Written and directed by the great Ava DuVernay, When They See Us tells the story of the young Kevin Richardson (Asante Blackk), Yusuf Salaam (Ethan Herisse), Raymond Santana (Marquis Rodriguez), Antron McCray (Caleel Harris) and Korey Wise (Jharrel Jerome), five black and brown boys no older than sixteen-years old who were falsely accused of raping a female jogger in Central Park on April 19th, 1989. Criminally abused and coerced by police detectives led by Linda Fairstein (Felicity Huffman), and prosecutor Elizabeth Lederer (Vera Farmiga), we see these boys and their families stripped of everything for nothing.
Last week, all I could think about was finally seeing Ava Duvernay’s latest directorial feat, A Wrinkle in Time. Despite the mixed coverage of the film, nothing was going to diminish my eagerness. Adapted from the classic novel by Madeleine L’Engle, the film follows Meg Murry, portrayed by Storm Reid, as she travels throughout the universe to find her scientist father with the help of her brother, Charles Wallace, friend, Calvin, and the extraordinary Mrs., Mrs. Which, Mrs. Whatsit, and Mrs. Who, played by Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, and Mindy Kaling, respectively. My expectations were definitely high, but DuVernay and company didn’t just deliver an entertaining movie–they delivered an experience.
When I decided that I wanted to take serious steps to work in film, directing wasn’t even a thought. I didn’t think I was creative enough or simply be good at it. Frankly, I hadn’t really heard of female directors, let alone black female directors. I knew maybe two directors by name, but female directors weren’t known on a name-basis to people outside the industry. I slowly began to consider writing but producing still seemed like the only viable option.
Then, in 2014, my dad caught my attention. He said someone he went to UCLA with directed the movie we were both excited to see, Selma, and that he remembered how hard she worked back when they were in college. So, I look her up to see what else she’s done. While I hadn’t heard of her prior work, I was amazed beyond belief. She was the first black woman to win the jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival for a film she wrote and directed, Middle of Nowhere. Before I saw Selma, I was already in awe of what she had accomplished, and once I saw the film, from the very first scene, I was mesmerized by what she could do. DuVernay’s film gave me one of my favorite moviegoing experience with my dad. She told the story of our people in a way no one else could have accomplished. Someone who looked like me doing something that some might say isn’t “for us.” And then to see her at the Oscar seemed like a validation that my dreams could come true.
When considering the work of female filmmakers, Ava DuVernay is a name that stands out in the minds of many. Her achievements are overwhelming; she is the first African-American woman to win the Best Director prize at Sundance, the first black woman to be nominated for a Best Director Golden Globe, and the first black female director to have a film nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars. She has Emmys, Black Reel Awards, Independent Spirit Awards and countless nominations under her belt. In 2018, her film ‘A Wrinkle in Time’ will make Ava DuVernay the first black woman to direct a live-action film with a budget of over $100 million.
In many ways, these facts are shocking – DuVernay should not have had to be the first to lay claim to these achievements. Regardless, her filmography paints a picture of true passion for the moving image. From short films to television specials, documentaries to biographical films, there doesn’t seem to be much that the filmmaker won’t try her hand at. As a director, writer, producer, marketer, and distributor, DuVernay is also involved in every level of the process – occasionally even making appearances in front of the camera (‘This is the Life (2008)’). The variety of her work represents not only an ability to adapt to various genres, but also the method by which she rose to fame. DuVernay did not go to film school, and instead practised her craft through lower-budget documentary filmmaking.