Trailblazing Women in Film and TV
In Honor of Women’s History Month, Mellini Kantayya
and I profiled some amazing women in television and film history for New York Women in FIlm and Television
. This year’s theme—Trailbazing through the Decades.
1930s: Meet Esther Eng – film director, writer, producer, and distributor
Esther Eng had an international career, making films both in the United States and Hong Kong. She was the first woman to direct Chinese language films in the U.S. Her career was outside the U.S. mainstream at the time of thriving Chinese theaters and Chinese opera houses—opera houses with all-female companies who played male roles—factors that impacted Eng being accepted as an openly lesbian filmmaker who often dressed in men’s clothes.
1940s: Meet Hedy Lamarr—Hollywood star and inventor of groundbreaking communications technology
During WWII, a hobbyist inventor worked to help the military come up with a secure communication system to combat the Nazis. By manipulating radio frequencies at irregular intervals between transmission and reception, the invention formed an unbreakable code that prevented classified messages from being intercepted by enemy personnel. This patented form of frequency hopping revolutionized modern communications and formed the foundation for Wi-Fi, cell phone, and Bluetooth technology. The inventor’s name was Hedy Lamarr, and she was also a Hollywood star during MGM’s “Golden Age.”
1950s: Meet Ida Lupino – Triple Threat: Director, Producer, Actor
Standing at 5 feet 2 inches, Ida Lupino often helmed an all-male crew when she directed films with feminist themes about sensitive issues like rape and illegitimacy. Lupino has the distinguished honor of being the only woman to direct episodes of the original The Twilight Zone series, as well as the only director to have starred in the show.
She insisted she was not a born actress, saying “I study and work hard. I take a script and mull over it and underline the bits I want to emphasize. When I go on the set, I know exactly what I want to do and how I want to do it.”
1970s: Meet Sandra Osawa – director/producer/writer & member of the Makah Nation of Washington State
Sandra Osawa was a true ground-breaker in 1974 by directing, producing, and writing NBC’s first news program on Native American issues.
“I jumped into the film world early,” Osawa said. “At a time when no other Indians were producing. I did so mainly because the images I saw of Indian people in everyday life and the images I saw on the screen were so vastly different. I also thought it was difficult for us to achieve the political victories we sought in the 60’s and 70’s because our image in the media was so poor. I thought American Indians should be portrayed as contemporary figures with a vibrant culture, full of humor and strength, and with our own inspiring role models.”
1980s: Meet Jessie Maple – First black woman to join the camera union in NYC
“You can’t stop progress. You can hold it up for a minute, but you can’t stop it. Some people have asked, aren’t you angry that you had to go through all that? And I said no, I made money, and I had fun. So why would I be angry? You don’t get anything unless you pay a price for it.”
1990s: Meet Cheryl Dunye – Pioneer of black queer women in cinema
Twenty years ago a young artist set out to make a documentary about women like herself: black queer filmmakers. She found nothing but homophobia and omission, and then… inspiration.
The resulting film The Watermelon Woman marked Cheryl Dunye’s 1996 debut – a hybrid of autobiography, documentary, and comedy. It defies categorization and was the first feature film directed by an African American lesbian.
In 2000, writer, director, and past NYWIFT Writers Lab mentor Gina Prince-Bythewood
blazed a trail with her film Love and Basketball.
Not only was the film a critical and commercial success, it won the Humanitas Prize and an Independent Spirit Award for Best First Feature. The film was produced by Spike Lee with a $14 million budget. According to Indiewire
, “it was – at the time – one of the largest scale and most high profile projects yet undertaken by a black woman.”
NYWIFT member Maleni Chaitoo is an actress and a producer. She is known for her appearance in the “New York, I Love You
” episode of Master of None
and her role as Kayla on the web series Don’t Shoot the Messenger
, on which she is also an executive producer. The series is a comedy about a socially awkward sign language interpreter who, despite being fluent in two languages, still “fumbles through life in NYC hopelessly lost in translation.” In addition to having Deaf and hearing cast members, the series also had Deaf and hearing directors, designers, and crew working side by side.