It’s a known fact that the mainstream film industry has a colour problem and a gender problem. As a consequence, films featuring women of colour as leads can be difficult to find. But they do exist. To make the job easier, here’s a chronological list of empowering and entertaining films starring women of colour. Next time you’re unsure of what to watch, I recommend the following films. Unsurprisingly, these films also pass the Bechdel Test.
1. The Color Purple – 1985
Whoopi Goldberg, Oprah Winfrey and Margaret Avery play leads in this award-winning adaption of Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel
of the same name. This epic film spans more than forty years in the life of Celie, an African-American woman living in the South. Celie is abused by her father, forced to marry a widower and separated from her siblings. It’s a powerful story, at moments heart-wrenching and heart-warming. The film features multiple strong female characters who tackle issues like poverty, racism, sexism and abuse. The Color Purple
is also about strength, love, sexuality, friendship and family. It will make you tear up from both grief and joy.
2. Selena – 1997
Jennifer Lopez stars in this biographical film about the late Mexican-American singer, Selena
. It follows her life and career as she shoots to fame and the struggles she faces along the way. Selena
was Jennifer Lopez’s breakthrough film role and also inspired her singing career.
3. Bend it Like Beckham – 2002
Set in London, England, Jess is the daughter of Orthodox Punjabi Sikh parents. Her parents prefer she learn how to make the perfect chapati and cook daal, but Jess would rather play professional football (soccer). She secretly joins a football team, her heart set on pursuing her passion. Shenanigans and hilarity ensue. There’s plenty of fun to be had in this adventurous and empowering comedy.
4. Saving Face – 2005
Saving Face is a romantic comedy about a Chinese-American mother and daughter who struggle to face the consequences of life choices they have made. Wil is a lesbian who’s afraid of coming out to her traditional mother and being publicly open about her relationship. Much to Wil’s surprise, her mother Gao soon shows up on her doorstep, pregnant out of wedlock. Both must learn to accept themselves as well as each other.
5. Arranged – 2007
An Orthodox Muslim woman and an Orthodox Jewish woman befriend each other when they are assigned to teach the same class. They realize they both have a lot in common in terms of their cultural and relationship experiences, the way they practice their faith, and the type of stereotyping and scrutiny they face by others. It’s a gentle film about friendship, faith and strength for standing up for one’s self.
6. Amreeka – 2009
Mona, a Palestinian woman moves to America to start a new life with her son Faddy. Frustrated with the realities of the Israeli military occupation of her homeland, she hopes for a safer life for herself and her son in America. But life isn’t all that easy in post-9/11 America as anti-Arab sentiments rise. Mona and Faddy make new friends, new enemies, and a new life for themselves in Illinois. The film is full of warmth and humour whilst dealing with very serious themes: war, racism, migration and cultural identity.
7. Marry Me – 2010
If your guilty pleasure is a light-hearted Hollywood rom-com this film might be right up your alley. Lucy Lui plays Rae Ann Carter, a social worker who dreams of becoming an artist and getting married. She goes from having no one interested in her to three men romantically pursuing her. She must figure out what and who she wants. On top of all of that, Rae has a snarky and mischievous foster kid on her hands, Imogen, for whom she must find a suitable foster family. This film is especially worth watching for the friendship that develops between Rae and Imogen. While the marriage plot can get a bit tiring, what I liked most about this film was the chemistry between the cast, the witty banter, snappy dialogue, clever writing and strong acting.
This film is a two-part series.
8. Slaying the Dragon: Reloaded – 2011
I would recommend watching both the original Slaying the Dragon
(1988) as well the more recent sequel, Slaying the Dragon: Reloaded (2011)
. These films explore the problematic representations of Asian women in Hollywood. Using clips and interviews, the documentaries do a very solid job in addressing serious, ongoing issues facing Asian women in film and television.
9. Wadjdah – 2012
Wadjdah is a rebellious Saudi girl who longs to possess a green bike that she spots in a store. She wants to race against her friend Abdullah who already owns a bike. Her mother refuses to buy the bike because it is frowned upon girls to ride bikes. Wadjdah must figure out a way to raise enough money to buy it herself. She decides to enrol in a Quran competition and use the winnings toward the bike. Wadjdah is the first feature-length film made by a female Saudi director and has won numerous film awards.
10. Empire of Dirt – 2013
Lena, a First Nations mother, flees her hometown after her 13 year old daughter gets in trouble. Lena reunites with her mother, and the three women try to bridge the generation gap and face demons from their past. It’s a beautiful, critically acclaimed Canadian film about motherhood, family, overcoming cycles of trauma, and healing.
11. Belle – 2013
Based on a true story, this film follows Dido Belle, the illegitimate mixed-raced daughter of a British admiral. Dido is raised by her aristocratic great-uncle, who is also Lord Chief Justice of England. While her lineage gives her certain privileges in society, Dido faces prejudices and limitations based on the colour of her skin and her gender. Set at a historic moment, just before the abolition of slavery, this must-see film explores the interplay of class, race and gender within the British aristocracy during the late 1700s. The acting, the writing and cinematography come together beautifully.
12. Rhymes for Young Ghouls – 2013
Awarded Best Canadian First Feature
at the 2013 Vancouver International Film Festival, Rhymes for Young Ghouls
is a must-see Canadian film. It’s beautiful, poetic and elegantly crafted. The story takes place in 1976. Aila, a Mi’kmaq teenager plots revenge against the Indian Agent after being forced into a residential school. The film takes a deep and haunting look at the traumatic impact of residential schools on the First Nations population in Canada. Devery Jacobs, who plays Aila, was nominated for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role
at the Canada Screen Awards for her performance in this film.
13. Dear White People – 2014
Dear White People follows the lives and experiences of four Black students at an Ivy League college as racial tensions rise on campus. The students struggle to manoeuvre through their identities and figure out where they each stand. At the centre of the film is Sam White, played wonderfully by the brilliant Tessa Thomson. Sam is a fierce, outspoken, rabble-rousing film major who runs the controversial campus radio show Dear White People. Have a look at the trailer: