Posts Tagged ‘Ava DuVernay’

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The 13th is Ava DuVernay’s latest film and was released through Netflix in October 2016. It’s a documentary about mass incarceration, in the United States, that disproportionately affects African-American men. DuVernay both directed and co-wrote the film, and it’s a follow-up to her Oscar nominated Best Picture biopic Selma, in which she also directed. The 13th was also nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the 89th Academy Awards.

The 13th is a broad overview of a pressing American issue which was mentioned quite often during the 2016 Presidential Election. The film begins with the 13th Amendment, its subsequent abolition of slavery and covers the next 100 years including the Jim Crow laws, segregation, the Civil Rights movement, and the Black Lives Matter movement. Its central thesis is that the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provided a loophole, which reads, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”  The key words here are, “except as a punishment for crime.” Unfortunately, after the Civil War, many Black men were arrested and convicted of made-up offenses to essentially re-enslave them in the South.

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When that became an unpopular practice, the Jim Crow laws made sure that Blacks continued to be disenfranchised and second-class citizens. The progress of the Civil Rights movement and resulting desegregation was wiped away by the influx of drugs into minority and poorer neighborhoods.  This resulted in many arrests of dealers and users, once Republican President Richard Nixon cried out for a war on drugs and talked about bringing, “law and order.” This phrase is both frightening and an eerie carbon copy of what current President Donald Trump promised he’d deliver once elected. The problem became further exacerbated by Reagan’s policy of “Just Say No” and tougher sentences for crack possession over cocaine possession. This meant that 1980’s White Wall Street traders went largely unpunished, while their poorer Black counterparts got sent to Rikers Island for years for holding 10 times less.

These findings are backed up by shocking statistics that are highlighted in the film. For example, the film starts off with the fact that the United States makes up 5% of the world’s population, but holds 25% of the world’s prisoners. It explains that in 1970 there were 200,000 U.S. prisoners and in 2014 there were approximately 2,300,000.  Over 800,000 of these prisoners are African-American. In fact, a startling disparity DuVernay calls out is that 1 in 3 Black men will end up in prison at some point in their life versus 1 in 17 White men. This comparison is both heartbreaking and incomprehensible.

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DuVernay uses archival footage and 47 interviews with prominent activists, historians, pundits, and politicians like Angela Davis, Henry Louis Gates, Van Jones, and Cory Booker. She starts with disturbing images of D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation and end-caps it with haunting pictures of Treyvon Martin. The film takes a wide-angle view at a multitude of issues that have led us to the present day problem. Starting with the verbiage of the 13th Amendment itself, to reconstruction in the South, Jim Crow, segregation, Civil Rights, Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, drugs, ALEC (a non-profit organization that teams up with corporations to write legislation and pass it on to Republican members of Congress), the media, the privatization of prisons, the militarization of the police, and mostly never addressed in other films – the systematic elimination of powerful African-American leaders.

 

With so many causes covered, I couldn’t help but wonder if this film would have been more effective as a limited series on Netflix.  With perhaps an hour devoted to each of the items listed above.  The interview and story of Angela Davis’ was so powerful, she deserves her own documentary too.

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DuVernay uses music to transition between each of the issues and highlights the words of the songs. What’s fascinating is that since the Civil War, the songs all include lyrics about being locked up in chains from folk songs to rap group, Public Enemy. There were a few too many talking-head style interviews included, and the film felt like it could have been 10 minutes shorter. It seemed that a few of the interviewees’ points were shown multiple times just so the audience could hear the words, “mass incarceration” over and over again.

I didn’t personally learn many new findings having already been familiar with the unjust mass incarceration of African-Americans through my political activism.  But I felt the weight of the film and its potential to educate those with less knowledge on the matter.

It also felt strange that the audience was predominately White. I saw the film through DocuDay, an event that the International Documentary Association (IDA) runs.  They screen all the Oscar nominated documentaries on Oscar weekend. It made me wonder who is DuVernay’s intended audience?  Was she preaching to the choir at the event I attended?  Were most of the educated upper-middle class people in attendance going to go out, discuss it over dinner, and then go home and forget about it until they vote in 2018?

But I went to this specific screening for a reason. I could have watched it at home on Netflix on my sofa. However, Ava DuVernay was there for a Q&A after the film. She squeezed it in between her new film, A Wrinkle in Time, which is shooting in New Zealand, the Independent Spirit Awards, and the next day’s Oscars. I was grateful to hear from her and learn from her insights. It was moderated by Simon Kilmurry, the Executive Director of IDA. One great question  he asked DuVernay was, “What do you hope people will do after watching this film?”  She first said,”Let’s hope you do someting.”But then she added, “I’m really interested in how people change what they think about who a criminal is.”

