Black women directors remain on the outside

IN THE WORLD of independent film, director Julie Dash is drawing a strong following as a fresh and innovative voice. Her ambitious "Daughters of the Dust" -- set on the Sea Islands off the South Carolina coast in the early 1900s -- earned top honors for its lush cinematography at this year's Sundance Film Festival. But Dash can't even get a Hollywood agent.

In August, friends sponsored a screening of the film on Sony Pictures' Culver City, Calif., lot -- hoping for a turnout of influential insiders. They didn't show.


Romell Foster-Owens has directed or written TV specials, stage plays and an independent feature film. She has won awards from the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame and the NAACP. But when Foster-Owens went looking for a talent agent not too long ago, a representative of one of Hollywood's leading agencies bluntly told her: "We already have one black woman director, and she's not getting any work."

With the box office success of such black-themed films as "New Jack City" and "Boyz 'N the Hood," the Hollywood establishment is hot on the trail of more than a dozen African-American directors. Not one of them, however, is a woman. While pictures of these black men grace the covers of magazines, their female counterparts -- as one put it -- "can't get arrested." The town's top talent agencies wine and dine young white men fresh out of film school who have no more to their names than one short film; black women who have made award-winning, full-length features can't get their phone calls returned.


"We're very concerned that there are no women voices," says Warrington Hudlin, president of the Black Filmmakers Foundation and co-director of Eddie Murphy's upcoming film "Boomerang." "It's the same reason that there are so few white women directors. Sexism is more powerful in Hollywood than racism. There are actually more black male directors than white women directors."

Hollywood executives say it will probably take one or two black female directors making commercially successful movies outside the studio system to enable others to break into the big leagues. Columbia Pictures President Frank Price notes that studio gates opened to black men once Spike Lee (with "She's Gotta Have It"), the Hudlin brothers (with "House Party"), and Robert Townsend (with "Hollywood Shuffle") had turned out independently financed hits.

"I suspect it's a matter of time and the right script," adds Price, who green-lighted "Boyz 'N the Hood." "Debbie Allen and Neema Barnette, for example, have learned the craft. They have the talent. Now it's a matter of coming up with the right project."

The omission of black women from studios' director lists comes at a time when many African-American women are troubled by their on-screen images. For the most part, they complain, black women are invisible. And in some of the recent black-directed films where they do appear, black female characters are the targets of a raw brand of sexism portrayed as a part of inner-city life. In "Boyz 'N the Hood," for example, teen-age males routinely refer to women as "ho's" (short for whores) and "bitches" -- clearly a commentary on these attitudes by director John Singleton but nevertheless distressing to some women.

Some of the most prominent names on the American literary scene are black women -- writers like Toni Morrison, Alice Walker and Gloria Naylor. But their stories rarely are produced as features or TV movies, and when they are, the studios don't tap black women to direct them. Walker's "The Color Purple" was directed by Steven Spielberg. The miniseries based on Naylor's book, "Women of Brewster Place," was "directed by everyone other than African-Americans," as one black filmmaker put it.

Probably the African-American woman closest to making a major studio film is actress-choreographer-TV director Debbie Allen, who burst onto the scene as the star and director of the TV series "Fame" and most recently turned industry heads by transforming the lackluster "Cosby" spinoff -- "A Different World" -- into a socially relevant, and comically inspired, hit.

Allen is set to direct "Going to the Chapel" (which does not have a distributor yet) for producer Jerry Tokofsky. It's the story of a New York sports reporter who meets a tough-talking woman cab driver.

At Paramount, Allen is developing "Goodbye Papa," a comedy about a funeral that was inspired by her own family's gathering after the death of her father. At Warner Bros., she and producer Suzanne De Passe are developing "Lonely Teardrops," the story of Motown singer Jackie Wilson.


Neema Barnette, a creative arts teacher from New York who got her first big break when she studied at the American Film Institute, has directed episodes of "The Cosby Show," "China Beach," "Hooperman" and "Frank's Place," as well as TV commercials, music videos and theater. Columbia Pictures has hired Barnette to write, with her husband, writer-actor Reed McCant, a script called "The Guide." If the project goes forward, Barnette is set to direct. She may also direct a project written by Columbia's young star, Singleton.

Other TV directors who want to direct features include Anita Addison, executive producer and director of the NBC show "Sisters." Addison also has directed "Knots Landing" episodes, and in 1983 received an Academy Award nomination for co-directing an animated short. Helaine Head has directed "Brewster Place," "L.A. Law" and "The Danger Team," among others.

These women have found work in television in part because of the growing numbers of shows with African-American casts -- part of a realization by the networks that roughly a quarter of their prime-time audience is now black. In addition, there are more black women in positions of authority in television, where federally licensed TV and radio stations are subject to affirmative-action guidelines.

In the independent film world, Dash is one of the few black women to have made a full-length feature film. Another is Audrey King Lewis, whose film, "The Gifted," about a Southern family with supernatural powers handed down from their West African ancestors, premiered in Washington earlier this month during the Congressional Black Caucus convention.

Ayoka Chenzira, probably the first black woman animator, has just finished an independent feature about a mother-daughter relationship. Zeinabu Irene Davis has made several short films, and is finishing the 57-minute "A Powerful Thang," about the sexual politics of a black couple at a critical stage in their relationship.