Ava DuVernay’s Documentary "13th" About Mass Incarceration Shortlisted for an Oscar
Ava DuVernay’s recent Netflix documentary, "13th," just picked up three Critics’ Choice Awards and is on the Oscar shortlist for best documentary. The film chronicles how the U.S. criminal justice system has been driven by racism from the days of slavery to today’s era of mass incarceration. The film is named for the constitutional amendment that abolished slavery with the exception of punishment for crime. Ava DuVernay’s previous work includes the hit 2014 film "Selma," which told the story of the campaign led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and others to draw the nation’s attention to the struggle for equal voting rights by marching from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in March of 1965. With "Selma," DuVernay became the first African-American female director to have a film nominated for best picture at the Academy Awards.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We spend the rest of our show with acclaimed director and filmmaker Ava DuVernay. Her recent Netflix documentary, 13th, just picked up three Critics’ Choice Awards and is generating Oscar buzz. The film chronicles how our justice system has been driven by racism, from the days of slavery to today.
VAN JONES: One out of four human beings with their hands on bars, shackled, in the world, are locked up here in the land of the free.
AMY GOODMAN: Kalief Browder was walking home from a party when he was stopped by police.
KALIEF BROWDER: Then they said, "We’re going to take you to the precinct, and most likely we’re going to let you go home." But then, I never went home.
KEVIN GANNON: The 13th Amendment to the Constitution makes it unconstitutional for someone to be held as a slave. There are exceptions, including criminals.
JELANI COBB: The loophole was immediately exploited. What you got after that was a rapid transition to a mythology of black criminality.
MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Animals, beasts, that needed to be controlled.
DONALD TRUMP: You better believe it.
JAMES KILGORE: It became virtually impossible for a politician to run and appear soft on crime.
HILLARY CLINTON: The kinds of kids that are called superpredators.
PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: Millions of dollars will be allocated for prison and jail facilities.
PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: Three strikes, and you are out.
NEWT GINGRICH: There was an enormous burden on the black community, but it also violated a sense of core fairness.
BRYAN STEVENSON: The states were required to keep these prisons filled, even if nobody was committing a crime.
DANIEL WAGNER: It’s so difficult to talk about mass incarceration, because it has become heavily monetized.
MICHAEL HOUGH: The focus is on taking people from prison, putting them in community corrections, parole and probation.
MICHELLE ALEXANDER: How much progress is it really if now there’s a private company making money off the GPS monitor?
SEN. CORY BOOKER: We now have more African Americans under criminal supervision than all the slaves back in 1850s.
KEVIN GANNON: The other products of the history that our ancestors chose, products of that set of choices that we have to understand in order to escape from it.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was the trailer for Ava DuVernay’s film 13th, available on Netflix. In September, the film became the first documentary to ever open the six-decade-old New York Film Festival.
AMY GOODMAN: Ava DuVernay’s previous work includes the hit 2014 film Selma, which told the story of the campaign led by Dr. Martin Luther King and others to draw the nation’s attention to the struggle for equal voting rights by marching from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in March of ’65. With Selma, DuVernay became the first African-American female director to have a film nominated for best picture at the Academy Awards.
Well, Ava DuVernay joins us right now here in New York.
Welcome back to Democracy Now!
AVA DUVERNAY: Thank you. Pleased to be here.
AMY GOODMAN: So, now 13th is playing in the age of Trump. Talk about how you conceived of it, what 13th is all about, though we got a very good sense in this trailer, and where we’re going now.
AVA DUVERNAY: Right. Well, thank you for having me here. Happy to see you again.
13th really is an exploration through our history as Americans as it relates to oppression and racism and criminalization, and how we’ve come to the point where we have 2.3 million people behind bars, not to mention the millions who are affected by incarceration and on parole and probation. And so, it’s really trying to kind of deconstruct the issue. When I first started working on it, I was focused primarily on the prison-industrial complex, profit around punishment. But as I started to get into that and explore that, you really can’t talk about that issue without context and historical legacy, really understanding that when we speak of prison labor now and companies like Aramark and Corizon exploiting prisoners behind bars, that that relates to the Black Codes in the Reconstruction, and so, trying to kind of create this continuum so that we realize that history isn’t new, what we’re experiencing now isn’t new. It feels like, from Selma to 13th, there’s always this sense of "Wow! This has happened before?" And that’s a big part of what, I mean, I try to do in my work, is just to say this current moment is echoing off of the past, and in order to create a new future, we have to understand where we’ve been.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And the title, 13th, the importance of the 13th Amendment in terms of laying the basis for the themes that you explore in the film?
