How women of colour have been treated – and represented – in film is shameful, writes Katarina Hedrén. Despite this, some brilliant movies have been made against the odds.

Magical Negro Rehab is a satirical sketch for new TV comedy series Astronomy Club. The skit brings together the traumatised supporting black cast from Driving Miss Daisy, The Green Mile and Ghost, among other films. Without a central white character in their lives, the kind-hearted and meek group struggles to find meaning in their own lives.

Read more about BBC Culture’s 100 greatest films directed by women:

- The 100 greatest films directed by women

- Why The Piano is number one

- What the critics had to say about the top 25

- Why Agnès Varda was the most popular director

Meanwhile another comedy series, A Black Lady’s Sketch Show, features the character Trinity the Invisible Spy. Her regular-looking face, which no-one is able to remember, makes Trinity – an African-American woman – nearly invisible, and therefore invincible.

These examples could help explain why the BBC Culture poll of the 100 greatest films directed by women is so dominated by white filmmakers, pinpointing a source of contention that is literally as old as the history of film – including DW Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (originally titled The Clansman). This film of many firsts sits at 98% on the review aggregator site, Rotten Tomatoes, whose critics’ consensus summary reads: “Racial depictions aside, The Birth of a Nation is a landmark film whose achievements and pioneering techniques remain fully relevant today.”

As if crafting and portraying rounded characters was not part of the skill-set that makes for an accomplished filmmaker. And as if detecting this great inability was not part of the skillset of a film critic worth taking seriously.

The historical scarcity of filmmakers who are neither white nor men is an indictment of film industries globally

Rotten Tomatoes aside, however, now is a wonderful time to be alive, both for filmmakers who are not white and male, and for those who cherish the work of such filmmakers. Not because racism and misogyny – and the perfect mix of both, misogynoir (a term coined and popularised by African-American feminist Moya Bailey and feminist blogger Trudy) have ceased to exist, but because a significant number of directors and platforms offer film and TV that reflects the world more accurately.

The historical scarcity of filmmakers who are neither white nor men is an indictment of film industries globally. The white male filmmakers of this world were not declared geniuses on a level playing field. They all had the unique privilege to try, fail, succeed, fail, try again and succeed again. Which hardworking and talented African, African-American, Asian or Latin-American woman filmmaker would not become a legend under such circumstances?

Together, these men have shaped the stereotypes that reign, on and off screen. Imagine if their African, African-American, Asian and Latin American women counterparts had been allowed to exist alongside them, or even outrival them. If more women of colour were prominent producers and makers and unmakers of careers, and if the same category of women also outnumbered men among influential film critics – would we even have known Woody Allen, Roman Polanski and Quentin Tarantino’s names? Would we have glorified toxic masculinity the way we currently do?

It is crucial to put the history of women filmmaking in this perspective, in order to avoid feeding myths about male geniuses appearing from a vacuum.  It is also important to remember that it is not the duty of women filmmakers to clean up the mess caused by male neuroses, but to extend their imagination and ours beyond where victims of such neuroses have taken us.

Tender and thoughtful

Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust – which was voted number 10 in BBC Culture’s poll – is an extraordinarily tender and thoughtful film, aesthetically sublime, with a filmic language that is beautiful, original and rich in symbolism. Dash portrays generations of women and men, from the unborn to the ones who are getting ready to depart, and does so with the deepest empathy, confidence in and respect for the characters on the screen, as well as the audience in their seats. That Daughters of the Dust is Julie Dash’s only feature film to date is shameful beyond words – not for her, but for the film industry at large.

Ava DuVernay has consistently and skilfully brought to the fore untold stories we thought we knew. She did so with Selma as well as with Middle of Nowhere, and her documentaries 13th and My Mic Sounds Nice: A Truth About Women and Hip Hop. Then there was her Netflix series, When They See Us, which was carefully titled to avoid evoking the moniker given to the four teenagers, aged between 14 and 16, who served prison time for a crime they did not commit.

All these filmmakers imagine women’s bodies not as sites to conquer… but as repositories of complex emotions, experience and memory

Similarly, both Kasi Lemmons (whose Eve’s Bayou was 68th in the poll) and Mira Nair (whose Monsoon Wedding was 29th) treat their characters with utmost care – allowing for complexity and contradiction. Like Dash and DuVernay, they do so without compromising aesthetically, and without sacrificing the humanity of any of the characters for effect or emphasis.

All these filmmakers imagine women’s bodies not as sites to conquer, battlefields or stress balls, but as repositories of complex emotions, experience and memory. They imagine human beings of all genders, ethnicities, orientations and abilities too valuable to be thrown under a bus at their whim, or to be treated just as placeholders or props.

In a bright version of the future, women like Dash, Lemmons and Nair – as well as Dee Rees (who inexplicably is missing from the BBC Culture Top 100 list) – will get endless opportunities to try, succeed, fail, and try again. More women will channel their inner DuVernays and Issa Raes, and grab opportunities that are not offered (sharing them with less forthcoming but equally talented colleagues), and become powerhouses with a vision to change radically a system that – without filmmakers of their calibre – will stagnate and wither. When this change has happened, and filmmaking rooted in toxic masculinity is no longer lucrative, many more will be able to watch most films, trusting that the filmmakers will not intentionally set out to humiliate them, kill them or tell stories that presuppose that they do not even exist.

US scholar bell hooks dedicated her 1996 essay collection, Reel to RealRace, Class and Sex at the Movies, to “the filmmaker who still dreams”, and fittingly quotes South African author Bessie Head’s 1971 novel, Maru: “We used to dream the same dreams. That was how I knew you would love me in the end.”

Read more about BBC Culture’s 100 greatest films directed by women:

- The 100 greatest films directed by women

- Why The Piano is number one

- What the critics had to say about the top 25

- Why Agnès Varda was the most popular director

How many of the films have you seen? Let us know using the hashtag #100FilmsByWomen

How many of the films have you seen? Let us know using the hashtag #100FilmsbyWomen on our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.

Love film? Join BBC Culture Film Club on Facebook, a community for film fanatics all over the world.

If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.

And if you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called The Essential List. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Worklife and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.