I, Too, Sing Hollywood 

Four women on race, art and making movies

Wednesday, Oct 18 2000
Photo by Jenafer Gillingham

Ten years ago, it would have been impossible to assemble a roundtable of black female directors, especially one in which each participant had a feature film under her belt. Almost all extant full-length films directed by black women — not just in the United States, but throughout the world — were made over the past decade. In 1991, Julie Dash became the first African-American woman to release a feature; her groundbreaking Daughters of the Dust remains a high-water mark in the canon of black film. Throughout the black film movement of the ’90s, Dash remained the lone female director to be mentioned alongside such names as Spike Lee, the Hudlin brothers, Carl Franklin and John Singleton. Sadly, her inability to follow her debut feature with another big-screen effort would be shared by black female filmmakers to come, Cheryl Dunye (Watermelon Woman) and Darnell Martin (I Like It Like That) among them.

Dash helped open the door for black women directors, but they and their work remain subject to marketplace vagaries in ways black male directors and their work aren’t. The summer box-office success of films like Scary Movie, Big Momma’s House, Nutty Professor II: The Klumps and The Original Kings of Comedy has renewed conversation around the state of black film — what it is, who makes it, who the audience is — but the conversation has largely centered on, and been uncritically celebratory of, a men’s club. Although Chris Tucker, Eddie Murphy, Keenen Ivory Wayans and Martin Lawrence have gotten props for reviving, and perhaps transcending, black film, most of this praise ignores the movies helmed by women, which is to ignore some of the most challenging and innovative work being made.

To watch the films directed by black women in the last 10 years is to be reminded of the dazzling crop of black female writers in the ’70s: Ntozake Shange, Toni Cade Bambara, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison. Like their literary forebearers, black women filmmakers broaden the parameters of both womanhood and blackness by giving us access to previously underrepresented territory. The Weekly recently sat down with four of these directors to get their takes on what it is to be black and women working in film. Participants included Kasi Lemmons, the director-writer of Eve’s Bayou, who also directed the forthcoming Caveman’s Valentine; Gina Prince-Bythewood, who wrote and directed Love & Basketball, and directed the upcoming HBO film Disappearing Acts; Zeinabu irene Davis, whose feature Compensation played at Sundance this year; and Cauleen Smith, whose feature Drylongso was at Sundance last year. Manohla Dargis, the L.A. Weekly’s film editor, also sat in.

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L.A. Weekly: How did you break into film?

Gina Prince-Bythewood: I went to UCLA to attend film school, but I didn’t get in [the film program], so I had to petition them, which was basically writing a letter telling them why they had made a mistake. They let me in. In terms of getting into the business, the turning point was meeting Bill Cosby on the track at UCLA.

Weekly: You literally met him on the track?

Prince-Bythewood: Yeah. I was running track at UCLA, and he came to the USC/UCLA meet. I asked the coach to introduce us, and for some reason we just hit it off. After that, every weekend I would train, then go to his house and watch football. His family was there, and it was very cool.

Kasi Lemmons: I was an actress for a long time. I did some off-Broadway, some cult films. I was feeling unfulfilled and went to the New School for Social Research film school to be a documentary filmmaker, and while there I made a docudrama. I ran into Bill Cosby at an audition and said, "I want you to see this film I made." And he said, "What I really need is a writer. Can you write a four-page scene?" He ended up hiring me to write a screenplay for him.

Weekly: So it’s all about Bill Cosby.

Cauleen Smith: Well, the Cosby connection ends here. My background is in experimental film, and there’s pretty much one way you make those movies — apply for grants, wait for the money, work two or three jobs, and spend all your money making films. I was in San Francisco doing video installations and performance art and got fed up waiting for money, so I decided to go back to school. I applied to UCLA grad school, got in, and at the same time received a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation — a $35,000 lump sum. This was in the early ’90s, when there was all this hype about films costing $7,000 or $9,000, and I thought, "I can make three features now!" One of my friends, Salim Akil, and I wrote what ended up being Drylongso while I was in film school. Sundance took it, and I was launched into the industry.

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