Ava DuVernay picked up an award for her Netflix documentary 13th at Saturday’s Peabody Awards, where she delivered a powerful speech about her journey to becoming a filmmaker and the meaning of the word “criminal.”
The Oscar-nominated film premiered on the streaming service in 2016 and examines the relationship between the U.S. Constitution’s 13th amendment, which banned slavery except for in cases where it’s used as punishment for a crime, and mass incarceration.
“Yes, some people have done things that put them in a circumstance where they need to be separated,” DuVernay said in her speech. “So many people who are behind bars now are behind bars for reasons that are unequal, are disparate to those who are not behind bars, who are behind bars for too long for crimes that they don’t deserve to be there. And 13th outlines this in a way that I hope that people can understand what you really are saying when you say the word ‘criminal.'”
13th has received widespread praise since its debut from critics, awards shows, and Hollywood elite, among others. “I came away from 13th knowing more than I ever knew I could about mass incarceration,” Oprah Winfrey said during a January discussion with DuVernay celebrating the film. “It not only informed me but it opened up something in me that said, ‘Now what can I do.’ Because now that you’ve seen it, you can’t pretend that you didn’t.”
The documentary is currently streaming on Netflix. Read DuVernay’s speech in full below.
I’ve had the good fortune of having my work nominated for a Grammy, Golden Globe, and Oscar, but I cried when I heard about this. I wanted to be a journalist when I was young. I went to UCLA and my first job out of college was an intern on the O.J. unit at CBS News. That had consisted of staking out the homes of jurors and maybe looking through their trash if one wanted to. There was something about that that just didn’t sit well with me. I needed to find another way to tell the stories that I wanted to tell, amplifying the truth that I was seeking. Filmmaking came into my life and I fell in love with it in a way that it’s really taken hold of me and taken me to such beautiful places, such beautiful heights like tonight.
With this 13th, we explored something that’s right in front of us: the idea of who’s a criminal and who’s not and how criminalization has taken hold of us a culture and has moved us into some very dark places. I want to thank Netflix and Lisa Nishimura, this woman who singlehandedly gave me a wide birth, who said, “Ava, come make what you want. Take what you need to make it. We trust you and we’ll support and amplify that.” It’s so rare. Netflix is really a disruptor, as are all of the new systems of getting our stories told. This is a time when people are criticizing what’s new because we fear new ways to deliver information. Well, I just want to say this is one filmmaker who welcomes any platform to tell our stories. So I want to thank Netflix for giving this platform.
Just to finish up, on behalf of my fellow filmmakers — Spencer Averick and Howard Barish and all of our crew that collaborated with me to make this piece — I just want to dedicate this tonight to the people behind bars, the people who are behind bars and the people who are waiting for them: the mothers, the sisters, the daughters, the girlfriends, whose loved ones are in an unknown space. Imagine who you love so much right now, put them in your head, and imagine not knowing where they are, not having any sense of safety, not having any recourse to move them out of the place of jeopardy. Yes, some people have done things that put them in a circumstance where they need to be separated. So many people who are behind bars now are behind bars for reasons that are unequal, are disparate to those who are not behind bars, who are behind bars for too long for crimes that they don’t deserve to be there. And 13th outlines this in a way that I hope that people can understand what you really are saying when you say the word “criminal.” You have reexamine that and thank you for helping me do that.
With reporting by Chancellor Agard