'A crucial reason why I draw inspiration from DuVernay as both a filmmaker and activist is her refusal to speak down to people'Vimeo: Chan C Smith

Manohla Dargis of The New York Times describes Ava DuVernay’s 13th as ‘powerful, infuriating, and at times overwhelming’. I cannot disagree with Dargis’ words. Correlating America’s current mass incarceration of African Americans to the abolition of slavery in 1865, 13th is, quite simply, one of the most brutally energising films that I have seen. Rather, I want to emphasise how Dargis’ description is relevant to DuVernay’s entire body of work. 13th is a timely high-profile embodiment of the palpable activist energy that flows throughout DuVernay’s films, both factual and fictional.

Her first feature-length film, I Will Follow (2010) is a study of a woman grieving for her late aunt during the time of Obama’s first inauguration. Next, DuVernay wrote and directed 2012’s Middle of Nowhere, in which a medical student is suffering a different kind of grief: her husband has received an eight-year prison sentence. In 2015, Selma – depicting the Selma to Montgomery march, with a brilliant performance by David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King – was released. Her pieces all have predominantly, if not exclusively, African American casts. Through her focus on African American experiences and their individual yet intersectional textures, DuVernay reminds her viewer that the political is personal and the personal is political.

“13th is a timely high-profile embodiment of the palpable activist energy that flows throughout DuVernay’s films, both factual and fictional”

DuVernay tells her viewer that filmmaking is a valid way of putting pressure on the structures we wish to change. In conversation with Oprah Winfrey about 13th, DuVernay said she wanted a film and an ending that would motivate people to do something about the systems of oppression continuing to surround ethnic minorities. She chose this conclusion to be a photo collection of, as she says, “black people in everyday moments, their ‘lives mattering’”. Soundtracked by Common’s ‘Letter to the Free’, the closing moments of 13th may feel like a reprieve from the blistering pace of the 100-minute long documentary. But it is in this reprieve that you find yourself reflecting on all you have heard and witnessed – reflecting and then feeling motivated to enact a change.

A crucial reason why I draw inspiration from DuVernay as both a filmmaker and activist is her refusal to speak down to people. Over the past few years I, as a mixed race woman, have become increasingly tired of ‘I’m-more-woke-than-you’ conversations. These conversations see people competing to seem the most aware, the most concerned about – to be the dominant voice of – change, when activism needs to arise out of collaboration. Going on more marches than a fellow supporter of the same causes does not make you a better activist. Identifying as an activist for any movement does not give you license to condescend to others. These conversations belittle, alienate and harmfully hierarchize activism. DuVernay and her work refuse to do this. She says that, on the one hand, she made 13th to be a ‘primer’ for people who know nothing about America’s prison industrial complex and its relation to race. On the other hand, DuVernay made 13th so people who already knew about African American liberation history could ‘fit all the pieces of the puzzle together’. Such a policy of inclusion, dialogue and education through activism is apparent in DuVernay’s whole filmography.

DuVernay remains one of cinema's most groundbreaking directors. She is the first African American woman to win the Sundance Award for Best Director and have her work nominated for both Best Picture and Best Documentary Feature by the Academy. With intelligence, grace and calculated anger, DuVernay and her work embody and speak to the many forms of action for social change. Long may her example continue to inspire

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