By Kevin Douglas
Women directors in the entertainment industry made 2019 a landmark year. Major studios saw monetary and critical success for projects under the command of Greta Gerwig (Little Women), Olivia Wilde (Booksmart), and many others. In the world of television, a Phi Beta Kappa alum made history. Hanelle Culpepper (ΦBK, Lake Forest) was chosen to direct the first three episodes of the CBS All Access series Star Trek: Picard (2020). She is the first woman to launch a new Star Trek series in the franchise’s 53-year history.
Her groundbreaking achievement with Star Trek may have thrust her into the spotlight, but this ΦBK has been making waves as a director for years. Culpepper graduated from Lake Forest College in 1992 with ΦBK honors. With a degree in economics, Culpepper accepted a scholarship for a Ph.D. program at UC Riverside. She quickly realized her heart was not in economics—deep down, she knew she was a director. She dropped out of Riverside and went on to receive her M.A. at The Annenberg School at USC.
Culpepper has been making acclaimed short films and feature-length thrillers since 2002. Her short film A Single Rose (2004) was featured at the Cannes Film Festival’s ICG Showcase. She continued to find success with independent features and short projects. Her supernatural thriller Within (2009) won the Tabloid Witch Award for Best Horror Film, further validating Culpepper’s natural talents for crafting suspense. The film aired on Lifetime in July 2010, marking another breakthrough in her career. People were starting to take notice.
Culpepper was selected to partake in NBC/Universal’s 2012 Directing Initiative.The program opened many doors for her, notably the chance to direct an episode of NBC’s Parenthood (2012). This was just the beginning: The CW’s 90210 (2012), CBS’s Criminal Minds (2014), and ABC’s American Crime (2014), among many others, initiated working relationships with her. As of 2020, Culpepper has directed episodes for some of the most popular shows on television, including Hawaii 5-0 (2015), The Flash (2016, 2017, 2018), Gotham (2017), and How To Get Away with Murder (2017). She has directed four episodes of Criminal Minds, and her work for the show garnered a nomination for the NAACP Image Award in 2015.
This last year was a major one for Culpepper. On top of launching the new Star Trek series, she was selected to be a part of the inaugural class of ReFrame Rise. This two-year sponsorship program is for "experienced female directors who are poised to lead commercial features and high-profile television shows." Culpepper’s inclusion in the program means Picard is just the beginning: the next two years could garner even more groundbreaking opportunities for Culpepper to showcase the skills she has attained and refined through her career thus far. This could mean even larger roles in TV and, potentially, a return to filmmaking.
Culpepper’s success in the entertainment industry reflects Phi Beta Kappa’s core values. As a woman of color, Culpepper’s career has been an uphill battle. Commercial television has been a male-dominated field for years—even today, 50% of TV episodes are directed by white men. But committed to personal freedom and the pursuit of her creative endeavors, Culpepper has cultivated the path of storytelling she has wanted since she was a kid. She “staged thriller plays for [her] family in front of sheets tacked to the wall, recorded horror radio soaps on cassette tapes,” and according to Culpepper, her dad even referred to her as the “female Hitchcock”. Culpeppper knew from an early age that this was in her nature. Even if the career path seemed like one pitted against her.
Figures like Wilde, Gerwig, and Culpepper remind the world that women belong in the director’s chair, and a lack of recognition from major awards shows won’t stop them from putting in the work. We at Phi Beta Kappa cannot wait to see what Culpepper does next.
Kevin Douglas is a senior at the University of Denver majoring in theater and English. The University of Denver is home to the Gamma of Colorado chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.