Time’s (Still) Up: Rewriting Our Film History

On June 9, HBO Max removed the 1940 Academy Award Best Picture winner, “Gone with the Wind,” from its platform in response to director John Ridley’s op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, titled “Hey, HBO, ‘Gone With the Wind’ romanticizes the horrors of slavery. Take it off your platform for now.”

gone with the wind
Weeks after HBO Max pulled “Gone With the Wind” from its streaming catalog, the movie is back with commentary to place the film in historical context.

On Wednesday, HBO revived the film, this time providing both historical context and a condemnation of its depiction of the antebellum South by way of a short pre-film segment by Jacqueline Stewart—professor of cinema and media studies at the University of Chicago and host of Turner Classic Movies’ “Silent Sunday Nights.”

Of course, our film history is rife with such destructive depictions of people of color—not to mention damaging portrayals of women. Feminists have long argued, for instance, that “Gone with the Wind” turns rape into romance. 

In the past few years, Hollywood has been called out to address its race and gender inequities. However, only small steps have been made.

According to Inclusion in the Director’s Chair study, female directors more than doubled their presence in the top 100 grossing films—but women still accounted for only 10.6 percent of directors in 2019.

Furthermore, as the study’s authors state, “Hollywood’s image of a female director is a white woman.” In 13 years, less than one percent of the top-grossing 100 films have been directed by under-represented female directors. The 50-50 by 2020 gender equity call for Hollywood has not been met. We are still waiting.

There needs to be an urgency for the film industry to make room for work by women and people of color. Studios and distributors need to be held accountable for continuing to fall short.

At the same time, however, we must contend with our film past. In 91 years of the Oscars, the Academy has failed to nominate even one woman as Best Director 86 times. And although the Academy doubled its membership by women and people of color in recent years, it remains predominantly white and male

After pointing out how the National Film Registry has been unkind to female directors, the Registry added a record number of films directed by women—that record being a whopping seven out of 25, not even raising the total percentage of female-directed films on the Registry to 8 percent.

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Even in 2020, the American Film Institute feels comfortable producing its list of 100 Greatest American Films of All Time without one female director on it. 

The time is up—and for many of us, it has been up for quite a while. 

The issue is simple: Women and people of color have faced intense discrimination throughout their filmmaking careers over the past century. Now they are doubly discriminated by how their work is received and remembered (or not) by critics, scholars and the industry itself.

Make no mistake—the racism and sexism that has run rampant in Hollywood for decades is perpetuated by our film history. There are incredible works by non-white, non-male groundbreaking filmmakers in danger of being forgotten, while the same body of problematic films continues to be glorified.

It is time to advocate not only for equality in our future, but also in our past. Here’s how.

1. Prioritize the importance of individual films—versus “bodies of work.”

Some of the most groundbreaking films have come from women and filmmakers of color. In the past century, they have broken gender, race and sexuality barriers; influenced film movements and presented some of the most innovative, unconventional, and even revolutionary films of their eras. 

Here are just a few examples from my research for my book, “Independent Female Filmmakers“:

  • Cheryl Dunye became the first Black lesbian woman to direct a feature film with “The Watermelon Woman” (1996), and Maria Maggenti wrote and directed one of the first same-sex teen comedies, “The Incredibly True Adventures of Two Girls in Love” (1995).
gone with the wind
Still frame from “The Watermelon Woman.”
  • Lizzie Borden made films about intersectionality before the term was coined, and Lisa Cholodenko depicted the fluidity of sexual desire at a time when sexuality was still largely viewed as binary.
  • Deepa Mehta’s “Fire” (1996) became the first mainstream Indian film to feature a same-sex relationship, and Julie Dash’s “Daughters of the Dust” (1991) marked a revolutionary shift in the depiction of African American women.
  • Miranda July resisted romance genre stereotypes with “Me and You and Everyone We Know” (2005), and Jennifer Fox prioritized the girl’s voice in her film about childhood sexual abuse “The Tale” (2018).
gone with the wind
Still frame from “Me and You and Everyone We Know.”

These women are not only important women filmmakers, they are important filmmakers. All have directly impacted media history by challenging the status quo and making work that we should be watching, appreciating, supporting, sharing, and studying.