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There were also some questions about her experience with Selma during the 87th Academy Awards and some sophisticated candor in her answer as to how she felt about that and what her expectations were for this years’ Academy Awards. Another question by Kilmurry was, “How do you see documentary film fitting into your overall body of work?”  She answered, “We have to look to the people that inspire us. And you know Spike Lee’s career really inspires me. Unfortunately there’s no Black woman that I can look to and see a career like the one I want to have. Because there are none that have been given the opportunity and the resources and the support and the amplifications to have careers where they’ve made more than four films in different formats with different ways in which their amplified…”  What’s ironic in this statement is DuVernay may not have any similar person to look to, to model her career after, but she is creating a pathway for future Black women filmmakers. She is the trailblazer.

Lastly, Netflix is offering to screen this film for free, for those that don’t have a Netflix subscription in public libraries, schools, and in gatherings of three or more people. This is excellent, and while watching the film I felt that it would be useful as a teaching tool. I went with my boyfriend and another male friend to the screening. They liked the film, and I think they learned something. And isn’t that the point?

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By Amelia Solomon

It was a new year of hope and change, and then the biggest blunder of 2015 to date happened.  Okay, the second biggest blunder, if you count that little snafu where the United States “forgot” to send a representative to the Anti-Terrorism Unity Rally in Paris.

Maybe Biden and Kerry had post traumatic stress disorder from childhood games of Red Rover.

On the morning of Thursday, January 15th, the nominees for the 87th Academy Awards were announced.  Some of the nominations were expected, some were unexpected, and then others were given the infamous Oscar snub.  A snub by the Academy is nothing new.  In fact, it happens almost every year to someone.  For example, in 2013 both Ben Affleck and Kathryn Bigelow did not receive Best Director nominations, even though the films they directed, Argo and Zero Dark Thirty respectively, were both nominated for Best Picture.  2014 saw Spike Jonze miss out on a Best Director nomination for Her.

My beard should make me a shoe-in.

With often only five nominees announced per category, it’s a given that not everyone will get honored.  But Hollywood doesn’t have its panties in a twist this go round for no reason.  This year was less about too many great films to choose from, leaving an unlucky person out of the running, and more about an obvious dismissal of works by African-Americans and women.

Where dreams come true. Or not.

Let’s break down the biggest offenses by category and then look at the numbers:

-The Best Picture category expanded from five nominees to 10 in 2009, in order to allow inclusion of pictures that picked up a nomination in a category like best writing, adapted screenplay, but wouldn’t have normally made it into the best overall picture.  This was also a way where smaller films, made outside the studio system, would have a chance to compete against the $100 million studio backed contenders.  So it’s surprising that this year the Academy only nominated the following eight films:  American Sniper, Birdman, Boyhood, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Imitation Game, Selma, The Theory of Everything, and Whiplash.  What’s also interesting is that every single one of these films revolves around a male main character.  It’s true that the number of films featuring a female protagonist are dismally low, but this category should have included Gone Girl and Wild.  Both films feature female leads and both films were deserving of a best picture nomination.  Gone Girl has made $167 million and has an 88% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.  Wild has made $33 million, which is quite successful for an indie, and has a 91% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.  This isn’t about adding two films just because they had female leads.  It’s recognizing two films that have been both critically and financially successful and with two open slots, there seems no reasonable explanation for their omission.

It worked for James Franco in 127 Hours.

-The Best Director category this year includes Birdman, Boyhood, Foxcatcher, The Grand Budapest Hotel, and The Imitation Game.  But where is Selma?  Selma has made $29 million and has a 99% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.  Its story resonates with what has been happening in Missouri and New York recently.  It’s already proven its worth in various award circles where it was nominated for a Golden Globe for best motion picture drama and best director, won the AFI Award for movie of the year, nominated for best director for the Independent Spirit Awards, and won the freedom of expression award for The National Board of Review.  It’s placement in a multitude of additional film award programs is also not a fluke.  The film, directed by Ava DuVernay, were it to have garnered a best director nomination from the Academy, would have made history.  Ms. DuVernay would have been the first African-American woman to receive a best director nomination and only the fifth woman in the history of the Academy to receive a best director nomination.  But most importantly, Ms. DuVernay didn’t deserve a nomination because of her race or sex; she deserved a nomination because her film was one of the top films of 2014.  Whereas a film like Foxcatcher, lacked fine-tuning in terms of pacing and length, which is a misstep by the director.

Yes Ms. DuVernay really is a Director.

-The Best Actor category this year includes Steve Carell for Foxcatcher, Bradley Cooper for American Sniper, Benedict Cumberbatch for The Imitation Game, Michael Keaton for Birdman, and Eddie Redmayne for The Theory of Everything.  Again, the missing film is Selma and the missing actor is David Oyelowo.  It’s another instance where an African-American didn’t make the list.  Oyelowo has already been nominated for best actor for a Golden Globe, for best male lead for an Independent Spirit Award, and for best actor for a Critics’ Choice Movie Award all for his role as Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma.  I’d replace Carell with Oyelowo in a heartbeat.  Visionary leader simply trumps creepy guy with a prosthetic nose every time, especially when the latter was only a supporting character.

This looks familiar.

-The Best Adapted Screenplay category this year includes Jason Hall for American Sniper, Graham Moore for The Imitation Game, Paul Thomas Anderson for Inherent Vice, Anthony McCarten for The Theory of Everything,  and Damien Chazelle for Whiplash.  The biggest misses in this section were female screenwriter Gillian Flynn for Gone Girl and Nick Hornby for Wild.  Both Gone Girl and Wild were successful books, revolving around strong female characters, and were extremely successful films.  In order for this to happen, the writer who pens the adaptation must know what they’re doing.  Inherent Vice is a trippy comical farce, but it’s all over the place, lacking a clear plot and making sense only half the time.  Whiplash is about a young Jazz drummer who dreams of becoming the next Charlie Parker and his abusive college band teacher.  It’s a simple story, with lots of tension, but the locations are simple, there are few characters and it most certainly did not come derived from a novel with two points of view, told in both the present and past, or from a memoir relying heavily on flashbacks to enhance the current situations.  In other words, both Gone Girl and Wild were difficult books to adapt and that is the mark of a best adapted screenplay.

The Cool Girl Speech. Enough said.

There were many other misses in this year’s Oscar nominations, but overall the above mistakes highlight the fact that both deserving African-Americans and women were passed over.  It doesn’t matter if some films weren’t nominated because the screeners didn’t get sent out in time, which is really a reason being touted in the blogosphere.  Or maybe the reason is because 12 Years a Slave won last year, and the members of the Academy already awarded a film about African-Americans.  I certainly hope that’s not the reason, but I don’t doubt it.

Damn you, US Postal Service.

It’s also a shame when the conversation about how DuVernay and Oyelowo deserved nominations gets twisted.  Somewhere along the line it gets lost that they deserved the nomination not just to make history, and because they are African-American or a woman, but it’s because their directing, their acting, and frankly the film was that good.  The only reason race and sex comes into it is because the public is trying to understand why they weren’t commended.  The one explanation that makes sense is this is what results when the people who do the picking are mostly male and predominantly white.  But it’s important to remember that change doesn’t happen from the outside, it comes from within.  So the best thing anyone can do is not get discouraged, support these films, and go and make yours; in other words keep trying to affect change.

Remember when Congress was only white men?

 

 

Middle of Nowhere is an aptly titled film.  The most obvious meaning the prison where the protagonist Ruby, wonderfully acted by relative newcomer Emamyatzy Corinealdi, visits her husband Derek, played by Omari Hardwick.  Derek is serving an eight year sentence for a non-violent crime.  The correctional facility is located in Victorville, California, and any Angeleno will tell you that is in the middle of nowhere.  But like any good film, the title has a deeper meaning.  It is a metaphor for the state of Ruby’s life.

A devoted wife and still very much in love with her spouse she voluntarily stalls the trajectory of her life, and waits for Derek.  Four years into his prison sentence he is up for parole.  Meanwhile, Ruby has made ends meet by forgoing med school and working night shifts as a nurse.  She travels all night and makes multiple bus transfers to get home to her sister and help babysit her nephew.  But it all comes crashing down on her, when she learns during the parole hearing that Derek may not have been as devoted to her as she was to him.  It is at this pivotal moment, that the viewer becomes struck with the realization that Ruby is trapped and a lost soul.  Unfortunately for Ruby, it takes her longer to come to this level of consciousness.

That is, until she meets Los Angeles bus driver Brian, played by the Royal Shakespeare Company trained David Oyelowo.  Like any good love interest, Brian has a wound too.  He is recovering from a divorce and in similar fashion to Ruby he is screaming out for somebody to love him.  There is a beautiful scene where after a date at a dance club, Ruby goes back to Brian’s place.  But they just stand in the middle of the room and hold one another, as if they have never experienced human touch.  Brian is persistent and he breaks down Ruby’s walls, freeing her of her past life with Derek and allowing her to finally go somewhere.

The film written and directed by Ava DuVernay won the Best Director Award at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival.  DuVernay started out as a Publicist in Hollywood and Middle of Nowhere is the second feature film she’s directed.  I was lucky enough to stumble upon a surprise Q & A after the screening with actor Oyelowo.  He shared that DuVernay first wrote this film ten years ago and the version on the silver screen now is the result of almost a decade of hard work.  Any writer can appreciate that, because they know each project is a journey.

When asked what drew him to the character of Brian, Oyelowo explained, in his refined British accent, “….I loved the opportunity to get to play the complications of what we as human beings have to endure, when it comes to love.”