8 Women Who Revolutionized the Film Industry

From the 1800s to today, women have brought new insights, perspectives, and creativity into the film industry. But, often, their stories have gone without being told as frequently—or at all. 

Whether it was creating a new style of film or paving the way for future generations, let’s explore some of the incredible women who revolutionized (and continue revolutionizing) the film industry. 

Alice Guy-Blaché

Alice Guy-Blaché was the first woman to direct a film, reported to have created her first in 1896. According to Columbia University’s Women Film Pioneers Project, “she directed and produced or supervised almost six hundred silent films.” She also started her own film company, Solax, in 1910. 

From La Fée aux Choux in 1896 to Falling Leaves in 1912 (and beyond), Guy-Blaché revolutionized the film industry and began paving the way for other women directors and makers. Several of Guy-Blaché’s films are available on Kanopy, including Falling Leaves. 

In 2018, Pamela B. Green directed Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché, which is a documentary of her life as an artist. 

Read more: 8 Women Who Broke Adland’s Glass Ceiling 

Esther Eng

Esther Eng (also Esther Ng and Ng Kam-ha) was a Cantonese-American director, writer, and producer born in San Francisco, California. She was a fan of and incredibly involved in the Cantonese Opera community in the area. 

Unfortunately, much of her work was lost and much of her success went without recognition for many years. According to Columbia University’s Women Film Pioneers Project, her name was spotted in the film credits for Golden Gate Girl, a 1941 film she directed. This discovery led to more research into her life. 

According to Variety, Golden Gate Girl played at the Grandview Theater in San Francisco. The film played in Cantonese without subtitles, likely making Eng the first woman to direct a film for Chinese-American audiences. 

S. Louisa Wei directed a documentary about Eng’s life, Golden Gate Girls, named after Eng’s film. The film’s synopsis states: “This is the story of filmmaker Esther Eng, the first woman to direct Chinese-language film in the US, and the most prominent woman director in Hong Kong in the 1930s.” 

Janet Mock

Janet Mock is a writer, director, producer, and activist. She has written two memoirs, Surpassing Certainty and Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More, both of which explore her life as a Black and Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian) trans woman.

She worked as a writer, director, and executive producer for Pose, an FX TV show. The show has won several awards, including the 2019 Peabody Award, the 2018 Trailblazer Award from Outfest Legacy Awards, and the 2020 Dorian Award for TV Drama of the Year from GALECA: The Society of LGBTQ Entertainment Critics. 

Additionally, FX stated, “In 2019, Mock signed a historic deal with Netflix, making her the first trans person to sign a production pact with a major studio.” During this deal, she worked as an executive producer for Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story

Read more: 8 Black Filmmakers Who Revolutionized the Entertainment Industry

Julie Dash

Julie Dash directed the Sundance award-winning film Daughters of the Dust in 1991. According to her biography, she was the first African American woman to have a film distributed theatrically. She has a B.A. degree in film production from City Colleges of New York and her M.F.A. degree in film and television from the University of California Los Angeles. 

According to Black Women Directors—a digital library dedicated to highlighting the contributions of women and nonbinary filmmakers—Dash was a member of the L.A. Rebellion, which was a group of UCLA filmmakers. Additionally, Women Make Movies reported, “Dash has directed music videos, television commercial spots, shorts, and long form movies for cable and network television.”

Most recently, she has worked as a director on Women of the Movement, Reasonable Doubt, and Queen Sugar

Kathleen Collins

Kathleen Collins directed two films in her lifetime, making her the second African American woman director. She graduated from Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, NY, in 1963 with a BA in Philosophy and Religion. 

She directed The Cruz Brothers and Miss Malloy in 1980 and Losing Ground in 1982. According to Black Women Directors, “Losing Ground, about the strained marriage between a professor and her painter husband, was one of the first narrative feature films directed by a Black woman to be released in the U.S.” 

After her death, a collection of her writing was discovered and published under the title Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? Harper Collins’ synopsis of the book states, “Both contemporary and timeless, Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? is a major addition to the literary canon, and is sure to earn Kathleen Collins the widespread recognition she is long overdue.” 

Lois Weber

Lois Weber was an actor, director, and screenwriter in the early to mid-1900s. According to Columbia University’s Women Film Pioneers Project, “In 1916, she was the first and only woman elected to the Motion Picture Directors Association.” 

The following year, she ​​founded her own company, Lois Weber Productions. There, she created “…productions focused on marriage and domesticity, concentrating her creative energies more than ever on the lives and experiences of women.” 

From Suspense in 1913 to The Angel of Broadway in 1927, Weber paved the way for other women in Hollywood. The Buffalo Dreams Fantastic Film Festival honors her with an award in her name to celebrate women in film today. 

Tracy Rector

Tracy Rector is a director, producer, and activist who focuses on telling Indigenous and BIPOC stories. She has directed and produced over 400 short films, including March Point. Additionally, she was the recipient of the Horace Mann Award. 

She also co-founded Longhouse Media along with Annie Silverstein. According to Seattle University, “Longhouse Media is an Indigenous media arts organization that nurtures the expression and development of Native artists through traditional and modern forms of storytelling, with an emphasis on cultural identity. It supports the use of media as a tool for self-expression, cultural preservation, and social change.” 

Through her work as a director, producer, and educator, she continues improving the path for Indigenous and BIPOC filmmakers.

Victoria Mahoney

Victoria Mahoney (also known as Vic Mahoney) is an actor, director, and producer. Her directorial feature debut was Yelling to the Sky in 2011. 

Mahoney was the first woman to join the directing team for the Star Wars franchise. She was the Second Unit Director for Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker, which is available on Disney+. She wrote about the opportunity here

Additionally, she has directed episodes of many TV shows, including Lovecraft Country, The Morning Show, and You. Currently, she has three upcoming releases, including The Old Guard 2, Under the Bridge, and Kill Them All

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