Opinion  May 21, 2024  Megan D Robinson

Five Female-Driven Films That Celebrate Women in the Arts

Created: Tue, 05/21/2024 - 09:05
Author: abby
Courtesy of ZEITGEIST FILMS, in association with Kino Lorber

A scene from Beyond the Visible-Hilma AF Klint, a film by Halina Dryschka.

While audiences have always loved a good biopic, finding the stories of artists and other changemakers particularly fascinating, gender bias has often led female creators to be downplayed as lovers, muses, or props to talented men. As historians uncover women’s cultural contributions as unsung pioneers in the arts and sciences, intrepid filmmakers bring their stories to the silver screen. 

Here are some excellent biopics and documentaries featuring women artists, to balance out the cinematic storytelling weighted towards male accomplishments:

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Courtesy of ©Audacious Women Productions
UNLADYLIKE2020 Promotional Series Grid

Audacious Women Productions burst onto the scene with UNLADYLIKE2020. According to founding Executive Producers and Directors Charlotte Mangin and Sandra Rattley, their mission is "to tell little-known stories of diverse women changemakers, bring hidden history to life, and bridge the past and present through engaging multimedia documentary projects.” 

Launched for the US women's suffrage centennial, UNLADYLIKE2020, an award-winning series featuring 26 short films and a one-hour documentary, premiered as part of the popular PBS flagship biography series, American Masters, and has reached over 6 million viewers to date. Narrated by critically acclaimed actors Julianna Margulies and Lorraine Toussaint, UNLADYLIKE2020 combines original artwork and animation, rare archival imagery, and interviews to create a dynamic and compelling historical experience.

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Courtesy of Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, The New York Public Library.
Sculptor Augusta Savage with two of her statuettes (left to right) Susie Q and Truckin' in 1939.
Searching for Augusta Savage

Audacious Women Productions followed this success with the biopic Searching for Augusta Savage. Acclaimed American sculptor, educator, and activist Augusta Savage (1892–1862) fought racism, sexism, and poverty, carving out a place for Black artists in the art world. “One of the most influential sculptors of the Harlem Renaissance, Augusta Savage was an artist-activist who undoubtedly fits the description of audacious,” say documentary writers Mangin and Rattley. 

“She overcame great odds to accomplish many firsts: opening the first gallery in the U.S. dedicated to exhibiting the work of Black artists; becoming the first Black woman member of the National Association of Women Painters and Sculptors; and founding two community organizations that provided free art education and training to over 2,500 people.” Savage helped launch the careers of many younger influential Black artists, including Jacob Lawrence and Gwendolyn Knight. 

Proudly created for Black History Month, this 22-minute documentary examines Savage’s life, legacy, and influence on the art world. It also investigates why almost half of Savage’s 160 or so works of art were lost or destroyed. Based on extensive research, featuring archival material and interviews with art historians, this biopic is part of a nationwide push to revive Savage’s story and recognize her legacy. 

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Courtesy of ZEITGEIST FILMS, in association with Kino Lorber
A scene from Beyond the Visible-Hilma AF Klint, a film by Halina Dryschka.
Beyond the Visible-Hilma AF Klint

A pioneering abstractionist before the term was coined, Hilma af Klint’s (1862–1944) bold, colorful explorations of form, light, and color–inspired by spiritualism, modern science, and the natural world–have received an enormous amount of posthumous attention. One of the first women to graduate from Stockholm’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts, af Klint was a respected landscape artists and portraitist, but considered abstraction her life’s work. 

Primarily forgotten until her mystical pieces were featured in a 1986 exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, af Klint has become a worldwide phenomenon. The subject of a 2013 solo show at Stockholm’s Moderna Museet (Modern Art Museum) that drew over a million people, and of a record-breaking 2018 retrospective at the Guggenheim that brought in over 600,000 visitors, af Klint’s work resonates deeply with modern audiences. 

Featuring interviews with familial descendents, artists, collectors, and art historians, Director Halina Dryschka’s documentary, Beyond the Visible-Hilma AF Klint, brings this visionary artist to life. The film explores af Klint’s craft, investigates her artistic erasure, and celebrates her unique talents. As Dryschka states in the press release, “It is more than time to tell the untold heroine stories.”

She says af Klint “followed her own path in life that led to a unique oeuvre. . . despite all restrictions, Hilma af Klint explored the possibilities that go beyond the visible.”

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Wikimedia Commons, 2018
'Movement' by Emmi Whitehorse, 1989, oil and charcoal mounted on canvas, Honolulu Museum of Art
The Desert Is No Lady

The Desert Is No Lady is a documentary profiling nine women artists–poets, painters, a writer, and a fabric artist– from Pueblo, Navajo, Mexican-American, and Anglo backgrounds. It explores the meeting and mixing of cultures in the border territory of the Southwestern US. 

Produced by the non-profit Women Make Movies, which has been supporting women filmmakers and uplifting underrepresented voices for 50 years, the film celebrates the multicultural diversity of women's creativity. 

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Courtesy of IFC Films
Still shot from Finding Vivian Maier, 2013
Finding Vivian Maier

The Oscar nominated documentary, Finding Vivian Maier, chronicles the discovery of one of the best street photographers of all time–Vivian Maier (1926–2009). Relatively unknown in her lifetime, the French-American worked in Chicago as a nanny. A passionate documentarian, she brought a camera with her everywhere. Maier took over 150,000 photographs and created a series of homemade documentary films and audio recordings

Her prints and negatives were discovered by Chicago-based collectors when her storage locker was auctioned off. One of the collectors, Robert Maloof, posted Maier's photographs on Flickr. The work went viral and has since been critically acclaimed and exhibited all over the world. Inspired to share Maier’s story, Maloof crowdfunded to produce the documentary, which premiered at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival. 

About the Author

Megan D Robinson

Megan D Robinson writes for Art & Object and the Iowa Source.

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