In 2006, a publicist in Los Angeles picked up a camera for the first time, unsure of her motivation. “I don’t know what possessed me,” she recalled recently. “I didn’t think it would lead to anything great. I just wanted to make this little story that I remembered about me and my mom and my sisters.”
The short, Saturday Night Life, concerned a black mother in Compton who dresses her three daughters up and takes them to a local grocery store, inviting compliments from strangers about the girls in order to feel better about her difficult life. This novice director had a budget of — don’t laugh — $13,000. And a great deal of resolve.
Obviously, none of this would mean squat if that publicist hadn’t blown up into the black female Hollywood filmmaker with the most cake — or really, any cake — Ava DuVernay. Saturday Night Life made it into the Urbanworld Film Festival, and that revved DuVernay’s motor. She went to film school via osmosis, absorbing knowledge from her A-list clients (including Clint Eastwood and Steven Spielberg), a couple of whom fell in love with and decided to produce a feature script she’d written called Middle of Nowhere. The film won the directing prize for drama at Sundance in 2012. Now, a mere decade removed from her first short, DuVernay has three narrative features to her credit, including Best Picture nominee Selma, eight or so documentary short films, and, soon, a $100 million adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s beloved children’s book A Wrinkle in Time. The Oprah Winfrey Network premiered DuVernay’s sensuous black drama series, Queen Sugar, earlier this month in part because co-creator Oprah aggressively befriended her after actor David Oyelowo directed her to DuVernay’s online profile.
DuVernay’s latest documentary feature is The 13th, a sobering look at the prison-industrial complex that will open the New York Film Festival on September 30 — the first time the NYFF has ever selected a work of nonfiction as its opening film. (Netflix and limited theatrical releases will follow on October 7.) If its title sounds like that of a horror film, that’s appropriate: The 13th sheds light on a real terror, visited upon real human beings. The ordinal refers to the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which officially abolished slavery. Yet it also retained an unfortunate loophole, doing away with involuntary servitude “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” The clause has made it possible to arrest American citizens (primarily black American citizens) on flimsy charges, fine them at rates they can’t pay, jail them, abuse them, and steal their labor. DuVernay’s film tracks these practices from their origins to the present day.
Aided by ominous charts depicting the exponentially rising numbers of prisoners in the United States, DuVernay’s tightly argued, deeply upsetting doc consists mostly of interviews with writers, activists, historians, and politicians about America’s history of mass incarceration and the nefarious ways it has victimized black people. Zipping from clip to clip like a racism supercut, The 13th jumps between archival footage of George Wallace pledging allegiance to segregation and choice modern-day pundit quotes, then splices in TV and viral video of, say, the aftermath of the Michael Brown shooting or protests following the killing of Trayvon Martin. Each three- or four-second clip adds support to the argument like a brushstroke on a painting, mixing past and present to prove that history did not come from nowhere, nor is the present moment separate from history. Brought together in one place, the footage makes hauntingly visible the ways in which the justice system has criminalized African Americans, destroying families, promoting negative stereotypes, and ruining individual lives, at least since the ratification of that suspicious amendment in 1865.
At fault, according to expert commentators including Cory Booker, Henry Louis Gates, and Jelani Cobb, is a long list of perpetrators, among them: Richard Nixon, whose “Southern strategy” pioneered the practice of cynically gaining white votes by stigmatizing blacks and other brown people as coddled criminals and stepping up efforts to disenfranchise black voters; Bill Clinton and his hateful 1994 crime bill, which helped expand mandatory minimum sentences and led to an expanded prison industry and a more militarized police force; and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a shady consortium of corporate lobbyists and state legislators that writes bills to benefit its backers — including companies like the Corrections Corporation of America that profit from building and running prisons.
The film tracks Martin’s 2012 killing at the hands of George Zimmerman back to Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, which Zimmerman used to avoid punishment despite having pursued Martin through his neighborhood with a gun. The law was written by ALEC, and its implementation in the Zimmerman case reinforced the prejudice that black males in hoodies carrying Skittles are scary criminals, even when unarmed and preyed upon by armed whites.
“It’s a lot of work to try to make it really seem like a tapestry that does have all these threads that go out,” says DuVernay. But looked at all together, she says, “it really is this, like, really fucked-up patchwork quilt” — an apt description for a film that manages to get Angela Davis and Newt Gingrich to sound like they agree about the effects of racial discrimination in the United States.
DuVernay was able to make The 13th thanks to her heightened profile, but, she says, it was already a topic dear to her heart. “Netflix asked if there was something I wanted to do after Selma,” she says. “I said I wanted to look at prisons, to create a primer to make it clear that prison isn’t just a place where bad people go.”
The lifelong Angelena grew up in Compton and remembers being “definitely affected by incarceration in my neighborhood, and the lopsidedness of the criminal justice system.”As her research progressed, though, she expanded her scope: “I thought it was just going to be about the prison-industrial complex and prison-for-profit, but I started to see that in order to fully explain it, I had to give it historical, cultural context.”
DuVernay conducted nearly fifty interviews, and it seems as though she used at least one quotation from every last person she talked to. One was Ohio State law professor Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, which along with Samuel D. Pollard’s 2012 documentary Slavery by Another Name (based on the Douglas A. Blackmon book of the same title on the history of black convict labor) was an inspiration for DuVernay’s film. “I wanted to give people this information so that they couldn’t say they didn’t know anymore,” she says. “There’s a lot going on that we close our eyes to.” The film whirs through your head like a channel-surfing nightmare, free-associating on injustice and then suddenly returning to its main points. The less you know going in about its subject matter, the more it demands further research on your part once you leave the theater.
Considering such insidious myths as that of black men as rapists of white women, DuVernay puts a measure of the blame on The Birth of a Nation, D.W. Griffith’s classic white-supremacist movie from 1915 — particularly the way the director’s technical wizardry combined with his racial beliefs in a perfect storm of prejudice and bloodlust. “It was the first film to use all those tools that filmmakers use to manipulate and craft and manufacture emotion,” she says. “The trauma of those images on collective consciousness really speaks to the power of the image and to how that’s been used against so many for so long.”
So what, DuVernay’s film leaves us wondering, can we do about this corrupt system? “Oh, it definitely needs to be dismantled,” she says. “I’m a prison abolitionist for sure. The system needs to be done away with and [we have to] start over.”
As for that other system of longstanding institutional racism — the film industry itself — DuVernay is more conflicted. “The film industry I think is broken, it does not serve all of us. So radical change needs to happen. I am an anomaly — that’s why it’s so important to bring other people into the conversation, make sure other people are in the academy.” So often, she says, people in the movie industry insist that it’s impossible to hire diverse casts and crews. “Oh, you can’t find the people? OK, I’m gonna go find the people. ‘Well, they’re not gonna be qualified.’ [If] someone tells me they can’t do it, what that translates to in my head is, You are a liar. Straight up. Native Americans should be able to have a friggin’ sitcom [with] their actors.”
But pioneering is difficult — even with Oprah on your side, flying you out to chill at her place on Maui. “I just feel like I have a short window of time,” DuVernay says. “And there’s no black-woman Mike Nichols, or Spielberg, or Soderbergh, or Spike, you know what I mean? There is nobody [about whom] I can say, I’m gonna have a career like hers, ’cause it just doesn’t exist! Not even a white woman! All I know is right now, the window’s open. I’m trying to crawl through it and bring a whole bunch of Negroes and Negresses in with me.”