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An Open Letter to My Sister, Ava DuVernay

An Open Letter to My Sister, Ava DuVernay

Dear Ava,

I feel somewhat self-conscious about writing this letter to you, about this particular subject matter, as bombs are strapped to little black girls and detonated in town squares; as men of color are pushed from rooftops, real and figurative, because they dared to love other men; as black transgender women are bludgeoned to death in broad daylight, in front of unmoved spectators, in streets all over the country; as black disabled people are scapegoated and executed as regular cultural practice; as American police forces, much like the paddy rollers and Klansmen before them, don’t possess the necessary humanity required to distinguish black people from shooting targets. These are hurried and complex times.

Some would say that now, in the midst of this mayhem, is not the time to center art, that the artist, for the present moment, must necessarily recede into the background in order to make room for the revolutionary—as though those two states of being, those two approaches to the matters at hand, are mutually exclusive; as though they couldn’t exist simultaneously, even within the same person. The conventional wisdom asks why devote time to the public defense of a filmmaker when my energy could be better spent in the streets (as though multitasking is outside the realm of possibility).

But I have seen your art from nearly the beginning; seen it and understood it precisely for what it was. “My Mic Sounds Nice,” “I Will Follow,” “Middle of Nowhere,” “The Door,” “Venus Vs.” Here, in these filmic multiverses, black people are fully realized, dimensional. Like in Toni Morrison’s literary canon, when you say “people,” you mean “black people.” You have given us the joyous opportunity to be the Default: flesh and blood and brain and bone; sly and raucous; shining and fretful; rhythmic and flawed; quiet and funky; loud, honey, and shaking groove things; beautiful, but most importantly, ordinary. The fantasy of being a regular ol’ human being, a basic principle that Hollywood has, since its inception, denied black people. Instead, it has been doing the insidious work that I suppose any white supremacist society is charged with doing if it wishes to remain white supremacist: disseminating half-truths and half-lives; making us the Ooga Booga and other things that go bump at midnight in the homes of white folk; or, conversely, sexless, smiling, supernatural sage-servants who exist only to make white people’s lives more livable rewarding, mightily, the complicit among us.

Actor Anthony Mackie says that Hollywood is simply tired of talking about race. I wonder: Did he see Annabelle? They literally had Alfre Woodard’s character jump out of the window and give her soul to the devil to save a white woman and her baby. Did he analyze his own character’s “Song of the South”-like deference to Whiteness in the Captain America sequel? From my vantage point, it doesn’t seem like Hollywood is tired of talking about race; it seems they’re frightened by not being able to control the narrative about it. As James Baldwin pointed out in 1964, “I, speaking now as Negro, have been described by you for hundreds of years. And now, I can describe you. And that’s part of [your] panic.”

But really, we ain’t even thinking about them.


That’s a lie.

The truth is, in this country, maybe all over the world, all many of us do is think about white people. We can’t help it. The menace of Whiteness looms large; its curiosity childlike, overwhelming, intrusive, demanding. Often, our own aspirations and desires align with its tenets. We define nearly everything—from art to happiness to love to power to spirituality to wealth—on its terms. It’s seemingly inescapable. In our quest for its recognition, we often express disdain and a complete disregard for one another.

When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. traveled to Watts when the riots occurred in 1965, and encountered black citizens about the destruction of their neighborhoods, they told the good reverent doctor that they had won. When King asked what they thought they had won precisely, they said, “We made them [white people] pay attention to us.” The lengths we’re willing to tread in order to get white people to notice our humanity can cause the greatest of dissonance in even the most rational observer. It’s not entirely our own fault, though. Most of us have never encountered another model for living to emulate, and, in a vacuum, we imitate the robber barons who despise us. I’m pretty certain that if we knew better, we’d do better. King thought so, too. He cautioned us, after the Voting Rights Act failed to address what he believed were the central problematics at play for black people in America, to avoid following white America’s lead, especially as it relates to “racism, extreme materialism, and militarism.”

