Ava DuVernay on Her Documentary ‘13th,’ Trump, and Why She Wants to Make Big Studio Movies
Ava DuVernay’s latest documentary, 13th, couldn’t arrive at a more relevant time. Urgent, angry, and unflinching, the film looks at the current state of mass incarceration and police militarization, and attempts to understand why the United States contains 25 percent of the world’s prisoners, 2.3 million people. Opening this Friday, just weeks after the largest prison strike in U.S. history and a month shy of the 2016 Presidential Election, and following a year full of harrowing violence against the black community, 13th feels like essential viewing now more than ever.
The film, which is the first non-fiction work to open the New York Film Festival in its 54 years, looks back at America’s history of racism, from the KKK cheerleading of D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film The Birth of a Nation to Bill Clinton’s 1994 Crime Bill into the present day. Through interviews with activists, authors, scholars, and politicians and rare archival footage, DuVernay’s doc suggests that a loophole in the 13th Amendment – stating slavery is permitted in the form of punishment for a crime – enabled what one of the film’s subjects calls “a mythology of black criminality.”
But it was never DuVernay’s intention to make a film that covered over 150 years of history. When the Selma filmmaker was approached by Netflix two years ago and asked what she wanted to make a documentary about, she suggested the prison system. “I grew up in an atmosphere where prison was always present,” DuVernay told the audience following the film’s world premiere at the NYFF last week. “It was just a part of the fabric of growing up.” But as the project developed, DuVernay followed her own questions and began investigating a historical link to the present day.
I sat down with DuVernay and a group of journalists last weekend to discuss the film, which premieres on Netflix and in limited theaters on Friday, October 7. DuVernay talked about her choice to include footage of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, how she hopes the film will spark a conversation for Election Day and beyond, and the reason she decided to make a big studio movie with A Wrinkle in Time.
DuVernay never planned to release the film in tandem with Election Day.
Although 13th speaks to the current state of American politics, it was never intended to open so close to the 2016 Election. DuVernay said she wanted the film to be evergreen, something that would be relevant five or 10 years from now. Though it was originally supposed to be released in April, DuVernay completed the film just 10 days before it premiered at the festival last week. As Election Day approached, DuVernay saw it as an opportunity to spark a discussion. “We did start to really put the screw to the schedule at the end,” DuVernay told me, “because I said, ‘Gosh, we’re this close to the election, we might as well go for it and drop before. See if we can effect the conversation at all.’”
She wrestled over including Trump in the film.
In one of the film’s most striking sequences, DuVernay cuts between recent footage from Trump’s campaign rallies, specifically his calls for violence and his supporters’ shouting racist slurs, with archival footage of riots and attacks on black women and men. “It was a question that we had – Take him out? Leave him in? No, he doesn’t deserve a place in this, and such,” DuVernay said. “But you gotta show that stuff because it’s too important and it can’t be forgotten.”
Older footage of Hillary Clinton and Trump also appears in the film, including Clinton’s 1996 comment on “super-predators“ and Trump’s comments on the Central Park Five. “The way in which they appear is not in the context of being candidates,” DuVernay added, “it’s in the context of being public figures who have touched this issue over time in the public eye.”
The film is more about the people than the candidates.
The filmmaker said one of the saddest parts of completing the film when she did was not being able to include mentions of the most recent victims of police shootings. “I had a real emotional reaction when the two latest video tapes came out with the murders because I’d already locked [production],” DuVernay said. “Immediately when I heard about it I started to tear up because I thought, those men won’t be in it. And I had to realize I’m never gonna be caught up.” The filmmaker said that for her, the film was “a lot less about the candidates and a lot more about the people whose hearts I’m trying to amplify in this.”
DuVernay thinks audiences need to see footage to be shocked into action.
In the film, DuVernay asks her interview subjects whether or not video footage of police murders should be shown to the public. While one subject says, “There’s trouble [in] showing black bodies as dead bodies,” others add how essential it is to shock people into doing something. “This idea of black trauma and black death as spectacle is a real question in the activist community,” Duvernay said, “so we tried to debate that on film.” Ultimately she chose to include cell phone and security footage of recent killings. But while all of the footage is public domain, out of respect for the victims she and her sister Tara DuVernay made personal calls to the families asking for permission. For DuVernay, showing the footage to the public is a major instrument for change:
My opinion of it is, I believe it should be seen. In the tradition of Mamie Till, who understood that there needs to be a certain witnessing to the trauma in order for that to be an animating factor in change, I think people need to be shocked into action. Now with the advent of video, body cams, surveillance cameras, social media, it’s more than usual and there is a real concern about self-care, especially for black people. […] I think we need to see it because our discomfort with it, the damage that it does to us, I feel, is worth it for the greater good, if we could push past it so that these murders happen less and less.
She says people of color deserve more than just Marvel movies.
After spending much of her career as an indie filmmaker, DuVernay is now making her first big studio film with Disney’s A Wrinkle in Time, making her the first woman of color to direct a $100 million movie. But DuVernay wasn’t just drawn to studio films for the chance to work with a bigger budget, but to reach a larger audience.
While discussing the advantage of her doc streaming on Netflix, and thus reaching millions of households, DuVernay called attention to the inaccessibility of films for many low-income communities and cities without movie theaters. “We can’t see many of the films we all love as film lovers and communities of color because there’s no movie theater there,” DuVernay said, referencing Compton’s lack of a movie theater. That’s part of the reason she wants to make movies with wider distribution:
The closest movie theater is giving you whatever the studios chose. Black and brown people should have more than a steady diet of Marvel films, no disrespect to the Marvel films. The idea that there’s a cut-off to an exposure to certain kind of films in certain communities is a real thing. So trying to figure that out, I think that’s one of the reasons why I’ve become interested in studio films and what I can say in that space because I know it’s going to reach people, people that I care about.
13th premieres on Netflix on October 7.