Open letter to Ava DuVernay about When They See Us.

Image from the film When They See Us.

Dear Ms DuVernay,

In the summer of 94 in sweltering Atlanta whilst attending the NABJ and Unity conference I came across a striking woman in the hotel’s conference hall. She was next to a stand and had her young child in one arm, and in the other hand was clutching copies of “The Source” — that canonical tomb for Hip Hop.

We spoke and hit it off; turns out Kim, her name, was the Managing Editor. Kim was just so cool. A Howard University grad, married to popular WLIB presenter Mark Jack Riley (an Arsenal supporter). From that day, we yapped and yapped, have kept in touch and refer to each other as Cuz. When I told her about the experience watching your film, she sent me this.

I know you have 10 children, love em all, but your last child is really something. Today I emailed Kim to talk about a new cuz. That would be you. I mean how else might I frame the maker of a film that had me weeping, angry, elated, physically sick, and overwrought with pure admiration. Fam do that. Fam. I’m referring to the film When They See Us.

I’ve never doubted the power of film. And that injustices captured can worm themselves into the amygdala. I grew up in Ghana and saw a man being necklaced from a baying mob. In Apartheid South Africa I reported from the townships navigating between violence and unjust acts. I once interviewed the notorious Dirk Coetzee whose assassin squad targeted innocent people in politics that the regime dubbed enemies of the state.

I had some knowledge of the five men wrongly convicted and like many many people lament the frequent inequities that emerge from the dark side of the American law and order system. What hasn’t been said, that has yet to be said about those five men? Perhaps, without being unkind to writers and documentary film makers, When They See Us shows that there is a well of emotions, a reservoir of rage and a source of solemnity, a filmic aesthetic, a human odyssey that hitherto remains largely unknown and untapped.

This film is a testament to film. This was realism of a kind that might have philosophers debating the fluid boundaries of the ephemeral and deep inception which causes strong reactions. When men are incarcerated, when headlines are dated, when the news moves onto to its next subject, life for the afflicted has to be lived and those conditions are ones that few can imagine. When They See Us recreates the torment and scars history witnesses, but is entombed before someone seeks to unlock it, reinvigorating the truth.

A couple of years ago, I climbed a summit of emotions from depths of frustrations whilst completing a doctorate. Combining a love for journalism; my greatest moment was reporting President Nelson Mandela’s inauguration on the BBC World Service.

Working near the Syrian border, Egypt, Russia etc., and then moving to cinema I wanted to prove there was an artistic modus operandi emerging that took journalism into not what is explicit, but conscious thoughts, a penrose step of memory. The limitations with traditional journalism prescribe to the “if it’s not visible on tape, it didn’t happen.”

At University College in Dublin, the home of W.B Yeats, and James Joyce, I was able to defend my position. There is a journalism that is cinema in its tropes, quality and receivership. It builds on what Robert Drew and cineasts, before him and after, uncovered; I was so thrilled when I got to speak to him about how he influenced my work. There is also a cinema that transcends what traditional journalism or documentary fail to achieve, but act itself as the purveyor of truth and a 21st century realism. When They See Us did that, is that.

It’s poignant and should truly concern the scions of journalism how this film goes places journalism has not. Is Ms DuVernay the de facto journalist of today?

Without spoiling it for those that are yet to watch the films, the third installment in its captivating characterisation played with non-linearity and cinema in what scholars might reference what Hitchcock meant in pure cinema or Tarkovsky lost us in entangled dream-like thoughts, or even something else. Film as a language is organic. It lives. What was once, need not be the only one and comparisons, because we’re human, can do a disservice. When They See Us is art, poetry, an exhibit in narrative neuroscience enveloping the mind deeply so, with flashbacks and imagery that on occasions had me break for a second (my bad) from the film’s narrative to murmur “What did distant cuz just do?”

The film’s currency delineates that there is unfinished business, unfinished business in correcting such a heinous crime from those that perpetuated this injustice and have not been made accountable.

So cuz, I’ve had the opportunity to interview a handful of artists I have admired when I had a show at the BBC. They include: Eartha Kitt; Quincy Jones, Melvin Van Peebles, Grace Jones, Alice Walker; Walter Mosley (Jay-z more recently. I got my student to interview him) and Nelson Mandela at a press conference.

So I was wondering? If you’re planning on coming to the UK, or I drop by the US, I’d love, if you could spare some time, to be interviewed, or otherwise afford some time for our students to learn more about you and your craft.

Kim, cuz, what do you think?

Until then, new Cuz thank you.


UK ( London & Cardiff)

Dr David Dunkley Gyimah is Journalist, academic, creative technologist, cinema journalist, news maker, Ghanaian-Brit and artist (former artist in residence at the Southbank Centre). and former produce of the UK’s national treasure Jon Snow. He’s one of the top twenty writers in journalism on @medium. More on him here

Top Writer & Creative Technologist, Int. Award Winner. Cinemajournalist. Cardiff Uni @jomec. PhD (Dublin). Visiting Prof UBC, Ex BBC/C4News. Apple profiled.

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