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.
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.
Zeinabu irene Davis: I didn’t get the baptismal water from Sundance. I’m originally from Philly and went to Brown to become a lawyer. While there, I landed an internship at public television in Rhode Island. Then I studied in Kenya, working with a writer there named Ngugi wa Thiong’o on a play of his — the English translation is I Will Marry Whom I Want. Most of the governments in Africa also run the school system, so as soon as there’s any kind of unrest, the schools close. While we were making this production, the students were protesting for a second political party. It was a panic situation ’cause I was supposed to be trying to get these credits at Brown and it wasn’t happening ’cause we didn’t have school. Anyway, we hand-built the stadium for this production, and after the third performance the government bulldozed the theater. Ngugi wa Thiong’o had to go into hiding and, eventually, exile. I stayed in the country for a few more months, attending the school of hard knocks. Then I came back home and ended up going to UCLA Film School.
Weekly: Who are some of your film heroes or influences?
Lemmons: Hitchcock, Bergman, Kurosawa. Spike Lee was the first African-American director I’d seen who was as cinematic, who was that into using the camera to tell a story. When I made my first short film, the young brothers were just coming up, and they really took me in. Reggie and Warrington Hudlin were running the Black Filmmakers Foundation, and they took my film to showcase. Every time I’d see Spike, he’d be, like, “When are you going to do your feature?” John Singleton, too.
Prince-Bythewood: You know, growing up, I wasn’t really allowed to see anything but Disney movies. I couldn’t see R-rated movies even when I was 17. I remember in film school, the film that influenced me the most was The Graduate. I just remember sitting in class being so blown away by the way it was made, by its use of music. Now, in terms of influence, it’s [Martin] Scorsese and [Elia] Kazan. Just before I was about to shoot Love & Basketball, I started to panic. I knew I could direct actors, but the whole thing with the camera — I thought it wasn’t going to be snazzy enough. So I rented a bunch of Kazan films and realized it’s about the story. Then there’s Scorsese. GoodFellas is just a perfect movie. I am so mesmerized by his work, by his choices and themes. Everything he makes is personal to him, and he keeps making things even if they don’t make a ton of money.
Davis: I’m actually influenced by people in this room. I also have been very influenced by the filmmakers who came out of UCLA, which has a strong history of filmmakers of color — the African-American, Native American, Latino and Asian filmmakers who came out of UCLA in the ’70s and early ’80s. Charles Burnett and Julie Dash, in particular, helped me get through film school. Because I teach African cinema, I’m also very much into the work of African filmmakers, particularly more experimental people like Safi Faye, Ousmene Sembene and Djibril Diop Mambety.
Smith: One I might add is John Sayles. Not just his body of work, which is astounding, but the way he does business and goes about making films. I think, between him and Madonna, I’ve figured out how to work it. There are these great American independent filmmakers — including Sayles, Spike, Jim Jarmusch and Hal Hartley — who really fight to make their films the way they need to. I wish there was a way to cultivate a larger audience for the kind of work they do, but I’m not sure that can happen.
Lemmons: I go back and forth on whether that’s important. Should we be John Sayles and say, “Okay, there’s an audience for my movies, and I can reach them at a certain budget”? You know what I mean?
Smith: I do, except that I want to make science fiction. I need $50 million. I need it now.
Lemmons: I just did a movie that I needed $40 million for, for $13 million. It gets tiring working beneath the money that you need, letting the marketplace dictate what it's going to pay for a movie about, you know, a schizophrenic homeless black composer. [Laughter.] There’s a budget cap on the subject matter, and it’s not going to go above that, no matter who you have starring. That makes sense to me. I get it. But it’s hard.
Smith: It’s horribly frustrating that the kinds of movies we want to make, the kind of content that interests us, is something that the market tells us nobody wants to see. If you go see a black movie that makes $45 million and you hate it, you feel like “Am I crazy? Everybody else here is loving it.”
Weekly: I feel that way when I watch so much contemporary black film. It’s pandering and sentimental or — in the case of the hip-hop–derived stuff — crude stereotypes presented as cultural truths. We talk a lot about the racism in Hollywood, but how complicit are black people in what Hollywood chooses to sell as black film?
Smith: I’ll use hip-hop as an example. Now, I buy it. I love it. But it has become like one big minstrel show. There are all these incredibly gifted, intelligent black men who are selling a caricature of their own identities and experiences. They might as well be in black face, skipping around, I’m a thug, I’m a thug, I’m a thug. It’s embarrassing. I listen to Dr. Dre, and in his music I hear a genius. In his lyrics I hear someone who’s totally pandering to a very narrow idea of blackness. It’s the same with film.
Prince-Bythewood: I agree, especially about Dre. I would’ve bought his record if it didn’t have “bitch” all through it. The beats are good, but I was, like, fuck it.
Weekly: It’s interesting that you use hip-hop to critique those representations. To some extent that’s what Spike Lee does in Bamboozled.
Davis: Then hopefully the film will generate dialogue.
Weekly: Except that, in this town, there seems to be very little interest in Spike Lee. There was more buzz leading up to Ladies Man than for Bamboozled.
Smith: Well, to play devil’s advocate, Lee talks so much trash. I mean, if I were the person who put up $20 million for the man, and then he sat on Nightline and talked trash about me and my company, I wouldn’t want to deal with him either. I know that’s his persona, how he generates publicity, but it’s got to rub people the wrong way. He talks a lot of trash.
Weekly: A lot of white directors talk their share of trash.
Smith: Like who?
Lemmons: [Quentin] Tarantino.
Smith: I’m talking about a different thing. I’m talking about attacking the very people who got you in that seat by funding your movie. I don’t see the white boys doing that at all. That’s one game that they don’t play.
Lemmons: No, that will come back to haunt you, certainly as an African-American woman. As soon as you get an agent, [the agent] warns you. I remember one time I was trying to sell Eve’s Bayou, and I was talking to this executive. At a certain point, he said that there was a part of the script he didn’t get. I did not suck my teeth or anything like that, but I did sit back and cross my arms. I got a lecture about it afterwards. I was told to never sit back and cross your arms, because now these people think you’re a bitch. There’s something about black women that frightens people. People are waiting for you to be kind of bitter. It’s interesting, if what you say about Spike is true, because I don’t know . . .
Smith: I was just wondering how he gets away with it.
Davis: It’s a performance.
Lemmons: I wouldn’t advise it for a woman.
[The group breaks into a chorus of “No!”]
Weekly: Are there pressures on women to put on a different kind of performance?
Prince-Bythewood: Well, I started in TV, and I’m actually shocked that I stayed as long as I did, because every single one I was on — except A Different World and South Central — I was the only black writer. And I swear, it was months of fighting them trying to change my script, trying to tell me this or that about black folks. It was ridiculous. I must have been annoying but I didn’t care, because I was fighting for the integrity of my writing.
Smith: When I attended the Sundance directors’ lab this summer, there was one young director who used expletives like adjectives and pronouns. I watched him, thinking, “There’s no freaking way that if I came into an office and behaved like that that I would get a job. They’d call security on me.” I mean, it’s a construction and it works for him. I’m trying to figure out what construction will work for me. Haven’t found it yet. Still broke, still ain’t got a job.
Davis: My world is quite different, but people have the same kind of trepidation when they see you in the room. I made full professor this summer, and that makes me one of three black women teaching film in the country who are full professors. It’s a constant struggle. You’re usually the only black person, the only female, and to try to convince them that you are the right person to do X, Y and Z is still a struggle.
Weekly: A lot of recent articles have suggested that we should retire the term “black film,” that we’re post-race.
[The group scoffs.]
Lemmons: I heard a white man who runs a studio putting a cap on black film and black audiences — what you can spend to make a black film and what our stars are able to make. We asked him what about Eddie Murphy? What about Oprah? And he said, “Those are no longer black people. Those are stars.” I don’t want to cross over and become just a filmmaker and not be counted in that census, you know? I want to be counted as a black person, as a black person who is successful. I feel very possessive about our actors. Eddie Murphy — yeah, he’s internationally famous, but he’s one of ours.
Prince-Bythewood: I consider myself a black filmmaker, and I say that because even though I want to do all kinds of genres – the next thing I’m doing is a thriller — I want black people in them. I mean, Carl Franklin, I love his career, I think it’s amazing. It’s just that at this point in my career, that’s not what I want to do. There are so few films with black folk in them . . . if we’re not doing it, who’s going to?
Lemmons: I still think that if he directs One True Thing, he’s still a black filmmaker who directed that movie. We can still claim him. [Laughs.] When Meryl [Streep] gets nominated for the Oscar, he’s still one of ours.
Davis: I respect black filmmakers who say that they don’t want to be labeled as black filmmakers. At least we’ve gotten to this point in world history where they can say that. That’s fine. But that will never be fine for me. I’m still dealing with racism and sexism on a day-to-day basis. I’m not isolated from the world in which I live.
Smith: Yes, I’m a black filmmaker. Yes, I’m a woman filmmaker. And I don’t really think too much about it. I think about it about as much as white folks think about what they’re going to call themselves. I make movies about people that I’m interested in, just like they do. And, for the most part, those people are black. When I write a script, it’s a given — unless I say otherwise — that they’re black. Why would I sit around writing about white people? I can go see their stories any hour of the day. I go see every movie hoping to see a black woman who is intelligent, smart, strong, vulnerable and sexy. And those five things cannot ever be in one character if she has black skin. Never. I’m not interested in seeing any movie if it doesn’t fulfill those requirements. I mean, there are a lot of black films made by brothers that I have to walk out of. I can’t sit there and watch them do that to us.
