As a cinema studies minor and someone who is highly interested in a career in the film industry, I do not think that it is discussed enough just how inspiring director Ava DuVernay is. In conjunction with DuVernay’s rise, the dearth of female filmmakers is another topic that I think often goes under the radar. I have taken a number of cinema studies courses at Bowdoin, and looking around the rooms over the years I know that there is not a lack of women in the film industry. However, when I think about the best directors of all time or even the best directors in the industry today, I do not think that there is a single female director that comes to mind, outside of DuVernay, and that is a problem.
Though there is a clear lack of female directors in Hollywood, it is hardly surprising given Hollywood’s long history of misogyny on and off the screen. Filmmaking is an industry that was started by men for men, which is a big part of why there is an absence of women in directorial roles today. Throughout Hollywood’s “illustrious” history, men have made films fetishizing and domesticating women for the pleasure of male viewers. Therefore it is no surprise that even in 2019, women are still objectified and underrated by a historically male-dominated industry, which makes DuVernay’s journey to the top that much more impressive.
I admittedly had not heard of DuVernay until her social media-shattering Netflix drama/biopic miniseries, “When They See Us.” Before “When They See Us,” DuVernay was most well-known for her award-winning films “Selma” and “13th,” which I still have yet to see but hope to in the near future. After seeing “When They See Us,” I am confident that I will be blown away by those films as well.
Like many others, I had never heard of the Central Park Jogger case from 1989 before watching the miniseries, and it was great to see such a tragic case finally brought into the spotlight thanks to DuVernay. The miniseries chronicles the story of the “Central Park Five,”—Kevin Richardson and Raymond Santana, both age 14, Antron McCray and Yusef Salaam, both age 15, and Korey Wise, age 16—who were all wrongfully accused of raping Trisha Meili, a 28-year-old white woman jogging through Central Park. At the mercy of the NYPD, all five boys were beaten and coerced into confessing to the crime that they did not commit. It is a truly grim and heartbreaking narrative, and I cannot say enough good things about the way DuVernay illustrated it. Thanks to top-notch performances across the board, with Jharrel Jerome of “Moonlight” as Korey Wise standing out in particular, I would go as far as to say that it is the most emotionally-gripping narrative I have seen since Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave.” DuVernay’s “When They See Us” is so much more than a poignant story, however. The miniseries also clearly defines DuVernay as an artist and auteur rather than simply a storyteller. If you have seen “Selma” or “13th,” then you will surely love “When They See Us.” If not, then I would still label it as a must-see miniseries.
It is, however, quite disappointing that DuVernay has not been offered any Hollywood blockbuster films to direct given all her recent success in the industry. I have heard DuVernay express in an interview with The Guardian that she would love to make a film like “John Wick 3,” but that she is mainly only offered historical films or films about women or black people. Once again, this is hardly surprising given Hollywood’s history of racism and misogyny, and it is a real shame that DuVernay’s talent and versatility are not being tested and put on full display the way they should be.
Regardless, I have a lot of respect for DuVernay having been able to break into the film industry not just as a woman, but as a black woman. There is already a deficiency of black male directors in the industry, but I cannot even think of another black female director that has found the success that DuVernay has. I have definitely found it intriguing that during my four years at Bowdoin, I have almost always been the only black student in my film classes, if not one of two or three. Even so, I do not think that there is a lack of interest in the film industry from the black community, though there may be a lack of belief in being able to “make it big.” Nevertheless, what DuVernay has been able to do in the film industry as a black woman is truly both inspring and monumnetal, and one can only hope that her success will open the door for other talented women to make a splash in the industry. The film industry as a whole can only benefit and improve from more female perspectives. Melina Matsoukas is another rising black female director, and it will be interesting to see how she does with her debut film “Queen and Slim,” written by award-winning writer Lena Waithe and starring Daniel Kaluuya. Sophia Takal’s “Black Christmas” produced by Blumhouse is another film to look out for.