Pioneering Women Filmmakers – A Series – Part 3

The Contemporary Visionaries of American Film


A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…Women were the driving force behind Hollywood and the movies. This is the third part of a series paying homage to contemporary women filmmakers who broke the glass ceiling and wrote and directed the films that took 86 years from pioneer Lois Weber’s day to achieve. Hollywood is still run by men but these women prove that it may be a man’s world but it would be nothing without a woman or a girl. Thanks, James Brown for the lyric.

  • In 86 years, only four women have been nominated for the Best Director Oscar. Only one, Kathryn Bigelow, has won.

  • Women filmmakers nominated for the Best Director: Lina Wertmüller for Seven Beauties (1976), Jane Campion for The Piano (1993), Sofia Coppola for Lost in Translation (2003), and Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker (2009).

  • Sofia Coppola was the first American woman to ever be nominated for Best Director for the 2003 movie, “Lost in Translation.”


Kathryn Ann Bigelow ( born November 27, 1951) is an American director, producer, and writer. Her films include the vampire Western horror film Near Dark (1987), the action crime film Point Break (1991), the controversial science fiction action thriller Strange Days (1995), the mystery thriller The Weight of Water (2000), the submarine thriller K-19: The Widowmaker (2002), the war film The Hurt Locker (2009), the action thriller war film Zero Dark Thirty (2012), and the short film Last Days of Ivory (2014). The Hurt Locker won the 2009 Academy Award for Best Picture, won the BAFTA Award for Best Film, and was nominated for the 2009 Golden Globe Award for Best Drama.

Kathryn Bigelow

Kathryn Ann Bigelow

Bigelow’s trilogy of action films — Blue Steel, Point Break, and Strange Days —  are looked at by critics as rethinking the conventions of action cinema while exploring gendered and racial politics. In her career, Bigelow has become recognizable as both a Hollywood brand and an auteur.

Married to director James Cameron from 1989-1991, she and Cameron were both nominated for Best Director at the 2010 82nd Academy Awards, which Bigelow won. Yay, Kathryn!

Sofia Coppola

Sofia Coppola

Sofia Carmina Coppola (born May 14, 1971) is an American screenwriter, director, producer, and actress. In 2003, she received the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for the comedy-drama Lost in Translation and became the third woman to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Director. Her nomination for Best Director made her the first American woman in history to be nominated in that category, and the third woman overall, after Lina Wertmüller and Jane Campion. In 2010, with the drama Somewhere, she became the first American woman (and fourth American filmmaker) to win the Golden Lion, the top prize at the Venice Film Festival. Her father is the director, producer, and screenwriter Francis Ford Coppola.

She made her feature film directing debut with The Virgin Suicides (1999). It received critical acclaim upon its premiere in North America at the 2000 Sundance Film Festival and was released later that year. If you haven’t seen it, check it out. It’s brilliant and makes you think about parenting skills or the lack thereof.


African American Women Filmmakers

Zora Neale Hurston

Zora Neale Hurston

(January 7, 1891 – January 28, 1960)

Better known for her work as a novelist, Zora Neale Hurston could be, according to an essay by academic Gloria Gibson, the first African-American woman filmmaker. The film footage, which includes Children’s Games (1928), Logging (1928), and Baptism (1929), appears to be from her work as a student of anthropology under the guidance of famed anthropologist, professor, and mentor, Dr. Franz Boas of Columbia University.

A graduate of Barnard College (B.A. in anthropology in 1928) and a Guggenheim fellow, Hurston traveled back to a South similar to her hometown of Eatonville, Florida (one of the first all-black towns to be incorporated in the United States) to capture a variety of short takes of African-American life. Ethnographic in nature, the films reflect a focus of folklorists of that time period who believed that “…cultural performance and beliefs must be expeditiously collected and documented because they would soon be gone forever” (Gloria Gibson).

During a period of financial and medical difficulties, Hurston was forced to enter St. Lucie County Welfare Home, where she suffered a stroke. She died of hypertensive heart disease on January 28, 1960, and was buried at the Garden of Heavenly Rest in Fort Pierce, Florida. Sadly, her remains were in an unmarked grave until 1973 when novelist Alice Walker and literary scholar Charlotte Hunt found an unmarked grave in the general area where Hurston had been buried and decided to mark it as hers.

