Celebrating Women’s History Month: A salute to powerful Black women in Hollywood

Hollywood generates some $300 billion dollars into the American economy each year. Perhaps equally important, the images it creates are enormously influential in shaping public consciousness about history, culture, and society.

It’s also notoriously difficult to succeed in show biz in any capacity, whether in front of or behind the camera or in the boardrooms that decide who and what can be near the cameras at all. The women below have used brains, discipline, determination, and a penchant for being involved with profitable and or critically acclaimed projects, to do far more than merely succeed in Hollywood.

Anders Krusberg/Peabody Awards Regina King AT 72nd Annual Peabody Awards Luncheon Waldorf-Astoria Hotel

Regina King

From her start as a child actress, Regina King has slowly and steadily increased her clout in Hollywood, becoming both a multiple Emmy-winning actress scoring leading roles on premium streamers and cable networks, an accomplished TV and film director, producer, and a trusted “brand.” King is currently basking in the accolades for her feature film directorial debut “One Night in Miami.”

Tabitha Jackson

The Sundance Film Festival is one of the most highly influential film festivals around the world, setting the bar for film globally. In 2020, Tabitha Jackson became its director, charged with overseeing programming and operations of the festival. British-born Jackson has been a documentary filmmaker and was director of Sundance Institute’s documentary film program for six years prior to this new appointment. She will also oversee the Hong Kong and London iterations of the venerated fest.

Issa Rae

The Stanford grad is an actress, writer, director, and prolific producer who parlayed her pioneering web series “Awkward Black Girl” into a deal at HBO, where she created cultural phenomenon “Insecure” and “The Black Lady Sketch Comedy Show,” while starring in multiple well-received film and television vehicles per year. Her feature film projects including “The Hate U Give,” “The Photograph,” and “Little,” all turned profits, so we’ll continue to regularly see her in front of the camera. Her production deal with Sony Columbia and a huge slate of upcoming projects guarantees she’ll stay busy behind the camera as well.

Courtesy Crown Media Wonya Lucas, President and CEO of Crown Media Family Networks

Wonya Lucas

Former Executive Vice-President and Chief Operating Officer for the Discovery Channel and the Science Channel, Wonya Lucas is now president and CEO of Crown Media Family Networks. She directs and oversees strategy for Hallmark Channel,  Hallmark Movies & Mysteries and Hallmark Drama, and its digital platforms, as well as the company’s subscription streaming service, Hallmark Movies Now.

Mara Brock-Akil

Northwestern University graduate Mara Brock-Akil has a track record of creating and producing long-running iconic series such as “Being Mary Jane,” “The Game,” and “Girlfriends.” She also directed, produced, and co-wrote the 2012 remake of the feature film, Sparkle which through not a critical darling, turned a profit. She also Exec-produces the only comic book superhero TV series at present starring a Black superhero, “Black Lightning.”

LaToya Morgan

Currently one of the most sought after Black woman TV writers in Hollywood, Morgan has written for a slew of critically and commercially successful series on premium cable,  such as TURN, Into The Badlands, The Walking Dead, and Shameless. Recently inking an overall deal with Warner Brothers Television, Morgan will develop, write and produce new television projects for all platforms.

Ava DuVernay

 Ava DuVernay is a force as a director and producer, telling quality stories about the Black experience in a way that raises awareness inside and outside the Black community. Budget size is a good indication of the willingness of studios to invest in directors, and in 2018, mainstream studio Walt Disney entrusted DuVernay with $100 million to make “A Wrinkle In Time,” at the time the highest budget ever given to a woman of African descent to make a film.

Courtesy of Gina Prince-Bythewood Writer, Director, Producer Gina Prince-Bythewood

Gina Prince Bythewood

The UCLA Film School graduate cemented herself as a director to be reckoned 20 years ago with “Love and Basketball,” an instant Black film classic, after writing for shows such as “A Different World” and “Felicity.” Since then, she has worked steadily, directing well-regarded vehicles such as “The Secret Life of Bees,” and “Beyond The Lights,” both of which turned tidy profits. Bythewood in 2020, became the first woman of African descent to direct a superhero film, “The Old Guard” for which Netflix gave her a $60 million budget, relatively large for a woman of color.

Lorrie Bartlett

Lorrie Bartlett is the first African American to make partner at one of Hollywood’s “big four” talent agencies, ICM, where she is also on its board. The significance of this fact is brought in sharper relief when you consider that out of hundreds of employees at the four most powerful agencies, only a dozen or so are African American. Talent agencies arguably hold the most power in Hollywood outside of the studios themselves. Bartlett’s clients include Regina King, Kylie Bunbury, Laverne Cox, and Nicole Beharie.

