A new film from director Ava DuVernay became the first documentary in the history of the New York Film Festival to play opening night. “13th” — a title which references the amendment which deemed slavery illegal — opened Friday to large critical success.
It draws relevance from the presence of the Black Lives Matter movement amidst the recent influx of media coverage on injustices like police brutality and mass incarceration, charting the historical criminalization of African Americans from post-abolitionist America to today. DuVernay researches the annals of black history and represents it with strength and intelligence — attributes that she maintained during the press conference in which she both commented on the making of the film and continued the discussion on racial prejudice in America.
On what motivated the documentary:
“With that invitation [from Lisa Nishimura and Netflix Docs], I immediately knew that I wanted to do something around prison, because I grew up in an atmosphere where prison was always talked about. It was just part of the fabric of growing up. I went to UCLA as an African American studies major and being given that historical context and connecting that to my experience in the inner city, I realized that a lot of people didn’t have that connection.”
On feeling the rage:
“In many editorial sessions I found myself crying,” DuVernay begins, before describing a particularly harrowing piece of archival footage within the film in which a tall, well-dressed Black man struggles to get from one side of the street to the other whilst being harassed by a large group of white men. “We call it ‘Dignified Man’ and it has this whole backstory, it’s its own movie.
“I put myself in that place of isolation, being completely immersed and surrounded by hatred and the physicality of that hatred… Often as we were making it, when we got to brick walls, I would think of him and having to do justice to the story for him and people like him.”
On the role she as an artist plays in bringing change:
“I feel that I cannot be pessimistic about things. I can be discerning, I can analyze, I can be uncompromising in wanting better, but I am not in a place of saying that we are in the place of our mothers and our grandmothers and our great-grandmothers. I move more freely than everyone in my family before me. As a black, woman filmmaker, I can do things differently than black, women filmmakers even 10 years ago. There is improvement happening, it is coming at a snail’s pace. And while it is moving along at that pace, people are dying and being murdered, so it is urgent, but I cannot rage all the time.“
On the process of obtaining archival footage:
“It is a horrible, pride-swallowing siege — an awful process. It’s the worst. It’s interesting, because you can manipulate archival footage. You can search for what you want that fits the piece of the puzzle that you need to say. We tried not to cut anything that wasn’t true to what it was, and that mandate definitely made it more difficult. It was a lot to wrangle. We had about a thousand hours of archival that we had to cut down.”
At this point, moderator Kent Jones cuts in: “It costs a lot.” DuVernay agrees. “Big ups to Netflix, they have deep pockets. Thanks ‘Luke Cage,’ thanks ‘Stranger Things,’” she proclaims, receiving heavy laughter.
On the future, and potential change:
“Change comes through the individual. When you look at the civil-rights movement, it was a 10-year-long movement within the hearts and minds of people that pushed legislative political change.” She brings up the push in recent culture of humanizing transgender people, and how, within the past five years, there has been a bit of a shift in overcoming past ignorance. “Part of it will be educating people that prisoners are people and these are Black human beings — not just prisoners or villains — but people with legacy and family and generational trauma.
“It’s important that we have an understanding of why we think what we do. This was a big revelation for me, how so much of what we think is manufactured and given to us…I truly feel like if this can change people’s ideas about what [the Black Lives Matter movement] all means…and we’re not all living in this fog of ignorance, which is what I think this country has been doing in relation to these ideas for a long time.”
On film accessibility:
“I wanted to make something that would be evergreen, that would still be relevant five, 10 years from now. I love that it’s on Netflix, easily accessible — we all know about cinema segregation, you can’t see ‘Straight Outta Compton‘ in Compton, you can’t see ‘Selma‘ in Selma. You can’t see many of the films that we love as film lovers in communities of color because there are no movie theaters there. The closest movie theater is giving you whatever the studios chose, and black and colored people should have more than a steady diet of Marvel films, no disrespect to Marvel films. The idea that there is a cutoff to the exposure of certain films in communities is a real thing, and grappling with that is one of the reasons that I’ve become interested in studio films and what I can say in that space because I know it’s going to reach people.”
On the documentary’s inclusion of the current election season:
A final question about the inclusion of Donald Trump and politics lightened the atmosphere.
“I think it’s vital to have [Trump] in there, because he’s taken this country to a place that is going to be long studied, considered for a long time, with repercussions past this moment regardless of whether he becomes the president or not. We need to remember this moment, just like we look at the Bush-Dukakis race. It gives context to this moment, looking at it through a lens of race and culture.”
“13th” becomes available for streaming on Netflix on October 7th. The rest of the press conference can be seen below, with some more personal comments on things such as asking permission for use of certain footage and modern identity.