A Necessary Reckoning: Reese Witherspoon’s Interview with Ava DuVernay Shows Us How Much More Work Society Still Has to Do

In 2018, Reese Witherspoon interviewed director Ava DuVernay on Shine On with Reese. The aim of Witherspoon’s series in which she interviews a different woman each episode is to highlight “powerful, ambitious women in different fields,” and she makes DuVernay the focus of episode two of the series. Witherspoon and DuVernay have amazing chemistry, perhaps from having worked together on the set of A Wrinkle in Time or maybe because they are both women working in the film industry. The two women talk about everything from meeting Oprah for the first time to how to get the job you want to DuVernay’s childhood dream of being a civil rights lawyer. While Witherspoon has a connection with DuVernay, it is apparent that Witherspoon does not always ask the right questions. In discussing her story, DuVernay suggests that there are unique challenges of being a black woman in the industry. DuVernay is the first black woman to direct a film with a budget of over $100 million. With the great power she has, she implements equality, which she insists on on the sets of her movies. There are people of color, people of different ages, and LGBTQ people working on the different components of DuVernay’s films. She notes that she is patient but demands a diverse group of coworkers when she is at the helm. Though she does not have to lead by example, she does anyway.

DuVernay remarks that she did not pick up a camera until she was 32 years old and her education in filmmaking was not traditional. She did not go to school to learn how to be a director: her knowledge came from her experiences. Many people assume that traditional educational is the only path to becoming well-versed in a field, but DuVernay defies norms and in doing so defines herself as a trailblazer. While both Witherspoon and DuVernay are different in many ways, they have some things in common. Both women have Barbie dolls modeled after them. Witherspoon’s Barbie doll is not quite hers, rather it is that of her Legally Blonde character, Elle Woods; DuVernay’s Barbie doll is herself. DuVernay is a role model and a pioneer in her own right and the doll represents the possibilities. DuVernay does, however, feel the constraints of working in Hollywood, especially as a woman of color. She says that she feels she has to work fast in order to seize the opportunities she finds.

DuVernay should not have educate those of us who are ignorant to issues involving race and the role race plays in our everyday lives. In the interview with Witherspoon, she seems to not only be informing Witherspoon about the unique challenges of being a black woman in the film industry, but also is educating the viewer. However, Witherspoon does not delve deep into race with DuVernay, which is a missed opportunity. Maybe if she was better informed about the role of race in our society, she would have the self-awareness that so many of us lack. And why do we lack that self-awareness? In part because many white people benefit from the system of racism that exists today. Some of us do not feel a need to dismantle these systems because they do not personally affect us.

According to DuVernay, there is a “painful awakening” occurring in our society. The reckoning is the first step, then reevaluating the systems and foundations that led us to the reckoning is the next step. This reevaluation is painful to so many people because it forces us to be critical not only of ourselves, but of the people in our lives. We have to hold up a mirror to ourselves, friends, family, coworkers, and other people we have relationships with and ask, “Where do we fail to make right the wrongs of systemic racism?” It’s not an easy question to answer and it’s not a question we should answer on our own: we need to ask that question to people of color and really listen to what they have to say. In her questions to DuVernay, Witherspoon often steps back and really listens to what the filmmaker has to say, which is a great example for the rest of us. Witherspoon sometimes interjects with her own personal anecdotes, but ultimately gives way for DuVernay to share her story on her terms. That’s a lesson many of us can learn from: when we ask someone to share their story, we should be active listeners. Both Witherspoon and DuVernay point out, “What we do have is our voice,” and a good ally should be ready to use their voice when they see injustices occurring. We need to ask questions, be active listeners, and then amplify the voices of people who are silenced. That’s what being an effective ally is.

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