Illustration by Amanda Lanzone.
At the 2012 Sundance Awards, writer-director Ava DuVernay won the prestigious Directing Award for Middle of Nowhere, a feature film about Ruby, a quietly bold nurse who, after her husband is incarcerated, undergoes a personal transformation that forces her to make difficult choices about her life and marriage.
The film was met with glowing reviews from many, including New York Times critic Manohla Dargis, who wrote, "A plaintive, slow-boiling, quietly soul-stirring drama about a woman coming into her own, Middle of Nowhere carries the imprimatur of Sundance, but without the dreary stereotypes or self-satisfied politics that can (at times unfairly) characterize its offerings." The film went on to grab the top per-screen gross average its opening weekend, beating Argo and Taken 2.
DuVernay's script was included among many film critics' Oscar predictions for Best Original Screenplay and on their "Best of 2012" lists. Based on the strength of its performances, critical reception, and screenplay, many saw it as a shoo-in for the award. If nominated, DuVernay would have become the second black woman ever to be nominated for the Best Original Screenplay Award. (Suzanne de Passe was nominated for Lady Sings the Blues in 1972.) Many were hopeful, especially women and women-of-color filmmakers who have long been left out of consideration for such lauded awards. However, when the nominations were announced in January, there was no mention of the film or of DuVernay. The awards, which aired in February, offered little in the way of surprise or diversity in their winners. The award for Best Original Screenplay went to Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained—a film that supposedly rests on a love story between Kerry Washington (one of today's most sought-after black actresses) and Jamie Foxx, but which has been recognized chieﬂy for its white male characters and director.
Perhaps more disappointing than the news that the film didn't receive a nomination was the lack of pushback that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences received for the omission.
Instead, moviegoers, bloggers, and critics wondered whether Leonardo DiCaprio should've been nominated for his role in Django Unchained, whether Silver Linings Playbook would sweep the awards, or why Ben Afﬂeck didn't get a best-director nod. All were credible debates, but ones that recur in a different form every year. Recognition of Middle of Nowhere from the Academy could have helped reverse a long legacy of race- and gender-based exclusion from one of the most celebrated film events in the world, but discussion was sparse, perhaps because the decision was in many ways expected.
The exclusion of films written and directed by women, and particularly women of color, has long been an infuriating norm within the Academy. And as seen with Middle of Nowhere, exceptional scripts written by black women seem to face a similar fate, perpetuated by years of resistance to the idea that black female protagonists can anchor a film and cause an audience to feel something authentic and human in the process.
In one scene from the film, an expectant Ruby (Emayatzy Corinealdi) receives some news that changes the course of her life, the extent of which is captured strikingly on her face. On the page, the scene is written with a restraint that makes the reveal so much more affecting, for both Ruby and the audience. Ruby's loss of emotional grounding occurs silently, dictated by careful poetic capturing of written action. This is one of many moments in the script where tension, humor, and pain are integrated with a great sense of surprise and blurring of expectations about what this film should deliver.
While the usual reasoning for the omission of these films from the Academy seems to point to white, male Oscar voters and their rejection of "different" stories, further analysis is needed. It's not just that white male voters reject these stories—it's that these stories represent something that resists an expected film narrative, one that doesn't typically depict black women as fully formed characters with feelings, faults, and humanity, let alone as compelling protagonists. Privileging the black female perspective in many ways disrupts this narrative. We are used to seeing black women in side roles: as servants and maids from Hattie McDaniel in Gone with the Wind to Viola Davis in The Help; as supportive wives in Jerry Maguire and 42; as victims of intense poverty and pathology, in Precious and Monster's Ball; and as comic relief, in Booty Call. However, when black women don't fit any of these categories, and are instead portrayed as flawed, complicated people who experience the same emotions and struggles as anyone else, a certain comfort is broken. The norm of character identification is dislocated and all of the stereotypes that have aided Hollywood films no longer apply.
