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In Ava DuVernay’s new prison documentary 13th, one segment juxtaposes racial slurs and attacks from a Donald Trump rally with archival footage of a well-dressed black man being pushed around by a crowd of white men. Trump’s words about how a black person would be treated “in the old days” play over the scene, and it’s the hardest part for DuVernay to watch.
Why include it in the film, which hits Netflix on Oct. 7? “Is it still gonna be relevant next year, when we know which one of the candidates [will be president]?” she recalled asking herself during the press screening at the New York Film Festival. “I think it’s vital to have him in there, because he’s taken this country to a place that is gonna be studied and considered for a long time. It’s gonna have repercussions past the moment, whether he’s the president or not — gosh, I can’t believe I’m saying those words! So we need to remember this moment. It gives us context to this moment that we’re in, looking through a lens of race and culture.”
The Selma director admitted there was internal debate in doing so. “Take him out? Leave him in? No, he doesn’t deserve a place in this thing, and such. But you gotta show that stuff because it’s too important and it can’t be forgotten.” The film also includes a clip of Hillary Clinton’s “superpredator” comments and explores the consequences of Bill Clinton’s 1994 crime bill.
— Ashley Lee (@cashleelee) September 30, 2016
The new documentary, which opens the New York Film Festival on Friday night, examines the horrors of mass incarceration and the prison industry in the U.S., as well as how the U.S. has produced the highest rate of incarceration in the world, with the majority of those imprisoned being African-American. It traces a pattern of fear and division behind mass criminalization, from D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) and the rebirth of the KKK to the civil rights movement, the 1994 crime bill and the Black Lives Matter movement.
Its title refers to the Constitution’s 13th Amendment: “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.”
DuVernay, who “grew up in an atmosphere where prisons were always a presence” and majored in African-American studies in UCLA, said she began making the film right after the press tour for Selma. “I think I started it the day after the Oscars, which is appropriate,” she laughed. The film was made with a thousand hours of archival footage at her fingertips: “It costs a lot. Big ups to Netflix. Thanks Luke Cage, thanks Stranger Things!”
Upon being invited to make a doc by Netflix, DuVernay set out to make a primer that explores the prison industrial complex and the idea of punishment for profit: “I was always disturbed and fascinated by and furious that more people weren’t talking about how multibillion-dollar companies were profiting off black bodies,” She then opted to add a section about the Black Lives Matter movement because “it asks to interrogate it more deeply. … To see it back-to-back and lined up, you can see it all that much more clearly and feel it that much more deeply.”
The film also includes the widespread mobile footage capturing the victims of police brutality — all of which was used with the permission of the victims’ families, as highlighted repeatedly at the bottom of the screen. Asking to do so was a priority, as she lost her father less than six months ago.
“[I thought,] what if there were a video of his last moments, and I didn’t own it? Because it’s all public domain. I asked [the families’] permission, but they don’t own it,” she explained. “Can you imagine the last moments of your loved one in such a violent manner, and you don’t even own it? … I thought of my father in the hospital and I was furious, so I had to ask.”
The process came to be too much for the director to handle while finishing the film, so her sister took over, and spoke with the families for hours, listening to their stories. Additionally, she included the textual notation because “black trauma and black drama as a spectacle is a real issue in our community.”
DuVernay hopes audiences stay until the very end of the movie. “The credit sequence is about black joy, because black trauma is not our life,” she said of the ending, which initially thanked the film’s dozens of analysts and interviewees. However, that sequence “left me off the hook. … I just wanted us to leave on the hook for something here because this is a generations-old, centuries old problem we’ve allowed to have happened.”
13th hits Netflix and limited theaters on Oct. 7. Watch the trailer below.
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