“If you are a woman in Hollywood, if you are of color, particularly if you’re black, the founding images of cinema are adverse to your very humanity. And if the images of the medium you work in are adverse to your very humanity, then every action is a reaction. So everything I do tries to provide contrast. I try and pivot from the characterization of what women should be, what black people should be, what black women should be. I try to counter the presentation of black life—within Hollywood, within the studio system, within what makes it to theaters.”
– Ava DuVernay, in an interview with New Republic
I wish I could tell you I have always been a fan of Ava DuVernay’s work, but it would be a lie.
The director, screenwriter, producer, and now film distributor, who turns just 45 today, has an incredible list of accomplishments to her name. DuVernay was selected to receive the John Schlesinger Britannia Award for Excellence in Directing from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA). Her first BAFTA was awarded for Best Documentary for her film 13th. She was the first black woman to win Sundance’s Best Director Prize (Middle of Nowhere), the first black woman to be nominated for a Golden Globe for best director (Selma), and she has earned two Academy Award nominations—Best Picture (Selma) and Best Documentary Feature (13th).
So I would very much like to say I have long been an advocate for Ava DuVernay’s work, or that I have been following her meteoric rise closely, or even that two months ago I could have listed her filmography without reference. Unfortunately, none of that became true until I wrote a short piece about her forthcoming film, A Wrinkle in Time. In researching that piece, I learned DuVernay was the first woman of color to direct a live-action film with a budget over $100 million, and I became insatiably curious about her work.
I think of myself as an advocate for both women and people of color in the arts. But as I mined DuVernay’s filmography I realized something horrible—something I hesitate to share. I didn’t think DuVernay’s work was for me. None of my friends had seen Queen Sugar, now on its second season on OWN. No one said to me of Middle of Nowhere, “You have to see this film. You will see yourself in it.” We can think of ourselves as advocates, but as Junot Diaz points out, “White supremacy’s greatest trick is that it has convinced people that it exists always in other people, never in us.”
What surprised me most in watching Ava DuVernay’s work—all of it—is how she was clearly representing me, too. And there is no way to present that realization without also acknowledging my own failure, because of course that should not surprise me. If white directors, producers, and distributors can expect me to empathize and identify with an all-white cast, why shouldn’t we expect that of an all-black one? DuVernay demands this of her audience. Her films depict people who are real, whole, both gifted and flawed, and who you will recognize intimately.
Craftsmanship and Mastering Lyric Storytelling
Ava DuVernay’s work is haunting. Her depictions of characters in their grief are relentless. She uses long, still camera shots that rely on the skill of her actors to carry the full arc of emotion to its realization. In Middle of Nowhere, Ruby (Emayatzy Corinealdi) learns of her husband’s betrayal after years of sacrificing her own happiness for the sake of the marriage. The shots that follow move slowly, detailing Ruby’s loneliness and despair—Ruby weeping on her sister’s shoulder, Ruby facing a wall while she cries alone at work, Ruby sitting in stunned silence in a long cab ride. The sequence is married with slow piano, as if to echo that no dialogue is needed here. You don’t need to hear pain when it is rendered so visibly.
DuVernay perhaps best displays her use of this technique in her short film, The Door. “She” (Gabrielle Union) greets four friends in their successive attempts to draw her out of her grief, though none seem successful. Finally, after her evening with friend and songstress “O” (Goapele Mohlabane), She finds her happiness again. The transformation is enough to push She to leave behind her marriage—though we never know what it is she’s unhappy about. The truth is, it doesn’t matter. The feelings are still so recognizable. Whatever has caused her pain, we know she needs help finding the strength to overcome it. But DuVernay accomplishes all of this in a film with no dialogue. Music often takes the place of dialogue in DuVernay’s work, but it only serves to further humanize her characters, as you cannot look away from such recognizable emotion.
Her first feature film, I Will Follow, depicts literal loss, as Maye (Salli Richardson-Whitfield) is forced to grapple with the grief of losing her beloved aunt. Roger Ebert called the film an “invitation to empathy,” saying “In one way or another, every emotion in this wonderful independent film is one I’ve experienced myself.” This is not unlike my own reaction to DuVernay’s work. These characters are like me. Their emotion is tangible. I see myself in her work.
On Humanizing Blackness and Taking Back Film
“There’s a kind of historical trajectory that we can trace here through media and technology…In the 1950s Dr. King and the Civil Rights movement used television in this way. Look, this is what segregation looks like. These are dogs attacking children. These are people being fire-hosed…searching for the medium of technology that will confirm your experience, such that your basic humanity can be recognized.”