But for so many of us, there seems to be no quarter to which we can retreat, regroup, and reclaim our humanity from the absence of color. And I imagine that’s why the absence has set its sights on you. You have painted vibrant colors. You have given us sanctuary. I’ve known this for a long while; they only know because you moved into the mainstream with your most recent opus, “Selma.”

Indeed. I conversed with a Twitter friend (@lorrainebaldwin) the other day and we discussed how we both exhaled a giant sigh of relief that Lee Daniels had passed on this film and you had not. Lee is our brother, too, but we are well aware of the concessions he’s apparently eager to make in order to secure a seat at the proverbial table. One “Butler” is quite enough, thank you very much and we aren’t any longer in the mood for a whitewashed, white-centered alteration of America’s past. In any event, we were glad that you (and Bradford Young!) were doing this and we were anxious to be in the audience.

We were, of course, dazzled by your skill and moved by your politic. We left those theaters knowing we had encountered something rare. Part of what you were doing was continuing the work of civil rights pioneer Ella Baker by demystifying the charismatic patriarch and recalibrating the thrust of movement from an exceptional singular to a grassroots plural, thereby moving it closer to reality. We were surprised that something like this had even made it into the theaters to begin with because of the unapologetic way it made black people primary in America’s story, the way it avoided the pathological approach to Blackness that Hollywood and its audiences are generally so hungry for (even when they don’t realize they’re hungry for it). We were shocked that most white film critics loved it because we were mostly expecting them to fear it. We weren’t shocked, however, about its prospects for Hollywood accolades. We said then, “It’ll get nominated for stuff, but it won’t win—except, maybe, in the music categories. Generally speaking, most white folks regard music as one of the few things black folks are good at. So it’s not threatening to hand over an award for that.”

Some of us were worried that when the Academy failed to nominate you for Best Director, it would somehow negatively impact your career and your genius would remain unconfirmed. However, I believe the responsibility for the success of your career and the validation of your talents rests in our own hands. I believe it’s all about where we choose to direct our resources and support. We shouldn’t allow the Oscars to dictate our investments. Your genius has already been written in stone.

And, quite frankly, history and experience have taught me to side-eye what any overwhelmingly white and male organization endorses. Because no matter how significant and progressive their choices seem on the surface, ultimately, those choices are self-serving. Between the Ku Klux Klan, the U.S. Congress, Wall Street, the Tea Party, and the Academy, social, legal, economic, political, and artistic standards in this country are set by white men for the benefit of white men—period. And, stunningly, at least one of those groups imagines itself as “liberal.” So, as strange as it sounds, I actually regard the Academy’s snubbing of your directorial prowess as a compliment, a blessing, a testament to the humanity of your artistry.

Thus, while I’m a little apprehensive about writing to you in such a public forum, at such a time in ourstory, because I’m but the smallest of voices in comparison to the giants who have already commended you on a job superbly done, I feel compelled to nonetheless. I write to you because I know there is no separation between the little black girls blown to smithereens in Birmingham, Alabama, and the little black girl blown to smithereens in Maiduguri, Borno State. I write to you because there is no difference between “We Shall Overcome” and #BlackLivesMatter. I write to you now, at this moment, because vibrations from SNCC and the Dream Defenders shake my dungeon. I write because both Bayard Rustin and Islan Nettles don’t rest well in the ground.

I write to you because I know that not one more piece of exquisiteness, not one more shred of prowess, pulled, by our very own hands, out of the ether, out of memory, out of blood, out of the jaws of destruction, can go unwitnessed.

You, sister, are at the front lines in a way many of us will never be, can never be. And for this we appreciate you more than you could ever imagine. The war you’re fighting is, perhaps, the most difficult and dangerous of all: the war of the mind. Sadly, we cannot reawaken the body after it has been put to death. There is no way, after all, to bring back Mary Turner, Emmett Till, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, or Tamir Rice—no matter how much we wish we could.

