© Sundance Institute | L–R, from top left: Ekwa Msangi by Caydie McCumber; Janicza Bravo by Jemal Countess; Ava DuVernay by Mark Leibovitz; Euzhan Palcy by Ron Hill; Gina Prince-Bythewood with Sanaa Lathan, photographer unknown; Dee Rees by Dan Campbell; and Ayoka Chenzira, photographer unknown
Torell Shavone Taylor
Black women directors have created some of the most powerful, nuanced, and layered stories of our time. From indie hits to serious blockbusters, projects written and directed by Black women have proven to be essential in contributing a unique cinematic gaze. In the span of 40 years, Sundance Institute has supported numerous black women artists in telling their stories via labs, grants, and the annual Festival in Park City.
We celebrate the work of Black filmmakers year-round, but during Black History Month (and ahead of Women’s History Month), we wanted to specifically highlight 11 Black women directors with ties to the Sundance Institute and the Sundance Film Festival. These artists have worked to portray the intricate lives of Black women, bring into focus cultural aspects of the African diaspora, and express socially relevant themes through film.
Ed. note: This story was originally published in February 2020. We’d also like to make sure that you check out all of the films by Black women directors from the 2021 Festival. Keep an eye out for the releases of this year’s features, which include Jamila Wignot’s Ailey and Jessica Beshir’s Faya Dayi.
FROM THE ARCHIVES
Ayoka Chenzira’s Violette (Balancing Dreams) (1984)
© 1984 Sundance Institute | Photo by John Armstrong
Award-winning artist Ayoka Chenzira developed her coming-of-age story Violette in the 1984 Directors Lab with actresses Rosalind Cash, Tisha Campbell, and Anna Maria Horsford. In 2018, Chenzira was nominated for an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Directing in a Drama Series for her work on Queen Sugar.
Euzhan Palcy’s A Dry White Season (1989)
© 1985 Sundance Institute | Photo by Ron Hill
Robert Redford personally invited Euzhan Palcy to workshop A Dry White Season—a project that depicts the 1976 Soweto uprising in South Africa—in the 1984 Directors Lab. The film deeply challenged South African apartheid and earned acclaim from film critics such as Roger Ebert. With the finished project’s release in 1989, Palcy became one of the first Black women to direct a major studio film.
Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust (1991)
© Sundance Institute
LA Rebellion filmmaker Julie Dash’s debut feature, Daughters of the Dust, is considered one of the most important cinematic portrayals of Black women. Set in South Carolina’s Lowcountry, the film portrays the strong connections between African Americans and West Africa. Daughters of the Dust won the Excellence in Cinematography Award at the 1991 Sundance Film Festival.
Gina Prince-Bythewood’s Love & Basketball (2000)
© Sundance Institute
Gina Prince-Bythewood developed her romantic drama Love & Basketball in the 1998 Directors and Screenwriters labs. Prince-Bythewood eventually received an Independent Spirit Award Best Screenplay for the finished film, which was released in 2000. She later returned to Park City to premiere her television drama Shots Fired at the 2016 Festival.
Ava DuVernay’s Middle of Nowhere (2012)
© 2012 Sundance Institute | Photo by Fred Hayes
Ava DuVernay became the first black female filmmaker to win the Directing Award in the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival for her film Middle of Nowhere. A trailblazer in telling stories that are socially relevant and providing distribution for stories that feature people of color, she’s the first Black woman to direct a $100-million-dollar studio film, and she has received Academy Award and Emmy Award nominations for her work. In 2010, DuVernay founded ARRAY, a grassroots distribution, arts, and advocacy collective focused on films by BIPOC and women.
FROM THE 2020 FESTIVAL
Black women took home top prizes at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. This year’s programming featured a number of Black female artists across various festival categories—below are feature films in the U.S. Dramatic and Documentary competitions.