– Jelani Cobb, 13th
Ava DuVernay’s Academy Award-nominated documentary the 13th is a must-watch. Not just in respect to her body of work, but in regards to the topical conversation Americans are having with their leaders and police. As Christina Tucker wrote in her review, “13th allows the viewer to see cause and effect clearly and understand how and why the dehumanization of black people is such a cultural touchstone, and more interestingly, the way all Americans are complicit in this culture of criminalization.”
The film traces the damning and still-lasting effects Birth of Nation (1915) had on America’s view of freed slaves post-Civil War and how those origins have influenced our modern depictions of “criminality.” Our enslavement of people of color is built on the historic use of the prison industrial complex to perpetuate white privilege. But, as Tucker pointed out, 13th implicates all Americans—liberal, conservative, white, black.
This ambiguity is a cornerstone of DuVernay’s work. Over and over again she shows us there are no simple answers, there is no one solution, people can be both good and bad. Queen Sugar tackles this complexity with unflinching honesty. While the Bordelon siblings are struggling to keep an inheritance of land after their father’s death, land they learn was acquired from the white family who owned their ancestors, they are simultaneously engaged in oppressing the brown people who work their land. Where most creators would stop at drawing a line between oppressor and oppressed, DuVernay adds shades and layers to her work. Queen Sugar acknowledges that even as some people are able to rise, the systems that exploit poor people of color do not cease to exist.
13th points out that the lifetime likelihood of imprisonment for black men in the United States is 1 in 3. (That’s compared to 1 in 17 for white men.) This is a statistic DuVernay has been careful to represent in her other work. Middle of Nowhere reflects the devastation incarceration can have on a family, both emotionally and financially. Queen Sugar chronicles the inescapable nature of the criminal system through Ralph Angel, just as Nova depicts the seemingly insurmountable challenge of changing it. But again, there is no simple solution to a problem that is rooted in the foundation of this country, so DuVernay does not provide one. She said of her decision to end 13th in such a way, “Viewers should be uncomfortable and walk out of there thinking, ‘Fuck, I gotta do something.’”
What that “something” is, DuVernay would say is entirely up to you. In a conversation with Oprah about 13th, DuVernay says, “People always say ‘What do I do now?’ Well what do you want to do? Which part of this whole crazy system speaks to your heart? Because it’s not a one-answer solution.”
“Amanda’s family is African-American. The neighbor and some of the visitors are white. Why do I mention race? I wasn’t going to. This is a universal story about universal emotions. Maybe I mention it because this is the kind of film black filmmakers are rarely able to get made these days, offering roles for actors who remind us here of their gifts.”
– Roger Ebert, on I Will Follow
In embracing solutions, DuVernay is a model for empowering the under-represented. After 14 years as a marketer and publicist, and working as a crewmember, DuVernay transitioned to creator, director, and producer. Perhaps it’s her intimate knowledge of so many aspects of the filmmaking process that make her uniquely suited to helm ARRAY, the distribution company she founded that is “dedicated to the amplification of films by people of color and women.” But she models this advocacy in all of her work.
DuVernay selected all female directors for seasons one and two of Queen Sugar. She acknowledges that decision can be seen as a “radical statement,” but says, “For us, this is not a trend, this is not a publicity stunt. This is our choice.”
DuVernay’s advocacy extends to cast, as well as crew. In her upcoming film, Wrinkle in Time, the Murry family is biracial and protagonist Meg will be played by Storm Reid. On this decision, DuVernay has said the concept of brown kids traveling through the universe, dealing with technology and science and love and darkness really interested her. With the additional layer of race and a biracial Murry family, there are implications to Meg’s outsider status that take on new significance. DuVernay’s lens imbues her work with the push for change she’s long advocated for.
DuVernay’s current slate of work is ever-growing. Queen Sugar has been renewed for a third season, and DuVernay is currently developing a film about the Central Park Five, as well as an adaptation of Octavia E. Butler’s Dawn. On this frenetic pace, DuVernay says, “I feel like I have a short window, to be honest with you…There is no black woman who’s made seven films. So for me it feels like a window that could close at any time.”
It’s my greatest hope DuVernay gives us the longest of filmographies. Whatever is in store for her work, it’s clear she’s already made a lasting impact on the film industry. Film critic Manohla Dargis, in a review of the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, proposed the DuVernay test. To pass, a film must depict “African-Americans and other minorities [having] fully realized lives rather than [serving] as scenery in white stories.” And now, given Disney’s global distribution, A Wrinkle in Time is likely to put DuVernay’s work straight into the homes of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of families worldwide.
Let’s just hope they’re watching.
Featured Image: Netflix