But in regard to a dead mind, the possibility of resurrection is omnipresent. And it comes in the playful intellectualism between Maye and Raven in “I Will Follow;” in the grace of Ruby’s “good morning” at the end of “Middle of Nowhere.” It’s in the halo over Venus’ beaded braids in “Venus Vs.” It’s in Annie Lee Cooper snatching her arm away from people who had no right to touch her in the first place in “Selma.”

It’s in you.

So I write to you for the named and the unnamed, for those who lived and those who didn’t, for those who made it to the shore and those who rejoice from the dark depths of the ocean because they know that their sacrifices, the dearest of prices they paid, no matter how many centuries might pass, shall not be squandered because of you, Ava, and what you dare to dream.

I write to you because you need to know that your love for us is genuinely reciprocated. Even in the heart of struggle, we take this moment to honor you and thank you. Take care, sister.

Your brother,


Robert Jones, Jr. is a writer, editor, and marketer from Brooklyn, N.Y., and the creator, content manager, and moderator of the social justice brand, Son of Baldwin. He is currently working on his first novel and can be found on Twitter @sonofbaldwin

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And as you beautifully salute Ms. DuVernay, I take this moment to thank and salute you Mr. Jones for writing a piece that lifts us all to new heights of love. God Bless You. Ashe!


Thank you! Truly an inspiration to the mind.


Hmmm…. I thought this open letter was kind of pretentious and self important. (like all "open letters")


Well said my brother. You stepped out and delivered on a matter and subject most would have avoided.

Rebecca Williams

As usual, Robert, your deeply felt voice comes through–I, too, love our sister Ava and what she has given to us–it comes out of her artistic depth and breadth–she is an expansive artist–and out of her love and respect for black people. You have that as well. Wonderful article.


Have not seen or heard about Ava’s other movies. Where can they be found?

Paul B. Simms

I was raised in New York City, but grew up in Harlem. The walk from Harlem Hospital to the City College of New York found all sorts of people, living all sorts of lives, bearing incredible risks, but still there. The African American Art Gallery on 130st Street, The Liberator Book Store, The House of Proper Propaganda, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture – places where Black lives matter. I learned in SNCC that controlling the mind was the primary objective and Africans, freed physically but enslaved mentally, the challenge was (and is) how to tell the truth in the midst of lies. Kwame Toure once said be careful what you watch on television – because they will steal the souls of our young people. We need to tell our story. It can be best shared in our art. Our artists need to control our art forms, encoded by our love for each other and the truth that the Center of Life is Rhythm and Rhythm Causes Balance. In the meantime,

A Luta Continua….


On Point!

My Own Little Quiet Corner of the Internet Universe That No One Is Paying Any Attention To and Therefore I Have Complete Freedom of Expression On This Obscure Website

AN OPEN QUESTION for Ms. DuVernay (and keep it 100%): You are a business woman and a publicist. Was this open letter from a fan BETTER than an Oscar from your peers?


@CC you’re the one who seems angry and have a vendetta against Ava. What did she do to you spit on you or something.


@CC oh im far from angry, I just find it amusing that you hold the Oscars to such high standards. Anyone who loves film knows that the Oscars are bullshit.


Your letter is as skillful, artistic and soul-full as Ms. DuVernay’s work. I am sure she is as appreciative of your voice as I am. Thank you too for freeing me to at least try to articulate my heart – felt emotions here and in my day-to-day. Thank you!

Elder Rev. Kevin E. Taylor

IF I CAN’T SAY A WORD, I’LL JUST WAVE MY HAND: As a preacher, I have hundreds of words that I could speak but you laid them all out, on display, in love, with such grace and girth, such power and purpose of heart, that I will simply say THANK YOU…and, WOW. Bravo, King! #WellDone


Opps, meant to say, "what happens when Ava actually deserves special recognition for directing an Oscar nominated film? There. Now, you do know there has been films nominated for an Oscar but its director got notta, right? Sooooooo, they should save the crying "racism" for another dance b/c blaming the boogieman and pandering for sympathy (all the damn time) is also sooooooooo tired. Btw, me no dimwit Miss angry black chick :-)


reading this reminded me of Oswald Bates


@CC Oscarworthy lmao are you a dimwit? You do know that majority of Oscar nominated picture are mediocre right and guess what Selma was nominated for best picture.

