Women directors have made major strides in movies and TV over the past two decades. While they’re still greatly outnumbered by their male counterparts, their work is receiving greater attention and some exceptionally talented female filmmakers are making their mark in blockbusters, indie dramas and prestige television alike.
To celebrate International Women’s Day on March 8 (and Women's History Month), here are some of the most interesting women directors working today.
One of the undisputed greatest filmmakers working today, Jane Campion has blazed trails for female directors. Not only was she the second woman to receive a Best Director Oscar nomination, she’s the only woman to have been nominated more than once, receiving an Oscar nomination this year thanks to last year’s acclaimed western The Power of the Dog.
Her films, including The Piano, Holy Smoke and In the Cut, focus primarily on women in pursuit of more from life and the patriarchal boundaries that attempt to smother them.
Maybe best known for acting in Secretary, The Deuce and Donnie Darko, Maggie Gyllenhaal broke through as a director in a big way in 2021 with the celebrated drama The Lost Daughter.
Gyllenhaal’s screenplay was Oscar nominated, no mean feat for a filmmaker’s debut behind the camera. The movie tackles the taboo topic of women who reject motherhood with sensitivity while never pulling its punches. We’re excited to see what she does next.
The Chinese director Chloé Zhao quickly proved herself to be one of the most interesting and aesthetically beautiful directors of the American West and the outsiders who populate it. Primarily working with non-professional actors, Zhao’s movies feel real in ways that cinema often struggles to capture.
She became the first woman of color to win the Best Director Oscar in 2021 with Nomadland, then she helped the Marvel Cinematic Universe break new ground with Eternals.
It’s easy to downplay just how big a deal it was to see Wonder Woman make her way to the big screen in 2017. It took far too long for the most iconic heroine in comic book history to get her cinematic moment, but it turned out that indie darling Patty Jenkins, who made the Oscar-winning biopic Monster, was the perfect person for the job.
Since making Wonder Woman (and becoming one of the highest-grossing women directors in the process), Jenkins has remained at the forefront of the primarily male Hollywood blockbuster world with Wonder Woman 1984 and the upcoming Star Wars movie Star Wars: Rogue Squadron.
In June 2021, Dee Rees was announced as the first African-American woman to direct a Criterion (opens in new tab) movie for her stunning drama Pariah. It's a long overdue celebration for directors like Rees who have been quietly making masterful movies like Bessie and Mudbound, seldom to the level of acclaim they deserve.
Rees was also the first Black woman nominated for an Oscar for adapted screenplay. She's currently working on Masters of the Air, a successor to Band of Brothers that will focus on the U.S. Air Forces during World War II.
As the first Black woman director to have her film, Selma, nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, Ava DuVernay is used to blazing trails. She was the first Black woman to direct a live-action film with a $100 million-plus budget with A Wrinkle in Time. She was Oscar-nominated for the documentary 13th. Her Netflix series When They See Us landed 16 Emmy nominations.
In 2017, Time Magazine listed her as one of the 100 most influential people in the world (opens in new tab). She also distributes Black-focused independent films via her company ARRAY. DuVernay's one of the undisputed powerhouse directors working today.
After honing her craft with short films, Lule Wang made her feature debut in 2014 with Posthumous. But it was her follow-up, The Farewell, that elevated her to new heights.
Inspired by her own family and a story she shared on This American Life (opens in new tab), The Farewell received the Independent Spirit Award for Best Film and was named one of the top 10 films of 2019 by the American Film Institute. Up next is an Amazon series, Expats, based on the lives of the expatriate community in Hong Kong, with Nicole Kidman in the leading role.
If you watch a lot of British TV, then Emerald Fennell was a familiar face to you thanks to appearances on Call the Midwife and The Crown. As well as being an actress, she’s an author, she write’s West End musicals and she’s the former showrunner of Killing Eve, so of course she made the leap to writing and directing films.
And what a debut: Promising Young Woman was one of the most talked about films of 2020 and landed Fennell an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. This multi-talented figure is everywhere right now. She's currently writing a Zatanna film for the DC Extended Universe and is adapting Mark Millar's comic Nemesis for an upcoming project.
For decades, Regina King has been one of film and television’s most reliable stars — a scene-stealing leading lady as well as an omnipresent supporting player who can be seen in everything from Watchmen to Boyz N the Hood to her Oscar winning turn in If Beale Street Could Talk.
So, it made sense that she’d knock it out of the park when it came time to direct a film, One Night in Miami… . King is one of the rare directors to have her debut become part of the Criterion Collection, a feat that’s also rare for Black women. She continues to make trails.
You can’t deny that the face of modern television owes one hell of a debt to Shonda Rhimes. Programs like Scandal and Grey’s Anatomy dominated ABC and her lucrative deal with Netflix saw her become a power player in the medium in a way that very few showrunners could ever hope to achieve.
Now she’s making some of the most-viewed shows on the streaming service, including the wildly popular romance Bridgerton and the recent true-life drama Inventing Anna. Her series are guaranteed to pull in millions of viewers worldwide.
Kayleigh is a pop culture writer and critic based in Dundee, Scotland. Her work can be found on Pajiba, IGN, Uproxx, RogerEbert.com, SlashFilm, and WhatToWatch, among other places. She's also the creator of the newsletter The Gossip Reading Club.
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