“We are in the dark,” says Ava DuVernay, “and if you don’t know how you got here, how could you ever get out?” It’s that exact call to urgency, to illuminate and further amplify the historical and social context of the racial heritage of the United States that spurred the Selma director to make 13th, a searing documentary that traces “the mythology of black criminality.” Through a highly effective latticework of archival footage, pure data, and striking interviews, DuVernay grows the film’s central argument from the phrase of exception in our 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 asserts that this loophole allowed for a legal rebranding—from slave to inmate, and the continuation of a well-disguised social caste system. And with the input of professors, politicians, and activists, she argues that slavery persists today, metastasizing in the form of mass incarceration that overwhelmingly affects people of color. DuVernay prosecutes her case by reaching chronologically through history, from the Civil War to the present day, and investigates the coded language and policies of America’s political elite; there are sequences concerning our current presidential nominees and the so-called wars on drugs and crime. She digs into media culture, police militarization, the corporate structure, the ramifications of plea deals, bail, and the murders of unarmed black men by police.
At this moment of reckoning in the national discourse on race and hyper-incarceration, 13th is mandatory viewing—even if you disagree. Following the film’s premiere at the New York Film Festival, DuVernay sat down with us to discuss this passion project, its possible impact on the current election cycle, and why witnessing historical trauma is necessary to ignite action for change.
Can you talk about your inclination to look to the past for answers and how you see history as a crucial element for storytelling.
Well, I don’t know if it’s a crucial element for storytelling, but a crucial element for storytelling around issues that affect the present moment, because I think we work from a place of ignorance if you don’t know the historical context of the thing that you’re talking about. What if I just appeared in the middle of this room, right? And the lights were out. Now, I don’t know where the door is. I don’t know where the window is. I don’t know how to get out of the dark if I don’t know how I got in the dark. We’re in the dark, and if you don’t know how you got here, how could you ever get out? Truly. So, for me, it just doesn’t make any sense to do anything else. That’s what I felt Selma was, that’s what I feel the new work [August 28: A Day in the Life of a People] at the Smithsonian is, and that’s what I feel this is.
Previous to making the documentary, how familiar were you with ALEC and the length of its shadow?
I wasn’t. That’s the only piece of the puzzle I didn’t know a lot about. 13th has information from a lot of places I read and documentaries I’ve seen. A lot of great filmmakers have done work about pieces of it. [There’s been] a lot of great long-read journalism about it. A lot of great books about it. I knew about ALEC and knew it wasn’t good, but I really didn’t know how deep it goes and what was going on there. So, that was the most revelatory segment for me—and the one that I struggled with most because I dove into it deep. I struggled with that section the most because I wanted to get a lot across. Do you understand that the laws we abide by weren’t written by lawmakers? That they were written by corporations for their own benefit? And that we have to abide by them? I mean, truly? People are going to jail because of this stuff. That’s nuts. I hope that people are adequately angered by it.
How do you feel about the nationwide strike of inmates against prison slavery conditions currently occurring in 24 states, in up to 15 different prisons?
I’ve been following it really closely and the main thing I think is that it’s not on nearly enough people’s radar that it’s even happening. I think it’s incredible and tragic that it’s not being carried on the front page of newspapers. No one even knows this is happening. This is revolution in a part of our system that we ask for a revolution for in 13th. I’m in full support. I’ve been corresponding with some incarcerated individuals who’re involved with the efforts. When you understand the story, and really understand how all of these incarcerated people in different institutions across different states were able to unify and come together and strike as one—how did they even communicate? It’s a really intricate, amazing story that isn’t being told. I hope with 13th coming out, it gets journalists to start making connections between the prison strike and some of the questions we ask.
Featured very prominently in the film are portions of Hillary Clinton and portions of Donald Trump that aren’t incredibly flattering to either of their stances on [mass incarceration]. What can we expect from them?
I’m not sure. I think what’s interesting in the film is that the way in which they appear isn’t within the context of being [presidential] candidates. Rather, it’s [within] the context of them being public figures who’ve touched on this issue over their time in the public eye. Trump calling for the death of five black and brown boys in the Central Park Five case. Mrs. Clinton talking about “superpredators” and supporting her husband’s 1994 crime bill. They’ve both been touching this issue in public life for a couple of decades now, and so we showed them in that context as opposed to really get into their ideological perspectives at this moment. I do try to update what they feel now currently—with Mrs. Clinton talking about where she is, Mr. Clinton talking about where he is, and juxtaposing those with images of Trump that I feel are right.