Today, there are a number of Black women filmmakers whose work consistently elevates the landscape and contributes to the vast array of quality art on the market. There are women like Karen Rupert Toliver, Alana Mayo, Ava DuVernay, and Issa Rae, all of whom are committed to making strides for Black producers in Hollywood. Toliver made history in 2020 as the first Black woman to win an Oscar for animation for her role as lead producer for Matthew Cherry’s Hair Love. Veteran industry producer Alana Mayo followed up later that year with a milestone of her own, being named the new President of MGM's Orion Pictures. By that fall, DuVernay had announced the creation of her first feature film as a producer.
"We are at an exciting and critical tipping point in our industry. For years many filmmakers and creators who have been considered and treated as outsiders have nonetheless persisted in creating visionary films that drew audiences across the globe and defined culture. Many of these films and filmmakers inspired me to pursue storytelling as a career and to work towards creating a more equitable environment for all creators. I am thrilled to work in partnership with [MGM] to continue Orion's legacy and create a home that embraces and furthers the seismic shift happening in entertainment and culture, and to back filmmakers and content that authentically reflect the world in which we live," Mayo said via statement.
But despite the various accomplishments of these women, including Rae’s recent honor as the recipient of the esteemed Producers Guild Visionary Award, it is important to remember that these doors weren’t always open for Black women. More importantly, we still have a long way to go. That’s why it’s imperative that we tell the story of women like Maria P. Williams, the first Black woman film producer, to remember just how far we’ve come in a short period of time.
Born Maria Priscilla Thurston in 1866, Williams was a native of Missouri, the African-American Registry reports. She got her start as a teacher, making a name for herself as an activist and advocate for the liberal arts. Her work led her to media work where Thurston served as editor-in-chief from 1891-1894 of the Kansas City weekly newspaper entitled New Era. Soon after, she founded her own newspaper, the Women’s Voice, which ran from 1896-1900 and was sponsored by the “colored women’s auxiliary of the Republican party.”
In 1916, she began working on her memoir, My Work and Public Sentiment, promoting herself as a national organizer and speaker with the Good Citizens League. She committed ten percent of the proceeds from her book to decreasing crime within the Black community. Later that year, she married entrepreneur Jesse L. Williams, a movie theater owner in Kansas City. Together, the couple co-managed the theater and Williams got her first taste of the distribution and releasing process for Black audience films. Williams worked at the theater as both secretary and treasurer, and the couple eventually founded the Western Film Producing Co. and Booking Exchange.
Under the new banner, Williams wrote the script for Flames of Wrath, eventually producing the crime drama into a five-reel silent film that she also starred in. She made history with the project, becoming the first Black woman film producer in the silent film era. While other film pioneers of the era are well known, like Oscar Micheaux, Williams' legacy wasn’t nearly as long-lasting. While she received a lot of notoriety in 1923 for her endeavor, her happiness was short-lived after the death of her husband that same year. Williams eventually remarried but was tragically killed just a few years later on January 3, 1932.
While her historic achievement was eclipsed as the movie industry expanded and shifted away from silent films, we want to keep the life and legacy of women like Williams alive. Her story opened the doors for the plethora of women filmmakers you see today and without her contributions, who knows where we’d be. Because of Maria P. Williams, we can.
Meet Maria P. Williams, the first Black woman film producer. Photo Courtesy of the Women Film Pioneers Project/Columbia University