A celebrated writer-director, documentarian, TV showrunner and activist, DuVernay was the first black woman to be nominated for a Golden Globe Award for Best Director. She was also the first black female director to have her film nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture.
These achievements, in the context of the controversial award season of 2015, with such a dearth of nominations for BIPOC artists, served to highlight systemic issues with the Academy Awards, and Hollywood in general. Yet, they also signify DuVernay’s importance.
She has had her hits, like Selma and When They See Us, and her misses, like A Wrinkle in Time, like everyone at her level. But there is a consistent scrupulous vehemence to all her work, from the most important documentary, like 13th, to the lightest of romantic stories, like Cherish the Day. It’s a restless energy matched only by her own diverse output.
In the case of the limited TV series When they See Us, telling the story of the Central Park 5, the world felt the pain and anguish of Black America with what felt like an unalloyed rawness never before shared. Had anyone allowed that before? Well, DuVernay is coming through and asking no one’s say so.
She may or may not drive the often-promised Black cinema renaissance that truly centres Black stories and voices. Too many things are out of her control. But there has never been a better time, or a better woman on point.
As such, while the representation of women in cinema has its yardstick, the Bechdel Test – do two women have a conversation in this movie that isn’t about a man? – Ava has given her name to its racial equivalent. The DuVernay Test asks whether BIPOC characters have fully realised lives or are they only there to support white stories?
So, when we call Hollywood on its ongoing problems with race, her work is at the forefront of our minds. She might like that, and it seems to us, it suits fine.
For me, it’s a question of the way we pursue our creative dreams. There is something in our culture that says your dream or the thing you’re pursuing has to happen immediately and all at once, and that is destructive to the creative spirit. I just embraced the idea that this was going to be a gradual exploration of the thing I was interested in – making films – and gave myself permission to go slowly. I’m not going to continue knocking that old door that doesn’t open for me. I’m going to create my own door and walk through that.
NB. This article was written back when our ‘Guests of Honour’ section was called ‘The 2269 Pantheon’.