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13th, the latest film from Ava DuVernay, became the first documentary ever to open the New York Film Festival, kicking off its 54th edition at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall on Friday night — and it received a standing ovation from most of the crowd, both when its credits began to roll and when DuVernay, who is best known for directing 2014’s Selma, took the stage for a brief post-screening Q&A with festival director Kent Jones.
The film’s title refers to the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which was ratified in 1865 and declared: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” The film’s central premise is that mass incarceration has replaced slavery as the way of keeping down black Americans.
“We didn’t choose a documentary,” Jones said of the NYFF selection committee’s pick for the opener during his introduction of DuVernay. “We chose a film that happened to be a documentary.” It is at least as significant that this film festival, which is widely regarded as the most elitist in America, chose a film for its opening night that is being distributed by Netflix, a company that barely gives its movies a theatrical release and poses a threat to the art house distributors that do.
But if there’s one area in which Netflix has displayed consistent excellence, it is in documentaries, and DuVernay, speaking before the film unspooled, gave major props to Lisa Nishimura, who oversees that division of the company. The filmmaker said that Nishimura had approached her after Selma and asked what she would want to do if she could do anything, and DuVernay described the film that became 13th, which has been quietly in the works for the past two years.
The pic powerfully and movingly chronicles the sort of intolerance and cruelty to which blacks have been subjected throughout American history, weaving together carefully curated archival footage into sections demarcated by the titles of black anthems. For many who stumble upon it on Netflix, it will serve as a compelling primer about this country’s fraught race relations, and an introduction to the argument that drugs should be decriminalized and non-violent offenders should be released from prisons.
But the notion that mass incarceration is a modern form of slavery is not a new one — indeed, it has been explored by Vice and others, while DuVernay herself, in her first major film, 2012’s Middle of Nowhere, showed how the absence of imprisoned adult males can impact the family unit. And the doc has a tendency to avoid details that do not serve its narrative — for example, many instances of white police pursuing or killing blacks are absolutely indefensible, but some, grouped with the others in the film, are far less, well, black and white than suggested.
It will be interesting to see how the Academy’s documentary branch responds to this film. It is certainly well made and impactful, but DuVernay has made herself into a divisive figure within the Academy, having essentially suggested that the organization’s old white members can’t consider diverse Oscar contenders objectively — even though her own breakthrough film, Selma, received a best picture Oscar nomination and was awarded a best original song Oscar. Moreover, the doc branch is this year considering an even more ambitious and epic film about race in America, ESPN’s O.J.: Made in America. Will there be room on the shortlist of 15 films for both of them?
13th could make a mark beyond the documentary category, though: Common, who shared Selma‘s best original song Oscar with John Legend for “Glory,” could be back in the mix. At Netflix’s swanky afterparty at Tavern on the Green, he delighted the crowd by singing “Glory” and “A Letter to the Free,” his original contribution to 13th, which might well land him a second nom in three years.
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