Brow Beat

Meet the the Race-Conscious Bechdel Test: the “DuVernay Test” 

Nate Parker accepts the Audience Award: U.S. Dramatic for his film The Birth of a Nation, Jan. 30, 2016 at the Sundance Film Festival. 

Andrew Toth/Getty Images for Sundance Film Festival

Though Sundance ends Sunday, the discussion it spurs each year about the films and the state of the American film industry at large will continue. New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis added an interesting element to the discourse on diversity in Hollywood in an essay presenting what she calls the “DuVernay test.” Dargis’ piece focuses largely on the role of Sundance, the larger cultural context that surrounds this year’s films, and the titles that earned distribution deals and awards, but perhaps the most impactful part of the piece comes when she discusses top prizewinner The Birth of a Nation. Dargis proposes what she calls the “DuVernay test,” in honor of Ava DuVernay, the celebrated director of Selma. In essence, the DuVernay test is a racial analogue to the Bechdel test, offering a simple, widely-applicable metric for examining the way we talk about and treat the stories of minority characters in film and media.

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…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.

Though the Bechdel test is, of course, an over-simplified yardstick for feminism in film, it remains a simple, straightforward way to begin the conversation about how any given movie humanizes its female characters. Perhaps it’s just as well that Dargis doesn’t propose any specific measure for the DuVernay test; rather than producing a simply binary yes/no, it can serve, similarly, as a way to begin discussing the diversity, representation, and the depth of the stories of minority characters in the films we make and watch. 

For what it’s worth, DuVernay herself seems to be pretty on board with the idea: