Mati Diop Becomes First Black Woman to Win Award at Cannes Film Festival

French-Senegalese director and actress Mati Diop became the first Black woman to win the Grand Prix Award at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival on Saturday, May 25. The filmmaker won the festival’s second top prize for her film Atlantics, The Independent reported. The film is a Senegalese drama about a 17-year-old girl named Ada who falls in love with a young construction worker, but is promised to another man, Deadline noted.

“That film touched us in our hearts,” juror Elle Fanning said during a post-awards press conference, according to the Los Angeles Times. “It deals with issues, but it also felt quite personal and vulnerable and very emotional and just quite precious.” The 72nd Cannes Film Festival ran from May 14 to May 25 in Cannes, France. The festival showcased 21 films and “celebrated artists and films from different perspectives, making cinema a celebration of discovery and reunions shared around the world,” according to the festival’s website.

Diop was also the first Black female director to be accepted into Cannes in the festival’s 72-year history, the Washington Post reported. She was one of four female directors to show at the festival. “I discovered it myself, reading the article," Diop told The Hollywood Reporter of the moment she learned that she had been accepted. "It was a rather odd experience for me because I approached it almost as somebody learning this, as an outsider. What I represent exceeds me and does not belong to me." The 36-year-old told the Associated Press that it was “quite sad” to make history as the first Black woman to have a film screened at the festival.

“My first feeling to be the first Black female director was a little sadness that this only happened today in 2019,” Diop told The Independent. “I knew it as I obviously don't know any Black women who came here before. I knew it but it's always a reminder that so much work needs to be done still."

Diop is the daughter of Senegalese jazz musician Wasis Diop, and a French mother, according to The Hollywood Reporter. She told the publication while growing up in Paris, Blackness was defined differently than how it is defined in America. "In France, we have a very different relationship in terms of defining blackness. I'm not called Black — I'm called a Frenchwoman," she told the publication. "But I have noticed that in America, as soon as you have a little — even 10 or 20 percent of Blackness — you become Black. Being Black is not something I think about every day when I wake up. I don't think of myself as white or as Black. I just think about me as me."

Diop made her first short film at age 22 in 2009 titled Atlantiques, a documentary about Senegalese migrants who attempt a life-threatening boat crossing, according to IMBD. She starred in Claire Denis’ 35 Shots of Rum in 2008 and was encouraged by Denis to become a filmmaker, according to The Hollywood Reporter. Diop’s Atlantics has been acquired for worldwide rights by Netflix following the Cannes win, Variety reported.

South Korean film director Bong Joon-ho also made history during the festival by becoming the first Korean to win Cannes’ top prize, the Palme d’Or, for his film Parasite, according to The Independent. Jury President Alejandro Iñárritu said the nine-person jury made the “unanimous” decision to declare Bong the winner, USA Today reported. “To celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Korean cinema, I think the Cannes Film Festival has offered me a very great gift,” Bong said after the ceremony, according to USA Today.

Earlier this year, filmmaker Spike Lee won Best Adapted Screenplay for his film BlacKkKlansman, which tells the true story of a Black detective at a Colorado Police Department who infiltrated and exposed a local Ku Klux Klan branch in the early 1970s. The award was Lee’s first Oscar win.

“I give praise to our ancestors who have built this country into what it is today along with the genocide of its native people. We all connect with our ancestors. We will have love and wisdom regained, we will regain our humanity,” Lee said during his acceptance speech at the 91st Academy Awards. “The 2020 presidential election is around the corner. Let’s all mobilize. Let’s all be on the right side of history. Make the moral choice between love versus hate.”

About the Author

Maria Perez is a breaking news writer for The North Star. She has an M.A. in Urban Reporting from the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. She has been published in the various venues, including Newsweek, Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, City Limits, and local newspapers like The Wave and The Home Reporter.