Now DuVernay, whose acclaimed 2019 “When They See Us” miniseries documented the lives of the five teenagers wrongly imprisoned in the 1989 Central Park jogger case, is revealing that project, meant to spotlight police officers who have abused and murdered black people. The Law Enforcement Accountability Project (LEAP) will fund 25 projects — including film, theater, photography, poetry, music, sculpture and dance — over the next two years through DuVernay’s Array Alliance nonprofit. LEAP will have an initial budget of $3 million from contributors including the Ford Foundation and screenwriter-producer Ryan Murphy (“Glee,” “American Horror Story”).
DuVernay says she had an epiphany after repeatedly watching the horrifying video of George Floyd’s death that was taken by 17-year-old Darnella Frazier. Frazier was walking her 9-year-old cousin to a corner store when she saw Floyd being pulled out of a car. She began filming police officer Derek Chauvin and Floyd, pinned under his knee for more than eight minutes. Chauvin, who has since been fired and charged with second-degree murder, stares into the camera as Floyd pleads to be released.
“I’m used to watching racist, violent images,” says DuVernay. “So why did George Floyd’s final moments devastate me like it did? I realized that it was because this time the cop isn’t hidden behind a body cam or distorted by grainy surveillance video. This time, I can see the cop’s face. As a viewer, there are several times when he even looks right at me. Then . . . I started to realize how rare that is. And that led me to think, ‘how many of these police officers do we never see?’ They disappear, end up leaving town, and show up in another department. Their names are said, but it’s never amplified and it’s kind of like this group contract. Somehow, we, as American citizens, have agreed to not speak their names. I do not agree to that anymore.”
DuVernay says she isn’t ready to reveal specific projects yet, but the first finished work will go public in August.
And there won’t be any shortage of incidents to spotlight. DuVernay notes that it took five years for Daniel Pantaleo, the New York City police officer who choked Eric Garner in 2014, to be fired. Pantaleo was not charged in Garner’s death. And no charges have been filed in the deaths of Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old emergency medical technician killed in Louisville in March after police stormed her apartment, or Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old shot in a Cleveland park when a police officer mistook his toy gun for a real weapon. There are also the many officers tried and acquitted, including Betty Jo Shelby, who fatally shot an unarmed black man in Tulsa in 2016. Today, she is a police officer in another county and teaches a course on what she calls “The Ferguson effect,” when “a police officer is victimized by anti-police groups and tried in the court of public opinion.”
DuVernay says: “This is a broken system, some people will say. I will say it was built this way. And we, as taxpayers who pay these people’s salaries, should at least be able to speak their names. Why have we agreed not to mention them? It’s much different than a serial killer or a school shooter. These are people who work for us. They have broken the law, they have broken their oath, and we should be able to talk about that.”
Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, says he was immediately drawn to the idea.
“Artists are the best transmitters and translators of the American narrative and unfortunately, racism in law enforcement has been a part of the American narrative,” he says.
“She’s one of the great documentarians and filmmakers in the country and has a sensibility for justice and fairness,” he says. “And she has an incredible network and will attract some of the most talented filmmakers and artists in the country.”
“The way Ava explained it was so eloquent and made so much sense for me,” says Ryan Murphy. “The time for reform is now. I just think it’s a very, very smart thing to do.”
News of LEAP also drew praise from the Movement for Black Lives.
“Too often, the narrative after an incident of police violence defames the character and past of victimized Black people instead of interrogating the system of policing itself and holding it accountable,” Karissa Lewis, the national field director at the Movement for Black Lives, said in a statement. “It’s about time we trained the camera on those responsible for the intractable brutality in American policing today.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that a warrant was served at the wrong address the night Breonna Taylor was killed in Louisville. It was served at the address listed on the warrant. The story has been updated.