Weekly: You’d like to think that the rise of black talent in Hollywood would have signaled a shift in representation.
Lemmons: I absolutely think it will happen with more women. I find that women — as filmmakers and as people — are not interested in putting up with the status quo. Most of the women I know are aware of the deepness of women. There are many white male filmmakers who have captured women beautifully, and, of course, there are works of literature in which women have been beautifully realized by men. But in cinema we’re just not seeing it, for some reason, in regard to black women. One of the things that motivated me to make Eve’s Bayou the way I did was that I was sick of the image of the noble, slightly sweaty, angry black woman. I remember after I did Eve’s Bayou, someone said, “You were in Louisiana — why weren’t those women sweating?” I said, “You know what? I’ve had enough sweaty people.” I just didn’t want to see any sweat. I wasn’t feeling that. I was feeling this other thing that I experienced in my youth, looking at my family and my neighbors and the people that I knew — this beauty and glamour.
Smith: Even at the Sundance lab, I was advised that if the woman had to be black, then the male love interest should probably be white, because there was probably no other way I was going to get the money to make the film. That’s why I’m interested in Gina’s relationship with New Line.
Prince-Bythewood: The whole thing with Love & Basketball is that my budget would have been a lot lower if I hadn’t got Omar Epps, because to them he was a star. It was, like, if you get a star in the male role, go ahead and cast the rest of the movie the way you want — because I wanted to cast an unknown for Monica [the lead female]. It wasn’t like they gave me all this money based on the script. It was “Who’s going to bring in the audience?”
Lemmons: The really interesting thing with Eve’s Bayou is that studio people would ask me to put in white characters. I mean, even if they were negative white characters — just any white character. They would say, “Can’t there be a racist?” And I just said, “This is Eve’s bayou.”
Weekly: Going back to the Omar Epps thing, studios want to protect their investments by having names in the cast regardless of who’s directing the movie. Did having Sam Jackson make a difference to Eve’s Bayou?
Lemmons: Having Sam Jackson has made my career! [Laughs.] Thank God for Sam. When I was trying to make Eve’s Bayou, the studios would say, “Oh we love it. It’s a beautiful script. But you need to get a star. If you could get, say, Sam Jackson . . . ” Sam’s people read the script, and we attached him to the project. Then we went back to those same studio people and said, “We got Sam Jackson,” and they were like “Oh. You got him. We didn’t really mean that . . .” Even with Sam attached, in both these cases — it’s not a piece of cake, because the subject matter is not mainstream.
Davis: Do you think if you’d been a white male director with Jackson attached you would have still had the same problems?
Lemmons: I can’t even speculate. I was eight months pregnant with both my green lights. I went in thinking, “There’s no way you’re going to waddle in here and get the money to make this movie” So even though it was a hard road and we had three green lights on Caveman’s Valentine — two of them fell through — I don’t know. We were able to get the films made. I think there’s a place for all of us as filmmakers, just as there’s a place for all of them — from Sayles to Scorsese to [Joel] Schumacher. To me, Gina is the great white hope because she made something mainstream that everybody can feel. Everybody can feel Love & Basketball.
Davis: That’s important. Gina’s the first one to jump off on another feature film so quickly.
Prince-Bythewood: Can I be honest? I learned so much on Disapearing Acts, but the biggest thing I learned is that I want to write and direct my own things. I’m very proud of the result, but I don’t want to be a director for hire. It’s Terry [McMillan]’s vision, then Lisa Jones’ — who wrote the script — then mine. It’s not the same experience. I wish I had waited.
Lemmons: Caveman’s Valentine was adapted by the novelist, but I worked on the script for three years. But I came out of that movie and said to my agent, “I’m going to write my next movie.” If we let ourselves be directors for hire too easily, we’re going to end up putting that same image out there that we’re struggling against. Whereas if we write it, then at least we’re going to control, to a certain extent, the female characters and the type of movie that it is.
Prince-Bythewood: I couldn’t turn Disappearing Acts down, because it’s always been one of my favorite books, but there was also a bit of panic: I’m never going to work again. Now I have the confidence that I can take a year-and-a-half off and write the next script, and someone’s going to buy it. I have to keep telling myself that. There’s a great amount of fear when you have your agent telling you that there’s a six-month window of being hot. But if I want to stay special and have a voice, I have to write and direct it myself.
Weekly: Kasi, you said that you think it’s going to take more women directors to change things. But do you think it’s also going to take more women everywhere in the industry?
Lemmons: I feel strongly about women. Both of my movies have had an extraordinary number of women working on them. This last movie, all my keys were women — the DP, the producer, the editor, the production designer. On Eve’s Bayou it was the same thing. I think that that is important for the industry. It’s opening up. It’s going to happen. It’s inevitable. Even if they didn’t want it to happen, it’s going to happen. It’s a wave that’s been set into motion.