Women and diverse voices have a long way to go both behind and in front of the camera. That said, it is important to acknowledge the barrier-breaking pioneers who built the foundation that exists today. Each year, BFF has provided programming to provide exposure to some of those individuals, and we will do so again in year five.

Previous BFFs included a variety of forms of expression to showcase many individuals as follows:

Reel Women

Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art has hosted to two exhibitions. The first, in partnership with The Eastman Museum, titled “Reel Women” included stunning photographic portraits of iconic, independent individuals. The images underscored the tension between personal identity and the self as public icon. Once under the control of the studios that managed their personas, over time, these actresses started to take charge of their images and blaze their own trails to success through strength, perseverance, and talent. They helped to pave the way for increased diversity in the entertainment field.

Pioneering Filmmakers of African American Cinema

The second exhibition at Crystal Bridges was a video installation called “Pioneering Filmmakers of African American Cinema.” Content was provided by Kino-Lorber who sourced footage from the Library of Congress.

In the early years of cinema, African American filmmakers were marginalized into creating “race films” targeted for Black audiences in segregated theaters. Despite being poorly funded, these directors strove to create films that rejected African American stereotypes presented by Hollywood, and to feature subject matter relevant to Black lives at the time. Although largely forgotten, some of these artists are being reconsidered by art historians and scholars. This exhibition featured clips from films made by three such African American directors between the 1910s and the 1940s. Highlights included:

  • The first-ever African American feature film
  • The first-ever African American talkie
  • Works by two male and one female African American Directors
  • Subject matter included tough subjects such as segregation, lynching, racism, and religion


A number of films have also been screened as part of this series, some being digitized from the original film and seen for the first time in decades. All were silent and some had live piano accompaniment. The films included:

Borderline, 1930: Paul Robeson, an African American singer and actor who had an international career in singing—with a distinctive, powerful, deep bass voice—as well as acting in theater and movies, stars in this meditation on love and society that is bold in both subject matter and cinematographic technique.

Beasts of the Jungle, 1913: Alice Guy-Blaché, the first female director who owned her own studio and produced hundreds of films, made Beasts of the Jungle over 100 years ago. It is an extravagantly produced (for its time) location film combining exotic scenery and some very real wild animals.

Hamlet, 1921: Danish silent movie star Asta Nielsen formed her own production company to make this film, in which new elements are combined with features (and a few lines) familiar from Shakespeare’s version of the legend. The most important of these changes sees Hamlet made into a female character – a princess forced to masquerade as a man by her scheming mother.

Fly Low Jack and the Game, 1927: Eastman Kodak wanted to sell the idea that anyone could make a movie just as easy as taking a snapshot. They felt so strongly that the Rochester Community Players had made the whole project look so easy and turned out so well, Kodak sent the film on a 125-city tour across the country. The Cine-Kodak Model B camera, which was used to make the film, was designed for amateur filmmaking. Besides being one of the first fiction films shot on 16mm film, it was also directed by one of the first female filmmakers, Marion Gleason. Partner DeBergerac Productions worked with BFF to share this piece of film history.

The Flute of Krishna, 1926: Early Color Film made by Eastman Kodak. Martha Graham’s dance “The Flute of Krishna” is performed in front of the camera in Rochester, NY by professional dancers that were a part of Graham’s dance troupe.

BFF 2019 – Pioneer Female Filmmakers

A specially made video installation, created by a diverse group of students with a love of film from the University of Arkansas’ Department of Communications, will be hosted at 21c Museum Hotel. Sourcing films from the Library of Congress and partner Kino-Lorber, it features vignettes on 10 barrier-breaking women. Figures like Alice Guy-Blaché, Zora Neale Hurston, and Lois Weber are known today primarily by aficionados, and artists like Lita Lawrence, Alla Nazimova, Helen Holmes, Mabel Normand, Angela Murray Gibson, Nell Shipman, and Marion E. Wong remain woefully obscure. Bringing together dozens of essential new restorations, this short work spotlights the daring, innovative, and trailblazing work of the first female filmmakers.

This exhibition is free to the community and will be available throughout the festival during 21c’s normal operating hours.

Contributed by Thomas Hoehn 

Contributed by Thomas Hoehn