Of course lets complain BC someone is writing an appreciative letter to someone else. Woe is us we have nothing better to do but complain all the damn time.


Sure is a lot of bs personal grandstanding in this letter. On the front lines?Jeeezis who writes this sht. NO cushy showbiz person is on the front lines of ANYTHING. There is NO WAR in showbiz, the only war is the one our men in women in uniform fight everyday so you can be free to write tripe like this. You are fking out of line.


Dear Son of Baldwin, I cried as I read your letter. It was such a moving experience and it deeply affected me. Thank you. With love.


Really missed, what, who, when? Junior, is that you ^^^^^^? Didn’t know you’ve ever knocked on this door. Hmmmmm… "I think a lot of this "love letter" is self serving". Ya think? You can fool some of the people some of the time, however….


I’ve really missed reading your inspiring commentaries. This one is simply marvelous and thought provoking.


I love the love and admiration, but as a woman of color myself (although brown, not black) with a background in the movimento, I think a lot of this "love letter" is self serving and actually sounds to me to perpetuate racial divisiveness, with all the elbow-the-rib, wink-wink-my-sisters & brothers


… and dude even threw Lee Daniels under the bus. I guess pandering works… by any means necessary. And let the choir say…

The Dude Formerly Known As Mike V

I’ll add to what NO BRAINER said: comparing the Academy to the KKK is indeed rather extreme (and unnecessary), ANY way you consider it.

The Dude Formerly Known As Mike V

Even Malcolm X learned that when you’re doing your job right, your message (and movie) is inclusive for all. This "open letter" while complimentary, is not very inclusive.

Joe C

Dude trying to pitch that script. lol


ROBERT JONES, JR. I truly felt the love in your letter and I know you meant it to do nothing but good. But certain aspects of it make me unnerved. ALP AGAIN and CHRIS already covered my concerns. I’ll just add this: you know you’re comparing the Academy to the Klu Klux Klan, you do realize this, right? That’s rather extreme considering your message of Ms. DuVernay being above any statuette. Sad.


YES-YES-YES… to GETTHESENETS and ALP AGAIN. Listen, what happens when Ava actually directs an Oscar worthy film? Huh, what then, "Ava For President and Robert her running mate"? Come on y’all, this may well be a good read, and the film is appealing to many, but after the pats on the back and shouts of joy are gone, what’s next? Well, I do know "crying wolf" and shouting "FIRE" in a crowded theater is a very slippery slope. Save it for the real thang.

Lord Have Mercy

This author has taken ass kissing to new heights!

Ty P

Veritas, I think you might be visiting the wrong website. I think you might be more comfortable at "crackerasscracker-dot-com" (I say this knowing full well you might be black)


From a black standpoint, letter is poetic and necessary. From a business standpoint, letter is an unnecessary consolation prize. "Hero Worship" has never impressed the Academy, hence the many great directors (Hitchcock, Welles) who never won an Oscar.


You say "Dr." in this article; is it appropriate to refer to someone’s PhD which a committee has ruled was obtained via plagiarism? As many debate the historical inaccuracies of this film, my mind is drawn to other matters of inconvenient truths, as well.

Charles Reese

As James Baldwin once said,"You don’t tell life, life tells you." This is such a life affirming and wonderfully written testimony of the power of words to uplift, affirm, motivate and honor the wonderment of my sister/friend Ava DuVernay. SELMA is Now. Gratitude and Appreciation, Robert for writing this amazing letter. And it is so. Continue to go where your blood beats. Always, Charles Reese.


Great letter! This should be reprinted in newspapers in Australia.


What kind of KOOL-AID room is this?




