July 25, 2020 at 8:07 pm EDT | by Brian T. Carney
FROM THE VAULTS: Black female directors
Watermelon Woman, gay news, Washington Blade
Cheryl Dunye in ‘Watermelon Woman.’ (Photo courtesy of First Run Features)

TV and movie fans are starting to face a crisis: there’s not a lot of new content being released and you can only watch your old favorites so many times.

To help fill in the gap, the Blade is launching a new series called FROM THE VAULTS, a curated collection of films and shows from the last decade or so that readers may have missed. Drawing from Top Ten and Year in Review lists, reviews, previews and interviews, the series will offer a fresh look at noteworthy films and filmmakers that are currently available to stream or rent.

The first edition of FROM THE VAULTS focuses on BLACK FEMALE DIRECTORS, whose outstanding films examine aspects of our past and present that are all too often erased from history and whose work envisions a future that truly embraces American ideals.

First on the list, in alphabetical order, is JULIE DASH, whose 1991 masterpiece “Daughters of the Dust” examines the rich matriarchal traditions of the Gullah islanders living off the coast of Georgia in 1902.

A magnificent restored version of “Daughters of the Dust”was released in 2016. That same year, Beyoncé released her visual album “Lemonade,” which was an homage to the work of Dash and her husband, cinematographer Arthur Jafa.

A blazing cinematic force, Ava DuVernay is known not only for her acclaimed work as a filmmaker across genres and media, but for her fierce dedication to social justice and to the celebration and promotion of other Black female directors. As a director, DuVernay made her mark with “Selma,” a historical drama about the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., “13th,” a scathing indictment of Clinton-era mass incarceration policies; and the science-fiction spectacle “A Wrinkle In Time.” For television, she created “When They See Us” about the Central Park Five and “Queen Sugar,” a popular series that has employed dozens of Black female writers and directors.

One of the directors who has worked on “Queen Sugar” is the trailblazing Cheryl Dunye whose brilliant 1996 mockumentary “The Watermelon Woman” was the first feature length film written and directed by an out Black lesbian about out Black lesbians. A restored version was released on DVD in 2017.

Dunye plays a video store clerk and aspiring filmmaker who becomes obsessed with “Fae Richards,” a fictitious early film actress billed only as the “Watermelon Woman.” The film cleverly weaves fake archival footage into Cheryl’s story, creating a tribute to Black actresses who have been written out of mainstream film history. 

After a successful career as an actor (including playing Jodie Foster’s roommate in “The Silence of the Lambs”), Kasi Lemmons made her directorial debut with the highly acclaimed “Eve’s Bayou” in 1997. “Harriet,” her 2019 biopic of Freedom fighter Harriet Tubman generated significant Oscar buzz.

Previously known for video shorts, newcomer Melina Matsoukas made her feature-film debut in 2019 with “Queen and Slim.” With a script by Lena Waithe, the story of love on the run and police brutality won the 2020 BET Award for Best Movie along with several other awards and nominations.

With the release of “The Old Guard” on Netflix, Gina Prince-Bythewood became the first Black woman to helm a comic-book movie. The movie stars Charlize Theron as the leader of a troop of immortal warriors; Kiki Layne (“If Beale Street Could Talk”) is the new recruit.

In a potentially interesting move, Prince-Bythewood includes a gay couple among the warrior band. Unfortunately, they are played by straight actors.

Out filmmaker Dee Rees has brought an amazing variety of work to the screen: “Pariah” (2011),her powerful coming-out/coming-of-age movie; “Bessie” (2015),her flamboyant biopic of singer Bessie Smith; and the historical epic “Mudbound” (2017). For a change of pace, she’s now directing episodes of the comedy “Space Force” for Netflix.

Finally, the best queer movie of 2017 was directed by out Black filmmaker Angela Robinson. “Professor Marston & the Wonder Women” told the unbelievable story behind an American icon, including an Ivy League campus, a polyamorous relationship and the latest BDSM theories. While we wait for “Wonder Woman 1984” to finally be released, a double feature of “Professor Marston” and “Wonder Woman” (2017) will certainly help pass the time.

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