In the ecosystem of who directs Hollywood’s top-grossing films, women of color are the rarest kind.
But the 2019 Sundance Film Festival is proving to be a referendum on the dismal industry statistics . And the positive reception to and pricey acquisitions of films like Gurinder Chadha’s “Blinded by the Light” (bought by New Line for $15 million) and Nisha Ganatra’s “Late Night” (Amazon purchased for $13 million) is, at the very least, promising.
In the U.S. dramatic competition alone, where more than half of the 16 features included were directed by women, three films by women of color have stood out: Lulu Wang’s “The Farewell,” Minhal Baig’s “Hala” and Chinonye Chukwu’s “Clemency.” Each was written by their director and offer boldly personal stories that have captivated critics, audiences and industry dealmakers.
“The Farewell,” perhaps already one of the best known of the films that debuted at Sundance, is based on Wang’s real-life experience when she and her Chinese-American family staged a fake wedding as an excuse to visit her terminally-ill grandmother in China, who was totally unaware of her prognosis. Awkwafina stars in the film, which was bought by A24 for $6 million.
Wang, who had previously directed the well-received “Posthumous,” took a somewhat roundabout approach to getting her “unconventional” film made.
She wrote it as a short story and submitted it to “This American Life,” where it played and got the attention of a lot of producers. Big Beach Films, the shop behind “Little Miss Sunshine” decided to make it.
“I’m very encouraging of filmmakers starting out for different opportunities to create (intellectual property) so that they can get the story locked down in some form,” Wang said. “Then they have ownership of it and it becomes easier to take that to pitch.”
Baig, who also wrote a personal story based on her life as a Muslim teenager in America during a difficult time at home, had a similarly circuitous route to making “Hala.” First she had to overcome the idea that she’d be satisfied in a more stable, creative-adjacent job as a development executive.
“The only way I could do that was to just go do it,” Baig said. “No one was going to give me permission. I just had to put my foot down and say ‘I don’t want to be a development executive, I just want to be an artist.'”
Then she had to prove herself as a filmmaker.
She tested the waters by making a crowd-funded short version of “Hala” and putting it online where the response was “incredible.” With a proof of audience and a script that made it onto the 2016 Black List, an influential collection of unproduced scripts, she was then on the radar of executives and financiers.
With “Blockers” star Geraldine Viswanathan in the title role, “Hala” has been one of the breakouts of the festival. Apple purchased it for an undisclosed amount.
“Clemency” writer and director Chukwu also spent years trying to make her film about the psychological and emotional toll taken on a death row prison warden, played by Alfre Woodard. Following the execution of Troy Davis in 2011, Chukwu started a four-year process of deep research, including interviewing death row lawyers and former wardens, and even working as a volunteer in clemency cases and teaching in a woman’s prison.
She found a supporter in producer Bronwyn Cornelius and they searched for funding for three years, encountering some reluctance because of the subject matter and Chukwu being a first-time director. “Clemency” has been widely praised at the festival, where some have declared that it will earn Woodard an Oscar nomination. It is still looking for distribution.
All are aware of the position they’re in as filmmakers who happen to also be women and minorities at this moment in Hollywood, where despite all the attention, where they remain vastly underrepresented. Among the 1,200 top films of the past 12 years, female directors of color are in the single digits, according to USC Annenberg’s Inclusion Initiative.
“Women of color have been working in Hollywood for a very long time and making their own movies,” Baig said. “(But) it’s clear that the numbers have not changed very much. Hollywood has greater awareness but they haven’t followed through on what they’ve learned.”
Wang is a filmmaker first, but said she feels “a sense of responsibility just because there are still so few of us. It’s hard not to personalize it when you see the numbers.”
She hopes that aspiring filmmakers “embrace their uniqueness,” admitting that it took her a long time to do that.
Perhaps uniqueness is the key word. All three filmmakers told personal stories that no one else could have.
“I just hope that more of us get the access and platform to get to tell the stories we want to tell — stories that include protagonists who are women, or women of color who have narratives that aren’t solely defined by their race and gender,” Chukwu said. “Race and gender are not a genre. They are not a story. They are not an emotional arc. We are human beings with full interior worlds. Put them in an interesting situation. Make them a warden of a prison as they prepare to execute someone on death row. Now that’s a damn good perspective.”
Follow AP Film Writer Lindsey Bahr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ldbahr