It’s been an historic week for women directors of color. Yesterday, Ava DuVernay broke the news on Twitter that Victoria Mahoney would be the second unit director to J.J. Abrams on the new Star Wars. That would make Mahoney the first Black woman ever to have a hand in directing one of the massive Lucasfilm franchise installments. Mahoney started out with small acting credits to her name (including a reporter in Legally Blonde—whoa), but moved on to writing and directing. DuVernay is rightfully excited about the news; Mahoney directed an episode of the DuVernay-created Queen Sugar as well as the pilot for CBS’s Red Line, which DuVernay co-executive produced. DuVernay herself, riding off her ambitious adaptation A Wrinkle in Time (which made her the first woman of color to direct a $100 million movie), will get to work on a budget that big again, as she’s been tapped to tackle DC Comics’ New Gods. The news broke just last month and the film is in its very early stages. With New Gods, DuVernay would become the first Black woman to helm a major superhero film.
This week brought more exciting DC news, with Cathy Yan hired to direct Birds of Prey, DC’s superhero girl gang movie featuring Harley Quinn, with Margot Robbie reprising her Suicide Squad role. Yan would be the first Asian-American woman to direct a big studio superhero film; in the DC universe of women directors, she follows Wonder Woman’s Patty Jenkins and DuVernay. Robbie had insisted that a woman direct this film and Deadline reported that Yan’s presentation for the Birds of Prey adaptation was "exceptional."
Previously, Yan directed a handful of shorts and just showed her debut feature, the indie comedy Dead Pigs, at Sundance this year. There’s been a lot of talk about diversity in the entertainment industry over the last few years, but change has seemed pretty slow. Just last year, San Diego State University's Center for the Study of Women in Television & Film concluded that work for women as creators, directors, and producers has "stalled, with no meaningful progress over the last decade." So it’s incredible, and a bit surreal, to see studios take chances on newer names like Mahoney and Yan. It’s even more incredible that these directors are women of color. Just last month, Greta Gerwig competed in the Best Director category at the Oscars, making her the fifth woman to be nominated, but it's important to note that all five of those women (Lina Wertmüller, Jane Campion, Sofia Coppola, and Kathryn Bigelow—the only one of them to win) were white.
As far as women directors of color go, many people are only familiar with Ava DuVernay's name at this point. But like Mahoney and Yan, there are many smaller-name talents waiting to be discovered. Janicza Bravo, who directed the quirky indie comedy Lemon last year, is a fresh new voice worthy of note. So is Insecure’s star/writer/producer Issa Rae, who’s directed a couple TV episodes so far. Shirkers director Sandi Tan, judging from the found footage of her long-lost movie that was included in her stranger-than-fiction doc, would’ve made an incredible superhero movie at the age of 16—so she’s certainly suited for it now, 26 years later. The women behind the all-female horror anthology XX (including Karyn Kusama and St. Vincent a.k.a. Annie Clark) would all make choice picks in the superhero universe.
It’s a matter of heavyweights like Marvel and DC taking a leap of faith with creators—which, of course they should—if they’re looking to freshen up a stale superhero formula.