8 Films by Black female directors that are essential viewing

From a pioneering film in New Queer Black Cinema to Maya Angelou’s only directorial pursuit, this list shares some of the Black female directors’ greatest contributions.

Black women’s contribution to television and film is undeniable. Stylistically, sonically, visually and beyond. The film industry has been incredibly difficult for Black women to break into, but these Black female directors, and more, tell stories in a way that can only be done on screen – they allow us to enjoy the beauty of film and visual storytelling. Creating a universal and unifying language on our screens, the films in this list transcend genre, as many Black female directors do. If you’re on the lookout for more Black female directors work to engage with, this list is a great starting point for your deep dive into the beautiful world of Black female directed-film. 

THE WATERMELON WOMAN (1996), directed by Cheryl Dunye 

Director Cheryl Dunye stars as herself, a young black lesbian working in a video store by day, while trying to make a film about a Black actress in the 1930s, who was known for her role in “mammy” roles during the period. The mysterious actress was credited only as “The Watermelon Woman”, triggering Cheryl’s journey to uncover her story. The autofiction was the first film written and directed by an out Black lesbian woman, exploring themes of race and sexuality and pioneering “New Queer Black cinema”. 

ALMA’S RAINBOW (1994, directed by Ayoka Chenzira

This story follows Rainbow’s turbulent relationship with her no-nonsense mum and her free-spirited aunt, all independent and powerful Brooklynites. Rainbow grapples with the ebbs and flows of puberty and self-image, with Chenzira portraying on-screen what many Black women experience when entering womanhood. The result is a film that unravels the difficult relations between two generations of women, where each character shares the centre stage. 

LITTLE WOODS (2018), directed by Nia Dacosta 

In DaCosta’s directorial debut, Little Woods is an attentive portrayal of two marginalised women in North Dakota, who work outside of the law to better their lives. DaCosta challenges the traditional on-screen portrayals of the rural American West, portraying the quiet desperation that can come from such places. DaCosta explores violence against women’s bodies and how permeable women’s rights can be in the American West. 

DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST (1991), directed by Julie Dash

The first feature film directed by an African American woman distributed in theatres across the United States, Daughters of the Dust is a historical tale about 3 generations of former enslaved West African women. The film follows the generational and cultural ties of the Gullah Geechee people, who migrate from the Saint Helena island and onto mainland Southern United States. The women battle with the option of distancing themselves from their heritage, whilst others long to stay. 

MISS JUNETEENTH (2020), directed by Channing Godfrey Peoples 

This film follows the journey of a single mother and former beauty queen preparing her rebellious teen daughter for the Miss Juneteenth beauty pageant. Juneteenth, which is often referred to as the African-American independence day, is the historical backdrop to the film – with Godfrey Peoples describing one of the themes for the film as freedom and what freedom means for Black people. Set in Texas, where Channing Godfrey Peoples grew up, the director tells a personal and captivating story of dreams and survival. 

See Also

DOWN IN THE DELTA (1998), directed by Maya Angelou

The late, renowned poet and activist’s only directorial work, Down in the Delta follows a matriarch who raises enough money to help her daughter, Loretta, and two grandchildren move from dangerous inner-city Chicago to their ancestral home in a small Mississippi town. Here, Loretta learns about the generations of her family, dating back to their role before the American Civil War.  

COMPENSATION (1999), directed by Zeinabu Irene Davis

Irene Davis creates two unique African-American love stories, one at the dawn of the 20th century and the other in contemporary times, between a deaf woman and a hearing man. The story follows their struggle to overcome the intersections between racial discrimination and disability. Inspired by a 1906 poem by African American writer Paul Laurence Dunbar, the film incorporates sign language and title cards to make the story accessible for both deaf and hearing audiences. 

KWAKU ANANSE (2013), directed by Akosua Adoma Owusu

 Kwaku Ananse, both man and spider, is a trickster who appears across West African and Caribbean folklore. Owusu uses this vibrant mythology of Ghana, weaving semi-autobiographical elements of her life into the story of a young American woman who returns to West Africa for her father’s funeral, to then discover his double identity. Two wives, two families — one in Ghana and one in the United States.

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