Ava DuVernay on Changing the Narrative Around Police and the Power of 'Fearing Less' (Exclusive)

The director talks with ET about the LEAP initiative and renewed relevancy of projects like ‘13th’ and ‘Selma.’

As the protests against systemic racism and police brutality, people have turned to films like 13th and Selma and the limited series When They See Us for additional context. Directed by Ava DuVernay, all three projects depict injustices faced by the black community in the past -- and for many viewers, are just as relevant today. 

“I never imagined we’d be in this place, but [feel] so blessed and fortunate to be able to contribute to the conversation,” DuVernay tells ET’s Kevin Frazier. The Oscar-nominated documentary 13th, about the problems with the nation's prison system and “the racial bias suppression and criminalization of black people,” has seen a 4,665 percent increase in viewership over the last three weeks. “A lot of people have sought it out,” she continues, commending those who are rewatching it or just discovering it for the first time. “That’s what it’s there for: to teach, to share.” 

Amid the protests following the killing of George Floyd, Selma and 13th are available to stream for free online, while When They See Us, which the director says “serves [as] a snapshot of the destruction that these systems actually have on real people,” is available on Netflix -- and is part of the platform’s curated collection of content in support of Black Lives Matter. “I’m really pleased that people are finding it again,” she says of the Emmy-winning series.

Meanwhile, DuVernay is using her platform and the renewed interest in these projects to affect change in the way stories about law enforcement are told moving forward. “LEAP is really what saved me in this time of darkness and trauma and rage and grief that so many of us are feeling,” she says, adding that “sitting in those feelings was not healthy for me. Trying to do something about it and act was.” 

Launched in June, the Law Enforcement Accountability Project is a new fund for reshaping storytelling around police violence and will commission projects across all forms of media, including the screen, stage and fine arts, in order to empower activists to change the narrative. 

“A lot of what we’re seeing now is this national blind spot: the fact that we have not been holding police officers who are not doing their work correctly, to task; we've not been holding them accountable. The police unions don’t hold them accountable, police departments don’t, and the courts don’t. There’s overwhelming statistical evidence that this is fact,” she explains.  

“Yet, we know that there are challenges on the streets, we see people dying on camera, let alone people who are not caught on camera in these situations,” she continues. “So the idea of this is [to] turn our storytelling powers towards this issue... The idea is to say we will make sure that you don’t go unknown and unnamed. The idea that we can rattle off the names right now of 30 black people who died at the hands of police. We know their names, we say their names. That we don’t know who killed them, that is a national blind spot.” 

The director goes on to explain that it all taps into a mythology surrounding law enforcement, making people believe they can’t question them, their actions to find out the truth. In actuality, the public can ask those questions and amplify information. “So that’s what LEAP will do,” she adds, “and anyone can join to help us amplify the projects and make the projects” through ARRAY, DuVernay’s independent distribution company.

LEAP is part of the company, which the director says has grown into a collective “of so many gorgeous artists and executives.” In addition to producing projects like the previously mentioned films and Queen Sugar on OWN and giving people of color and women a place to tell their stories, it also has a non-profit arm, ARRAY 101, responsible for community outreach and education. “It’s my pride and joy,” she says.  

With ARRAY and LEAP as well as the award-winning success of projects like 13th and When They See Us, DuVernay, who was also recently elected to the Academy Board of Governors, has become the voice of a movement, with many saying she’s exactly the person we need right now in Hollywood and beyond.

While she’s quick to dismiss that idea (“I haven't even thought about it,” she says), DuVernay knows what it takes for anyone -- not just her -- to be a leader and bring about necessary change: “Fearing less.” 

“There’s so much historical precedent for so many of our ancestors and great people who’ve done things that you read in the history books and you're just like, ‘How did you summon up any courage to do this?’ And we are in such a different and a lot of ways better place now,” she says.  

“To be fearful of doing [what’s] right, I think, is what has a lot of people in the situation that we’re in now, where we’re afraid to speak when we see wrong being done; we’re afraid to hold power accountable. You become less afraid when there’s more people doing it," she adds. "I think that's a lot of what we’re seeing in this moment: millions of people saying no. So there’s nothing like the power of the people. I believe the people can do anything. So the idea for this is, ‘Hey, help me not be afraid. Stand with me as we do this work.’ The more people stand with us, you know, the more powerful we can be.”


For more of DuVernay’s interview with ET, watch tonight’s broadcast. Check your local listings.