Many women filmmakers from the past have had what one might call “eclectic” film careers, spanning genres, lengths and forms: documentary, narrative, “experimental,” features, shorts, television and web series. (This range was typically not by choice, but the result of pervasive industry gender and race discrimination).

Let’s not doubly discriminate against them by ignoring their contributions in these individual films.

2. Shift our focus away from problematizing male-directed work, to watching and studying female-directed work.

In her essay, “Fuck the Canon (Or, how do you solve a problem like Von Trier?): Teaching, Screening and Writing about Cinema in the Age of #MeToo,” Rebecca Harrison notes how women scholars and teachers have been complicit in boosting male filmmakers’ careers and legacies. She writes:

“On the one hand, we denounce the film industry for failing to act, and on the other, we continue to circulate and legitimize the work of abusive men in academic and exhibition spaces, as if they are not all connected. We continue to review their work and to heap praise on it.”

She takes particular aim at the work of many male filmmakers who have been called out for inappropriate or violent behavior during the #MeToo era—such as Lars von Trier, Woody Allen and Quentin Tarantino. 

Harrison suggests teaching mandatory film and television courses about only film and television directed by women. When faced with the question: “How do you solve a problem like von Trier?” she says:

“We can choose not to screen, not to cite, not to endlessly ‘problematize’ [male-directed work] when we have so much of women’s history and work still to explore.”

Ultimately, the key here is not to imagine ourselves as “neutral.” As scholars, teachers, writers, industry executives, critics and even film fans, we can actively choose to be part of shifting the balance.

3. Embrace eclecticism in our own understanding of film. 

When we only prioritize films that are sleek, professional and from only the most experienced directors, we fail to recognize often important pioneering work. 

In a 2002 essay in my book, “Independent Female Filmmakers,” Miranda July talks about how people are often afraid of unfamiliar and experimental work because they are afraid of being bored. She muses, “Look folks, there are whole channels devoted to ads about stain removers. You’ve already been to boring and back, you’ll be able to handle it.” 

Open-mindedness is absolutely necessary to moving away from consuming more of the same work and producing the same reactions to that work. As Pauline Kael once wrote:

“I believe that we respond most and best to work in any art form (and to other experience as well) if we are pluralistic, flexible, relative in our judgements, if we are eclectic.” 

Embracing film with a more open mind enables us to welcome in that which might initially make us uncomfortable. Only then are we able experience the excitement of responding to more original work. 

4. Reflect on our own film heroes and embark on our own self-study.

We cannot be influenced as filmmakers, writers, scholars and fans by work that we’ve never seen, heard of, or aren’t taught to appreciate.

About a decade ago, when I first had the opportunity to teach an Independent American Film course, I gathered suggestions of filmmakers. The names that often arose in these conversations, such as David Lynch, John Cassavetes, Quentin Tarantino and Wes Anderson, were the same indie auteurs who came to my mind when I imagined independent American film.

I immediately recognized the bias in these conversations, but what alarmed me most was the realization that I too was unable to rattle off a list of a dozen women or other marginalized filmmakers. But they were there—Karyn Kusama, Nicole Holofcener, Debra Granik, Erica Jordan, Dee Rees, Lisa Cholodenko, Mira Nair, Julie Dash, Sofia Coppola, Kimberly Peirce and so many others. I only had to look.

I had decided to embark on a personal self-study of the many women and minority filmmakers purposefully omitted from our film history. In discovering these works, I have found that I want to talk about and share them. I think you will too.

And that marks the beginning of the solution. It works—not only to make women and minority directors more commercially powerful, but also culturally sustainable.

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Michele Meek, Ph.D. is a writer, filmmaker and associate professor of communication studies at Bridgewater State University. She published the books Consent Culture and Teen Films: Adolescent Sexuality in US Movies and Independent Female Filmmakers: A Chronicle Through Interviews, Profiles, and Manifestos, and she presented the TEDx talk “Why We’re Confused About Consent—Rewriting Our Stories of Seduction." For more information about her and her work, visit her website at www.michelemeek.com.