On Sunday night, a wide cross-section of Hollywood glitterati gathered at the home of Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos for a subdued celebration of the Ava DuVernay’s Netflix documentary 13th. The timing of the occasion mattered. Oscar nomination voting had closed Friday and though the film is vying for one of five slots in the Feature Documentary category, the audience attending the event — including many Academy members — seemed less interested in how to check their own ballots and more in how the country’s recent decision-making at the polls is going to affect the future. For DuVernay’s film, currently streaming on Netflix, takes audiences on a two-hour tour of racism in our country’s more than 200-year history, focusing specifically on the continuously severe legislation that has led to the mass incarceration of millions of black men in America. Says New Jersey senator Cory Booker in 13th: “We have more African-Americans under criminal supervision than all the slaves back in the 1850s.”
Helping delve deeper into the issue was Oprah Winfrey, who moderated Sunday’s discussion between DuVernay and one of her film’s most outspoken voices: Van Jones, a CNN contributor, and political activist. “I came away from 13th knowing more than I ever knew I could about mass incarceration,” said Winfrey. “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.”
That feeling is what DuVernay hoped to achieve. The director initially ended 13th with all the activists and experts featured in the film urging audience members to become engaged with their organizations. But DuVernay decided against that conclusion in favor of the 13th‘s actual ending: everyday images of black people in America.
“It didn’t sit right with me. When you got to the end [and saw all the activists and their efforts] you thought, ‘Oh, they’ve got it. Those people are really smart and they are going to take care of it.’ It let you off the hook,” said DuVernay, who said she was thinking a lot about Common’s song for 13th, “Letter to the Free,” and images of “black joy, and BBQs and black babies running on the beach and graduations and all the beauty of our lives, actual images of black lives mattering.” She added, “Those images are what we ended with, as a punctuation to all the chaos and destruction and the purposeful dismantling that we show you.”
As for Jones, he’s simply thrilled 13th exists and dissects an issue that many Americans are afraid to bring up in conversation. “It’s this dirty little secret in American life that we don’t want to talk about. I went to Yale for law school and I never saw more drug abuse than when I was on an Ivy League campus and none of those kids went to prison. Not one,” Jones said as a crowd that included Rob Reiner, Kimberly Peirce, Brett Ratner, Mark Duplass, Laura Dern, Courtney B. Vance, Tina Lifford, Compton mayor Aja Brown, and activist Shake Senghor (the former inmate and activist who’s organization #cut50 seeks to cut the 2 million prison population in half over the next 10 years) watched from the audience. “Four blocks away in the housing projects you have the same age kids doing the same activities and almost all of them went to prison. Everybody know that at the yacht club, the country club people are doing drugs but only one group of people goes to prison — the people who can’t pay for a good lawyer or the people who are black or brown. What it has added up to is a massive catastrophe yet we continue pretending this isn’t happening.”
Though Jones lamented that we are almost living in a “post-literate world, where if you can’t see it on your screen, it’s not happening,” the fact that trailer for the film went viral was an encouraging sign to him — one that enables more people to understand what all these activists have been fighting about for so long.
But when the discussion turned to President-elect Donald Trump, DuVernay and Jones differed on their response to the electorate that put the former reality television host in the White House.
Jones, who spent time in Washington as a special advisor to President Barack Obama, and rose to fame in big way on election night when he called the results a “white-lash” in an emotional on-air commentary, recently traveled to the middle of the country to understand what prompted swing state voters to choose Trump for a series of specials on CNN called The Messy Truth. “I went to Ohio. I went to Michigan. I went to Pennsylvania and I think Trump is much worse than people believe,” he said. “But I think his supporters are much better than people understand. I think there is a lot of hope in that.”
Of Trump voters living in the rust belt, Jones added, “They don’t have a sense of self and dignity. Then they turn on the TV and see a man who says ‘I’m going to make America great again.’ That is medicine to them. I’m not excusing them voting for a fascist fool but I am asking if our circle of love was big enough to include them. And can we make it bigger? I don’t want to push them away.”
“I think liberals and conservative are on trial,” he continued. “Can we love all our folk… and the coal miners? If so, I think we will be all right. Can conservatives actually be conservative and do something about this crazy person? If so, I think we will be all right. If not, we have big, big problems.”
Countered DuVernay, “For me right now, I don’t have a lot of empathy for someone who chooses to put their name next to, raise their hand for, someone who represents violence to another human being. I’m challenged that we are not holding people accountable for their vote, for where they are right now. I can’t get with the, ‘They were left out of the circle so let’s help them come back from the dark side.’ It’s what marginalized people are often asked to do.”
13th is currently streaming on Netflix.