Ava DuVernay: Social Activism Through Media

Ava DuVernay


We shouldn't be surprised by the meteoric rise of Ava DuVernay. The admiration comes from her committed advocacy to diversity, both on-screen and behind the camera. It comes from celebrating all facets of humanity, giving characters the deserved nuance and complexities to their personality. But the strongest tangent throughout her career is how she engages with activism in her projects.

With the emphasis on Black stories, DuVernay's work encourages discourse, a ‘call to action' which has been actively shaped by the art she creates and the societal construct around us. And at its heart, it is empowerment laced with honesty and truth, eloquently framed with a purpose to educate, understand, and empathise. That's what makes her work so significant. By shifting the perspective away from Hollywood narratives which have traditionally viewed Black culture through a narrow lens, we're given an expansive history lesson that echoes the consciousness of the soul and a voice for the voiceless. These are stories which matter to DuVernay. It's protest art for the modern age, and we're better enlightened by it.

To celebrate, here's a look back at the films and TV shows which have left a distinct impact on its audience:

Selma (2014)

Studio: Paramount

Most Hollywood biopics about famous figures tend to be formulaic and basic, barely scratching the surface of their subject by turning their exploits into a condensed and digestible form. But here, DuVernay's distinguishes Selma from the field. That's partly due to David Oyelowo's outstanding performance as Martin Luther King Jr. which should have been recognised with an Oscar nomination. But DuVernay's bravery strips back King's legendary status to delve into his imperfections and flaws.

TV became a symbol King used to bring America's brutal reality into every American household.

Martin Luther King Jr. was not a perfect man, but DuVernay humanises his struggles amid a defining moment of the Civil Rights Movement – the march in Selma, Alabama. But Selma also leaves its mark in how protest movements were covered in the media when it comes to the values of Black lives. 'Racism is not getting worse - it's getting filmed', a saying that reflects today's culture. But in an era that predates the smartphone, TV became a symbol King used to bring America's brutal reality into every American household.

13th (2016)

Studio: Netflix

Slavery never ended - the mechanisms were simply re-designed. It's a damning condemnation that DuVernay's Netflix documentary leaves us with. From slavery, Jim Crow laws, police brutality and mass incarceration, DuVernay provides context for the series of racial injustices that were born out of a loophole with the 13th Amendment. Too often the argument has been framed where slavery is viewed as a ‘distant memory', or that racism ended after the Civil Rights Movement. But in lifting that veil, DuVernay assembles historians, politicians, news analysts and activists to deconstruct the criminalisation and exploitation of African Americans.

It's a comprehensive study that reaches all corners of American history, society and media, and there's nothing more powerful than DuVernay's interwoven examination when the parallels are still being felt today. You only have to look at the Black Lives Matter movement in the aftermath of George Floyd's murder (and countless others) as to why the documentary remains an important resource for cultural education and social change.

When They See Us (2019)

Studio: Netflix

Based on the true story on The Central Park Five (now known as The Exonerated Five), this is DuVernay at her most powerful and dominant best. Imagine walking in the shoes of Korey Wise (Jharrel Jerome), Kevin Richardson (Asante Blackk), Antron McCray (Caleel Harris), Yusef Salaam (Ethan Herisse) and Raymond Santana Jr. (Marquis Rodriguez), where you're accused of attempted murder? Imagine being emotionally coerced into confessions by interrogation tactics by the police without your legal guardian present? And imagine your character and personality vilified by the public and media where pre-President Trump took out a full-page ad in the New York Times to bring back the death penalty.

DuVernay places her audience in the eye of that storm to witness the injustices of the criminal justice system. The world views them as criminals and thugs, but they were five teenage boys sent to prison for a crime they did not commit. The four-part series examines that ‘behind the scenes' consciousness with unapologetic honesty at how the system failed them. It's not for the faint of heart; DuVernay examines the psychological pressures and traumas of their incarceration that robbed them of their childhood and dreams. Jharrel Jerome's performance will break even the toughest resolve. But in an era of fake news and perspectives untold, DuVernay confronts an undeniable reality in a show that declared itself as one of the best of 2019.