New Test Reveals Whether Hollywood Movies Are Diverse Enough

‘The New York Times’ film critic Manohla Dargis coined a term named after filmmaker Ava DuVernay.
Ava DuVernay at Paley Center for Media’s ‘Tribute to African American Achievements in Television’ on Oct. 26, 2015. (Photo: Paul Archuleta/FilmMagic via Getty Images)
Jan 31, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Jennifer Swann is TakePart’s culture and lifestyle reporter.

You’ve likely heard of the Bechdel Test, the rubric developed by cartoonist Alison Bechdel to determine whether a movie’s female characters are more than mere accomplices to a male-driven story. Few films pass it.

Now there’s the DuVernay Test, a new set of criteria to judge a film’s portrayal of African American characters for equity and depth. The test, which takes its name from Selma filmmaker Ava DuVernay, was coined by The New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis in her column from the Sundance Film Festival on Friday.

Films that pass the test are those “in which African-Americans and other minorities have fully realized lives rather than serve as scenery in white stories,” Dargis wrote. She cited the Sundance film Morris From America, a coming-of-age story about an African American teenager living with his father in Germany, as a prime example of one that meets the requirements.

On Twitter on Sunday, the test’s namesake celebrated the term, writing that she was floored by the suggestion. “What a lovely cinematic idea to embrace. What a thrill to be associated with it. Absolutely wonderful,” DuVernay tweeted.
The director of last year’s Martin Luther King Jr. biopic, DuVernay has long championed the stories of African American and women filmmakers. In 2010, she founded the independent film distribution company Array as a means of promoting projects made by women and people of color around the world, and most recently she hired an all-women directorial team for her forthcoming TV series, Queen Sugar, she said in an interview with Reelblack.com while at Sundance last week.
The issue of diversity on film—and the lack thereof—has become widely discussed in the wake of this month’s Oscar nominations, which left out black actors such as Idris Elba and films exploring the African American experience, including Straight Outta Compton.
DuVernay, speaking to a crowd at the Park City, Utah, festival last week, said that while the conversation is long overdue, the word diversity lacks any kind of emotional resonance. Instead, she suggested Hollywood’s problem is one of exclusion. “Who dictates who belongs? The very body who dictates that looks all one way,” she said, according to The New York Times.
The Bechdel Test originated in Bechdel’s 1985 comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For. A character in the comic explains that the only movies she’ll go to see in the theater have to meet three basic requirements: There must be at least two female characters, they must talk to each other, and that conversation has to be about something other than a man. While that may seem simple enough, nearly half of all movies released in 2014 did not pass the test, according to an independent survey last year.

Dargis is not alone in her proposal of a similar rubric for African American characters. In an essay for The Guardian earlier this month, writers Nadia and Leila Latif wrote that a Bechdel-like test for race could help alleviate stereotyping within a film. They suggested asking questions such as “Are there two named characters of color?” and “Do they have dialogue that isn’t comforting or supporting a white character?”

While the Latifs stressed that a test is not enough to fix Hollywood’s diversity problem—or rather, a belonging problem—they said its premise would at least force viewers to pay attention to characters’ portrayals on film. “We hope that, once you see these things,” they wrote, “you cannot unsee them.”

TakePart’s parent company, Participant Media, is a partner on Beasts of No Nation, as well as on Oscar-nominated films Spotlight, Bridge of Spies, and The Look of Silence.