Daughters of the Dust, the 1991 film that portrays Gullah culture through the lives of the Peazant family, descendants of slaves who reside on the sea islands near South Carolina and Georgia, was named one of the 50 Most Important Independent Films by Filmmaker magazine. In 2004, it was selected to the National Film Registry at the Library of Congress. This multiaward-winning film by director and writer Julie Dash is also the first full-length theatrical film released by an African-American woman.
If you want to view films written, produced and directed by African-American women, stay tuned to African American Women in Cinema (www.aawic.org), an organization with a mission to expand, explore and create opportunities for minority women filmmakers within the entertainment industry. “The impetus for starting AAWIC hit me when I saw the lack of opportunities for women of color in the industry,” says Founder and President Terra Renee. “It all started from a conversation after I won a grant for a short film that I did and I met someone who wanted to be a publicist for independent filmmakers. From that was birthed a supposedly one-time event. I named it African American Women in Cinema. Once it was launched [in 1997], the response from women was very strong; and it was at that point I truly felt my calling to continue it.”
After completing her studies in filmmaking at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and in film directing at the School of Visual Arts, Renee worked as the associate producer of several independent films, including the feature Island, Alicia, the official selection of the 1998 Cannes Film Festival UN Certain Regard category. “My main goal with AAWIC is to bring awareness of the many talented women of color within the industry,” she says. “And a huge part of that includes mentoring the next generation of women filmmakers, directors, producers, screenwriters and actors.”
To that end, highlights of the organization are its scriptwriters competition and its youth program that showcases the works by young women of color at an annual film festival. “It is our aim to continue with the expansion of our mentorship youth filmmaker program in which we offer to show the next generation the filmmaking process from concept to the actual editing of their work. We also honor the unsung sheros with the AAWIC Trailblazer Award and the AAWIC Pioneer Award,” Renee says.
Renee comments that since she started working in the business, things are only a little better with today’s technology. According to Women on Film’s Celluloid Ceiling statistics, 22 percent of the films released in 2008 employed no women directors, executive producers, producers, writers, cinematographers or editors. “Nowadays, the production of a film is not as arduous as it once was,” Renee says. “The challenges are in distribution. You still need funding to shoot the film, publicize it, market it. Even if you go the film festival circuit, you need financial backing.”
African American Women in Cinema supports women eager to enter the film industry by offering industry panel discussions, workshops and seminars that foster continued learning and nurture growth. It is also developing a database of contacts within the film and television industry that would be accessible to aspiring and working filmmakers.
In November, AAWIC held its 13th Annual Film Festival, a three-day event highlighting the works of aspiring and prominent women filmmakers of African, Latin and Asian descent throughout the Diaspora. Film producers Lisa Cortes and Grace Blake and author Ntozake Shange were honored. Previous AAWIC Pioneer Award recipients have been Leslie Uggams, Daphne Maxwell Reid, Lynn Whitfield, S. Epatha Merkerson and Mary Alice Smith.