Oprah Winfrey

Thirty-five years after the show that put her on the map and changed the face of daytime television, Oprah Winfrey continues to rule over a vast media empire. Her influence in media, society, and philanthropy remains ironclad and she remains one of the most globally respected and recognized brands. Most recently, her highly-rated interview with Prince Harry and Meghan Markle showed she can still create must-see TV moments.

Courtesy of Ms. magazine Writer, Producer Shonda Rhimes graces cover of Ms. magazine in 2015

Shonda Rhimes

Television producer with the golden touch and Dartmouth grad, Rhimes is the creator of “Grey’s Anatomy” which is now at 17 seasons, the longest-running medical drama in TV history. That show, as well as its spinoff, “Scandal” and others she created while working at ABC, made billions for the network before her recent move to Netflix. Her first outing on that streamer, “Bridgerton,” immediately smashed viewership records, becoming its most-watched program in history.

Ashley Holland

This Stanford grad is partner at one of the “big four” agencies, William Morris Endeavor
(WME). Prior to that she worked at another, CAA, for eight years where she rose through its
ranks starting as an assistant and becoming an agent. Holland helped implement CAA’s Amplify
program, with the goal of creating more opportunities for creatives of color. Her clients include
Robin Thede and Mara Brock Akil.

Bianca Levin

After the deals have been put together, t’s must be crossed, i’s must be dotted, and people
must be paid. Lawyers are at the center of the process of getting talent compensation
commensurate with their value and if anything means power, its money. Top entertainment
lawyers like Levin have the knowledge and connections to bring top dollar to their clients.
At the tender age of 29, Levin, who graduated from both Yale undergad and Yale Law
School, made partner at Beverly Hills-based upmarket law firm Gang Tyre Ramer Brown and
Passman where she brokers deals for the likes of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and his
increasingly sprawling empire which includes TV, film, and live entertainment.

Photo courtesy of Rhododendrites Nina Shaw at the Time’s Up event at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival

Nina Shaw

The Columbia Law School Grad is founding partner at Del Shaw Moonves Tanaka
Finkelstein & Lezcano. Her clients include Lupita Nyong’o, Jurnee Smollett, Amandla Stenberg,
Lena Waithe, and Nia DaCosta, the first Black woman to direct a Marvel film (the “Captain
Marvel” sequel) and at present, the Black woman director with the highest budget ever. One of
Shaw’s other clients, Ava DuVernay, got what is now the second highest-budget for a Black
women director with $100 million for “A Wrinkle In Time” in 2018.

Antoinette Bush

Wellesley Law School graduate Antoinette Bush is executive vice president and global head
of government affairs for News Corp, which runs, among others businesses, Dow Jones, The
Wall Street Journal, New York Post, and HarperCollins Publishers. Prior to this, Bush was a
partner at the so-called modern-day “White shoe” firm Skadden Arps, where she headed its
Communications Group and represented global media and entertainment companies.

Salaam Coleman Smith

Stanford Grad Salaam Coleman Smith is the executive vice president of strategy and
programming for Freeform Network, which in part distinguishes itself with programming
featuring multiracial characters and families. Coleman Smith directs long-term growth strategies
and opportunities for the network, new business development, and programming across
platforms. She also partners with the Disney/ABC Television Group leadership team in
evaluating and formulating new initiatives for the network.

Channing Dungey

The first African American president of a major TV network, ABC Studios, Dungey greenlit
shows like “Scandal” and “How To Get Away With Murder,” both of which raised the profile of
its stars, Viola Davis and Kerry Washington, to the stratosphere. She since moved on to Netflix, helping usher in Rhimes’ slate of projects for the streamer before moving on to Warner Brothers
Television Group, where she is now chairwoman.

By Gage Skidmore Actress Halle Berry at 2017 San Diego Comic Con

Halle Berry

Berry has maintained a stable brand image as someone authentic and trustworthy over three
decades as television and film actress. She’s now a huge influencer on Instagram and a novitiate
film director, with her film debut “Bruised” set to open this year. As we move into an era where
multiracials carve out a more distinctive identity, she is positioned as the one who created the
path for those now following her such as Zendaya and Tessa Thompson.

About Nadine Matthews

Nadine Matthews is a contributing writer at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder. She can be reached at nmatthews@spokesman-recorder.com or on Twitter at @deeniemedia.

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