The ‘New York Times’ Coins “DuVernay Test” for Race in Film

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Have you been looking for a barometer for whether or not a film respectfully realizes its non-white characters? If so, New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis may have a gift for you.

The critic floated the idea for a racially-minded version of the feminist Bechdel test, called the “DuVernay test,” in a report on the films that subvert Hollywood’s lack of diversity at this year’s Sundance festival.

To pass the Bechdel test, a film must have at least one scene where two women discuss a topic other than a man. While Dargis’ test does not have clearly defined terms, she describes it simply as the act of determining whether or not a film features “African-Americans and other minorities [with] fully realized lives rather than serving as scenery in white stories.”

Dargis named the test after Selma director Ava DuVernay, a director whose own Oscar snub in 2015 has been held up as an example of how awards ceremonies, such as the Academy Awards, discount the performances of African-American actors and filmmakers. DuVernay also founded the African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement — renamed ARRAY in 2015 — to help publish films by non-white filmmakers.

Dargis highlighted one Sundance entry, Chad Hartigan’s Morris From America, as a film the would pass the DuVernay test. In the film, a 13-year-old African-American boy, the titular Morris, moves with his father to an extremely white community in Germany. Also mentioned was this year’s Sundance darling, Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation.