Wonder Woman (2019) is a biographical film that tells the story of the man who created Wonder Woman and the two women who inspired him. Written and directed by Angela Robinson, the film tells a deeply passionate story of love and desire. It’s also an excitingly paced and fun story that absolutely whisked me away within minutes. The performances, rapport, and chemistry between Bella Heathcote, Luke Evans, and Rebecca Hall are undeniably magnetizing. You can watch Professor Marston and the Wonder Woman on HULU.
Mudbound (2017); Dir. Dee Rees- Watch on Netflix
Mudbound (2017) is a film adaptation of the eponymous novel and directed by Dee Rees. It tells the story of a Black family and a White family in Mississippi during WWII. Ronsel Jackson (Jason Mitchell) returning home from war is forced to deal with racism and PTSD while he also befriends Jamie McAllen (Garrett Hedlund), a fellow soldier returning home as well. They’re both experiencing life back home similarly, yet so different at the same time. The film was nominated for multiple Academy and Golden Globe awards. You can watch Mudbound now on Netflix.
Losing Ground (1982); Dir. Kathleen Collins- Watch on Criterion Channel
Losing Ground (1982) is one of the most beautiful films I’ve recently watched- not only due to the cinematography and setting but also due to its careful focus on its main protagonist. Directed by Kathleen Collins, the film centers around Sara Rogers (Seret Scott) and her deteriorating, uneven marriage to Victor (Bill Gunn.) Sara is a devoted wife who finds that devotion to a fleeting man to be less than worth her time. She ceases questioning herself and seeking his approval and finds something that gives her new passion and confidence. Although it deserves more recognition, there’s no doubt this film is mounted as a true classic. You can watch Losing Ground on the Criterion Channel.
Mississippi Damned (2009; Dir. Tina Mabry- Watch on Showtime
Mississippi Damned (2009) is a semiautobiographical film, written and directed by Tiny Mabry. Taking place in 1986 and 1998, three Black teens are growing up in Mississippi and experiencing the consequences of harmful cycles, trauma, sexual abuse, and addiction. They are each struggling to either escape their circumstances and past or be forever damned in Mississippi. Mabry captured abuse, isolation, and familial trauma and how they affect every chance for opportunity and growth. You can watch Mississippi Damned on Showtime.
The Old Guard (2020); Dir. Gina Prince-Blythewood- Watch on Netflix
The Old Guard (2020) is a newly released Netflix original, directed by Gina Prince-Blythewood. Based on the comic book, The Old Guard tells the story of immortal warriors who have spent centuries fighting in world wars and saving lives, influencing every outcome of today’s society. Starring Charlize Theron and KiKi Layne, this action film is not only loads of fun, but it is one of the most engaging action movies of the year. I look forward to the sequel if we can get one! You can watch The Old Guard on Netflix.
I Will Follow (2010); Dir. Ava Duvernay- Watch on Netflix
I Will Follow (2010) is another film written and directed by Ava DuVernay, and it tells the story of grief in an honest, real form. Maye (Salli Richardson-Whitfield) just lost her aunt, whom she has spent that past few months taking care of through illness. As she is packing up her aunt’s things, Maye moves through a series of relatable emotions that follow the loss of a loved one. She also must deal with unspoken grievances, as she finds a way to move on with her own life. This quiet, short film truly resonated with me. I remembered what my own mother went through with the death of my grandma, and the familiarity of this film felt like it was speaking to my own experiences. You can watch I Will Follow on Netflix.
Night Catches Us (2010); Dir. Tanya Hamilton- Watch on Crackle, PlutoTV, and Tubi
Written and directed by Tanya Hamilton, Night Catches Us (2010) is a drama film that centers around Marcus (Anthony Mackie) and Patricia (Kerry Washington.) Marcus is a former Panther who returns home after the death of his father. Branded a snitch, his family and friends are less than enthusiastic about his return, but he finds himself growing slower to Patricia. The performances of this film, from Washington and Mackie, are not only reliant on each other but they are also magnetic- pushing each other forward in every scene. You can watch Night Catches Us on Crackle, PlutoTV, and Tubi.
I Like It Like That (1994); Dir. Darnell Martin- Watch on PlutoTV
I Like It Like That is a 1994 comedy-drama, written and directed by Darnell Martin. The film is her directorial debut, and it tells the story of a Jamaican, Puerto Rican woman, Lissette (Lauren Velez), and her turbulent relationship with her husband, Chino (John Seda), and their three children. Every single performance of this film keeps you engaged in different ways. From Velez to Seda, to the children, and Jesse Borrego, every character delivers in ways that set them apart from the rest. I really enjoyed this film, and I hope you all do too! You can watch I Like It Like That on PlutoTV.