Michelle Materre, Champion of Black Independent Film, Dies at 67

Michelle Materre, a distributor and educator who promoted Black women’s voices in film and released influential independent movies by Black creators, died on March 11 in White Plains, N.Y. She was 67.

A friend, Kathryn Bowser, said the cause was oral cancer.

Ms. Materre was an early proponent of independently released works by Black female directors, beginning at a time when diversity in independent film was far from the forefront of the cultural conversation.

Her company, KJM3 Entertainment Group, worked on distribution for major films; one of its first projects was the marketing of Julie Dash’s “Daughters of the Dust.” Widely viewed as a masterpiece of Black independent cinema and said to have been the first feature film by a Black woman to have a wide release, “Daughters of the Dust” was inducted into the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry in 2004.

The New York Times critic A.O. Scott wrote in 2020 that “Daughters of the Dust,” which tells the story of Gullah women off the Sea Islands of South Carolina and Georgia in the early 20th century, “has sent ripples of influence through the culture,” inspiring the imagery in Beyoncé’s visual album “Lemonade” and the director Sofia Coppola’s aesthetic. Ava DuVernay, the director of “Selma,” also regularly cites the film as an influence.

Ms. Dash, in a remembrance for the International Documentary Association, wrote, “We remain forever grateful for Michelle and team KJM3 for the initial run of ‘Daughters of the Dust’ in 1992; it would not have been a success without them.”

KJM3 Entertainment was formed in 1992 and released 23 films before it ceased operation in 2001. Another of the company’s most influential distribution efforts was “L’Homme Sur Les Quais” (“The Man by the Shore”) (1993), a drama by Raoul Peck, the Haitian auteur who went on to direct “I Am Not Your Negro,” the 2016 documentary about race in America based on the writings of James Baldwin.

Ms. Materre’s passion for bringing unsung masterworks to wider audiences animated her career. In 1999, she started Creatively Speaking, an effort to package short films from underrepresented filmmakers into full-length programs organized thematically. It has grown into a major cultural player, holding regular screenings at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and educational panels about diversity in filmmaking at the New School and elsewhere.

“One Way or Another: Black Women’s Cinema, 1970-1991,” which compiled short films into a longer project, was one acclaimed Creatively Speaking project. In 2017, The New Yorker’s Richard Brody called it the most important repertory series of the year.

In a 2019 interview for the New School, Ms. Materre said she started Creatively Speaking because she saw a lack of opportunity — a theme throughout her career.

“I found that there weren’t very many outlets for filmmakers of color and women filmmakers who hadn’t reached the possibility of making feature films yet,” she said. “They were making short films — all these amazing short films, but nobody was ever seeing them.”

Once she began producing these films, she added, “people gravitated towards them like crazy.”

In the International Documentary Association tribute, Leslie Fields-Cruz, the executive director of Black Public Media, wrote that Ms. Materre “understood why Black films need special attention when it comes to distribution and engagement.”

“There are multiple generations of filmmakers, curators, distributors and media arts administrators,” she wrote, “whose lives and careers have been impacted simply because Michelle took the time to listen and to care.”

Michelle Angelina Materre was born on May 12, 1954, in Chicago. Her father, Oscar Materre, was a Chicago firefighter and owned a paint business. Her mother, Eloise (Michael) Materre, was a real estate agent.

She grew up in Chicago and attended the Chicago Latin School. She then earned a B.S. in education from Boston State College and a master’s in educational media from Boston College.

In 1975, she married Jose Masso, a Boston public-school teacher. They divorced in 1977. She married Dennis Burroughs, a production technician, in 1990; that marriage, too, ended in divorce. She is survived by her sisters, Paula and Judi Materre.

Ms. Materre’s work at Creatively Speaking was centered in New York City; in addition to distributing films, she often organized panels and screenings of little-seen works like “Charcoal” (2017), the Haitian director Francesca Andre’s short film on colorism and skin lightening practices in the Black community.

Ms. Materre consulted on the production and distribution of numerous films and served on the boards of the Black Documentary Collective, New York Women in Film and Television, and other groups promoting underrepresented filmmakers.

In 2020, she began teaching at the New School in New York City, where her courses focused on diversity and inclusion in media.

In a remembrance for The New School Free Press, Ms. Materre’s colleague Terri Bowles, with whom she taught a course at the New School, wrote, “She radiated a love of media and cinema, immersing her students, colleagues and friends in the vernaculars of the image, its myriad presentations and its critical importance.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *