Retrospective Roundtable

The Films of Ava DuVernay

In the ten years since her feature film directorial debut, Ava DuVernay has directed Academy Award-nominated films and documentaries, created a handful of television shows, and was even a jury member at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival. Though her most recent film A Wrinkle in Time did not receive the same acclaim as her previous works, we eagerly await her return to cinema. DuVernay’s films reflect the humanism of her social and political activism when she isn’t behind the camera as well as offer a look at African American lives and communities that has historically been underrepresented in American cinema.  

I Will Follow (2010)

By Henry Baime

I Will FollowAva DuVernay’s first narrative feature length film, I Will Follow, immediately established her prowess as a director. The film follows Maye (Salli Richardson-Whitfield), an artist who left her work behind to care for her dying aunt, Amanda (Beverly Todd), who refused chemotherapy and had recently passed. It’s a straightforward film with little ornamentation to story and presentation, mostly taking place in a single setting and showcasing conversations between a small cast, the result of which is an extremely efficient two week shoot and a tiny budget of $50,000. Nonetheless, the film feels no less grand and often more profound than many much larger works.

Through the conversations Maye has with twelve visitors in the wake of her aunt’s death and flashbacks of her time with her aunt, there is a sense of movement through all the stages of grief and mourning, finding all the tension, sadness, anger, joy, and early steps involving in moving forward. I Will Follow is at its strongest when various characters began bickering with each other, but to anyone who has lost someone, it is both the outbursts of emotion and moments of silence that likely to bear a resemblance to their own experiences. From her feature film debut, DuVernay was already exhibiting the direction her career would take as a deeply empathetic filmmaker telling stories about universal human emotions through Black characters.

Selma (2014)

By Timan Zheng

SelmaVeering away from the documentaries and somber, indie-budget pictures that once defined her career, Ava DuVernay took aim at the historical Selma-to-Montgomery marches in Selma, her first big-budget feature and wide release. Chronicling one of the most pivotal moments of the civil rights movement, to call the film an ambitious project is an understatement. And yet, it is a clear labour of love, and a powerful one at that — even if a few liberties are taken here and there. Set in 1964, Selma follows Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) and his followers, detailing the arduous three-month period in which they fought against the systematic disenfranchisement of African Americans in the South. This event famously led to the 1965 Voting Rights Act and although that event is not explicitly shown, the relationship between King and, then, President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) is of utmost importance to DuVernay’s film.

Written by Paul Webb and further refined by DuVernay herself, Selma recounts history with unwavering conviction, making its stance clear from the get-go. That is arguably what makes Selma the most interesting from an artistic viewpoint (and perhaps distasteful to some) — DuVernay reportedly rewrote much of Webb’s script to harmonize the inflammatory reality of history. Meaning, historical inaccuracies run rampant: certain figures are entirely omitted and many have debated the borderline vilification of Johnson’s depiction. And while potentially contentious, is this to the detriment of the film? Not quite. Rather than a nonpartisan, birds-eye-view look at history — Selma places Martin Luther King in the limelight. Above all else, this is a film about Dr. King and precisely how integral he was to the marches and the accomplishments that ultimately ensued. Despite being hampered by various hardships, losses, and more King prevails out of sheer principle, even when pushed to the edge — and on that end, Selma succeeds and stands as a genuinely stirring experience.

13th (2016)

By Ben McDonald

13thThe recurring mantra echoed throughout Ava DuVernay’s 13th is that the United States has never left its original sin of slavery behind, that it has merely mutated – like a malignant parasite – to better feed off its host. Through a practical, sobering investigation, DuVernay opens at the beginning of African Americans’ supposed “freedom” granted by the 13th Amendment, gradually peeling back layer after layer of oppression and exploitation as she broadly illustrates the copious amounts of historical evidence since the Civil War demonstrating its failure. It’s not a comprehensive documentary – such a feat would likely be impossible, given the breadth of the topic – yet that’s clearly not its goal. Instead, the film seeks to merely provide the most basic of foundations for one to plainly see the structural injustice at the heart of America. Told predominately through Black voices, the film feels like the jumping-off point for a much deeper personal investigation of modern institutional racism, supplying its audience (including, presumably, a great deal of white Americans) the general directions in which to learn the history that was likely never taught to them. It’s an exceptionally smart and effective film for that reason, forgoing much in the way of cinematic distraction in order to remain focused on the task at hand, only occasionally pausing to allow its audience to take in the harrowing personal stakes behind each and every act of state-sanctioned racial violence.

In the wake of the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many others, many white Americans (including myself) have wondered how they so holistically failed to recognize the overwhelming scope and severity of evidence pointing to systemic racism as an immensely dire issue still plaguing our country today. To even describe it like that – as an external issue, “plaguing” the country – feels woefully dismissive given its inextricable link to every direction our nation has ever taken since its conception. The past two hundred and forty-four years of American history are proof that it is appallingly easy to simply turn a blind eye to these problems, and even after months of powerful protests across the country and the greater world, it remains to be seen whether this long overdue outrage will sustain and transform into real change. 13th was released in 2016, yet it barely feels a day old, not only because racism has come into stronger public scrutiny under the current president, but because by and large not much has changed. The simple truth is that millions of Black men, women, and children are incarcerated, murdered, and denied the civil liberties they rightfully deserve each and every day. Even so, despite imparting an impression so horrifying and bleak, 13th ends on a note of hopeful prescience regarding the current Black Lives Matter movement, forecasting its upwards momentum and visibility as a potential indicator that advancing technology and younger generations will continue to provide a platform to fight this unresolved, central American evil.

A Wrinkle in Time (2018)

By Eugene Kang

A Wrinkle in TimeBefore she filmed a single shot of A Wrinkle in Time, Ava DuVernay made headlines for being the first Black woman to ever film a live-action movie with a budget of over a 100 million dollars. Many saw her appointment as the breaking down of a significant barrier in Hollywood. What seemed to get buried in the discussion was the mammoth difficulty of filming Madeleine L’Engle’s complicated, deeply symbolic and philosophical book. To her credit, DuVernay certainly did not hold back with her blank check. She gifts us images of a 100-ft tall Oprah Winfrey and a large flying creature made from what seems to be cabbage while also creating worlds and environments straight out of 70’s sci-fi. The images last much longer than the story itself, which is muddled and buried under special effects though Storm Reid as Megan and Chris Pine as her father give very strong performances.

When They See Us (2019)

By Eugene Kang

When They See UsThe Central Park Five (now properly known as The Exonerated Five) were a group of young Black men who were indicted in the assaults of several people and the rape and assault of a White female jogger. Much of this miniseries is dedicated to how badly the legal system failed Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, Korey Wise, and Raymond Santana as they endure interminable interrogation from the police without proper legal counsel. There is also a pointed reminder of the media buzz around this case, much of it stoked by Donald Trump, who to this day believes these five men are guilty. DuVernay spends as much time as possible humanizing each one of these boys, but the most heartbreaking story is Korey Wise’s, who was the only one who served as an adult. The despair that DuVernay evokes with Jharrel Jerome’s performance is only made even more cruel because Wise wasn’t even on the original list of suspects and was indicted almost on a whim. Though When They See Us is very much on the side of the five young men, DuVernay reserves her anger mostly for the last episode and lets the legal system condemn itself with its actions and words, especially since she took great pains to recreate the actual footage of their interrogations.



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