AVA DUVERNAY: Yes. I mean, this was actually a bit of a debate amongst my colleagues at Netflix. I said, "We shouldn’t call it 13th. It’s so obvious. It’s so obvious. Everybody knows this loophole." And they were like, "We assure you, everyone doesn’t know this loophole." But, yes, there’s a clause within the constitutional amendment, the 13th Amendment, that is supposed to abolish slavery, but it allows for an exception to that rule. And the exception is anyone that’s been deemed a criminal by the state.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to go to another break. When we come back, we’ll play another clip from 13th. We’re talking about a documentary that goes back well over a century, but a lot of what you’re talking about, mass incarceration, through the last eight years, have also ramped up. So, what did it mean under President Obama, and what it could mean under President Trump? We’re talking to Ava DuVernay. Her documentary, 13th. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: "Blue in Green" by Miles Davis. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, I want to go to a clip from Ava DuVernay’s documentary, 13th, that shows the power of the media in creating narratives that criminalize black and brown young men in particular.
KHALIL GIBRAN MUHAMMAD: The war on drugs had become part of our popular culture in television programs like Cops.
KEN THOMPSON: When you cut on your local news at night, you see black men being paraded across the screen in handcuffs.
MALKIA CYRIL: Black people, black men and black people, in general, are overrepresented in news as criminals. When I say "overrepresented," that means they are shown as criminals more times than is accurate that they are actually criminals—right?—based on FBI statistics.
BAZ DREISINGER: I mean, I’m a big believer in the power of media, full of these clichés that basically present mostly black and brown folks who seem like animals in cages, and then someone could turn off the TV thinking, "It’s a good thing for prisons, because otherwise those crazy people would be walking on my block."
CORY GREENE: Creating a context where people are afraid. And when you make people afraid, you can always justify putting people in the garbage can.
REPORTER 1: Chances are you could run into a kid waiting to relieve you of your purse or wallet.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Ava DuVernay, this whole issue that you deal with in the film of how the media perpetuates the image of black criminality and stirs up the constant public fear?
AVA DUVERNAY: Yes, yes, no, it’s a big part of the fabric of the documentary. Just as Cory Greene, a great activist from New York, says in the piece that you just saw, it’s all about creating a context of fear. And once you create some—create the other—that’s what’s been done throughout—to African Americans over the course of history, this otherness that’s allowed this fear to creep in, and embeds itself in politics and, you know, issues of progress and profit and power building, you know, for the last, I guess, eight decades now.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: One of the things that most struck me in the film is, as you deal with the policies of each president since Nixon, you then show the growth of the prison population as a result of those policies. And some of the most astounding growth, of course, occurred under Bill Clinton—
AVA DUVERNAY: Yes.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —in the period of Bill Clinton.
AVA DUVERNAY: Yes, yes. We start the film off with statistics that are given by Obama, and we go back through Nixon, through Reagan, through Bush I and through Clinton. Those are really the years where the boom happened, where we started to—the architecture was laid, the foundation was laid for the current problem. And so, we really delved into those presidencies and really examined what each administration did to get us to where we are now. You know, surprisingly, we got some criticism for including the Clintons there. But, ultimately, everyone did what they did. And so, we just have to recount what that was, so that we understand where we are, going forward, which is to a scary place, I think.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to another clip from 13th, that may go there. In 1989, five African-American and Latino teenagers were arrested for beating and raping a white woman in New York City’s Central Park. They became known as the Central Park Five. The teenagers initially "confessed"—I put that in quotes—but soon recanted, insisting they had admitted to the crime under the duress of exhaustion and coercion from police officers. This is a clip of 13th.
REPORTER 2: Last night, the eight teens accused in the attack were arraigned on charges of rape and attempted murder.
MALKIA CYRIL: In the Central Park jogger case, they put five innocent teens in prison, because the public pressure to lock up these, quote-unquote, "animals" was so strong.
DONALD TRUMP: You better believe that I hate the people that took this girl and raped her brutally. You better believe it.
MALKIA CYRIL: Donald Trump wanted to give these kids the death penalty, and he took out a full-page ad to put the pressure on. These children, four of them under 18, all went to adult prisons for six to 11 years, before DNA evidence proved they were all innocent.
AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s a clip from 13th, the Central Park Five. The City of New York just reached a multimillion-dollar settlement with them. But Donald Trump continues to say that they’re guilty, Ava DuVernay.
AVA DUVERNAY: Well, I mean, this is the atmosphere of Trump. It is dangerous. It is from no basis of fact. It’s completely fabricated. To continue to, you know, demonize these men after they’ve been found not guilty, after they’ve been awarded losses by the city, it’s stunning, but it’s to be expected at this point. And it’s something that we need to start to understand is going to be the new normal. And so, folks, especially artists, the community that I am a part of, really have to be diligent and rigorous in our opposition to it through our work.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: You spend a lot of the time in the film dealing also with the organization ALEC and its influence in terms of how mass incarceration developed in this country. But then you also deal with how it’s changed in recent years as its role has been exposed, and where they’re now saying they’re not going to get involved in social issues as much anymore, just economic issues. Can you talk about that?
