Black women creatives may be undervalued and underrepresented in Hollywood, but their impact is without question. These herstory makers shape authentic narratives that are bold and unapologetic, yet compassionate and vulnerable. They give us layered plots, meaningful soundscapes, subtle yet stark camera shots and complex characters who look, love and live like us. Through their work, we see why representation matters and how ripples flow outside of silos.
Black history happens beyond the month of February, so for Women’s History Month, Parade.com is saluting 21 badass Black female-identifying bosses who curate narratives and shift perspectives on TV and in film. They are directors, writers, producers, filmmakers and executives who break barriers and make waves in male-dominated industries.
Director, Producer, Writer
Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, How To Get Away With Murder, Station 19, Bridgerton
Shonda Rhimes is redefining the meaning of “yes.” The TV mogul keeps audiences beguiled with profound dialogue, scintillating scenes, startling revelations and salacious sex. She is the first Black woman to create and executive produce a Top 10 network series and she is also the first woman to create three hit shows with more than 100 episodes each. Shondaland’s latest masterpiece, Bridgerton, was watched by more than 82 million people on Netflix in its first month.
As a champion of racial and gender parity, Rhimes recently joined several A-listers in calling out the Hollywood Foreign Press Association–the group that decides the Golden Globe Award winners–for not having one Black member out of 87.
— shonda rhimes (@shondarhimes) March 1, 2021
Director, Filmmaker, Producer, Writer
Selma, A Wrinkle In Time, Queen Sugar, 13th, When They See Us
Ava DuVernay is the first Black woman to direct a film with a budget over $100 million, and the first Black female director to be nominated for a Golden Globe Award. Each of the directors of her hit OWN drama, Queen Sugar, has been a woman.
Known to speak candidly about the inequities of the industry, she also tweeted about the lack of diversity within the HFPA.
— Ava DuVernay (@ava) March 1, 2021
Future projects from the filmmaker include a Netflix limited series Colin in Black & White, chronicling former 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick’s transformation from teenage athlete to activist.
The Chi, Queen & Slim, The Forty-Year-Old Version, Twenties
No pretense with no BS is the tone of Lena Waithe’s work. In 2017 she was the first Black woman to win an Emmy for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series. She won the award for the Netflix series Master of None, in which she also starred.
Waithe spotlights the validity of LGBTQIA experiences and stories created by underrepresented filmmakers and storytellers. She has partnered with Indeed for Rising Voices, an initiative to invest in and share stories created by Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC). Her Hillman Grad Mentorship Lab recently announced its inaugural class of 25 individuals from marginalized communities who will receive networking opportunities and resources to remove barriers to access careers in film and TV.
Related: The Best Black Comedies
Insecure, Little, The Photograph, A Black Lady Sketch Show
Ten years after the debut of her web series The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, Issa Rae has become a Promethean writer and producer. HBO’s Insecure—of which she is a writer, producer and star—is ending after five seasons, but Rae will continue to produce content for HBO via her new half-hour series, Rap Sh*t. Her production company HOORAE, in collaboration with the hip-hop duo City Girls, will executive produce. The MasterClass instructor’s audio content company, Raedio will handle music supervision for the series. HOORAE also helped launch the Emmy-nominated A Black Lady Sketch Show and the docuseries Seen & Heard, both on HBO. As the first black woman to create and star in a premium cable series, Rae is a pioneer of original content. She will executive produce The Vanishing Half, another HBO series in development that is based on Brit Bennett’s bestselling novel.
Scandal, Insecure, If Beale Street Could Talk, Watchmen, One Night in Miami
For the first time in Golden Globes history, this year more than one woman was nominated in the best director category. One of those three women was Regina King for her feature directorial debut in One Night in Miami. The historical drama centers around a February 1964 meet-up between boxing legend Cassius Clay (later known as Muhammed Ali), former football star Jim Brown, civil rights leader Malcolm X and singer-songwriter Sam Cooke. King captured each man’s perspective with a sagacious aesthetic.
Although King, did not win the Emmy, her film is an American Film Institute Award winner for the movie of the year. She made history at the 77th annual Venice Film Festival in Los Angeles by becoming the first Black female director to have a film screened at the conference. Next up, she will star in and produce a biopic on the first Black Congresswoman, Shirley Chisholm.
Underground, Lovecraft Country
Misha Green wields insightful and provocative storytelling. Her riveting WGN drama, Underground, broke ratings records during its first season and was the first scripted U.S. television show focused on slavery and the Underground Railroad.
