A celebration of excellence for black women in the film and television industry

By Molly Grogan, Third year, English

As Black History Month 2022 draws to a close (although its messages should be celebrated all year round), we’ve selected just a few of the many talented black female creators working in the film industry. and television. Some of their stories are radical, others fun, the most thought-provoking, but always at the heart of black voices and experiences. Certainly, these inspiring women are bringing about much-needed change.

Michaela Coel in I May Destroy You (2020)

I once saw Michaela Coel on the Elizabeth Tube line, and the seconds she walked past me (in complete, ethereal glamour) were perhaps the best of my life. It’s because his BBC show I can destroy you (2020) completely changed my life and my view of the world.

I can destroy you (2020) // Photo by HBO, courtesy of IMDB

Written by and starring Coel, it follows author Arabella as she struggles to recount the night of her sexual assault, only to realize she had been doped. A dark and relevant comedy, Coel’s lovable but complicated characters and brutally honest dialogue put a face to the victims we hear about every day – the sisters, the friends, the friends of friends and the girls in the class – that we still fail to protect.

The series fantastically culminates in revenge and justice, imagining the “what if” scenarios of coming face to face with the abuser, an outcome that too many cases fail to achieve. Not only is it a stunning portrayal of the flawed feminine, but it also centers the dark voice stories, making Paapa Essiedu and Weruche Opia best friends with Arabella, both of whom suffer from their own personal troubles.

I can destroy you (2020) // Photo by HBO, courtesy of IMDB

After being approached by Netflix to do the show, Coel turned them down as she was adamant about having complete creative freedom – having been abused during the production of Chewing gum (2015-2017). It echoes the agency Arabella seeks in the show to express herself, even if it means abandoning the traditional, soft-spoken “victim” image and instead turning to a dark, ruthless, and unyielding side of herself- same.

Coel told GQ that as she strolls through the Italian ocean in the penultimate episode, “it’s the time when she gathers that kind of darkness that she needs to get over her trauma,” and it is certainly the unfiltered kind. It’s really exciting to see a black woman’s narrative rejecting the usual audience demand for “tasty” stories that also center them in some way, so as not to touch on white fragility. Success of the show is an example of more than one type of bravery.

Filmography of Ava Duvernay

Director of Selma (2014), A shortcut in time (2018), When they see us (2019), and 13th (2016), Duvernay shows no signs of stopping the release of groundbreaking conversation-stirring film and television.

Selma (2014) // Photo by Paramount Pictures, Courtesy of IMDB

Known for her unwavering documentaries and biopics, centering on Martin Luther King Jr and Central Park 5, she longs for change and is a strong advocate for the use of film as protest.

Having been nominated for numerous awards and won the Emmy for her 2019 miniseries When they see us, Duvernay is determined to bring cases of historic injustice to light, bringing them into the white-dominated cultural zeitgeist. Her incredibly influential cinema paved the way for other black female directors and creators in the industry.

Shonda Rhimes and ‘Shondaland’

If you’ve watched any incredibly successful or over-hyped shows lately, chances are the masterminds behind it all are Shonda Rhimes. Nominated by Time in 2007, 2013 and 2021 as one of the 100 most influential people in the world, his prolific career in the industry continues to flourish.

How to get away with murder (2014-20) // Photo by ABC, courtesy of IMDB

best known for Grey’s Anatomy (2005-)Scandal (2012-8)How to get away with murder (2014-20)The catch (2016), Invent Anna (2020) and a passage to produce Bridgerton (2020-), his media empire, aptly named “Shondaland”, is frequently recognized by award academies and receives overwhelmingly positive public reception.

Its monopoly over the American television industry is quite magnificent. Especially since, more often than not, his shows center black female characters who absolutely lead him into male-dominated areas.

Take How to get away with murder, where we see the ineffable Viola Davis teaching a group of aspiring law students, you guessed it, how to get away with murder, after getting entangled in a very real murder. Or Scandalwhere Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington), the president’s former media consultant, sets up her own management company and faces off against male naysayers and dark forces trying to tear down her business.

Scandal (2012-8) // Photo by ABC, courtesy of IMDB

Rhimes also joined Planned Parenthood’s national board of directors in 2017 and is co-chair of When We All Vote, extending her good deeds for the cinematic universe to the real world as well. The women of Rhimes are ambitious, they’re smart, they’re ruthless, they’re mean, they’re everything we’ve been taught not to be – in short, they’re strong characters. And it takes one to know one.

The women behind Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020)

Inspired by the career of influential blues singer Ma Rainey and based on the 1982 piece of the same name, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom stars Viola Davis and the late great Chadwick Boseman in a dramatization of an explosive recording studio session in 1920s Chicago.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020) // Photo by Netflix, courtesy of IMDB

However, these are the achievements of black women behind the screen that makes its prices so important. By winning the Oscar at the 93rd Annual Awards, Mia Neal and Jamika Wilson made history as the first black women to win in the best hair and makeup category. In his acceptance speech, Neal said:

“I want to say thank you to all of our ancestors who worked, were denied, but never gave up. I’m also here as Jamika Wilson, and I’m breaking that glass ceiling with so much excitement for the future. I can imagine black trans women standing here, and Asian sisters, our Latino sisters, and Indigenous women. I know that one day it won’t be unusual or groundbreaking. It’ll just be normal.

In a ceremony usually dominated by white, male (and sometimes female) directors, producers and screenwriters, the victory is a testament to the innovative work of black female creators who are actively shaping the future of cinema and challenging the homogeneity of systems of rewards.

Featured Image: Photo by Netflix, courtesy of IMDB

What is your favorite example of black female excellence in the world of film and television?