Our future:

Ava DuVernay – Current/future generation screenwriter/director – She would have been the first black woman nominated for best director in Oscar history, and just the fifth woman, following Lina Wertmüller for Seven Beauties, Jane Campion for The Piano, Sofia Coppola for Lost in Translation, and Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker. Instead, she’s been added to the list of female directors who have seen their films get nominated while they’ve been snubbed.

Ava DuVernay

Ava DuVernay

Ava Marie DuVernay (born August 24, 1972) is an American director, screenwriter, film marketer, and film distributor. At the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, DuVernay won the Best Director Prize for her second feature film Middle of Nowhere, becoming the first African-American woman to win the award. For her work in Selma, DuVernay is the first black woman director to be nominated for a Golden Globe Award. With Selma, she is also the first black woman director to have their film nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture.

In 2015, it was announced that DuVernay would be writing, producing, and directing her next project, Queen Sugar which is an upcoming American drama television series, created, directed and executive produced by Ava DuVernay alongside Oprah Winfrey. The series is based on the novel of the same name by Natalie Baszile.The series is set to air on the Oprah Winfrey Network. 

Women filmmakers are essential to the stories and voices of Hollywood. We’ve made some progress but we still have a long way to go!

Pioneering Women Filmmakers – Lois Weber

The Early Visionaries of American Film: A Series – Part 2

star wars galaxy

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…Women were the driving force behind Hollywood and the movies. This is the second part of a series paying homage to the women who broke the glass ceiling and wrote and directed the films that gave birth to the “Golden Age” of cinema and the motion picture industry.  Unfortunately, when the men realized the gold mine films were becoming, the women faded away thanks to the Hollywood studio system. Well, as the saying goes, “that’s the way they do you.”

Lois Weber (June 13, 1879 – November 13, 1939)

Florence Lois Weber was an American silent film actress, screenwriter, producer, and director, who is considered the most important female director the American film industry has known and is one of the most important and prolific film directors in the era of silent films. Along with D.W. Griffith, Lois Weber was the American cinema’s first genuine auteur, “a filmmaker whose personal influence and artistic control over a movie are so great that the filmmaker is regarded as the author of the movie”. In that spirit, Lois Weber utilized the motion picture to put across her own ideas and philosophies.

Weber brought to the screen her concerns for humanity and social justice in an estimated 200 to 400 films, of which as few as twenty have been preserved, and she has been credited by IMDb with directing 135 films, writing 114, and acting in 100. Weber was also one of the first directors to come to the attention of the censors in Hollywood’s early years.

During the war years, Weber achieved tremendous success by combining commercially successful scripts with a rare vision of cinema as a moral tool. At her zenith, few men, before or since, have retained such absolute control over the films they have directed – and certainly no women directors have achieved the powerful status once held by Lois Weber. By 1920, Weber was considered the premier woman director of the screen and author and producer of the biggest money-making features in the history of the film business.

Among Weber’s notable films are the controversial “Hypocrites”, which featured the first full-frontal female nude scene in 1915; the 1916 film “Where Are My Children?”, which discussed abortion and birth control, and was added to the National Film Registry in 1993; and what is often considered her masterpiece, “The Blot” in 1921.

In 1913, Weber and husband Smalley collaborated in directing a ten-minute thriller, “Suspense”, based on the play Au Telephone by André de Lorde, which had been filmed in 1908 as “Heard over the ‘Phone” by Edwin S. Porter. Adapted by Weber, it used multiple images and mirror shots to tell the story of a woman (Weber) threatened by a burglar (Douglas Gerrard). Weber has been credited with pioneering the use of the split-screen technique to show simultaneous action in this film, According to film historian Tom Gunning, “No film made before WWI shows a stronger command of film style than “Suspense” which outdoes even Griffith for emotionally involved filmmaking”. “Suspense” was released on July 6, 1913.


Suspense” – Split Screen

In 1913 Weber was one of the first directors to experiment with sound, making the first sound films in the United States, and was also the first American woman to direct a full-length feature film when she and husband Phillips Smalley directed “The Merchant of Venice” in 1914, and in 1917 the first woman director to own her own film studio.


In Part 1 of this series we talked about the accomplishments of director Frances Marion. Lois Weber discovered and inspired director and screenwriter Frances Marion.

For her contribution to the motion picture industry, on February 8, 1960, Lois Weber was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

In Part 3 of this series, we’ll discuss contemporary female filmmakers and their viewpoint on Hollywood and the world in which we live.