Director talks cinema segregation, racism in America, and the importance of including Donald Trump in her new film at the NYFF
Credit: Joey Nolfi for EW

Ava DuVernay, director of 13th, a necessary and overwhelming documentary about the impact of the United States’ prison-industrial complex on American communities of color, wants her audience to know the racial issues her latest project addresses can’t be compartmentalized to her work as an artist; they exist in the real world, and DuVernay exposes them with a burning intensity.

“There’s no segmenting [race] out for me, because that’s my experience… that’s not what I was doing [with the film]” she said during a Friday morning press conference, held hours before 13th‘s world premiere as the first documentary to open the New York Film Festival in its 54-year history. Instead, she said she made the film while immersing herself in the struggles of people of color who came before her; the resulting film is a byproduct of her own curiosity, sparked by a culture of racism stemming from the days of slavery, through the Civil Rights movement, to today, strung together by a clause in the 13th amendment to the U.S. constitution, which states involuntary servitude is permissable “as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.”

13th makes the case that the idea of slavery has not completely disappeared from the fabric of the country; she argues it has simply been redesigned, repackaged, and resold as the criminal justice system, which has incarcerated an overwhelming number of black and Latino men over the years, stemming from what the film labels a systematic, post-slavery demonization of people of color. DuVernay said the process of crafting the 100-minute film was a daunting task (six hours of unused segments remain on the cutting room floor), both in terms of her endurance as an artist and on her emotions as a person.

“I can’t watch that without tearing up,” she revealed, referencing a recurring piece of archival footage in 13th, which shows a black man attempting to cross a street as a group of white men repeatedly knock a hat from his head. It’s intercut with real, raw footage of Donald Trump supporters physically assaulting black people at the Republican presidential candidate’s various political rallies. DuVernay thought it was important to juxtapose these disturbing realities on the road toward changing the bigger picture for the better.

“For whatever reason, I put myself in that place, in that isolation, in the immersion of being surrounding by hatred and the physicality of that hatred… Often, as we were making [13th], we got to brick walls where we had to push ourselves to go further because something wasn’t clear or we were selling out on something; I would think of him and having to do justice to the story for him and people like him.”

She added: “I know I live differently and move more freely than anyone in my family before me. As a black woman filmmaker I move and can do things different than black women filmmakers who came around even 10 years ago. There is improvement happening. It’s coming at a snail’s pace, and while it is moving along at that pace, people are dying and being murdered.”

DuVernay, who rose to prominence as the director of acclaimed indie films I Will Follow and Middle of Nowhere, found mainstream success with her Martin Luther King, Jr. drama Selma, which was nominated for Best Picture at the 87th Academy Awards. 13th, her most prominent nonfiction work to date, continues the filmmaker’s pattern of crafting films with socio-political implications, though she says, with 13th, she wanted to avoid giving her audience a Hollywood ending to a brutal reality waiting for them on the other side of the theater doors. She said it was important for her to end the film with images of “black joy,” because “black trauma is not our life. We are survivors.” She originally intended to close 13th with personal profiles on the various interview subjects who appear in the film, including Van Jones and Angela Davis. But, DuVernay said the first cut let her (and the country) off far too easily.

“After I watched [that version] of the film, I saw that credit sequence and I thought, ‘Oh, they’ve got it. They’re all going to fix this,’” she revealed. “I just wanted us to leave feeling on the hook for something, because this is a generations-old, centuries-old problem that we allow to happen. It is going to require a shift in our collective consciousness to unravel the deep layers of systemic oppression.”

DuVernay also connected her feelings on the recent death of her father to the admittedly difficult decision to include videos of the police-shooting deaths of black men, like Philando Castile and Eric Garner, in 13th.

“The deal breaker was to think, ‘What if there was a video of [my father’s] last moments, and I didn’t own it? And I have no control?’” she said. “All of those videos are public domain. I asked permission of the family, but they don’t own it. I could have put it in anyway, like everyone else does, and play it on TV ad nauseam or move it around the internet, but, can you imagine the last moments of your loved one in such a violent manner, and anyone can use it and not even ask your permission? That’s why I put the debate about whether to use [the footage] or not use it in there, because this idea of black trauma and black death as spectacle is a real question in our community, so we tried to debate that on film.”

13th also includes several archival clips of Trump, which DuVernay said is necessary to preserving the film as a snapshot of American culture as it hinges on the edge of a Republican presidency.

“Is this still going to be relevant next year when we know which one of the candidates is [elected]?” she asked. “I think it’s vital to have him in there because he’s taking this country to a place that’s going to be long studied and considered. It’s going to have repercussions past this moment regardless of whether he’s president or not… we need to remember this moment just like we look at the Bush versus Dukakis race. It gives us context to this moment we’re in, looking at it through a lens of race or culture.”

Outside the criminal justice system, DuVernay stressed the importance of films like 13th being easily accessible to audiences of color on digital platforms.

“I wanted to make something that was evergreen, which would still be relevant 5-10 years from now. I love that it’s on Netflix. It’s easily accessible, not just in the art house theater,” she said. “We all know about cinema segregation, the fact that there’s no movie theater in Compton. You can’t see Straight Outta Compton in Compton; you can’t see Selma in Selma. You can’t see many of the films we all love as film lovers as community of color because there’s no movie theater there, and the closest theater is giving you whatever the studios choose. Black and brown people should have more than a steady diet of Marvel films – no disrespect to the Marvel films.”

Still, despite the ongoing injustices she examines in 13th, DuVernay remained optimistic about the change she can facilitate through film.

“I’m hopeful,” she admitted. “I make this film in a place of hope, which is the way I try to walk through the day.”

13th will be available to stream on Netflix beginning Oct. 7, the same day it opens in select theaters.

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