Rob Kim

In her 1985 comic strip Dykes To Watch Out For, Alison Bechdel set the ground rules for what would later become known as the Bechdel Test.

In the strip, two women (who resemble characters that would later be known as Ginger and Mo) discuss how they choose which movies to see. Ginger explains to Mo that she only sees movies in which two female characters actually have a conversation about one another about something other than a man.

More recently, Bechdel's rules have become a litmus test used by critics and pop culture pundits to gauge just how progressive depictions of women in film actually are.

Now, in light of the Academy Awards' sweeping snub of black actresses, actors, directors, cinematographers, and filmmakers for the second year in a row, there's a call for a new test, similar to Bechdel's, meant to draw attention to racial representation in film.


In a column praising the Sundance Film Festival's decision to fete Nate Parker's The Birth of a Nation for The New York Times, film critic Manohla Dargis reflected on the film and festival as a chance for the public to endeavor to be more discerning in its analysis of films featuring black characters.

"Movies like The Birth of a Nation are helping to write the next chapter of American cinema. And, to an extent, that’s true of Sundance at its best," Dargis wrote. "It’s also where numerous selections pass the Bechdel test and, in honor of the director and Sundance alumna Ava DuVernay, what might be called the DuVernay test, in which African-Americans and other minorities have fully realized lives rather than serve as scenery in white stories."

Hours after The Times published the piece, Duverney took to Twitter to express her gratitude at having her name (and body of work) held up for immortalization as a standard for cultural critique.


It's easy to explain the Duvernay Test as being the racial analogue to the Bechdel Test, but in reality the specific wording of the "rules" for the two tests makes them considerably different in subtle, but important ways.

It's important to point out that while the Bechdel test is a solid jumping off point to get an idea of the way a piece of culture portrays women, passing it isn't a guarantee that the film, book, or TV show you're watching is really all that progressive or feminist.


For every genre-bending Jessica Jones that challenges the way that superhero culture maligns or overly sexualizes female superheroes, you get an Avengers: Age of Ultron, where the team's only female lead is reduced down to her ability to have children and still ends up being the "mother" on the team.

Similarly, the Duvernay test isn't meant to be a cut-and-dry yes-or-no sort of gauge. It's meant to provoke thought. Having "fully realized lives rather than [serving] as scenery in white stories" can be interpreted in a number of different ways depending on the film.

In 2011, Octavia Spencer won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of Minny Jackson in The Help. Depending on how you look at it, The Help can be seen as a movie about a young white woman who befriends two black maids and draws upon the stories they tell her for her tell-all book about the plight of black house servants working in Jackson, Mississippi in the '60s. You can also look at the movie (and book) as the stories of the black working class narrated and arranged by a white character ultimately meant to act as a universal stand-in for the reader as an outsider.


How you look at the film changes whether or not it actually passes the Duvernay Test. If the former, no. If the latter, yes. And that, to be honest, is the point.

Rather than simply debating whether or not X movie conceives of black lives as mattering enough to craft any artistic narratives around, the Duvernay test could be a tool used to encourage the creation of films that pass it by default.