African Women Filmmakers Look to Seize Their Moment on Screen

New York Times bestselling author turned TV creator Taiye Selasi captivated a packed theater at the Joburg Film Festival this week, acknowledging that the deck is stacked against Black female creators in Hollywood, but insisting that the power of African women remained in their ability to overcome any obstacle in bringing their stories to the screen. “There is nothing that can stop, has ever stopped, or will ever, ever stop an African woman,” she declared to a rapt audience.

Selasi spoke in front of a full house at Johannesburg’s Theater on the Square on Friday as part of a day-long celebration of African women in film. During a rousing session in which she shared lessons from her experience at the helm of Cocoa Content, the TV production company she founded in 2019, Selasi weighed in on the growing demand for African talent in Hollywood while also unpacking the “hype” about global streaming platforms like Netflix expanding into Africa.

“Distributors love the African consumer above all for her subscription fee; and to get that fee, they refuse to spend equally on African content or to compensate equitably the African creative,” she declared.

To drive home that point, Selasi cited the cost of a single episode of the Netflix prison drama “Orange Is the New Black” (estimated at around $4 million), insisting it was more than a full season of the streamer’s first African original series, “Queen Sono.” She added that if the streaming giants wanted to bring African stories to a global audience, “we’d see African stories made with global budgets.”

“This industry devalues our stories. Our mission is to tell them anyway,” she said, adding: “Our moment is now.”

Netflix’s first original series in Africa was the spy drama “Queen Sono.”
Courtesy of Netflix

Earlier in the day, a panel of South African filmmakers shared a wide-ranging discussion on their creative processes, inspirations, hopes and struggles as women of color in a film and TV industry still trying to reinvent itself nearly three decades since the end of apartheid.

“We come from a time where we were so oppressed that the female voice was literally not heard,” said multi-hyphenate Jayan Moodley, who directed the box-office sensation “Keeping Up With the Kandasamys” and its two sequels. “Even eight years ago, being a woman of color in film was an act of bravery. It was not easy, and you feel like everyone is against you.”

“The fact that we are creating content is activism, it’s a disruption,” added Nobuntu Dubazana, who created and starred in the mocku-series “African Dreams” for South African pubcaster SABC. “The disruption could be incremental…but just to be able to create who you want to create on screen is activism.”

The South African screen industries have made important strides in the past three decades to redress the inequalities of the apartheid era. Many positions of authority at state-backed funding bodies and institutions — as well as leading corporations in the film and TV biz — are held by women of color, such as Yolisa Phahle, CEO of general entertainment and connected video at media giant MultiChoice.

Moderated by South African multi-hyphenate Angie Mills, whose dark social comedy “Down So Long” screened this week in Johannesburg, Friday’s panel also showcased the potential of an emerging generation of Black filmmakers in South Africa, including director Phumi Morare, whose short film “When the Sun Sets” was shortlisted for an Academy Award; Babalwa Baartman, who co-wrote and co-produced the psychological horror “Good Madam,” which played at the Toronto Film Festival; and Retti Ramaphakela, who co-created, produced and directed three seasons of the Netflix Original holiday special “How to Ruin Christmas.”

The Netflix Original holiday special “How to Ruin Christmas.”
Courtesy of Netflix

The evolution of the South African screen industries is taking place within a broader conversation — in Africa, in Hollywood and beyond — about Black and female representation, as well as the depictions of those groups on screen. Dubazana cited the example of Viola Davis, who in a 2022 interview with Variety described her doubts about “The Woman King” because she had never seen a big-budget studio epic “with anyone who looks like me in it,” calling it “so important for us not to have to be glossy, perfect, [or uphold] a specific idea about beauty.”

For all the challenges they face in the film and TV industry, there is arguably no better time for African women to be seen and heard. A century ago, observed Selasi, French colonists passed decrees that prohibited their African subjects from making movies. “African storytellers are a threat. You are all extremely dangerous. You are cultural terrorists,” she said, provoking a burst of applause.

Addressing a largely Black and female crowd, Selasi suggested there was no group better suited to make the most of this transformative moment. “If you want something done that’s never been done before,” she said, “ask an African woman.”

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