Film & Television

Women Behind the Camera: Five New Documentaries

Regardless of the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements, and despite Frances McDormand’s impassioned Oscars speech urging producers to fund more projects by and about women, new research demonstrates that it’s business as usual in Hollywood. According to a current report from the University of Southern California, there’s been “no progress” in on-screen representation over the past decade.

The USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative has analyzed the top 100 films every year since 2007. Current data indicates that women made up only 31.8 percent of speaking characters in 2017. Women of color had lead roles in only four of the 100 films. And in only five were the leading ladies over age 45.

The numbers for women behind the camera are equally grim. Women made up just 4.3 percent of the 1,223 directors studied over the past ten years. That’s despite the fact that roughly 50 percent of film school graduates are women. More than one hundred years since D.W. Griffith shot his first movie there, Hollywood remains an old-boys’ club.

The one genre in which women seem to be gaining ground is documentaries. According to San Diego State University’s Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, female directors were responsible for 30 percent of the documentaries in the top 500 films of 2017, but just 18 percent across all film categories.

As Gabriela Cowperthwaite, director of the award-winning documentary Blackfish explains, “The beauty of documentary is that you don’t have to ask anyone’s permission. If you can scrounge up a crew to pretty much work for food, give them some creative say and a decent credit, production costs aren’t so prohibitive. With narratives, you’re not only asking people to believe in you, you’re asking for their money. And as we all know, the industry has been more willing to take these risks with men.”

This summer’s movie line-up has already included a number of marvelous documentaries, like RBG, directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West. Now five new films — all with women at the helm — examine everything from dirty politics to fashion icons, family dynamics, and the lifestyles of the rich and famous.


Dark Money, directed by Kimberly Reed, is billed as a “political thriller.” It examines how corporate money affects and controls our elections. Using her home state of Montana as a case study, Reed follows the efforts of a lone journalist as he tries to unravel the very real and dangerous implications of Citizens United.

Reed’s interest in her subject began soon after the 2010 Supreme Court decision, which held that political spending is a form of protected speech under the First Amendment, and the government may not keep corporations or unions from spending money to support or denounce individual candidates in elections.

“I joked around for years that I was going to change my name to Cassandra, because nobody was listening to my prophecies of doom. You could just see that campaign finance was going to get worse and worse, and I watched it happen every election cycle.” Dark Money was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

The Gospel According to André, directed by Kate Novack, is a compelling portrait of one of the most influential figures in style and fashion. André Leon Talley is the former editor-at-large of Vogue magazine, an unlikely achievement for an African-American man who was born and raised in the segregated south. Novack draws on his extraordinary history as well as the glamorous world he became a part of.

“I wanted the movie to always operate on two levels, both within the genre of ‘fashion documentary’ but also as a piece of American history, because I think that André is an important figure in American cultural history,” Novack says. “He is one of the very first African-American men to have a position of visible importance within the fashion industry. We have a long history of African- American performers in front of the camera, but many fewer behind the camera shaping the images we see.”

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  • Andrea August 7, 2018 at 8:39 am

    Thank you Alex for reviews of these very different and interesting docs. Always love your selections!