And it’s only the summer.
Ava DuVernay is having the best week ever. In fact, she’s having a pretty awesome year, which is much deserved for the Oscar nominated director and super awesome Power Woman. On Tuesday, her documentary The 13th was announced as the opening night film for the 53rd Annual New York Film Festival in September, making her the first African American director and first documentarian to accomplish such a feat. On Wednesday, we caught a glimpse of the first trailer for Queen Sugar, which DuVernay created and directed alongside Executive Producer and fellow Power Woman Oprah Winfrey. Through these projects and others in the pipeline, Ava DuVernay has proven she has her finger on the pulse of entertainment and culture, and is thus basically owning 2016.
The 13th is Ms. DuVernay’s first directorial effort since the Martin Luther King biopic Selma (2014), which was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture and won for Best Original Song for “Glory”. The 13th chronicles the history of racial inequality in the United States, examining how America has produced the highest rate of incarceration in the world, with the majority of those imprisoned being African American. The title refers to the 13th Amendment to the Constitution which abolished slavery – “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States…” Using archival footage and testimonies from leading voices, the film will cover a widespread timeline of events including D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) and the rebirth of the KKK to the Civil Rights Movement, the 1994 Crime Bill, the rise of ALEC, and the Black Lives Matter movement.
The selection of such a galvanizing documentary as the New York Film Festival’s opening night film is notable in many ways. It is the first-ever nonfiction work to open the festival and it is also the first opening night film directed by an African American and American woman, no less. DuVernay and her distributor Netflix are making a bold move by world premiering the film on such a mainstream stage in the film industry world. The NYFF opening night slot is often vied for by big studio pictures looking to kickstart their awards campaign and take advantage of early film festival buzz. Some openers have been hits (Pulp Fiction, The Social Network, Gone Girl), others questionable misses (The Walk), but no recent works have seemed as culturally relevant as DuVernay’s The 13th. New York Film Festival Director and Selection Committee Chair Kent Jones said in a press release:
“While I was watching The 13th, the distinction between documentary and fiction gave way and I felt like I was experiencing something so rare: direct contact between the artist and right now, this very moment. In fact, Ava is actually trying to redefine the terms on which we discuss where we’re at, how we got here, and where we’re going. The 13th is a great film. It’s also an act of true patriotism.”
The word “patriotism” isn’t often used to describe an opening night selection for a film festival, but, hey, we’ll take it. It’s notable that Jones mentions the “direct contact between the artist and right now, this very moment” as a key point for selecting The 13th as the opener. It’s a good point to make – the film’s topic is timely and significant, and though it could be hard to take in for some, these are the kinds of stories we need to see right now in light of current events. It also makes perfect sense from a public relations standpoint for the festival. After all that’s happened over the last several weeks and months, opening with some pretentious fictional work could be read as a disconnect with the real world. It’s very progressive and refreshing to see a prestigious artistic body like NYFF look beyond traditional projects and select something that addresses relevant cultural issues in straightforward, documentary fashion.
Another thing to note is that by entering the festival season as the NYFF opener, DuVernay and her distributor Netflix are looking to enter The 13th into the awards race. Netflix will debut the film on its platform and in a limited theatrical run on October 7th – a theatrical run being an awards qualifying requirement for the Academy Awards. This day-and-date release on the platform and in limited theaters is the same strategy Netflix employed on Beasts of No Nation. While it didn’t work so well on that film (potentially because of the violence and polarizing topic of child soldiers), this strategy could work fine for a social documentary film like this. They have a real chance to get in early with the New York festival crowd with such a high profile director like DuVernay at the helm and a timely topic at hand. They’ve also had experience in pushing documentaries through awards season with The Square (2013) and Virunga (2014). Expect a classy, urgent awards campaign for The 13th. There are other awards contenders dealing with race issues such as Nate Parker’s Birth of a Nation, but DuVernay has the upper hand in that this film is a documentary and could likely be the front runner in that category.
Another cause for DuVernay to celebrate this week is the release of the trailer for her upcoming TV series Queen Sugar, which airs this fall on a special two-night premiere on September 6 and 7 on Oprah Winfrey’s OWN Network. The contemporary drama chronicles the lives and loves of the estranged Bordelon siblings in Saint Josephine, Louisiana: journalist/activist Nova (Rutina Wesley of True Blood), wife and manager of an NBA star Charley (Dawn-Lyen Gardner), and formerly incarcerated young father Ralph Angel (Kofi Siriboe). Together, the Bordelon siblings must navigate the triumphs and struggles of their complicated lives in order to run an ailing sugarcane farm in the Deep South. Based on a novel by Natalie Baszile, the show’s trailer previews a moving look at modern black life in America complete with family drama, racial tension, and basketball wife life. It’s yet another timely piece by DuVernay that is sure to generate a lot of internet thinkpieces, Twitter discussions, and soap opera level sobfests thanks to that gripping score by Meshell Ndegeocello.
I’ve followed DuVernay’s production of Queen Sugar through her active social media presence and it’s truly remarkable to see her masterfully put together something that not only features people of color in lead acting roles but also people of color and women in high ranking crew positions. Every episode of the series is directed by a woman director and DuVernay has often posted on Twitter about her process of creating a diverse crew with the hashtag #inclusivecrew. You don’t see other top filmmakers going out of their way to promote an inclusive culture behind the camera (producer Effie Brown, another inclusive crew advocate, was famously mansplained & whitesplained by Matt Damon about this). It’s a bold statement for DuVernay to be so open about it on Twitter, where she has over 185,000 followers. It’s her own simple and powerful way of saying that, yes, bruh, it really is possible to make good work with qualified, inclusive folks.
Ava DuVernay is surely having the best week out of anyone right now with big announcements for The 13th and Queen Sugar, as well as other upcoming projects including helming Disney’s A Wrinkle in Time. But all this has been along time coming for the former publicist turned director, distributor, and trailblazer. She may have dropped out of high profile projects like Black Panther and Intelligent Life, but she has been heavily involved in #OscarsSoWhite conversations, social activism, and in many ways serves as a role model and representative for women – especially women of color – filmmakers. She’s become arguably one of the most influential women directors today for her work on-screen and off, and this week has shown she is expanding her empire to include directing and producing nonfiction and television works. So, yeah, Ms. DuVernay is having the best week and pretty much year ever and she’s only just getting started.