March is Women’s History Month, a time to celebrate the achievements of women in all fields, from teachers to scientists to CEOs. In keeping with this tradition, educators must also give a nod to women’s accomplishments in the arts. This includes acknowledging those who’ve made movies, even though we don’t hear much about female film directors.
Amelia Earhart, Hedy Lamarr, and Frida Kahlo might be common names in today’s classroom, but how often do we talk about Lynne Ramsay, Lulu Wang, or Claire Denis? These latter names might be a bit more obscure, but these three women have directed critically acclaimed movies, and they deserve as much recognition as their male counterparts.
To support these and other capable women, let’s take a look at how teachers can celebrate female film directors in the classroom.
A Quick Look at the Numbers
Women have been part of the creative side of Hollywood for at least as long as the Oscars have existed, but in that time, men have overwhelmingly received the accolades. However, social attitudes have started to change. 2021 was the first time in the almost 100 years of the Academy Awards that two women were nominated for best director: Chloé Zhao for Nomadland and Emerald Fennell for Promising Young Woman. Zhao won.
In terms of directors and creative teams, Hollywood has a higher ratio of women than ever before. Statistics related to the 100 highest-grossing films of 2019 show that women made up almost 11% of their directors. Though there’s still a long way to go toward gender equality, you can celebrate the accomplishments of female directors in the classroom and inspire young girls to join their ranks in the future.
Realistically, if you show any female-directed films, including those listed below, you’ll undoubtedly need to choose those with a PG-13 or softer rating.
Greta Gerwig became the name on everyone’s lips in 2017 when she released her solo directorial debut, a coming-of-age film named Lady Bird. Two years later, she brought costars Saoirse Ronan and Timothée Chalamet back together for her own adaptation of Little Women. This adaptation is one of many, but it stands out due to its alternating timelines as Jo reflects back on her childhood while struggling to make it as an adult author.
If your class is studying Little Women, Gerwig’s take is a terrific choice to show in class. It is a faithful adaptation, but one that looks at the story with fresh eyes. Gerwig leans into the context of the Civil War more than any other adaptation. She draws on Alcott’s life to add rich nuance to the characters. And while Jo’s love life has always been a point of contention for readers of this classic novel, Gerwig’s version of Little Women depicts a love story that exists primarily between Jo and her book.
Lulu Wang’s The Farewell began as a short story she wrote, entitled “What You Don’t Know.” It was “based on an actual lie” about a situation that really occurred within her family. In The Farewell, “A Chinese family discovers their grandmother has only a short while left to live and decides to keep her in the dark, scheduling a wedding to gather before she dies.”
Wang wrote and directed this film, which won the Independent Spirit Award for Best Feature. You can use The Farewell in the classroom as an example of storytelling, particularly if your students are working on their own short stories. Discuss the narrative devices and choices used throughout the story. You might even use this movie to prompt students to write a short story inspired by something in their own life.
Agnès Varda was a prolific French filmmaker who worked from 1955 until her death in 2019. She experienced significant crossover success in the United States. BBC Culture voted her second film, Cléo from 5 to 7, as the second-greatest film directed by a woman.
“Cléo, a singer and hypochondriac, becomes increasingly worried that she might have cancer while awaiting test results from her doctor.” The 90-minute film is a study in existentialism and mortality — a deep dive into the fears and reflections we might have when we think we’re about to die. Because it is a French film that relies on the culture of the French New Wave film movement, Cléo from 5 to 7 could be a strong choice for French class.
It’s not uncommon for actors to find that they’re more comfortable behind the camera, which was the case with Kasi Lemmons. She started her career as an actress in McDonald’s commercials before she began to take on film and TV roles in the 1980s. By 1997, however, Lemmons was a director. Her highest-grossing film by far has been Harriet, about the life of abolitionist Harriet Tubman.
This film depicts “the extraordinary tale of Harriet Tubman’s escape from slavery and transformation into one of America’s greatest heroes, whose courage, ingenuity, and tenacity freed hundreds of slaves and changed the course of history.”
Rated PG-13, Lemmons’ Harriet pulls few punches when it comes to portraying the obstacles Tubman faced as well as the bravery she displayed in freeing slaves. This film can help engage students when teaching about the history of the United States, especially the abolitionist movement.
Ava DuVernay is a well-known name when discussing Hollywood filmmakers. She was the first Black woman to win the U.S. Directing Award for drama at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival for her film Middle of Nowhere. Since then, she’s made a name for herself with Selma, 13th, Colin in Black and White, and Disney’s A Wrinkle in Time.
“After the disappearance of her scientist father, three peculiar beings send Meg, her brother, and her friend to space in order to find him.” An adaptation of the classic Madeleine L’Engle book, DuVernay’s A Wrinkle in Time brings Meg and her family to the 21st century with a star-studded cast and a message of self-acceptance. Meg is reenvisioned as a biracial girl, allowing students reading the book to identify with her in a new way.