Jerry L. Maynard II│ Nashville Voice Publisher
Ava DuVernay is the Nashville Voice’s 2019 Person of the Year because, at the height of her career, she made the decision to shed light on one of the greatest injustices of our time. Many people who find success stay silent in hopes of not rocking the boat, DuVernay has become bolder in making sure the truth is truly set free. This year she proves that claim with the Netflix mini-series, ‘When They See Us.’
Around this Holiday time about 15 years ago, at the age of 32, she decided to take $6,000 and create a 12-minute film short called, ‘Saturday Night Live.’ I wonder if she realized the inspiration, quality, and fame she would bring to not only the Black Culture but the world in the years to come?
DuVernay started her career in the world of journalism. Then because of burnout, she transitions into a successful Public Relations career. She could have continued there and all would be well with the world. However, she would decide to take another gander and enter into the film industry. She goes from that short film to making documentaries. Then, in 2011, she makes her first film narration that caught the eye of Roger Ebert. He would go on to say this is one of the best films he saw around people coming to terms with a loved one that died. But what I am writing is not about her extensive career. I could talk about her Film Distribution Company, AFFRM, that is an article within itself.
I could talk about movies like ‘Selma’ and ‘A Wrinkle in Time.’ I could talk about the powerful documentary, ‘13th’, and DuVernay’s collaboration with Oprah Winfrey’s network, OWN. However, what I am more concerned with is why at the height of her career, she takes a huge risk to tell the rebellious story of the Central Park Five?
In a moment of clarity, when the arrest and trial of the Central Park Five took place, I was a sophomore in Bloomington at Indiana University. At the time, it was a campus that was 90% white. Imagine hearing about a wealthy businessman, Donald Trump, spending a gargantuan amount of money to make sure his ad is on the front page of one of the most powerful newspapers in the nation demanding these black teenagers receive the death penalty.
Imagine watching the news where these young black men are being called monsters, thugs, and a pack of predators. Imagine every major news outlet and every evening newscast participating in a national discussion that rendered an indictment on being young, black, and male.
Now imagine me and my friends walking to and from our classes and dorms passing young female college students while fitting the profile of the Central Park Five – young, black, and male – and assumed to be guilty by association, more than 2000 miles from New York. The media used a broad brush to characterize all black boys as out of control, over-sexualized, and dangerous to society. We felt the sting of judgment every day.
Once the police determined that the Central Park victim’s boyfriend committed this heinous crime, a whole generation of men felt exonerated but not vindicated. We were all happy for the Central Park Five but the damage to the entire demographic of Americans was done. There was no national retraction, no major news campaign on a corrupt justice system, no apology, no recompense or reparations for the degradation of our dignity. Nothing. DuVernay’s miniseries ‘When They See Us,’ was able to do what the country failed to do 30 years ago, humanize the five men who had the entire nation condemn them for a crime they did not commit. This project was transformative, turning them from the Central Park Five to the Exonerated Five.
Her support and love of these five black men is not always the trendy thing in Hollywood. It takes courage to tell this type of story where these five beautiful black men are still impacted by the trauma of white supremacy and racism. Many in their own community gave up on them or held this painful past, that is not the truth, against them at every corner they turned.
Ava DuVernay has proven her commitment to honesty in her storytelling and redefining the narrative of the black experience through a Hollywood lens. With the privilege I have to be able to use this platform to spread information and news, Ms. DuVernay resoundingly deserves to be our Person of the Year.