Much buzz across the web over the weekend in reaction to the New York Times’ Manohla Dargis proposing what she calls the “DuVernay test,” in honor of Ava DuVernay, as a racial counterpart to the Bechdel test (readers of this blog should be familiar with the Bechdel Test), which will be used as an indicator for the active presence of “African Americans and other minorities” in films, in an effort to call attention to racial inequality in fiction due to racism.
Dargis: “Movies like ‘The Birth of a Nation’ are helping to write the next chapter of American cinema. And, to an extent, that’s true of Sundance at its best. This is, after all, a festival that makes room for experimental narratives like ‘Dark Night,’ Tim Sutton’s drifty, conceptual exploration of a mass shooting, alongside documentaries ready-made for television… It’s also where numerous selections pass the Bechdel test (movies like the very fine ‘Christine’ and ‘Sand Storm,’ in which two women talk to each other about something besides a man) and, in honor of the director and Sundance alumna Ava DuVernay, what might be called the DuVernay test, in which African-Americans and other minorities have fully realized lives rather than serve as scenery in white stories.”
Many ran with this as an official “coining” and numerous related articles have been written in the last 48 hours: For example, “Meet the the Race-Conscious Bechdel Test: the ‘DuVernay Test’,” Slate’s headline reads.
Two years ago on this blog, I visited the Bechdel Test, taking into consideration documentary filmmaker M. Asli Dukan’s 5 basic criteria she used in coming up with her “30 Significant Black Characters In Science Fiction Films” video series, which I also published on this blog, as an attempt to come up with what I called a “Racial Diversity Test” equivalent of the Bechdel Test.
First, some background on the Bechdel Test: A few years ago, when I first mentioned it on this blog, theaters in Sweden adopted the Bechdel Test as a way to highlight gender bias in cinema.
While it wasn’t law in Sweden, theaters there used it to draw attention to how few movies fully incorporated rich, complex female characters in their narratives. At the time, the initiative had been well-received by film-goers in the country. Even the state-funded Swedish Film Institute supported it, as well as Scandinavian cable TV channel Viasat Film, who previously announced that it would start using the Bechdel ratings in its film reviews, with promoting gender equality in cinema, as the goal.
The Bechdel test got its name from American cartoonist Alison Bechdel, who introduced the concept in her comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For” in 1985. To pass the test, each film must meet the following 3 criteria:
1. It has to have at least two [named] women in it…
2. … Who talk to each other…
3. … About something besides a man
In light of our continuous discussions on defining black film, or identifying a black film aesthetic, on the old S&A site (pre-Indiewire) I invited readers to help me in coming up with a similar kind of test that we could use to measure similar racial inequalities in cinema. But, in the end, we couldn’t so simplistically narrow it down to just 3 questions, as in the Bechdel test.
For example, following its lead, ours looked something like this:
1. Are there two or more black characters with names in the film?
2. Do they talk to each other?
3. If they talk to each other, do they talk about something other than XXXX?
We never did come up with anything that resembled a consensus on what “XXXX” should be.
But I was reminded of all this over the weekend, thanks the excitement over Dargis’ “DuVernay Test” and decided to revisit the 2014 piece I wrote considering Asli Dukan’s criteria in deciding whether the black characters in films she vetted for her video series were fully-formed characters. Dukan came up with 5 basic criteria to use in narrowing down her selections (this was some years before my 2014 discovery of them). And I thought that what she put together might be a sufficient start in helping to solve our “S&A Racial Diversity Test” problem (or the “Dukan Test” as I called it back then, since she came up with the criteria).
Here are her 5 basic criteria for picking the characters she chose for her video series:
1. Character – Is the character primary?
2. Agency – Does the character have the ability to make their own choices?
3. Survival – Does the character live until the end of the film?
4. Boglesque – Does the character appear as a stereotype?
5. Relevance – Does the character have historical, political or social relevance?
As Asli noted, this was/is all an informal, evolving survey of characters and was/is meant for educational and/or entertainment purposes only. And yes, I’m fully aware that even if a test like this existed (whatever it’s called), it ultimately wouldn’t really solve any of the existing problems black filmmakers, actors, audiences, etc, continue to endure in this business. But there could be some use for it – a basic consideration for those mostly white filmmakers, writers, and producers in Hollywood, who claim to want “diversity.” The key word here is “evolving.” And even if you’re skeptical, just indulge me… for “entertainment purposes only.”
Asli was off to a good start with her above list of 5, keeping in mind that, again, it’s about the characters specifically, and not the films (which might stink, but have black characters in them that do meet the above criteria, and thus should be looked at even more closely). So maybe the “DuVernay Test,” or the “Dukan Test,” or whatever you want to call it, can build on this.
Even if we applied Dukan’s 5 criteria as is, alone, to movies (maybe specifically Hollywood movies) today, would we be surprised by the results? I don’t think I’m going out on a limb when I say that most will probably fail the test. The vast majority of the films/characters won’t even get past the number 1 item on the list!
Watch the below video explanation of the Bechdel test. And feel free to apply Asli’s criteria to any number of films to see if they pass the “racial test.” Share your findings or opinions in the comments section below: