As I wrote in Wet Hot Feminist Summer, I’ve had a pretty female-centric summer at the movies. To take that spirit into fall, I’m participating in my very own “Directed by Women” film festival. Directed by Women is an initiative to celebrate female directors by encouraging and facilitating a worldwide film viewing party from September 1 to September 15, 2015.
I don’t generally watch a film each and every day, but I’m going to do my best to take this opportunity to explore more films directed by women, especially those I’ve had every intention of seeing but just haven’t gotten around to.
First up was last year’s Beyond the Lights, directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, who previously directed Love & Basketball (2000) and The Secret Life of Bees (2008). I had been meaning to see this for some time since I had heard very good things about it and it stars Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who I discovered this year in the underrated Belle (2014), directed by Amma Asante. I also just learned that Mbatha-Raw will be playing a young lawyer opposite my man Keanu in The Whole Truth later this year, so now I have three reasons to see that—the third being that the film is directed by Courtney Hunt, whose debut feature, Frozen River (2008), won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and earned Melissa Leo a well-deserved Best Actress Oscar nod. By the way, both Belle and Frozen River would be excellent choices for any personal “Directed by Women” festival you might be planning.
I’m glad to see my instincts regarding Beyond the Lights were on the money: I really enjoyed the film, which tells the story of Noni Jean (Mbatha-Raw), a rising pop star whose suicide attempt threatens to destroy her burgeoning career. Minnie Driver is pitch perfect as Noni’s obsessed stage mother and Nate Parker makes a great foil as the cop who saves her life. It’s part Notting Hill and part Nina Simone biopic, with a bit of sports movie thrown in for good measure. But more than anything, it’s a feminist take on media sexualization and the pressures of fame, and Prince-Bythewood hits you right out of the gate with this agenda, juxtaposing Noni performing Nina Simone’s “Blackbird” at her first talent show with her winning a Billboard Music Award for the suggestive “Masterpiece.”
This film really deserved more attention last year. It also inspired my next #DirectedbyWomen selection, What Happened, Miss Simone? (2015), a documentary film by Liz Garbus, who is best known for her work on the Oscar-nominated The Farm: Angola, USA (1998). I have no idea yet what will follow that, but I will certainly be writing up my thoughts on all my selections come mid-September.