As we mark the 100th anniversary of women winning their hard-fought battle for the right to vote, we celebrate female pioneers in an industry that Andrea and I both love: film.
This summer, we’ve looked at some of the most significant films directed by women, goingall the way back to black and white films from 1912 toincredible films from the middle of the century.
This time, Andrea and I are bringing our film journey to the present. The empathetic films on this list are largely defined by personalizing historic events and cultural experiences. From Julia Dash’s luscious look at an underrepresented community of African Americans to Lulu Wang’s sensitive portrayal of grief across an immigrant family, these female-driven films will bring you closer to the human experience.
Daughters of the Dust by Julie Dash, 1991
Andrea: I hadn’t heard about Daughters of the Dust until 25 years after its creation. A big oversight in my film education, but unfortunately unsurprising: films directed by women are often given smaller budgets, which means less money for publicity. Films directed by Black women, including this one by Julie Dash, are even more impacted by this bias. Thankfully, Daughters of The Dust has seen a resurgence in recent years — and we can thank Beyoncé for it.
In 2016, 25 years after the film was made, Beyoncé dropped Lemonade, a visual album that used Daughters of The Dust as a strong visual inspiration. That winter saw a restoration and re-release of the film by Cohen Media Group. These two factors joined together to bring Julie Dash’s film back into the public eye — a film that happened to be the first by an African-American woman to get a general theatrical release. (This is different from Euzhan Palcy’s record of becoming the first Black woman to direct a major studio film; Palcy is from Martinique.). But despite premiering at Sundance, and being praised by critics and audiences, Dash has not yet seen funding for another feature film.
Meghan: This is also a major oversight for me, which I’m glad is now corrected. As a big Beyoncé fan, I am disappointed that I was unaware of this film’s influences on the incredible Lemonade album. While I was watching Daughters of the Dust, I kept pausing and going over to Youtube to watch Beyoncé’s music videos, especially “Formation.” It all makes sense now — that video’s celebration of Southern Black culture is undeniably linked to the visuals in Daughters of the Dust. We could probably write an entire article just dedicated to the splendid costumes in the film and analyze their symbolism. (Like my theory that Beyoncé chose that iconic yellow dress in Lemonade because of Daughters of the Dust's Yellow Mary character, and the line: “She’s a new kind of woman.” Anyway, I digress.)
Dash’s decision to have the film partly narrated by the character Unborn Child is powerful — a way to bridge the past and the present, which is what so much of the story is about. The plot is non-linear, which I sometimes find challenging, but in this case it’s a perfect way to tell this story, allowing you to focus much more on the mesmerizing visuals and small character moments. Watching this film is like watching poetry on screen. Getting to see this family prepare to migrate to the mainland of America offers a fascinating look into the Great Migration that we learn about in a historical sense, but rarely get to see in a personalized way. Let’s hope this film’s resurgence leads to Julie Dash getting to tell more stories. We need her voice.
Boys Don’t Cry by Kimberly Peirce, 1999
Andrea: Kimberly Peirce was hard at work on her thesis film at Columbia University when an article in the Village Voice came across her path. The article told the story of the life and death of Brandon Teena, a transgender man who was attacked and killed in Nebraska in 1993. The story captured Peirce, who knew she had to tell Brandon’s tale — a decision that would ultimately launch her filmmaking career.
But the road to the big screen was not an easy one. As with many films that deal with non-cisgender characters, it was difficult to secure funding for the piece, leaving Peirce to work nights in odd jobs, as well as apply for grants, fellowships and labs in order to pay for it. The hard work paid off: Peirce’s resulting picture, Boys Don’t Cry, was a breakthrough success, considered by some to be the first film to start the global conversation around trans rights. And while our consciousness as a society grows, and we look back on our historical art with a more knowledgeable and critical eye — for example, in this film, why was a transgender man played by a cis-gender woman? — it is still valuable to remember Boys Don’t Cry as a valuable step toward increasing equity and equality.
Meghan: There’s no question that Boys Don’t Cry is tough to watch, and, as Andrea said, it represents an important moment for transgender representation in film. The story focuses on the last few months of Brandon’s life, and the last 45 minutes of the film are especially brutal, as a new group of friends turns on him, leading to his violent rape and murder. But before that, we get to see Brandon in lighter moments, experiencing a lot of regular life milestones: dating, making new friends, trying to hold down jobs. All of those things are more difficult and dangerous because he’s trans. The romance between Lana and Brandon is especially sweet and a model for how trans people can be accepted in romantic relationships. I loved seeing the joy on Brandon’s face whenever he introduces himself to someone new, and they don’t at all question his identity as a man.
I recently watched Netflix’s Disclosure, a documentary about trans representation in Hollywood. The trans men in that documentary talk about how Boys Don’t Cry was significant for them because there was such a lack of representation at the time. They also acknowledge that looking back at the violent and white-washed story can be problematic. Writer Tika Milan notes that the film erases Brandon’s friend and ally Phillip DeVine, a Black man who was also murdered that night. “It took me a long time to come around to watch it, but when I did, it was terrifying. It was really hard to watch,” actor Brian Michael Smith says in Disclosure. “There’s a moment before the rape, that I think was literally my worst nightmare.” “I remember seeing that film [Boys Don’t Cry], and thinking, ‘Oh my god, I’m going to die,’” actor Laverne Cox says. “I hear people say, ‘it’s based on a true story.’ But why is that the story [about trans people] that gets told over and over again?”
