“The reason any of us are on this panel is because we defied someone who said we couldn’t.”
Photo by Gage Skidmore/Flickr.
It was listed as one of the must-see panels at this year’s Comic-Con, and it was filled to capacity with mostly women attendees, who crammed the room to cheer for and hear a panel of six of Hollywood’s hottest female directors discuss the future of women in film.
As “Wonder Woman” is now the highest grossing live-action movie to have been directed by a woman, the “Women Rocking Hollywood” panel was challenged by moderator Leslie Combemale, a D.C.-based film critic and the founder of Cinema Siren, with addressing the burning issues around whether progress has been made in Hollywood or simply made in a vacuum.
Three of the panelists were hired under Ava DuVernay and Oprah Winfrey to direct episodes of the OWN show “Queen Sugar.” DuVernay and Winfrey have made the commitment to exclusively hire women directors on the show.
“The reason any of us are on this panel is because we defied someone who said we couldn’t such and such. We’re not people who wait for permission. We find our own opening. When someone says, ‘You can’t come through the door,’ I pop a hole in the ceiling. The word no doesn’t have any relevancy to me,” producer, writer, and director Victoria Mahoney, who directed an episode of “Queen Sugar” last season, tells GOOD.
Photo by Rebekah Sager/GOOD.
She says that in her career, there are really only two outcomes: “One, I do everything in my power to get them to hire me. And two, if they don’t hire me, I do everything in my power to make them regret it.”
“You have to make a decision in some cold, dark, and lonely night when you feel absolutely invisible and not supported, and in that moment,” she says, “you get to decide who you’re going to be. Either ‘I quit, and I’m going home’ or the road I picked and everyone on this panel picked and peers like Ava DuVernay picked that ‘Come hell or high water, I’m not breaking.’ They won’t break me down. And our responsibility to our ancestors is what carries us.”
Despite the fierce strength of the panelists, several cited the realities of studies such as the University of Southern California 2016 Annenberg report on inequality in film. Essentially it says that out of the 800 top films from 2007 to 2015 (excluding 2011) and analyzing 35,205 characters for gender, race/ethnicity, LGBTQ status and, for the first time, the presence of disability, the results confirmed what many suspected — Hollywood remains as closed and impervious to change as ever.
Even inroads made in television by panelist and veteran producer and director Rosemary Rodriguez make it challenging to feel optimistic about the presence of women in the entertainment industry.
[quote position="left" is_quote="true"] Either, ‘I quit, and I’m going home,’ or 'come hell or high water, they won’t break me down.'[/quote]
This season, of the 41 broadcast drama pilots, only one — ABC’s “Las Reinas” — is directed by a woman, Liz Friedlander.
“Eventually, it needs to just be equitable and about humanity and telling human stories because we’re all in it together. I don’t want to be on the female director list, I want to be on the great director list,” Rodriguez tells GOOD.
There is hope, however, in the diversity of stories being told.
Panelist Gina Prince-Bythewood is the first woman of color to direct a superhero movie with her upcoming “Silver and Black.” She is known for her work as screenwriter and director of the “Secret Life of Bees,” and she was the writer and director for “Beyond the Lights.” She also recently directed the pilot episode of the upcoming Marvel series “Cloak and Dagger.”
“There’s always been this idiotic belief in Hollywood that women don’t have a desire to do these kinds of films,” Prince-Bythewood said. “But in the last two years, there’s been a drumbeat, and it’s finally clicked. Maybe it’s shame. The numbers are abysmal, and numbers don’t lie, but people just won’t shut up about it. I have these opportunities because of women who haven’t shut up.”
[quote position="right" is_quote="true"]I don’t want to be on the female director list, I want to be on the great director list.[/quote]
“I did ‘Cloak and Dagger’ because I was watching something with my younger son, and he turned to me and said, ‘How come we don’t ever get to see any black superheroes,’ and that stuck with me, and it’s the reason I wanted to do the show,” she added. “Now, it’s up to us to keep up the momentum and make great films so that it just keeps going.”
With the success of films such as “Get Out” and the critical success of “Moonlight” and now “Black Panther” — which just recently had a record-breaking 89 million views of a trailer in one day — there seems to be an excitement and a hunger for a variety of stories.
“We all want to see people who come from our communities and want to feel like we have a voice that’s heard,” said Tina Mabry, the award-winning writer and director of “Mississippi Damned.” “We have so many stories to tell. Do not let yourself go silent because that’s how we end up becoming completely powerless within this industry.”
“We’re changing these things one step at a time. I think we’re moving it at a rate that’s accelerating, but we all know it can go even faster,” she added.
Ultimately, all the panelists agreed that without people of color in positions of power or the understanding of the importance of telling these stories, the challenges will remain.
The only non-director on the panel was Kirsten Schaffer, the executive director of Women in Film L.A., a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting equal opportunities for women, encouraging creative projects by women, and expanding and portrayals of women in media.
“We all know ‘Wonder Woman’ has been tremendously successful in the box office,” Schaffer said, “but one unique and important thing about it is that most action movies get about 62 percent male audiences whereas, ‘Wonder Woman’ had a 50-50 audience. This demonstrates to financiers that men will come out to see an action movie with a woman at the center, and women do make money at the box office. That’s where the hope lies.”
“This is why it still matters that we talk about it and that audiences demand the kind of media they want to see. If you want to see more women in the center, that’s the stuff you need to pay for at the movie theater and pay for on your small screens,” she added. The room burst into applause.