Black Women in Film Throughout History

black hollywood by .

It is award season in Hollywood and the Oscars are quickly approaching. With the #oscarsowhite controversy I thought it would be befitting to celebrate Black History Month by recognizing black women who have impacted the film industry. We got a bit of a late start but each week we will highlight actresses, directors, producers, or writers that have made strides for black women in film. Since Hollywood won’t give you the due credit, we will recognize you not only for your great work, but also for your #BlackGirlMagic.

Women in Black History

Gina Prince-Bythewood by . Gina Prince-Bythewood, writer/director/producer

Gina Prince-Bythewood is a successful writer and director known for films that depict African Americans in a different light. She is only the second African American woman to have her work produced by a major studio. Her first feature film, Love and Basketball, became the top grossing movie ever directed by an African American woman.

Raised in Los Angeles, Prince-Bythewood attended UCLA, where she realized her passion for directing. Her career began as a writer for the black woman’s perspective on shows like A Different World, South Central, Sweet Justice, and Courthouse. Once there she would prove that she could write for all of the characters. However, writing for television kept Prince-Bythewood feeling limited. She had a strong desire to direct movies, and soon realized instead of waiting for someone to give her a chance she would have to create her own opportunity.

Prince-Bythewood wrote and directed her first screenplay which she found difficult to get attention from a studio. “Everywhere we sent the script, it got turned down,” she said. Eventually Love and Basketball was released in 2000 and grossed over $22 million. She went on to write and produce The Secret Life of Bees (2008), and Beyond the Lights (2014).


“For me it’s just about putting people of color in every genre and making it become normal.”

Women in Black History

Michelle_Obama_2013_official_portrait by Chuck Kennedy. Michelle Obama, U. S. First Lady/Lawyer/Activist

We could not end the series without recognizing the incomparable Michelle Obama. As the 44th First Lady of the United States she is the first African American woman to hold this title. Rising from humble beginnings, Obama has become a role model woman, wife, mother, and community activist. She grew up in a one bedroom apartment with her parents and older brother in the South Side of Chicago. Always having an emphasis on education, Obama was a gifted student graduating from Chicago’s first magnet high school and moving on to ivy-league universities. It was in law school that she became involved with community activism by participating in demonstrations to demand more minority students and professors at Harvard Law School.

Obama met her future husband, Barack, while working at a law firm in Chicago. Soon after they married she began her career in public service. While working at the University of Chicago she developed the school’s first community service program. As First Lady Obama has remained passionate about helping the community. She has focused her work on supporting military families, helping working women balance family and career, and encouraging national service. At the top of her service list sits the fight against childhood obesity. Obama has launched several campaigns and programs to get kids eating healthier and exercising more.

Throughout her career, political affairs, and other obligations Michelle Obama has remained committed to her family. She has been a true supporter to her husband, and has kept their two children priority above anything else. When asked to describe herself she always begins with being Malia and Sasha’s mother. A role model in every aspect, Obama was once named one of Essence magazine’s “25 of the World’s Most Inspiring Women.”

“We should always have three friends in our lives — one who walks ahead who we look up to and we follow; one who walks beside us, who is with us every step of our journeys; and then, one who we reach back for and we bring along after we’ve cleared the way.”

Women in Black History

colemanbessie_01 by . Bessie Coleman, Pilot

Bessie Coleman is a pioneer to women in aviation. During a time of racial and gender discrimination she overcame both racial and gender barriers to become the world’s first African American female pilot. Because flying schools in the United States would not allow her entry, Bessie taught herself French, moved to France to attend flying school, and in 1922 earned her pilot’s license. Bessie was the first African American woman to earn an international pilot’s license.

“If I can create the minimum of my plans and desires, there shall be no regrets.”

Women in Black History

Misty-Copeland-9 by . Misty Copeland, Author/Entertainer/American Ballet Dancer

Misty Copeland is an author and entertainer who, in 2007, made history by becoming only the third African American female soloist at the American Ballet Theatre. After beginning ballet at what some would consider a late age, it only took her 3 months to be en pointe, and Copeland’s career soon took off. Prevailing over multiple adversities and a very “imperfect” childhood she joined the American Ballet Theatre Studio Company in 2000 after receiving a full scholarship to their Summer Intensive Program. Before being promoted to the soloist position Copeland was personally selected by the company’s director to compete for several distinguished awards. She has starred in The Chocolate Nutcracker, The Firebird, The Sleeping Beauty, and Swan Lake upon countless other productions.


“You can do anything you want, even if you are being told negative things….stay strong and find motivation”

Women in Black History

nichelle-nichols-then-and-now by . Nichelle Nichols, Actress/Singer

Nichelle Nichols is an actress and singer whose groundbreaking role as Lieutenant Uhura in the popular TV series Star Trek helped change the face of American television. Her character was one of the first African American females not portrayed as a servant, but as a confident, authoritative woman. Nichols also made history when she kissed actor William Shatner in an episode of the show. This was one of the first examples of interracial kissing on U.S. television. Her work on Star Trek has influenced many women like Mae Jemison and Whoopi Goldberg. After Star Trek Nichols worked with NASA to increase the number of minority and female personnel for the space agency. Her work helped recruit the first African American in space, the first female astronaut, and the current NASA Administrator (an African American male). Nichols is described as an enthusiastic advocate of space exploration and an inspiration in black history.

“Star Trek had a huge impact on people’s thinking and attitudes toward other people, our lives, toward people who are different.”

Black Women in History

canady by . Dr. Alexa Canady, Neurosurgeon/Educator

Dr. Canady is the first female African American neurosurgeon in the United States. From 1981 until her retirement in 2001 she specialized in pediatric neurosurgery. As the daughter of a dentist and an educator the value of hard work and learning was instilled in her early on. She graduated high school with honors and completed medical with cum laude recognition. Although some advisors discouraged her to pursue neurology, she continued working toward her dream. Canady has been inducted into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame and has received the American Medical Women’s Association President’s Award.

“The greatest challenge I faced in becoming a neurosurgeon was believing it was possible.”

Women in Black History

Maya-Angelou by ©Hallmark Entertainment/Courtesy Everett Collection. Maya Angelou, Poet/Author/Activist

Most known for her memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou has received numerous awards and nominations for her literary work, and has inspired multiple generations through her words. She made history when her memoir became the first non-fiction best seller by an African American woman. She worked closely with Dr. King and other civil rights groups striving for racial equality. The span of her career has earned her two NAACP Image Awards, a Grammy award, and nominations for a  Tony and an Emmy Award, and a Pulitzer Prize nomination.

Women in Black History

ella by . Ella Fitzgerald, Jazz Singer

Surviving a troubled childhood Ella Fitzgerald was discovered after winning an amateur contest at the famed Apollo Theater.  She became the first African American woman to win a Grammy in 1958. Throughout her career she went on to win a total of 13 Grammy Awards, selling over 40 million albums. Ella Fitzgerald’s signature technique of “scatting” helped popularize the term for imitating instrumental sounds. During the height of her career in the 1950’s and 1960’s she earned the moniker “First Lady of Song.” For over 50 years she was the most popular female jazz singer in the United States.

“Just don’t give up trying to do what you really want to do. Where there is love and inspiration, I don’t think you can go wrong.”