Bringing Wreck: The Films of Ava Duvernay

Curator's Note

In Total Chaos: The Art and Aesthetics of Hip-Hop Jeff Chang writes, “Hip-hop began as an early ‘70s youth street culture in New York City, with all the peculiarities of place embedded in it—the slang, the cadence of talk, the way people moved [… and] by the ’90s, hip-hop had helped foster a dramatic increase of representations of people of color.” In Ava Duvernay’s films, rap doesn’t blast as the score to every scene, but her work centers the lives of black and brown hip-hop generation folks with lives rooted in these aesthetics.

In 1989 South Central’s resistance to gangsta rap at the Good Life Café seemed to spark Duvernay’s storytelling. The west coast’s rap resistance to mainstream narratives of black men with guns is chronicled in her first film, This is The Life (2009), a story of hip-hop’s coming of age. Her documentary and narrative films center women of color narratively and visually. My Mic Sounds Nice (2010) frames women rappers in close-up shots that force you to look these women rappers in the eye, disrupting normative frames of rap video’s sexualizing gaze. I Will Follow (2011) and Middle of Nowhere (2012) have been recognized for their style and storytelling, and I argue, are “bringing wreck” to cinematic stories of the hip-hop generation.

In Check It While I Wreck It: Black Womanhood, Hip-Hop Culture, and the Public Sphere, Gwendolyn Pough uses the rap notion of “wreck,” which connotes fighting, recreation and boasting, and extends it to Black women’s agency within hip-hop culture. Pough explains, “Bringing wreck for Black participants in the public sphere historically has meant reshaping the public gaze in such a way as to be recognized as human beings—as functioning and worthwhile members of society—and not to be shut out of or pushed away from the public sphere.”

Ava Duvernay’s filmmaking—from production to distribution brings wreck to hip-hop (read: challenges mainstream media’s limited and limiting representations) and to hip-hop generation black film, through Duvernay’s new model of distribution. She developed The African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement (AaFFRM), which “celebrates fresh voices in Black filmmaking” and “is a bold new chapter in Black cinema.” AaFFRM’s slogan, “Together We Are Strong” speaks to the collective tenet of hip-hop culture and shifts the representations of hip-hop generation communities from reality television’s saturation of stereotypes, particularly of black womanhood, centering the beauty of hip-hop's complexity.


Thank you for this post and for calling attention to the works of Duvernay.  I'm curious if you see a difference in the relationship that her documentaries versus her feature films have to hip-hop?  The two documentaries you mention seem very clearly tied to hip-hop since they are explicitly about hip-hop.  The way they bring wreck to hip-hop also seems much clearer in that both pry open the dominant media representations of hip-hop as "gansta rap" to show first the vibrant "underground" freestyle culture at the Good Life cafe (which provided a foundation for many mainstream rappers) and then the long, continually re-forgotten, trivialized, and sexualized history of women rappers.

Duvernay's second two films seem less explicitly connected to hip-hop, and as a result, I wonder if they don't thus offer an even richer site for thinking about what makes hip-hop cinema important and powerful.  Do they bring wreck to hip-hop because they again open up the terrain of how black and brown people are represented in the media--a terrain that in the mainstream seems predominantly circumscribed by hip-hop, in the words of Cutler Edwards' response to my post on hip-hopspolitation? Or is it more that, as you suggest in your final paragraph, these fictional films feature underground hip-hop that, through the alternative means of distribution Duvernay has created with the AaFFRM, are able to undermine the representational monopoly of commercial hip-hop? 

Thanks again for offering us a rich set of texts to use in thinking about hip-hop cinema.

Yes, I absolutely agree that Ava’s narrative films open up rich possibilities for analysis both for hip-hop in the cinema and the cinema in the hip-hop, if that makes sense. I think that both aspects you propose – both the form and the mode of distribution are very hip-hop generation projects. In I Will Fillow, hip-hop is woven through the entire narrative in content and form. It is clearly a (hip-hop) generational story. The film opens with a memory where the grandmother informs, “You’re second generation. Joshua tree generation…” which, I think, situates I Will Follow, as a very much hip-hop generational story of when we hip-hop folks grow up. It looks at the day in the life (inspired by Ava’s own experience) of what happens as we get grown and have to deal with adult life, love, death, and the messiness of family pain. Hip-hop clearly underscores the film; see it in the Good Life t-shirt worn by the nephew Raven and the conversation about rappers that happens in the scene where they take a break to eat pizza... the basketball banter and the "best" rapper debates... this is hip-hop in the cinema, for sure. What I really love and appreciate in these moments is that despite the culture's roots in oppositionality, Duvernay doesn't use the pounding beats or "insider" debates to alienate audiences who don't get the depth or understand the intricacies of the debates. For me, it is familiar and comforting to be inside the narrative and be able to watch with folks who don't get the (hip-hop) cultural specificity. I also love seeing Lucas (Cut Chemist) in a cameo role! If you don't know Cut Chemist (the lone white guy in her This is the Life doc, who is a noted producer and dj for Jurassic 5). He may seem like just some random guy, unless you know (and that's so hip-hop)! To me this is such subtle magic --- and so outside of my commercial Hollywood movie going experience. I haven't been able to see Middle of Nowhere yet but I cannot wait to see it! This love story seems to be very much a hip-hop generational love story (in the vain of asha bandele's memoir The Prisoner's Wife), and many a rap song...

It is crazy to consider that as a generational moment our imprisoned population top more than 2 million of us. Even crazier is that 7+million of this country are on some sort of parole, probation or supervised release. Again Duvernay resists the typical rap story of man in prison or facing a case (or where the video imagery centers that narrative like 50's Many Men), and instead follows a woman's story. If 2 million are imprisoned who are the folks that are holding them down? The family, friends and circle of people... so I love that she chooses to follow this from the wife's perspective. The fact the Duvernay not only cares about the self promotion and success of her own films points to the "crew" mentality in hip-hop... you don't go anywhere without your people. It is a collective mentality that all seems antithetical to mainstream distribution that thinks only about the film and/or the one "star" director but doesn't necessarily follow the mentality of get in the door and hold it open for the homies... maybe it's the PR/business side of Duvernay. (She's been helping to put images of hip-hop and Black and Brown folks for years!) I think her work is rich on many levels: hip-hop cinema, hip-hop IN the cinema, and the cinema in the hip-hop... and don't get me started on the complexity of representations... I'd like to right a scholarly piece about her body of work; perhaps I will write this essay for a journal after I see Middle of Nowhere. Thanks again to Aaron for his comment, and to the others of you who have read and watched. This is a great theme week!

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