March 8th is a day of celebration. All across the world, this day is heralded as International Women’s Day. To honor this day (as well as Women’s Herstory Month), I am highlighting eight historic black women in the film.
Madame Sul-Te-Wan worked in Hollywood for over 50 years, but very few people know of her name or her extensive body of work. Born Nellie Crawford in 1873 to freed slaves, Madame began acting at a theatre company in Cincinnati. After arriving in Hollywood, she soon adopted the name Madame Sul-Te-Wan and approached DW Griffith about appearing in his film Birth of Nation. The two developed a friendship that would last until his death. Throughout her career, Madame appeared in over 50 film and television productions, though many were uncredited.
Maria P. Williams
Maria P. Williams is believed to be the first African-American female film producer. There is very little information out there about Maria or her film. What we do know is that Maria’s film Flames of Wrath was released in 1923. Along with her husband Jesse, she owned the Western Film Producing Company and Booking Exchange.
Hattie McDaniel is the first African-American woman to win an Academy Award. In 1939 she won for her performance as Mammy in Gone With The Wind. Throughout her career she faced criticism for portraying roles that some believed furthered the established stereotypes of black people to which she famously responded: “I’d rather make $700 a week playing a maid than earn $7 a day being a maid.”
Euzhan Palcy has the distinction of being the first black female director to have a film produced by a major Hollywood Studio. In 1989 her film A Dry White Season, starring the legendary Marlon Brando was produced by MGM studios. Born in Martinique, Euzhan studied at the Sorbonne and was handpicked by Robert Redford to participate in the 1984 Sundance Director’s Lab. Euzhan was also the first black woman to win a Cesar Award (the French equivalent to the Academy Awards in the US) for best first feature film for her film Sugar Cane Alley.
Darnell Martin is the first African-American woman to write and direct a feature film for a major Hollywood studio. In 1994 Columbia Pictures released I Like It Like That, starring Lauren Velez, Lisa Vidal, and Rita Moreno. The film was a critical success and solidified Darnell as a director with talent and finesse.
Halle Berry is the first African-American woman to win the Academy Award for Best Actress. She was awarded in 2002 for her role in the film Monster’s Ball. In her famously emotional acceptance speech, Halle paid homage to the black actresses that paved the way for her win, including her idol Dorothy Dandridge. In 1999 Halle portrayed Dandridge in the HBO film Introducing Dorothy Dandridge. For her role she was awarded the Emmy, Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild Awards.
Debra Chase is the first African-American woman to have a solo producing deal with a major studio. She ran both Denzel Washington’s and Whitney Houston’s production companies before forming her own, Martin Chase Productions in 2000. Debra’s producing credits include Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, Just Wright, and Sparkle (2012).
Ava DuVernay founded AFFRM, the African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement. AFFRM is a film distribution model that works with film festival organizations to orchestrate theatrical releases for two independent films a year. AFFRMs first release, the critically acclaimed I Will Follow, was written and directed by Ava. In 2012 she made history when she became the first African-American woman to win the Best US Director Award at the Sundance Film Festival. She received the award for her second feature film, Middle of Nowhere.
What other historic women in film will you celebrate?