History is written by the victors, and for many decades the winners in Hollywood have been white and male.
Lately, there have been signs of hope that celluloid history from women and artists of color won’t be left to rot in film vaults. With a renewed interest in the history of women in Hollywood and the attention on today’s lack of diversity at every level of the entertainment industry, some institutions are resurfacing the past to reshape our future.
Museums, art houses and other repertory film venues are stepping up their programming efforts to include women filmmakers from different backgrounds. They’re projecting movies that never saw distribution, documentaries that never traveled outside academic circles and art projects few walked by in an exhibition.
Revisiting these works gives an audience the chance to admire the lived-in reality of a low-budget movie about female friendship like “Girlfriends” with the same reverence cinephiles save for Martin Scorsese’s “Mean Streets.” We can hold up Elaine May’s wonderfully written “Mikey and Nicky” with the same esteem of any John Cassavetes film. We can unabashedly champion Julie Dash’s “Daughters of the Dust” as a groundbreaking indie gem of the early ‘90s like the movies of Quentin Tarantino or Richard Linklater.
The Brooklyn Academy of Music Cinématek is the latest theater to pay these films overdue respect. Their latest series, “A Different Picture: Women Filmmakers in the New Hollywood Era, 1967-1980,” is a sampling of everything from tiny, no-budget shorts to feature-length studio produced movies.
As exclusionary as Hollywood was then, many women were still able to film and share their art. It wasn’t easy, and far too many women’s careers were stalled by prejudice, but women like Elaine May forged ahead, directing the studio comedy, “A New Leaf,” starring Walter Matthau. She later collaborated with indie filmmaker Cassavetes when she hired him as one of the stars of her somber ode to male friendship, “Mikey and Nicky.” Even Joan Micklin Silver’s more mainstream fare, “Hester Street” and “Chilly Scenes of Winter,” unbundles the romanticism around the immigrant experience and courtship as the men in these movies threaten to ruin everything for the female protagonists.
Miles away from Hollywood’s studio lots, documentarians were telling the stories of the women around them. The film “Janie’s Janie” follows a newly independent mother as she tends to her home and kids. In voiceover, Janie shares her experience of growing up and raising a family in a male-dominated, working-class home. With “I Am Somebody,” Madeline Anderson recorded the abusive treatment against striking black nurses in South Carolina. Similarly, Cinda Firestone took an unflinching look at the abusive prison system with her landmark documentary, “Attica.” Sylvia Morales’s “Chicana” recounted the history of Mexican American women from the time of the Aztec Empire to Dolores Huerta’s efforts to organize farmworkers.
The documentary camera became early feminist textbooks, ensuring that history will not forget the struggle of these women or what they experienced.
Some female filmmakers used movies like subversive weapons against the male gaze, patriarchy, racism and gender roles. More experimental movies like Howardena Pindell’s “Free, White and 21” highlighted the hypocrisy of how many white people treated their black neighbors. Julie Dash’s hypnotic dance short “Four Women” watches as dancers interpret Nina Simone’s music through gliding movements under gorgeous lighting and simple yet effective costumes that accentuate their motions.
Women’s film revival has been a long time coming before #MeToo, but now there’s a sense of urgency to screen, discuss and question the male-heavy canon of “essential cinema.” Earlier this year, the Metrograph in New York City screened films about women’s stories, and a number of cinemas showed the works of Argentinian filmmaker Lucrecia Martel ahead of the release of her new film, “Zama.” Last year, BAM celebrated black women in film, the Museum of Modern Art saluted Kelly Reichardt’s movies and the University of California Los Angeles Film Archive ran a series centered around the theme of women’s work and a retrospective about women in movies of the ‘70s and ‘80s.
Not everyone in Hollywood has welcomed women’s movies back to the big screen. The historic Egyptian Theatre, home of the American Cinematheque, only screened one female-centric series: a tie-in with the FX show based on Betty Davis and Joan Crawford. Just before the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke, the popular Cinefamily theater shut its doors over allegations of sexual assault and harassment. Not all the ghosts of Hollywood’s misogynist past has been exorcised yet, but there’s hope that there will be many more future opportunities to see the rarely screened works of women and filmmakers of color.