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Victoria Mahoney Will Help Direct Star Wars: Episode IX, But There's Still Work to Be Done

Director Victoria Mahoney attends the ‘Yelling To The Sky’ Photocall during day three of the 61st Berlin International Film Festival.
Director Victoria Mahoney attends the ‘Yelling To The Sky’ Photocall during day three of the 61st Berlin International Film Festival.
Photo: Sean Gallup (Getty)

On Tuesday evening, A Wrinkle in Time and New Gods director Ava DuVernay took to Twitter with a major Star Wars announcement, though it wasn’t about herself. For the first time in the franchise’s history, a black woman will direct a significant portion of a Star Wars film. Her name is Victoria Mahoney; remember it.

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Mahoney has signed onto J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars: Episode IX as second unit director, putting her in charge of overseeing the direction of the movie’s supplementary footage like establishing shots, stunts, and cutaways. It’s a role that’s key to maintaining visual and narrative continuity, something that can make or break a film. Mahoney’s involvement marks a major milestone in her career, during which she’s directed short films and episodes of TNT’s Claws, Grey’s Anatomy, and Freeform’s upcoming Misfits adaptation.

Putting a black woman in charge of a Star Wars film’s second unit is an incredibly important step in the right direction toward diversifying the latent pool that studios tap into the helm major projects—and making Hollywood a more inclusive space overall. But it’s important to bear in mind that there’s still a lot of work to be done, because one black woman heading up one Star Wars film’s second unit will not solve the industry’s larger issue of excluding people who are not straight white men from positions of power.

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Second unit directors often go on to become first unit directors and so the more opportunities there are for historically marginalized creators to get those gigs, the better. At the same time, however, insisting that people from those groups must work their way up the ladder this way in order to “prove” that they deserve to be put in the first unit directors’ chair is inherently problematic, because white guys with little to no experience are given a chance all the time. For the contrarians in the back who need to be reminded, I direct you to 47 Ronin, Tron: Legacy, The Amazing Spider-Man, Thor: The Dark World, Jurassic World, Fantastic Four, and all of the other easily Google-able examples of instances when relatively untested white directors were given multi-million dollar projects.

It doesn’t matter whether these projects succeed or fail because the core issue is that that same kind of blind faith is not traditionally put in directors who are women or people of color or queer. That kind of access and opportunity is what would ultimately make directing in Hollywood more egalitarian, and it’s still a ways off.

io9 Culture Critic and Staff Writer. Cyclops was right.

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DISCUSSION

Second unit directors often go on to become first unit directors and so the more opportunities there are for historically marginalized creators to get those gigs, the better. At the same time, however, insisting that people from those groups must work their way up the ladder this way in order to “prove” that they deserve to be put in the first unit directors’ chair is inherently problematic, because white guys with little to no experience are given a chance all the time.

This seems like a fair assessment of the double-bind that faces directors from marginalized groups. But what interests me here is the collision between two factors: 1.) the drive for a more inclusion in film and 2.) the changing career path for directors in a film industry that increasingly has no middle-ground between small films and giant ones.

We are seeing more untested directors take on major projects because studios are making fewer films that cost more than $10 million but less than $100 million, so there are fewer opportunities for directors to prove themselves before they tackle massive productions. Further, the scale of these blockbusters tends to disempower directors, who must delegate substantial portions of their films to second unit, special units, and effects houses. And the complexity of this process favors workflows pre-established by franchise producers, including things like color timing and the selection of camera systems. Franchise directors are leaking creative control in both directions.

These trends make the second-unit a promising place for rising directors to train, assuming that they aren’t leap-frogged by the latest would-be wunderkind with a viral short film or a hip indie. That pathway seems to be working for Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, although they spent a long time in the industry before they started directing. In the Hong Kong film industry, stunt coordinators and specialized action directors like Ching Siu-Tung and Yuen Woo-Ping have used that position as a stepping-stone to their own features. But I suspect that many filmmakers on this path end up carrying the latest indie kid to land a feature instead of making their own names.

It would be interesting to know how these two career paths — the pipeline vs. the leap — create different kinds of opportunities and barriers for inclusion. In other words, how reliably will DPs and second unit directors rise to the big chair?