Garrett Bradley’s Time (2020)
© 2020 Sundance Institute | Photo by Azikiwe Aboagye
This year, Garrett Bradley won the Directing Award: U.S. Documentary for her feature Time, about a mother of six who for 21 years fought for her husband’s release from prison. Bradley worked on post-production of the film in the 2019 Documentary Edit and Story Lab. She has premiered short films at past Festivals, including America (2019) and Alone (2017), which won the 2017 Jury Award.
Radha Blank’s The 40-Year-Old Version (2020)
© 2017 Sundance Institute | Photo by Brandon Cruz
Radha Blank’s award-winning script for The 40-Year-Old Version was chosen for the 2017 Directors and Screenwriters labs. The finished film had its world premiere at this year’s Festival, where Blank won the Directing Award: U.S. Dramatic. In the film, Blank stars as a New York playwright who decides that the only way to salvage her artistic voice is to become a rapper at age 40. Blank started her journey with Sundance Institute at the 2013 Playwright Retreat.
[Ed. note: Look out for The 40-Year-Old Version this fall, date TBA, when it premieres on Netflix]
Janicza Bravo’s Zola (2020)
© 2020 Sundance Institute | Photo by Jemal Countess
Janicza Bravo brought her second feature, Zola, to Park City this year for the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. The film, which follows a pole dancer who gets trapped in an unexpected road trip, was inspired by 144 tweets posted by A’ziah King in 2015. Bravo brings a unique comedic voice to her stories, including Lemon, which premiered in the 2017 Festival. She has also premiered film and VR projects Ashe ’68, Gregory Go Boom, and Hard World for Small Things at Sundance Film Festivals.
Ekwa Msangi’s Farewell Amor (2020)
© 2019 Sundance Institute | Photo by Jen Fairchild
Ekwa Msangi’s Farewell Amor, which premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, speaks to the delicate relationship of an Angolan family that’s been separated for 17 years. Msangi received the Tribeca All Access Fellowship and further developed Farewell Amor in Sundance Institute’s 2018 Creative Producing Lab and 2019 Screenwriters Lab.
Dee Rees’s The Last Thing He Wanted (2020)
© 2020 Sundance Institute | Photo by Jemal Countess
Dee Rees returned to the 2020 Sundance Film Festival with her adaptation of Joan Didion’s novel The Last Thing He Wanted. Rees premiered her debut feature film Pariah, which follows a queer Black woman embracing her identity, at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. She workshopped Pariah as a fellow in the 2008 Directors and Screenwriters labs. In 2017, she blew audiences away with her beautifully depicted, raw Southern tale, Mudbound, which garnered her a 2017 Sundance Vanguard Award. Mudbound was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Adapted Screenplay.
Channing Godfrey Peoples’s Miss Juneteenth (2020)
© 2017 Sundance Institute | Photo by Jonathan Hickerson
Channing Godfrey Peoples was featured on Filmmaker magazine’s 2018 list, “25 New Faces of Independent Film.” Her debut feature, Miss Juneteenth, highlights the holiday that celebrates the emancipation of enslaved African Americans in the state of Texas. The film follows a single mother and former Miss Juneteenth beauty queen as she struggles to encourage her rebellious teenage daughter. Godfrey Peoples worked on the film in the 2015 Screenwriters Intensive and 2017 Creative Producing Lab.
[Ed. note: Miss Juneteenth is set to begin streaming on June 19, aka Juneteenth.]
Torell Shavone Taylor is a filmmaker and film curator. She has worked as a film programmer for the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture and has dedicated her work to highlighting stories that feature women and people of color.
- Maïmouna Doucouré’s ‘Cuties’ Invites You to Be an 11-Year-Old Girl
- Q&A: A Chat with ‘Selah and the Spades’ Writer/Director Tayarisha Poe
- Flashback from the Labs: 7 Sundance-Supported Films by Women Directors
- 6 Sundance-Supported Black Artists to Watch This Black History Month
- Dee Rees: Our History Is Perpetually Being Rewritten as We Live It