African American director backs test to monitor racial diversity in Hollywood

Ava DuVernay, who directed Martin Luther King film Selma, supports idea of a 'DuVernay test' for films to ensure actors from ethnic minorities 'have fully realised lives rather than serve as scenery in white stories'

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 02 February, 2016, 11:49am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 02 February, 2016, 12:16pm

A new test designed to challenge Hollywood’s record on racial diversity has received backing from its inspiration, the award-winning African American director Ava DuVernay. Dubbed the “DuVernay test”, the initiative was first posited by New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis in a review of this year’s Sundance film festival .

The long-established Bechdel test, first proposed by the US cartoonist Alison Bechdel in a 1985 comic strip , requires two women to talk to each other about something other than a man to prove its egalitarian values. Dargis said her “DuVernay test” would merely require “African Americans and other minorities [to] have fully realised lives rather than serve as scenery in white stories”.

While the critic appears to have used the term as a light-hearted framing device for a piece on diversity in Sundance movies, the concept may have legs. DuVernay’s name symbolises the ongoing battle by African American film-makers to get movies made in Hollywood, given the furore over the Oscars’ decision to limit her acclaimed civil-rights drama Selma to just two nominations (for best picture and best song) in 2015.

After the feminist film blog Women in Hollywood tweeted about Dargis’ coinage, DuVernay posted: “Wow. Floored. What a lovely cinematic idea to embrace. What a thrill to be associated with it. Absolutely wonderful.”

In a blogpost, Slate magazine’s Megan Logan suggested the concept could be developed. “Though the Bechdel test is, of course, an oversimplified yardstick for feminism in film, it remains a simple, straightforward way to begin the conversation about how any given movie humanises its female characters,” she wrote. “Perhaps it’s just as well that Dargis doesn’t propose any specific measure for the DuVernay test; rather than producing a simply binary yes/no, it can serve similarly as a way to begin discussing the diversity, representation, and depth of the stories of minority characters in the films we make and watch.”

The idea of a Bechdel test focused on racial as opposed to gender diversity has been proposed before. In 2013, the author Nikesh Shukla suggested the “Shukla test” , requiring two ethnic-minority people to talk to each other for more than five minutes about something other than race.

In the wake of the ongoing row over the all-white lists of Oscar nominees, bloggers Nadia and Leila Latif proposed a more complex test for racial diversity in film. In a piece for The Guardian, they suggest films should feature two named ethnic-minority characters with lines of dialogue, who were not romantically involved with each other and did not talk about comforting or supporting a white character. The bloggers also said neither of the two main black characters should conform to the hated “magical negro” stereotype.

The Guardian