I can’t believe that it was just last year that Ava DuVernay’s “When They See Us” was the thing that Black folks were watching and discussing on social media. We laughed, we cried, we felt righteous indignation at the way those young men were treated, and immeasurable gratitude for the filmmaker who put their stories on screen for us all to see.
But that was 2019. It is 2020 and that has all changed.
This year, despite all she has done on TV and with film, DuVernay’s views on electoral politics become a central talking point, raising the question of whether she has a cultural role to play.
The story of the Central Park Five has long been recognized as a grave injustice that represents an all too-common story: young Black people having their lives taken from them by a white supremacist “justice” system that is constantly feeding on our community. The impact of DuVernay’s limited series on Netflix was widespread. The prosecutor in the case suffered real life consequences for her actions, and the unjust and inhumane realities of coerced confessions were made real for people who weren’t familiar with them.
As important as these lessons are, part of what made “When They See Us” valuable was the specific, careful representation of the individuals who had their lives forever altered by the events portrayed. These men who had been, since they were children, flattened as “war on crime” stereotypes were allowed to breathe on screen as whole individuals with hopes, dreams, and feelings.
This was quite an achievement–not just for the men who helped her tell the story, but for DuVernay, arguably the most successful Black woman director in Hollywood of all time. Part of what makes her success astonishing is the way she achieved it by emphasizing Black storytelling, and using the ensuing social capital to support other Black artists. The result: people see her as a cultural reference point. She has a sizable social media following and high visibility in public discussions.
DuVernay’s commitment to Black people does not mean that her choices are beyond critical discussion. After the selection of fellow AKA Senator Kamala Harris to be Joe Biden’s running mate in the Presidential election, DuVernay wrote on Instagram:
There is no debate anymore. There’s no room for it in my book…Oh but, Kamala did this or she didn’t do that. I hear you. I know. And I don’t care. Because what she DIDN’T DO is abandon citizens in a pandemic, rip babies from their mother’s arms at the border, send federal troops to terrorize protestors, manufacture new ways to suppress Black and Brown votes….So I don’t wanna hear anything bad about her. It doesn’t matter to me. Vote them in and then let’s hold them accountable. Anything other than that is insanity.
Senator Harris has an uneven track record. So much so that it is difficult to call her a progressive. For those of us who are prison abolitionists, there are few prosecutors whose records we could claim to like. Senator Harris is no different, except she happens to be a Black and Asian American woman.
In this context, it is troubling to see DuVernay say she doesn’t care about Senator Harris’s track record, which made a material difference in the lives of those she had power over. In the aftermath of this post, DuVernay’s comments on social media about voting have been experienced by many as admonishments from a powerful and out of touch woman. More recently, she publicly wished for Donald Trump’s recovery from COVID, which can seem insensitive given that he is, institutionally, responsible for the deaths of over 200,000 people.
Critique is important. Every artist understands that. And because of DuVernay’s social position, she has a platform that others dream of–and with that comes the possibility of widespread censure from strangers. People have a right to be critical of what they hear from her. Yet, with that understanding, there is an important difference between disagreeing with someone on tactical questions and questioning their whole body of work and their commitment to the community.
DuVernay’s cultural contributions are important, even if her investment in Democratic party politics feels dated. Her production on OWN’s “Queen Sugar” has made a point of hiring Black women directors, providing opportunities that so many before her didn’t think to carefully carve out. Each of those directors deserved the opportunity, but in a misogynoirist world, it takes someone with power and care to counterbalance the structural biases against those budding filmmakers.
Of course, the fact that DuVernay has put in the work to tell Black stories and promote Black artists is not a shield from critique. Donald Trump doesn’t need our well-wishes and offering them publicly feels, quite honestly, like an insult to the dead. DuVernay’s response to the social media backlash also left something to be desired. Tagging the employer of a young Black editor in her response to critique is inconsistent with her efforts to create more opportunities for Black creatives. Arguably it reproduces the exact same kind of personal attack she was upset about, except her platform is bigger and more powerful. (She later apologized.)
Black folks have long debated the relative merits of voting versus other forms of changemaking, and it makes sense that intense dialogue is occurring about our strategy for November and beyond. We are not always going to agree, but it’s important to find ways to have these vigorous debates without trying to destroy each other in the process. That means understanding the power we bring to the table, and interrogating the power relations that divide us. It’s easy to reduce Ms. DuVernay to a trope of a rich Black lady who doesn’t get or care for everyday Black life, but her work reflects something different. It remains important, and that won’t change just because she’s better at making films than she is at making political statements.