Social Justice Auteur: A Celebration of the Work of Ava DuVernay
By FF2 Intern Julia Lasker
Ava DuVernay is a filmmaker that, in 2020, you need to know. She began creating films in 2010 and since then has become a historic name in the cinematic world. She was the first Black woman to win an award for Best Director at Sundance and to direct an Oscar-nominated Best Picture film. The success of her films has made her the highest-grossing Black female director in American history. She has done incredible work in portraying issues of inequality in the US. In 2010, she created her own distribution company called ARRAY, which focuses on working towards racial and gender equality in the film industry. In my opinion, her recurring themes of social justice and her distinct aesthetic make DuVernay one of the most significant auteurs of our time.
DuVernay most recently adapted the iconic children’s book Wrinkle in Time for the screen. To me, Wrinkle in Time is best digested as a novel because its images and events play well into the limitlessness of the imagination. That being said, DuVernay made an excellent attempt at capturing the book through the mode of film. The film explodes with color, and the action is set against wonderfully surreal-looking backdrops. The protagonists, “Charles Wallace” (Deric McCabe), “Mia” (Storm Reid), and “Calvin” (Levi Miller), are charming kids that give powerful performances in darker moments. Mindy Kaling, Reese Witherspoon and Oprah absolutely shine as their quirky spiritual guides. While most of DuVernay’s films are serious and realistic, here she’s able to play around with elements of magic, a fantastical storyline, and the distinct world of childhood. What’s most impressive about Wrinkle in Time, however, is that despite the fantasy tropes, DuVernay manages to ground it in reality and bring it all back to essential themes of our day. The children must fight against what they call “It:” a darkness spreading through the universe, causing fear and then anger in people it touches. We are shown how the “It” affects the people on Earth, causing them to harass, abuse, and hate each other. The “It” is, for lack of a better word, a kid-friendly metaphor for a very real phenomenon in our world: our bigotry and racism stem from the darkness within ourselves, from fear and anger that tear us apart.
On the topic of the “It,” DuVernay’s most well-known film is probably Selma, a biopic about Martin Luther King Jr. and the Voting Rights protests he led in Selma, Alabama. It tells the story of the Civil Rights Movement from King’s perspective, giving us glimpses into his personal life as well as his interactions with political figures and the citizens he leads in protest. Selma depicts the intimate details of the demonstrations: the complex interpersonal disagreements on strategy (among both the Black protesters and the white politicians they were protesting against), and the impact of the trials and tribulations of the march on the psyches of MLK, his followers, and other Americans. Selma allows us to learn about important events in the Civil Rights Movement without the detachment we form when we read about it in a textbook. Instead of viewing it from a comfortable distance, we are placed inside of MLK’s world to confront the personal impacts of the movement and the simultaneous power and powerlessness of its people.
One of the most impactful parts of Selma is its shots of protestors being brutally attacked by police. This image is quite disturbingly, all too familiar in the context of today. Selma takes place in the sixties, and yet the struggles that its Black protagonists face, and the necessity of the rights they are fighting for, are very much still present today. Enter DuVernay’s most recent documentary, 13th. This doc outlines how politicians have continually undermined the 13th amendment (which abolished slavery) since its formation by denying Black and brown Americans their rights and keeping them down in society. This has resulted in more covert, socially accepted forms of slavery that have endured to this day. More specifically, 13th examines the US Prison-Industrial Complex and breaks down the ways in which it robs— explicitly Black and brown— Americans of their rights as citizens. In an interview, political commentator Van Jones asserts that “you have to shock people into paying attention.” I think this perfectly captures DuVernay’s purpose in creating this film; she does not hold back in displaying the brutal reality of systematic racism in the US through a convincing narrative, statistics and disturbing footage. Even if you “know” the truths of systemic racism in US history, as I thought I did, to confront it all at once through this film is devastating. But in the end, it’s not DuVernay’s film that’s brutal: it’s the reality we’ve created, and it’s our job to fix it. For that reason, absolutely everyone should see this film. Honestly, if you take anything from this article, let it be that.
I believe 13th is the culmination of DuVernay’s powerful influence, which she has been building up for a decade. She uses her engaging and entertaining directorial style to hook us in to a past-due lesson in social justice. She is a filmmaker with something to say and an impressive way of saying it, and because of that, her voice simply must be heard.
© Julia Lasker (9/25/2020) FF2 Media
First Photo: © 2018 Ray Tamarra
Second Photo: © 2018 Tobias A. Schliessler
Third Photo: Atsushi Nishijima – © 2014 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
Fourth Photo: © 2016 Netflix