@CARL you too funny dont hate on the chile just cause she got the sunbeams coming down on her head in that picture lol


So, writing editorials/letters about Oscar snubs is the new als water challenge, huh?

ALP again

Careful now, Robert Jones Jr. This letter is full of good intention, but gestures like this can sometimes deify what does not need to be deified. Do not forget there were white men supporting this film whole-heartedly, before Ms. DuVernay was ever involved: Brad Pitt namely, who was also in large part responsible for bringing last years 12 Years A Slave to the big screen as well. We are still talking about filmmaking here, which, in its a barest of forms, is still (and always will be) a business. Ms. DuVernay was a publicist for many years (and remains so, in many ways); she knows how to get the job done. We are so hungry for positive black leadership in this country that we will lay that heavy responsibility at the feet of any manifestation of positivity we see: actors, basketball players, singers. But by deifying celebrity (Spike Lee, Ava DuVernay, Tyler Perry, Michael Jordan, Oprah– yes, they all have been "worshipped" one way or another), in the long run we only shortchange ourselves, and the collective souls of black folks.


this is absolutely exquisite. thank you.


Today I stopped going to church and made a shrine to Ava DuVernay. Who needs Jesus! Praise her!


This is so beautiful; I hope it reaches her. Welcome back.

Aaron Lee Scribe

Amen, Ase’ and all of that. I love it and totally agree.


Your letter opens and closes with a necessary force. A force that left an indelible mark on my heart. With every key stroke I felt your love of writing and, absolute love for Hue Beings! The fact that CrazyWood, the academy, only nominated SELMA for original score wasn’t as much a snub, but in fact, a blessing. We do not need their validation… AT ALL! WE. ARE. OUR. OWN. FORCE. I will continue to support black expressions and we should all continue to celebrate and support artists like AVA DUVERNAY!!


Wow!! Need I say more, WOW!! But I will say this, I’m a 57 year old Black man and a long time member of the Directors Guild of America. Ava is my peer. I’m proud of her and proud that she got it done! Since the release of Selma "others" have attempted to discredit her and rewrite history, rewrite our legacy AND not send screeners to us voting members of this industry. Ava, you don’t need it! Your talent rises above all of the naysayers, all of the detractors! Bravo to you, stay strong, but the no one has to tell you that!


@Robert Jones, Jr – Sigh, is there no room left for individuality of free thinking within the African American community? Anthony Mackie’s viewpoint is as valid as yours. As a black man I sometimes wonder if what’s truly holding African Americans back is other African Americans.

Ashley Love

This letter has moved me beyond belief, so spot on and inspiring. Thank you for being so inclusive of Black trans women, Robert. Ava is a hero to so many of us and she does not need statues to know her worth. She is in a winner in our hearts and minds


All I can think of when I read this is the Tulsa bombings. 100 year anniversary in 2021. Thousands of blacks killed in thriving small town.


What a moving and beautifully written letter

Deena Bowman

This letter …better than an Oscar. So beautiful and true.


I see the sambos are already here spouting nonsense. smdh.


What a beautiful, moving letter. I also appreciate the bravery and artistry of Ms. Ava DuVernay and look forward to more from her. Thank you Brother for such a powerful letter.


Oh, how I have missed your voice. Beautiful.


Well, who’s next, line up, "Hyperbole Row" is ready for the next act. Come on Tanya Steele, the audience is pumped, primed and ready to go. Get your behind out there. Don’t let Robert steal your shine.


This was beautiful..covered so much and came from a place filled with Love. Thank you for articulating what so many of us feel and would like to say to Ava DuVernay. I’m sure she will appreciate this:). I love your writing btw many amazing nuances and such clarity..this bit" because vibrations from SNCC and the Dream Defenders shake my dungeon" immediately took me took Baldwin’s "The Fire Next Time. The parallels between our girls, trans bothers & sisters, our sons, lgbtq com, us in general..So skillful at connecting our past & present.��

Jamila Mindingall

Wow! What a beautiful letter that I stand firmly behind and agree wholeheartedly. You are loved and supported sis!

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