The Woman Making 'Star Wars' History

Victoria Mahoney Deauville

Victoria Mahoney will be the first African-American woman to direct second unit scenes for the franchise.

You don’t often hear about second-unit directors. Sometimes a famous filmmaker will take on the job for a friend, a la Steven Spielberg’s uncredited work on Revenge of the Sith. Often a second-unit director will become known for their own movies, as in the case of Roger Christian (Battlefield Earth), although he’s better known for his Oscar-winning design work on the first Star Wars than as second-unit helmer for Return of the Jedi.

Victoria Mahoney is another name you should know. She is receiving notice this week because she joined the crew of Star Wars Episode IX as second-unit director, apparently becoming the first African-American woman to helm any aspect of the franchise. That’s great news for her, and only the latest milestone she’s been a part of. With her feature directorial debut, Yelling to the Sky, she became the first mixed-race American woman to compete for the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival.

Yes, she’s already an established director (and writer and producer and actor), one who showed up on many filmmakers-to-watch lists back in the day. Yelling to the Sky is a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age drama starring Zoe Kravitz. Hardly the sort of film that suggests Mahoney would be ripe for a Star Wars job, and she doesn’t seem to be the sort of diehard geek fan that would align her with her new first-unit boss J.J. Abrams. Like The Last Jedi director Rian Johnson, she’s instead more likely to recommend arthouse fare, including the films of Lucretia Martel and Ousmane Sembene.

But also like Johnson, she’s not not Star Wars fan, judging by her tweets about the franchise in years ahead of landing this gig (note the date above). Mahoney has historically championed more women and persons of color represented in front of and behind the Star Wars lens, once even suggesting people call Kathleen Kennedy to tell her to get Gina Prince-Bythewood a job directing one of the episodes. She has also shared excitement for the new movies, thanking Lucasfilm last December for opening The Last Jedi on her birthday and more recently hyping Solo cinematographer Bradford Young.

As it turns out, while Mahoney was championing her friends and fellow women of color, including Ava DuVernay, for Lucasfilm jobs, DuVernay was endorsing her for the same. Mahoney has worked with DuVernay in the past, helming an episode of the Wrinkle in Time director’s series Queen Sugar, and she was recently tapped to direct the pilot for the DuVernay-produced series Red Line and the two are also collaborating on a sci-fi series based on Octavia E. Butler’s “Dawn.”

What does it really mean for Mahoney to be directing second unit on Episode IX? That’s a good question, since she’s a filmmaker with serious training as an actor (she studied at the Actor’s Studio with the legendary Shelley Winters) and an interest in character-driven dramatic stories and a knack for getting great performances from her casts. Second unit material tends to be more technical and character-free, whether it’s shooting establishing shots or stunt sequences.

It’s possible that Mahoney sees this as an opportunity to gain more experience with that sort of filmmaking. Maybe she wants to become more familiar with how a big budget movie is made so that she will be perfectly skilled for when it’s her turn to be the director of a Star Wars movie or some other franchise tentpole production. Perhaps this is to prove to Kennedy that women filmmakers are capable or at least are moving up the ladder, in response to the Lucasfilm head’s comment two years ago that women directors “can’t come into [a Star Wars gig] with essentially no experience. ”

Mahoney is already set to direct a superhero project, at the helm of the pilot of Freeform’s remake of the British series Misfits. And the Dawn series will have her working again with aliens. She also recently collaborated with Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins on the upcoming TNT series One Day She’ll Darken (also helmed by Carl Franklin). She’s definitely heading in the direction of bigger things, and eventually she could be in the position of a J.J. Abrams giving another deserving director a shot via second-unit production.

While we wait for that, you should check out Yelling to the Sky and the myriad TV episodes Mahoney has directed. And to get you started on appreciating the filmmaker, here’s a very brief artsy short she did for Flaunt magazine starring Selena Gomez titled Searching:

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Christopher began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called 'Read,' back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials.