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Ava DuVernay's Problematic Black Liberalism

Recent actions of the acclaimed director illustrate how out of touch Black liberal celebrities are with today's political paradigm.

I’ve been an admirer of American filmmaker Ava DuVernay and her work for quite some time. Even since I stumbled onto her first film, I Will Follow, at AMC's Herald Square theater one afternoon, I had hoped to see more work from her, and to say she’s done well since her first feature would be an understatement. Ava DuVernay has become a powerhouse name in independent film and documentaries over recent decades.

But her actions as of late not only caused great concern but have illuminated how out-of-touch people seem to become politically once they attain celebrity status. Ava’s recent statements and actions on Twitter were not only odious but quite harmful to the movement for Black liberation and potentially harmful to those who would disagree with her publicly.

I. Respectability Politics and Hollow Praxis

On the night of the first presidential debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden, DuVernay twote at the debate’s conclusion that if Trump’s reluctance to leave the white house if he loses re-election doesn’t inspire non-White Americans to vote that “we may actually deserve what happens next”.

In case you don’t get it, Ava is basically saying non-White Americans---Black people, specifically---deserve a country that descends further into white supremacist fascist hellscape and the suffering that comes along with that if we don’t vote. DuVernay said the part usually kept quiet by the Democratic establishment quite loud with her tweet; in doing so, she helps perpetuate an old, tired and toxic trope: putting the onus of saving this country onto the backs of 13% of the American population via shaming.

When it comes to presidential election cycles, we can always count on Black liberal celebrities to shout from the mountain tops how important it is to vote and to shame thee FUCK out of Black Americans who fathom an INKLING of staying home on election day. For Black Americans, voting has always functioned as a method of harm minimalization, and thanks to Trump and his actions during his presidency, the current recession, and COVID-19 pandemic? Minimizing harm has never seemed more paramount as it does now. However, asserting that Black people specifically ‘deserve’ to suffer under fascism if we don’t vote is not only repugnant on its face, it is an unforgivably vacuous understanding of how politics work, and our role in it as Black people in a white supremacist capitalist society. First off, nobody ever DESERVES to live under fascism, EVER. To assert such a horrific stance is deleterious and pernicious, and quite cruel. Secondly, asserting that voting is the only way to enact change in this country betrays nuance: the states with the majority of Black Americans are controlled by Republican state legislatures, who’ve taken every measure from voting ID rules, removing voters from registration logs to reducing the number of places citizens can go vote, to ensure GOP victories. Thirdly, putting the onus of stopping fascism squarely on Black Americans allows White Americans to escape accountability for Trump’s ascendance to the presidency.

Funny enough, when this fact was pointed out to Ava, she dismissed it as “centering White people” in a supposed conversation towards Black people. What Ava failed to realize is that her “centering” of Black people in this instance is noxious. When more Black folks fought her on her stance, she doubled down, using Obama’s terms without a white majority as proof. Again, this shows the hole in DuVernay’s political knowledge and depth of praxis: Most Black Americans in GOP-controlled states are poor and working-class, who cannot afford to take days off for being sick, much less to vote or register to vote. And remember, those states are the ones that are often reported with having long lines of citizens waiting to vote for hours. If Ava wants to center Black people in voting efforts, why not use her privilege as a rich Black woman to fund efforts to enable Black people to vote, like car services, or having buildings closer to Black folks’ neighborhoods register as voting centers? Better yet, why does Ava have this much energy for the presidential election, yet is nowhere to be found when it comes to city and state elections, which have the most impact on Black American lives?

Because that would mean she’d have to do more than utilize fame and respectability to police Black poor and working-class people’s decisions and behaviors. Ava would have to actually get involved in the work of Black liberation, not just vote shame her skinfolk while performing probity for our enemies.

II. Hypocrisy Hunting and Performative Rectitude

On the day after news broke of Donald Trump contracting COVID-19, DuVernay quote-tweeted two of Trump’s tweets; she vacillated from wishing he get well to making disparaging remarks in the first tweet, saying he’ll be voted out of office while calling Trump “evil” for his hypocrisy in a second tweet.

When folks expressed ridicule and critique of this action, DuVernay commented that she was “raised better” because she doesn’t wish death on anyone.

Now, look…I can understand Ava and other folks of religious/spiritual faiths not wanting to wish death on anyone. Their religious mores and morals as dictated by their faith command them to “love their enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you”, et cetera, and to do otherwise “soils one's soul”, to Ava. However, as a person with free will, Ava could’ve chosen to TWEET NOTHING. There are plenty of people of faith who recognize that the teaching of “loving your enemies” is in dissonance with their sense of right+wrong, especially when it comes to wishing good health for an embodiment of white supremacist fascist patriarchy that’s been responsible for as much death and suffering as Donald Trump!

Not to be the asshole atheist here, but the “love your enemies” nugget handicaps people of faith from holding evil people and evil actions truly accountable. It's okay to have a broad landscape of empathy while not wishing a person you LATER ACKNOWLEDGE AS EVIL well!

To constantly vacillate between performing decency and hypocrisy hunting creates an optic of one going through dissonance between what one really feels versus the want of performing decency. This is an Achille’s heel of liberals that conservatives have constantly exploited to their advantage, and, honestly, the boundaries Ava and most neoliberals seem to lack have made them political chumps. The time for performative/genuine civility has long passed.

III. When Aunties Attack the Young

There was recently a conversation on Twitter where younger Black women talked of their experiences of being mistreated by older Black women co-workers. Not one to be left out of problematic behavior seemingly, DuVernay twote a response to folks criticizing her wishing Trump well that included the full name of a young Black woman writer, Kinsey Clarke, and included the Twitter account of Kinsey's employer, Vogue Magazine.

This tweet was intended to put Clarke’s employment status at risk and do her financial harm.

Full stop.

A rich Black celebrity weaponizing their celebrity and class against a working-class Black writer like this is not only disgusting but the epitome of classism perpetuated by the elite class onto the working class. Ava would go onto delete the tweet and apologize, but the damage to her alleged probity was already done. Ava comes off as a bitter and petty(in a bad way) older Black woman who jumped at the chance to put a younger Black woman “in her place”, an action that's usually seen in those who perpetuate patriarchal ideology. And the worst part about this is that Ava has enough clout behind her name to impact working-class folks in serious ways, yet decided to wield her power as a typical capitalist.

So much for that probity and rectitude; seems like she reserves integrity and decency for those who've shown time and again they're the enemies of the Black diaspora. Yet Ava has no problem "soiling her soul" to counter justified criticism of her statements and actions.

Ava has proven that when push comes to shove, she will act in line with her class interests regardless of who is harmed. It’s hard to believe that these actions were done by the same person who directed When They See Us, Selma, and13th. Yes, human beings are complex, but DuVernay’s actions cannot be brushed off as just the consequences of living the human condition. Her actions reveal glaring blind spots within her politics as a Black woman who's achieved wealth and status. Ava DuVernay may have some progressive leanings, but they seem to be quite superficial, therefore liable to crumble at the first sight of critique that would require self-reflection.

This lays bare the very weakness of liberalism whole for all to see: limited, superficial reforms and actions that are slow and safe, don't hold up to scrutiny, and will crumble with a retreat to the status quo when challenged. These happening have proven that Black liberalism---Black Capitalist liberalism--will not liberate Black people and that Black liberals' politics need to become much more radical and introspective if they are to be of any help to the diaspora.

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