AVA DUVERNAY: Right, right. Well, I was—I was, you know, pretty knowledgeable about all aspects of the documentary except ALEC. ALEC was the one thing in my own doc that I didn’t know about. So the investigation, the exploration was really stunning to me to understand exactly what it was, that we have this shadowy group that is influencing and crafting our laws that we all have to abide by. You know, oddly enough, as you’ve reported on, they changed their name and their branding to CoreCivic in the months since the film came out. And yeah, it’s a—just a rebranding. There’s nothing new there. When we look at what is coming in the future from ALEC and what’s on the table in terms of what they’re going to be pushing, it is not—it will take a brave new world to combat it. And so...
AMY GOODMAN: You have a powerful scene in there where you show, in 13th, Donald Trump prominently. It shows a black woman being pushed by a white Trump supporter at a rally, as Trump is saying, "In the good old days, this doesn’t happen, because they used to treat them very rough. And when they protested once, you know, they wouldn’t do it again so easily." What does the "good old days" mean?
AVA DUVERNAY: Oh, yeah, well, the good old days, we juxtapose images of Trump at his rallies during the campaign with, you know, images of civil rights abuses happening in the '60s. We juxtapose them against the Bloody Sunday footage out of Selma. That same atmosphere of ignorance and hate and criminalization and oppression is what, you know, he—it's hard for me to say "president"—but what he espouses. And so, that footage is important to have. It’s something that I want to make sure that we’re watching again, you know, during the inauguration when he raises his hand. And I think it’s going to be a real sobering moment for the country when you see the power of images, the power of him taking the oath. My hope is that that shakes people out of some of the—certainly not your viewers, but many other people—out of this kind of reality show haze that we seem to find ourself in. It is real. It is happening. And we have to remember what he said and continue to hold him accountable.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, part of what’s real is that Donald Trump has called for a nationwide stop-and-frisk program. This is Trump speaking in September at a town hall meeting in an African-American church in Cleveland hosted by Fox News.
RICARDO SIMMS: There’s been a lot of violence in the black community. I want to know what would you do to help stop that violence, you know, black-on-black crime.
DONALD TRUMP: Right. Well, one of the things I’d do, Ricardo, is I would do stop-and-frisk. I think you have to. We did it in New York. It worked incredibly well. And you have to be proactive. And, you know, you really help people sort of change their mind automatically. You understand. You have to have—in my opinion, I see what’s going on here, I see what’s going on in Chicago. I think stop-and-frisk—in New York City, it was so incredible the way it worked. Now we had a very good mayor. But New York City was incredible the way that worked. So I think that would be one step you could do.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Of course, Trump there is rewriting some of the history. In New York, it was declared unconstitutional by a federal judge in the way it was being implemented in New York, and at one point it was up to 700,000 people a year were being stopped by New York City police.
AVA DUVERNAY: It’s a jaw dropper, in the fact that it’s just kind of embraced. It’s why, you know, shows like yours and the work that documentarians are doing across the board is so important. This fake news, this completely—complete rewriting and distortion of history is how we will continue to go to a more dangerous place. And so it takes calling it out whenever we see it, playing it again, making sure people listen, fact-checking this stuff. You know, you only hope some of this gets through to folks.
AMY GOODMAN: Ava, your film has been shortlisted for an Oscar. And you’re in the midst of filming that children’s classic, A Wrinkle in Time, making you the first woman of color to direct a live-action $100 million film. How do you feel about this distinction?
AVA DUVERNAY: You know, the firsts are bittersweet to me, because I know that there are—I know for a fact and personally women who are far more brilliant, far more talented than I, who came at a time when there were no opportunities for them to do the things that I’m doing. So, I can’t just take all the firsts and, you know, pop my collar about it and feel good about it. You know, I take it, and I make sure that every time those firsts are brought up, that I say the name of Julie Dash and Euzhan Palcy and Neema Barnette and Ayoka Chenzira and the wonderful women who came before, black women, who didn’t get the opportunity to do the things that I did. And so, yes, bittersweet, but we move forward.
AMY GOODMAN: And choosing A Wrinkle in Time?
AVA DUVERNAY: A Wrinkle in Time, you know, this is a—you know, you know the book. It’s a book that captured my imagination when I read it. It’s a story of a girl traveling the universe in search of her father, and in doing so, she finds herself. A true heroine, a mix of social commentary and science and spirituality. And who doesn’t want to get their hands in that? So, I’m very grateful and having a good, good time.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re very grateful for your work. We want to thank you so much for spending this time, Ava DuVernay, director of 13th. It is up for an Oscar. With her previous film, Selma, Ava DuVernay became the first African-American female director to have a film nominated for best picture at the Academy Awards. Now 13th is nominated for an Oscar for best documentary—is shortlisted for an Oscar for best documentary.