On Ava DuVernay, Progress and the Tragedy of Being “First”

Movies Features Ava Duvernay
On Ava DuVernay, Progress and the Tragedy of Being “First”

The names of two black women have been trending, flooding timelines and thus been on my mind over the past two days: Ava DuVernay and Korryn Gaines. These two names, I think, speak to a very strange position of black women in America today. There is excitement and triumph, as our voices and stories seem to be in high demand; this is still the year of Beyoncé’s Lemonade, and it’s significant that we’ve also seen women like DuVernay, Serena Williams, Issa Rae, Dr. Hadiyah-Nicole Green, Franchesca Ramsey, Simone Bile, Lena Waithe and others making headlines, hitting milestones and achieving progress, or “progress,” depending on how the term is to be understood. Progress is a complicated idea because Ava DuVernay just made history for black women, days after yet another black woman was killed by police officers—and because of the narrative police are putting forth (a narrative many are questioning and problematizing), Korryn Gaines is not even being mourned by the majority of the public, let alone celebrated. So, as is often the case, it’s a bizarre, beautiful, exciting and still, always, tragic time to be black, woman and living in America.

DuVernay becoming the first black woman (and third woman) to direct a live-action film with a $100 million budget (A Wrinkle in Time), is not just proof of her talent, or of the changes taking place in segregated Hollywood. Her gain, and our gain, necessarily reflects certain loss. As DuVernay herself put it, she certainly isn’t the first black woman to be capable or deserving, and the world of film has indeed been missing out on some wonderful voices, many which would have been equally deserving of being “first.” I can’t help but wonder if we mourn those voices and stories, as much as we celebrate and rejoice those symbols of progress. Can we—audiences, critics, journalists—do both, in an effort to further challenge these systems that declare who is first and who comes next; and in an effort to demand more and more voices be heard alongside DuVernay’s?

Every time there is a “first” in the black community, I hear that line from Chappelle’s Show: don’t ever be the first black person to do anything (because it’s always a terrible story), and I wonder about the pressure that person must be feeling. It’s a terrifying pressure, should you give in to it, one way or the other (ESPN’s O.J.: Made in America brilliantly explored the power of such pressure, and one celebrity’s attempts to flee from it). Those black people who break down barriers—those “firsts”—don’t always do so willingly and aren’t always interested in bearing the cross that comes along with it.

And there’s always a cross to bear.

For this reason, against my better judgement and against my knowledge that “progress” is a complex (often mythical idea), I can’t help but celebrate the fact that this particular first is being seen by Ava DuVernay. Sure, it could have been another black woman and it should have been, much in the same way that she should not be only the third woman to have earned a big budget feature. But if it had to be someone this year, we might be thankful it’s DuVernay. This is someone who, as we’ve seen with her own film collective ARRAY, is not content with merely being given a platform, but is determined to flood that platform with more women and people of color. She is someone who’s not content with merely getting to make a TV show, or even getting to make a show about black people from varying socioeconomic backgrounds, but someone who will do her part to attempt to balance Hollywood’s scales by employing only women directors.

“Every single episode is directed by a woman. It isn’t something that we see hardly enough. If Game of Thrones can have all men for the last 3 seasons, Queen Sugar can have all women and show what a fantastic show can be made from our hands and our minds.”

So yes, if we are going to have someone be first to break through a very high ceiling for black women in Hollywood this year, I’m so glad it’s the same person who wore an “I Can’t Breathe” shirt on the red carpet, and the same person involved in this year’s powerful #MLKNOW event. More than a symbol of progress in a racist and sexist America that has birthed a racist and sexist Hollywood, she is further proof that politics and art can and must mix—that we cannot critique a system without offering up our own work as a solution to the system’s problems. DuVernay is one of a handful of prominent artists who believes that inclusivity is not just Hollywood’s problem, but her problem too.

This remains a difficult concept to grasp—that everyone from producers, to directors, to actors, to screenwriters, to journalists has a role to play in these issues. I wrote about this when The Hollywood Reporter insisted that diversity was not their problem, that they weren’t responsible for all the white men on their own Power 100 Ranking. That line of reasoning is one of the biggest problems black people face, in and outside of Hollywood—not the blatant racists, but those well-meaning folks who believe they are aware enough of a systemic problem, but who don’t believe it’s their responsibility to do very much about it. If Ava DuVernay is the first black woman to do something like this—to do anything, really, it means we have all failed on some level. And celebrating this moment of triumph is simply not enough.

A few years back, ABC’s Scandal star Kerry Washington became the first African-American female lead on a network drama in almost 40 years. Teresa Graves had already made history as a “first,” back in 1974 and I’m sure her moment was celebrated too. Do we still call it “progress,” when we know that Washington should not have been achieving such a “first,” or do we have to find a more complex term for it? Last year, Nell Scovell embraced the image of the “moonwalk” to explain what often happens when women in Hollywood begin making strides:

A recent Variety article trumpeted an “unprecedented” number of female showrunners, while also reporting that in 2013-14, only 15.1 percent of executive producer credits went to women, “down noticeably from 18.6 percent in the 2011-12 season.” That sounds less like a march to equality and more like a moonwalk, giving the illusion of forward motion when, in fact, the dancer is sliding backward. Progress for female directors has been even more elusive, which has prompted the American Civil Liberties Union to seek an industrywide investigation.

So what can we do, when progress is so illusory?

I write this with an eye on, especially, my fellow critics. Now that we’ve celebrated DuVernay, and now that Issa Rae’s name is making more headlines, how many black women creatives will you start championing, to make sure that these women are no longer such outliers? The woman behind Starz’s hit drama Power, Courtney A. Kemp is one of the only black, female showrunners in TV today (though Starz is making sure that this small group keeps growing). How many of us are scrambling for an interview with her? Regina King has started doing some powerful work behind the camera. How many cover stories will she land, or is this one Vulture article meant to suffice? Misha Green co-created arguably the most important show of 2016, Underground—where are her headlines? We know and champion DuVernay, but we must become as familiar with names like Dee Rees and Tina Mabry. We should be as excited for Queen Sugar as we are for Gina Prince Bythewood’s Shots Fired, and we should be seeking out those up and coming directors whose names we might not see in headlines and articles, unless we critics and writers demand to see them there. DuVernay’s film collective, which just picked up their 14th feature, Honeytrap, makes the work for critics and film outlets even easier—she hands you stories from typically marginalized directors with inclusive stories, but will we do the work and fight for the visibility of these stories as well?

We can celebrate the firsts, and all of the aforementioned black women, while mourning our losses—those black women who have stories to tell, but who have been unable to break through the glass ceilings. And I believe those women include people like Korryn Gaines and Sandra Bland. It’s dangerous to generalize (and perhaps it’s just one more way that I mourn the loss of my own mother, to breast cancer 16 years ago), but I can’t help but feel like every black woman who’s ever stood up to men in power—men who held their lives in their hands—must have had a story to tell. And every time we lose one of those women, we lose access to those stories and those narratives.

So even as I celebrate DuVernay, I’m not going to make the mistake of assuming that when a black woman reaches a milestone it is merely a symbol of progress, when it is indeed a signifier of tragedy as well. We live in a time of great visibility for many black women, but as we celebrate their movements, we need to seek out those who remain invisible. “Who knows, but that, on the lower frequencies,” they also speak for us?

Shannon M. Houston is a Staff Writer and the TV Editor for Paste. This New York-based writer probably has more babies than you, but that’s okay; you can still be friends. She welcomes almost all follows on Twitter.

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