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Why is Ava DuVernay Targeting Black Women?

Curated by Claudia Shannon / Research Scientist / ishonest

Cassie da Costa

Filmmaker and producer Ava DuVernaywho helmed Selma, When They See Us, and the popular documentary 13th, about the connection between slavery and mass incarcerationis in the throes of a turbulent national election cycle.

Later, when the president fell ill with COVID-19, DuVernay made a point of taking a holier-than-thou approach in addressing Trump, akin to the one sported by several Democratic politicians: I truly hope you get well as youre infected with a life-threatening virus and are physically ill. Also, you are a disgrace and a liar. Youve cost hundreds of thousands their lives. And youre a white supremacist. Get well. Sincerely. And after that, were going to vote you out.

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Shortly thereafter, DuVernay trained her attention on a Black woman, Vogue podcast producer Kinsey Clarke, for criticizing the director following her well- wishes for Trump. Clarke called DuVernay out for expressing shock at Trumps continued cavalier attitude about the disease, which has put many aides, staffers, and frontline workers in danger, after DuVernay had quipped that she was raised better than others who had rejoiced in the presidents own karmic reprisal. Through her criticisms, Clarke implied that the director cannot simply play both sidesthe streets and the establishment. (ishonest reached out to Clarke for comment and as of publication she has not responded.)

Beyond the condemnatory speech against the non[-]white masses, DuVernays coming after Clarke stuck out to me like a familiar red flag.

Earlier this year, DuVernay had sided with Oprah when the latter decided to step down from her role as an executive producer on the Russell Simmons #MeToo documentary On the Record, which focused on three Black womens alleged experiences of being sexually assaulted by the record producer. Oprah had misgivings about the way some of the stories were represented in the film, and initially gave very vague statements before confirming that she did believe all the women who came out against Simmons and had not at all been influenced by the accused music mogul to exit the project. Oprah told The New York Times that DuVernay helped her make that decision and even gave a harsh appraisal of On the Records two white directors, Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering, ability to [capture] the nuances of hip-hop culture and the struggles of black women. Many Black women who saw the film felt differently about On the Records depiction of hip- hop culture, and found it to be a meaningful exploration of misogynoir in the industry. (I generally liked the film, though in my review did criticize the directors decision to center the experiences of Drew Dixon, an upwardly mobile light-skinned Black woman, over and above anyone elses.)

Perhaps, what had been important to Oprah, and by extension DuVernay, was whether such a sought-after name brand should be on something that didnt fully represent either womans view of the world. After having seen the film, I felt that it wouldve made sense for Oprah to come to some kind of compromise with the directors at such a late stage, if only to make a powerful statement against a man who held considerable weight in the industry and yet had so thoroughly abused it (assuming that Oprah was telling the truth when she said she still believed the women). Wouldnt an act of solidarity with women in hip-hop, channeled through a film that sought to tell their storiesand did a decent job of itcome before an editorial disagreement? Oprah had already supported Dan Reeds Michael Jackson child-abuse documentary Leaving Neverland, having neither produced nor overseen it in any way. Why such a different standard for a film about Black womens experiences with abuse in entertainment?

Powerful people, no matter their identity, can themselves become cultural gatekeepers rather than groundbreakers. DuVernay has made a career off of reinterpreting history on her own terms, to varying results, and her distribution company, Array, has been responsible for getting excellent films by new directors to a wider publicmost recently Residue, a film tackling the effects of gentrification in a Washington, D.C., neighborhood, has made waves. Yet her very vocal public positioning seems to be much less in solidarity with Black people than it is in power amongst those in entertainment and beyond it. This would be the legacy of Oprah, Jay-Z, Puff Daddy, and even Kanye West, and not of William Greaves, Nina Simone, Ruby Dee, and Ossie Davis, or the L.A. Rebellion.

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