The term was coined after the premiere of The Birth of a Nation at the Sundance Film Festival.
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Joining the Bechdel test as a measure for representation onscreen is the DuVernay test, named after Ava DuVernay, director of the critically acclaimed 2014 Martin Luther King Jr. biopic Selma.
Newly coined by New York Times writer Manohla Dargis, the DuVernay test measures whether a film portrays “fully realized” African-Americans and other minorities who have their own plotlines, motivations, desires, and actions that are not informed by white characters. Dargis points to The Birth of a Nation, a film about slave rebellion leader Nat Turner’s life that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, as an example.
The DuVernay test arrives in coincidence with growing national debate on the film industry’s treatment and inclusion of people of color, especially in light of the #OscarsSoWhite criticism of the nominations for the 88th Academy Awards. But it’s no surprise why Dargis chose DuVernay as the inspiration for the test; DuVernay is one of Hollywood’s leading black directors, and she has openly criticized the term “diversity” as a simple check in a box for some filmmakers.
“I feel it’s a medicinal word that has no emotional resonance, and this is a really emotional issue,” DuVernay told The New York Times. Rather than calling the lack of representation an issue of diversity, she called it a “belonging problem” that further excludes and disenfranchises already marginalized communities.
DuVernay was excitedly surprised by the test, sharing her reaction on Twitter.
The Bechdel test, which was conceived by comic artist Alison Bechdel, is a similar measurement of character actualization, but for women. If a film depicts two women having a conversation that is not about a man, even once, then it passes. It seems like a no-brainer, but a surprisingly large number of films—especially those produced by major studios—fail.