As the creator and showrunner on HBO’s Lovecraft Country, she juxtaposed sci-fi with past and present-day realities. More subscribers viewed the finale of Lovecraft Country in its first day of availability on HBO Max than any other new episode of an original series on the streaming platform to date. Also, Lovecraft Country has taken the No. 1 spot on HBO Max for original series. Green will make her feature directorial debut on the next installment of Tomb Raider.
P-Valley, the enticing drama about the Pynk strip club, exploded onto Starz, It’s based on Katori Hall’s 2015 stage play Pussy Valley. The award-winning playwright told Parade.com that she knew it would capture an “underserved audience,” which is why she insisted that it be based in Mississippi instead of New York or LA.
“Oftentimes, these women are misunderstood; they’re complicated human beings, they’re hustlers, they’re mothers, they’re sisters, they’re businesswomen,” Hall explained.
Hall is featured as an interviewee in the new HBO documentary about Tina Turner entitled TINA. She previously worked as the book writer on the Tina Turner Broadway musical.
Black Mirror, Chewing Gum, I May Destroy You
Ghanaian-British writer, producer and director Michaela Coel’s breakout role happened in the British comedy Chewing Gum. In I May Destroy You, Coel is Arabella, a writer whose rhathymia makes you root for her despite her erratic choices. Based on Coel’s real-life sexual assault, it tackles the patriarchal doctrines of sexuality, racial disparities and biases.
Confident in the value of her work, Coel declined a $1 million offer from Netflix so she could maintain ownership of I May Destroy You. Her glaring exclusion from the Golden Globes drew severe outcry from fans, critics and her counterparts because I May Destroy You was one of the most buzzworthy and critically-acclaimed shows of 2020.
Director, Producer, Writer
Self Made, Queen Sugar, For The People, How To Get Away With Murder, Clarice
Dedication and discernment are what define DeMane Davis. The award-winning director and producer is a part of the DuVernay dynasty and has spent time in Shondaland. She is currently shooting and directing CBS’s Clarice, of which she is the co-executive producer. She shared with Parade.com that she is, “constantly working, constantly writing and thinking about things I’m going to create to try to show people themselves so they feel seen and heard and try to involve people that I haven’t seen involved.”
Girlfriends, Star, Mixed-ish
Karin Gist straddles writing, producing and showrunning in both the comedic and dramatic genres for film and television. She has created a range of culturally, ethnically and sexually diverse characters for equal representation within the industry. She was a writer and then producer on The CW’s hit sitcom Girlfriends, which starred Tracee Ellis Ross.
Ross now stars as Rainbow Johnson on black-ish, which has spun off grown-ish and mixed-ish. Gist spearheaded the first season of mixed-ish, which is based on Rainbow’s tumultuous yet comical upbringing as a child of mixed heritage.
Gist is showrunning her latest project Our Kind Of People, alongside Empire and Star creator Lee Daniels, and an upcoming limited series for Hulu.
Related: The Best Black TV Shows of All Time
Courtney A. Kemp
For six seasons, Power inundated viewers with violence, lust and drugs. Creator and showrunner Courtney A. Kemp’s addictive drama became the network’s most-watched series. Four Power spinoffs are currently in production: Season two of Power Book II: Ghost, Power Book III: Raising Kanan, Power Book IV: Force and Power Book V: Influence. And she’s behind all of them.
Critically-acclaimed and award-winning playwright Dominique Morisseau’s prolific storytelling is the reason viewers finally heard and felt youngest Gallagher kid Liam’s voice on Showtime’s Shameless. “I came out the gate insisting that we tell Liam’s story,” Morisseau recalled to Parade.com. Her diligence with amplifying Black stories that aren’t “en vogue” in Hollywood led to a pivotal point for the series.
Morisseau is writing the screenplay for the HBO limited series Unruly, which will star Academy Award-winner Mahershala Ali as Jack Johnson, the first African-American world heavyweight boxing champion. She plans to continue telling stories “that can change people and help them to heal.”
Director, Writer, Producer
Queen Sugar, This Is Us
Kay Oyegun’s previous occupation as a journalist was her blueprint for Queen Sugar’s Nova while she wrote for the show during season one. She has been a part of NBC’s This Is Us since its 2016 debut, writing and making her directorial debut with the groundbreaking and revelatory “Birth Mother” episode, which explored more of Randall’s origin story. She shared with Parade.com that her contributions to the show are supported, yet there are unique challenges. “You overcome the reality of having to overexplain a lot. A lot of creatives of color have to overexplain their experiences to the gatekeepers, showrunners or executives who are white, so they can empathize,” she said.
Oyegun is currently writing the screenplay for the film adaption of On The Come Up, a young adult novel by Angie Thomas.
JaNeika and JaSheika James
Desperate Housewives, Revenge, Empire, Gossip Girl
Twin sisters JaNeika and JaSheika James were military brats who grew up studying TV shows. Inspired by Yvette Lee Bowser, the creator of the ‘90s sitcom Living Single, they strove to turn their dreams of writing into reality. (Bowser was the first Black woman to create and run her own TV show.)
On Fox’s Empire, they made decisions that garnered significant impact.
JaSheika explained, “When Jamal and Kai got engaged, that was the first time you’ve seen two Black gay men on a network TV show getting engaged. That won us an award for how we were able to educate and enlighten our audience about HIV and the HIV drug PrEP. People from South Africa were asking for PrEP after having seen that episode.”
Currently, the James Twins are co-executive producing the reboot of HBO Max’s Gossip Girl, which will feature a diverse cast that “reflects the world in which we live,” JaNeika told Parade.com.
The Good Doctor, How To Get Away With Murder
Several of the women on this list have received Channing Dungey’s tutelage.
A progenitor of TV and film, Dungey became the first Black executive of a major broadcast television network when she joined ABC studios in 2016. She also spent nearly two years at Netflix where she oversaw the production of several projects including Self Made, Bridgerton and Emily In Paris.
Of the challenges that come with sharing Black stories through entertainment, she told Parade.com, “one of the biggest–and this, unfortunately, happens way too often–is finding myself as the only Black woman in the room and being asked to speak on behalf of all Black people.” She continues, “Many times there’s such a reductive way of thinking about stories focused on people of color, a kind of one-size-fits-all attitude that is so disheartening. And it sometimes feels like it’s easier to get support for telling stories about Black struggle, as opposed to stories about Black joy.”
Currently, she is the Chairman of Warner Bros. Television Group, which includes HBO and HBO Max, DC, Cartoon Network, TBS, TNT and TruTV.
Capable of snappy clapbacks on and offscreen, Marsai Martin was 14 years old when she became the youngest executive producer of a major Hollywood movie. Known as the precocious Diane on black-ish, the mini mogul founded the Genius Entertainment production company in 2019.
When asked which moment or project is her favorite, she shared with Parade.com, “There’s too many to pick, I’m just enjoying the entire process. Once I’m done filming this season of black-ish, I’ll also be shooting a feature film and two TV shows! I’m producing all three projects, so I’m really excited to get into that whole process.”
The NAACP Image Award winner appears in the Netflix docuseries Amend: The Fight for America. She’ll also host ABC’s new primetime special, Soul of a Nation.
Director, Producer, Writer
As a trailblazing advocate for centering LGBTQIA stories, Janet Mock has shifted our culture. When the seminal FX series Pose (which is headed to its final season) debuted in 2018, Mock became the first trans woman of color hired as a writer on a TV series, as well as the first trans woman of color to write and direct a TV episode. Most recently, she signed a three-year multimillion-dollar deal with Netflix, making her the first openly trans woman of color to sign a deal with a major content company. She also narrates the Netflix documentary dedicated to International Women’s Day.
Director, Producer, Writer
Parenthood, Criminal Minds, Big Sky, Star Trek: Picard, Kung Fu
Hanelle Culpepper’s television credits range from Star Trek: Picard to Big Sky. The award-winner is the first Black director of the Star Trek franchise.
She told Parade.com, “people are not used to seeing a Black woman director. The majority of the time, people are excited…It’s a cool thing, but it’s also frustrating because it shouldn’t be that way.” She continued, “As soon as I see what casting breakdown is needed, I’ll ask the producers, ‘Are you open to turning this male role into a female role or this white role into a diverse role?’”
With the reboot of Kung Fu on The CW, which she is directing, “viewers can expect this beautiful blend of action, mythology and family dynamics,” she promises.
Next, she will direct the Big Beach drama, 1000 Miles.
Ruth E. Carter
Malcolm X, Black Panther, Coming 2 America
Costume designer Ruth E. Carter has curated the wardrobe on almost 70 projects from TV and film. With over 35 years in Hollywood, she is first the Black person to win an Academy Award for costume design, for her work on Black Panther.
Carter’s latest work appears in Coming 2 America, streaming now on Amazon Prime. She is expected to style Black Panther 2.
Saturday Night Live, Insecure
Natasha Rothwell, who also plays the riotous Kelli on Insecure, is securing her spot in herstory. The former Saturday Night Live scribe will star in and executive produce the animated Comedy Central series Malltown. She is also collaborating with Snowfall scribe Aziza Barnes to executive produce Pride, a reimagining of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.
Next, watch these feminist movies during Women’s History Month.