In a 1992 interview with bell hooks for the book accompaniment to the 1991 film Daughters of the Dust, writer-director Julie Dash discussed the privileging of a black female perspective in the film:
I've said, often, that I think a lot of people are severely disturbed by the film because they're not used to spending two hours as a black person, as a black woman…. Film is hypnotic. When you go into a cinema you extend your belief for hours and you become who or what's up on the screen. And I think for a lot of white males, and black males too, they love to see films that are about what they don't want to be, have never been, are afraid to be, or could only be for two hours…. They get to go there and assume the personality of the characters on the screen for two hours, then get up and go back to their normal, safe lives. A lot of people couldn't do that for Daughters of the Dust. Some people just go flying out of the audience. I mean, I've seen men run out of the theater.
As the first film by a black woman to receive a general theatrical release, Daughters of the Dust was seminal on many fronts. It revolves around a matriarchal family in the Sea Islands of South Carolina in 1902 as they make the tough decision of whether to migrate to the American "mainland" or remain on their ancestral lands. The film privileges black women's perspectives, their desires, their longing, and their Gullah language. They are framed against a rolling shore, backed by sprawling nature, in white dresses, with long braids and natural hair, each possessing a distinct personality, each embodied and sensual, and at times led by the narrative voiceover of an unborn child. The film ruptures the established three-act film structure and challenges the tradition of a single protagonist, and does both with great power. The film was also not recognized by the Academy.
The script, which is available in the same book from which Dash's quote is taken, is a melding of specific prose and a gradual comfort that one gains in the presence of a family. Character descriptions are familiar, reminding us of an aunt we might have or a grandmother we grew up loving. The natural setting is evoked in ways that make it a character, and characters interact with it in a continual ebb and flow, taking away from it and giving back. One scene description reads, "We're not sure whether Yellow Mary wants to fuck him, or is just fucking-with-him as her eyes linger on the Philadelphia-Negro, totally ignoring her cousin Viola and her seemingly endless chatter."
In the spirit of Dash's singular vision, other black female filmmakers have contributed to a continuum of stories that privilege black women, in distinctly different ways. Eve's Bayou (1997), written and directed by Kasi Lemmons, portrays an affluent black Louisiana family in the 1960s plagued not by racism, but by human vices of adultery and betrayal. Amidst the low-lying backcountry, we follow 10-year-old Eve Batiste (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) as she seeks to uncover her father's perceived affair. Featuring a whirlwind performance by Debbi Morgan as Aunt Moselle, monologues that might seem long-winded in other films come off with a magical, entrancing quality here. Moselle anchors the angst in the story, adding a dark, mysterious presence to the narrative and balancing the tone of the script. With this film, Lemmons builds a world of self-sustaining, affluent black existence; one that is neither tethered to, nor impacted by, whiteness. In addition to its varied representations of black women, this fact alone places it outside of the acceptable black film narrative. The film won Best First Feature and Best Supporting Female at the 1998 Independent Spirit Awards, but didn't advance to Oscar consideration, to much debate.
Gina Prince-Bythewood's Love & Basketball (2000), while a fresh, remixed ode to the love-story genre, also advocated subtle protest against the sexism in intercollegiate athletics. Monica (Sanaa Lathan) is chastised for her tough, unapologetic demeanor on the basketball court, while Quincy, her love interest and fellow basketball standout, is congratulated for his. Prince-Bythewood invites us into a world where basketball, first love, and family ties converge in a great cycle of self-discovery for Monica. The script moves from page to page with the energy of the athleticism it documents. Dialogue between characters is snappy, warm, and painful all at once, and the characters' disappointment is revealed in powerful beats. This is a woman's interpretation of a world and a sport that has historically been dominated by men, but that interpretation doesn't fall within expected boundaries. Here, a black woman controls the sport and the narrative, making it both refreshing and evocative.
While the film was met with many glowing reviews, especially for Lathan's performance as Monica, it also failed to grab the attention of the Academy, even with its premiere at Sundance and its Independent Spirit Award win for Best First Screenplay.
Other films written by black women have garnered similar awards, yet the recognition their white, male counterparts often receive (directors Darren Aronofsky, Christopher Nolan, and others have all seen their indie films sweep both the Independent Spirit Awards and the Academy Awards) doesn't seem to carry over to black female filmmakers and other marginalized groups.