Selma by Ava DuVernay, 2014
Andrea: Before Ava DuVernay became the first woman of color (and second woman ever) to direct a $100 million film with A Wrinkle in Time, she was the first Black woman to win best director at Sundance, for Selma. Before she was the first Black woman to have her film nominated for an Oscar (also Selma), she was a director making her first narrative feature film on a budget of $50,000. Before that, she was a first-time director using her savings to shoot a 12-minute short, Saturday Night Life. While DuVernay’s firsts are impressive on their own, the quality of her work around them is equally so — from the documentary 13th, to the series Queen Sugar and When They See Us, DuVernay’s work is always incisive, creative, and powerful.
It’s always difficult to pick a favorite from a creator’s portfolio, but to do so with a director of DuVernay’s stature is even more challenging. Selma is our pick for this list for a number of reasons: it was DuVernay’s start to being a player in Hollywood, netting her much-deserved recognition. But the film is also deeply personal to the director. As a child, DuVernay often visited her father’s childhood home, which is located so close to Selma, Alabama that he had watched the marchers pass as a child.
Meghan: For many reasons, watching Selma now feels incredibly timely. As I write this, the nation is mourning the loss of John Lewis, a prominent character in the film, and we are living through another historic civil rights movement. I don’t think I can overstate how necessary it is that every American watches it. Come for the history lesson, stay for the superb filmmaking. The cast is star-studded (Oprah! Common! Cuba Gooding Jr.!). David Oyelowo is stunning as Martin Luther King Jr. I can’t imagine how intimidating it must have been to step into MLK's shoes, but the British actor succeeds, especially in the quieter moments.
One thing I like a lot about the film is that, as lofty as its message is, it doesn’t shy away from the sometimes confusing political process and backroom deals, as well as the logistics of organizing a protest march. That’s how real change can happen; you have to put the work in, and the work to end systemic racism is never done. As John Lewis likes to say, “Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year. It is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.”
The Farewell by Lulu Wang, 2019
Andrea: Often the creative path isn’t a direct one. Lulu Wang trained as a classical pianist in her youth, but, while attending Boston College to study literature and music, she found herself getting drawn in another direction — that of film. In her senior year, she collaborated with fellow student Tony Hale, making a series of shorts and a documentary. From there she was off, moving to LA to pursue her new dream: directing.
After getting a first feature and a series of fellowships under her belt, Wang found it to be a struggle to produce her second feature. While this is often noted as the hardest film for beginning directors to produce, a big part of the problem that Wang faced was the inherent bias of the people she was pitching to: they couldn’t see how a film with a majority Chinese cast, with dialogue partially in Chinese, would interest American audiences.
But Wang is nothing if not creative. She wrote and narrated the story for This American Life, where producer Chris Weitz heard it. And the rest as they say, is history. Fun fact? The Farewell averaged $87k+ per theater, surpassing the per theatre average set by Avengers: Endgame.
Meghan: My favorite thing about The Farewell is how specific it is. There are many cultural references that went over my head, but that’s ok — that’s the sign of a talented and compassionate storyteller. I appreciate that Wang put so much care into creating an authentic look at a Chinese-American woman’s life as a daughter of immigrants, which is really just an American experience. As culturally specific as the story is, it’s also universal. I, too, was very close with one of my grandparents growing up, and the portrayal of that relationship here is genuine and natural.
I love Awkwafina in comedic roles in movies like Ocean's 8 and Crazy Rich Asians, but this role allows her to channel some of that comic energy into a more subtle and introspective portrayal of a woman grieving and traversing two distinct cultures. Although it deals with a weighty subject, there are some truly hilarious moments in the film, like drunk karaoke at the elaborate fake wedding. I hope films like this can help Americans get over any aversion to subtitles, too: they open up a whole new world of stories to discover.
For Sama by Waad Al-Kateab, 2019
Andrea: We couldn’t write this list without including Waad Al-Kateab’s For Sama, the remarkable documentary from FRONTLINE. The best art takes risks, be it of money, regard, or position. But Al-Kateab risked more than just a comfortable life — she risked her homeland, her family, and her life in order to make this film.
In 2009, Al-Kateab moved to Aleppo to study economics, but she was only there for two years before a civil war tore Syria apart. While Al-Kateab could have fled the city, she instead chose to stay and document the unrest, eventually contributing footage to the UK’s Channel 4 News.
Al-Kateab documented the war for five years, and with such constant filming, she captured more than fighting. The footage weaves in her personal life, notably her growing relationship with her husband-to-be, Hamza, and the early days after their daughter, Sama, is born. As the fighting worsened, the family had to flee Syria. Al-Kateab smuggled the footage out of the country by slinging a bag across her body and sitting Sama on top of it as they drove out. For Sama went on to become the most-nominated documentary ever at the BAFTA Awards, and received a nomination for Best Documentary Feature at the Oscars.
Meghan: At WGBH we love For Sama, not just because it was produced by our FRONTLINE colleagues, but because it’s a stunning filmmaking achievement. In the opening scene, we see Al-Kateeb running down the stairs as a hospital is bombed. The lights go out, plunging everyone into darkness as they race to remove babies and vulnerable patients. This is just one of many harrowing scenes in For Sama. As Andrea said, the best art takes risks, and I think the best art is also personal. The film is about a conflict thousands miles away, yet it is incredibly intimate because Al-Kateeb films her life with the backdrop of war. There’s something really special about the way she demystifies the filmmaking process. I loved seeing her filming her reflection in car mirrors, or setting up subjects with microphones.
Al-Kateeb narrates the film, speaking directly to her daughter Sama, with beautifully written lines like, “The sounds of our songs were louder then the bombs falling outside” about her wedding. All of the scenes with children broke me, both the violent ones and also the more joyous ones of children playing in burned-out buses. What is it like for a baby or child to know nothing of a life without war? This film left me emotionally wrecked, yet grateful that Al-Kateeb let us into her life.