How Ava DuVernay Made When They See Us, the Year’s Best Miniseries

Ava DuVernay’s miniseries When They See Us, about the wrongful imprisonment of five teenagers accused of assaulting a jogger in Central Park, is up for multiple Emmy awards this Sunday, including miniseries, direction, writing, actor, and (twice!) best actress.

After choosing it as the best miniseries on TV earlier this year, we asked DuVernay to talk to us about the direction, writing, and overall conception of the project. When They See Us is thematically and politically consistent with her earlier work in both fiction (Selma, Queen Sugar) and nonfiction (13th), in that it focuses on racial and class inequities and the idea of prison as the continuation of slavery by other means.

But it also represents a level-up in artistry and a culmination of everything she’s done to date, drawing from ’70s New York cinema, mid-20th-century photojournalism, historical research, Hollywood-scale epic sweep, and grounded human drama.

DuVernay is a student of cinema history as well as an influential filmmaker and social commentator, which is one reason why it’s always a pleasure to talk to her about cinema, television, and American history.

How did you approach the cinematography, having a large cast of actors of color with a wide variation in skin tones?
This story was a chance for me to continue exploring how to capture skin tone with actors of color in dark spaces. I was really pushing myself in terms of the color grade. It was the work with Mitch Paulson [supervising digital colorist on several DuVernay projects, including A Wrinkle in Time] that was new, the furthering of playing with the image and seeing what it can do. We were asking, “How far can you push an image before it breaks?”

Can you give me an example?
The section of episode four where Korey Wise is in solitary. It’s shot dark but then we put light in, and that forced the picture to break apart a little bit. It’s barely noticeable to some eyes, but on other screens, you can really see it. That’s important to us because when we’re talking about Netflix, we’re talking about no uniformity of screens, right? It’s gonna look different to someone with an old TV, as opposed to somebody who bought one this year or last year. This is a consideration filmmakers have to really pay attention to now.

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