More recently, Pariah (2011), written and directed by Dee Rees, follows strong-willed 17-year-old Alike as she attempts to navigate black, lesbian identity within a familial context that often denies its existence. The film's writing, rich with subtext and nuance, includes scenes packed with awkwardness and ownership of a changing identity, such as one where Alike, encouraged by her best friend, is trying on an ill-fitting strap-on in her room when her little sister suddenly walks in and shrieks. The scene is further compounded when Alike's God-fearing mother enters, ignorant of the events that have just taken place. Here again, Pariah privileges a black female perspective that falls outside of popular representations of black womanhood.
CharacterizingMiddle of Nowhere and similar films as "different" and "revolutionary" for their depiction of fleshed-out black female characters is problematic. Why is it "different" to show black women in a realist setting that doesn't involve servitude, violence, or exaggerated notions of poverty? What is different about a black woman being a nurse, a lesbian, a wife distraught that her husband is cheating, a bearer of lineage and history? There's nothing inherently revolutionary about these portrayals, but when considered within a limited scope that seems to accept black women only in heavily stigmatized spaces of representation, films like Middle of Nowhere and Pariah seem almost foreign. Films written from inside the complex space of black womanhood are seen as "other," while those created from outside its boundaries are celebrated. In the same interview with bell hooks, Dash states of her film, "It is a foreign film because, as I've been saying, it's a film that privileges black women first…. The feelings that evokes about African Americans are foreign, because what audiences have seen over the years has been very simplistic. Things that appeal to baser instincts. And now we have a film that is both complicated and complete, with a lot of different meanings." Twenty years later, the treatment of these films as "foreign" has in many ways remained the same.
Though many downplay the importance of Academy recognition, these awards do set prestigious standards for the films they honor. Oscar nominees see their careers enhanced in both scale and popularity, as in the case of director Benh Zeitlin and writer Lucy Alibar, whose audacious debut, Beasts of the Southern Wild, solidified their skills and led to an increased interest in their upcoming work. But unlike Beasts of the Southern Wild, which was distributed by Fox Searchlight, many independent films lack the means to reach the entire voting body of the Academy, a challenge that Middle of Nowhere encountered. "It was lovely that people thought that [Middle of Nowhere] was good enough to be nominated, and the press started to carry that story," DuVernay told Bitch. "But ultimately, having been a publicist, and being the distributor of the film as well, I know what it takes to get nominated—money and exposure. There is a systemic barrier for any independent film without money to be considered, no matter what the merits of your screenplay are. Beyond that, there is the issue of the story and where the story came from. This is a story that uses the black body and is about black women, and came from the perspective of a black woman that is not easily digestible to the demographic of the Academy."
Facing barriers to exposure and responding to major film studios' refusal to fund black films that weren't mainstream in scope, DuVernay helped form the African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement (AFFRM) to get nuanced, African-diaspora feature films into theaters across the country. So far, AFFRM has released four films and has used grassroots street-team tactics and social-media strategies to increase their profiles. But to envision any change within the Academy would require a dramatic overhaul of the voting membership which, according to a 2012 Los Angeles Times feature by John Horn, Nicole Sperling, and Doug Smith, is nearly 94 percent Caucasian and 77 percent male; only about 2 percent are black.
While the battle to change this predictable narrative continues, recent statistics from the Celluloid Ceiling report by professor Martha Lauzen show that 9 percent of the top 250 movies at the domestic box office in 2012 were made by female directors. That's higher than the meager 5 percent in 2011, and the highest since 2000, when 11 percent were made by women. The yearly report combines research by Lauzen and an advisory board of prominent female filmmakers, writers, and actresses for the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University. These figures suggest an upward surge in the number of female directors, even if the gap between the number of films made by women and those made by men is still daunting. In addition, it's not clear how many black women are represented in this study or, more important, how many of these films are written by black women and other women of color.
With the wealth of obstacles presented to black women writer-directors, it will be interesting to see how black British writer-director Amma Asante's feature film Belle will be received when it's released later this year. Described as a period film, it centers on a biracial girl raised in 18th-century English aristocracy.
There's a certain power in the writing and creation of a film world and characters. When black women write them into existence, it's both exciting and bold: a welcome rupture and an expansion of narrative. When and if these stories receive larger recognition is a question that remains unanswered, but hopefully not for long.
Nijla Mu'min is a writer and filmmaker from the San Francisco Bay Area.