Nobody Wins when the Family Feuds: Ava DuVernay’s visionary video
In the year 2050, the audience is seated amongst a table of women from all walks of life who are gathered to revise the constitution, the Foremother of the new United States will utter the words “America is a family and the whole family should be free. It’s like I remember my father saying when I was a little girl, nobody wins when the family feuds”. In this brighter future envisioned by visionary director Ava DuVernay and musical artist Jay-Z, the duo takes our darkest days and rather than allow the most hateful among us to rise up and strangle the light out of us, we band together. A group of visionary women come together to not only revise the constitution but to establish a new order and a new way of doing things. They establish a system built to allow the entire family a seat at the table rather than leaving some to feast on the crumbs left by a select few.
On Friday, Ava DuVernay dropped her and Jay-Z’s 8-minute short film through Tidal, which acted as the star-studded music video for Jay’s Family Feud. Just as the album itself tackled the pain and heartache that lies and secrets can inflict upon a family and its members, so does the video. The short opens with a quote from James Baldwin which states “The Wretched of the Earth do not decide to become extinct, they resolve, on the contrary, to multiply: life is their weapon against life, life is all that they have”. The quote echoes as a sentiment which has rung very true since the beginning of mankind. In our world, rather than letting outdated beliefs and prejudices die out, the worst among us instead spread their disease to those unafflicted with the sickness that is hatred and bigotry.
The video itself is Shakespearean and grandiose in nature as it perfectly dramatizes the ways in which families can hurt each other and the ways in which the secrets held within families can affect future generations. The film opens in a grand mansion that looks as if it were plucked right from the streets of old Verona. A winding dramatic spiral staircase, weathered walls that had the appearance to hold multiple lifetimes of history, and cracked murals atop the aged ceiling help to establish and paint the picture envisioned by DuVernay. A brother played by Michael B. Jordan ascends the stairs in a dramatic fashion, his black cape billowing behind him like the wings of a bat as he chastises someone “You know it’s the constant lack of respect that you show me and this family that pisses me off. Do you have any idea how important today is? Lack of judgment! Respect! You have no FUCKING honor!”. These words set the stage for a dramatic display of family dysfunction between himself, his sister, and his sister’s lover which collides and results in two unforgivable acts. The scene is fantastically acted out by Michael B. Jordan, Thandie Newton, and Trevante Rhodes. It focuses on how resentment and jealousy, when left unchecked, can fester within the heart and eventually become deadly. Ava herself states that the scene is meant to focus on the lengths to which family can hurt one another.
The next scene opens with two figures, one played by Native American actress Irene Bedard and the other by Omari Hardwick, being interviewed by a reporter, played by Jessica Chastain. The reporter calls into question Hardwick’s character’s family history, which is a direct reference to the events that just transpired. We quickly learn that the two people seated before us are the Presidents of the United States of America, DuVernay took to Twitter to further expound upon the choice to have America lead by two individuals:
Perhaps some of the most striking and powerful imagery of the entire video is seeing a Native American woman seated in a position of power as one of the leaders of the United States. Rarely, if ever, do we get to see Native actors in a capacity that allows them a positive depiction which pushes away stereotypical representation. The fact that one of the Presidents is a Native American woman is a very intentional decision made between DuVernay and Jay-Z.
During the interview of the two Presidents, Hardwick’s character gives a speech about his family’s place in American history and the turmoil through which his family helped the world transcend through generations. We see glimpses of wars fought by Aisha Hinds, America Ferrera, Henry G. Sanders, and Storm Reid that look like they were ripped straight from the pages of a science fiction novel. We learn of two future Justice officers played by David Oyelowo and Emayatzy Corinealdi who protected the United States and maintained peace and order. However, the icing on the cake comes in the form of the gathering of the Founding Mothers, which transpired in the year 2050.
The Founding Mothers were a diverse group of women from all walks of life who revised the Constitution at a time when, as Hardwick’s character describes it, “some thought that making America great meant making us afraid of each other.”
Seated at the table are 8 women played by Janet Mock, Niecy Nash, Mindy Kaling, Rashida Jones, Rosario Dawson, Brie Larson, and Constance Wu all of which acting as the mothers of the new Constitution. Seated at the head of this table, as one of the chief architects, is a black woman with her afro on full display dressed in white with a commanding regal presence. This woman, the one that Hardwick’s character refers to as one of his ancestors, is none other than the adult Blue Ivy played by Susan Kelechi Watson.
The Gathering of the Founding Mothers resonated with me so deeply because rarely do we ever get to see envisioned futures where the contributions of women are so recognized and celebrated. Rarely do we get to see even today the contributions of women in our society receive the credit and the recognition that they so often deserve, but to see a gathering of women placed on full display and regarded as one of our greatest historical moments was absolutely breathtaking. The scene left me thinking, if men have been allowed to unjustly and inadequately occupy every seat at the table, then is it not about time that women had more than just a seat? Maybe it’s about time they get not just a seat, but the whole damn table.
“It’s like my father used to say, nobody wins when the family feuds” it is with these words that we are shown a memory from the adult Blue Ivy of her walking hand in hand into a church with her father. He seats her neatly amongst the ocean of pews as he heads to confessional. President Hardwick utters “Because we failed to live up to the Foremothers promise doesn’t mean that she failed, I have hope that we can shine again” almost as if he is speaking to us and rallying us to make a change. In this moment, the song Family Feud begins to play as Jay raps out his verse with the gusto and personality for which he has been known. Shots of him flitter back and forth between him rapping in a confessional booth to him rapping in front of the pews as if he was spitting a sermon.
Just as Beyonce used Lemonade to act as her diary and to express her thoughts and feelings about not just love and life, but also her marriage Jay-Z used 4:44 as his means to respond and, in many ways, confess. This plays a huge part in the confessional aspect of the video because we then find out that the person to whom he is going to confess to when he and Blue enter the church is none other than his wife, Beyonce. Queen Bey is seated on the other side of the screen fabulously dressed in a black and white ensemble befitting the Queen that she is. During the scenes of Jay pacing the floor in front of the church, we see shots of Beyonce in the background singing and watching over not just her husband, but her daughter in an outfit that makes her look like the Pope you never knew you needed. The concept of confession and atonement is something that plays heavily within 4:44 and this theme definitely plays into the Family Feud video.
The more I watch Family Feud the more I begin to gather a broader and much larger message from the short film, the family isn’t just a reference to the Knowles-Carter’s. The family is potentially an overarching symbol and reference to all of us as a collective. In this video, the concept of the family is represented by the feuding not just within the world and not just within our country, but also within our communities. The lyric “Nobody wins when the family feuds” comes to embody multiple nuanced and layered meanings when coupled with the images and themes of DuVernay’s short.
In closing, thank you so very much, Ava, for envisioning a future where the best and brightest of us stand together while staring into the void and shout “No more”. Thank you for envisioning a future where the worst of us does not define the whole of us, a future filled with hope and possibility. Thank you for envisioning a future that is painted with all of the colors of the world and not just the ones chosen by a select few. Thank you for this reminder that we can be better…that we will be better and though the night is dark and full of terrors that darkness won’t last always. Like my grandmother always says, “weeping may endure for the night, but joy cometh in the morning”. The world that you crafted and established is so rich and full of history and powerful concepts that if you so chose, it could be turned into a full-blown television series.
To view Ava DuVernay and Jay-Z’s masterpiece head on over to Tidal