Filmmaker Ava DuVernay delivered a speech that was charged with raw emotion last night, as she collected an award for her Netflix series When They See Us at the 2020 Critics’ Choice Awards.
Award ceremony speeches, when done well, generally fall into two categories: those that make us laugh (hello, Phoebe Waller-Bridge) and those that make us sit up and think.
Director Ava DuVernay nailed the latter quality at the Critics’ Choice Awards last night, as she used her two-minute acceptance speech to urge people to address major miscarriages of justice happening all over the world as we speak.
DuVernay and her team won the best limited series award for When They See Us, a Netflix drama based on the story of the so-called “Central Park Five”: five black and Latino teenagers who were wrongly convicted of the brutal rape of a white woman in New York’s Central Park in 1989.
In a highly-charged address to an audience of stars, DuVernay first thanked “our great champions at Netflix”, whom, she said, “let a black woman do her thing”.
As the crowd erupted into cheers, DuVernay continued with a rallying call based around the story behind her award-winning drama.
The boys in the Central Park Five case – Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, and Korey Wise – were aged between 14 and 16 at the time of their arrest. They were detained immediately after the attack on jogger Trisha Meili, and were coerced into confessions following police interrogations that lasted for hours without sleep or water.
Despite later recanting their confessions, the teenagers were convicted and served lengthy sentences for crimes ranging from rape and assault to robbery and attempted murder. There was no physical evidence tying them to the scene; they had simply been in the park at the time, and police investigators jumped to conclusions.
Endemic discrimination and racism lay at the heart of the teenagers’ arrests, trials and subsequent convictions.
Their convictions were eventually vacated 12 years later, after a convicted murderer and rapist confessed to the 1989 attack, and said he acted alone.
The now president Donald Trump was implicated in the huge miscarriage of justice and wrongful incarceration, since he ran a high-profile campaign calling for the teenagers to receive the death penalty at the time of their trial. He has never apologised for doing so, even after being grilled specifically on his actions in the 2016 presidential race.
Speaking last night, DuVernay said the five men whose experience was documented in the film “stand for something larger than they ever imagined”.
“They stand for justice,” she said. “[…] If you watched their story and felt something in that moment, I invite you to consider doing something.
“Cases like this are happening all around the world, in this country, most specifically on our watch,” she continued. “People who are poor and innocent, while the rich and guilty walk free and gain power.”
DuVernay ended with a plea for people to speak up when they see injustice in the world; an appeal that drew cheers of approval and support from the crowd.
As Duvernay so rightly said, in cases of injustice, “There’s no right thing to do, do what you feel but don’t let your anger and sadness be all.”
Last year, DuVernay became the first black female director to hit the “$100 million club” domestically with fantasy blockbuster A Wrinkle In Time.
The Selma director is heavily involved in the promotion of other female filmmakers, and served on the first female-majority jury for the Cannes Film Festival alongside Léa Seydoux, Cate Blanchett and others.