Ava DuVernay’s ’13th’ Takes A Historical Look At The Link Between Slavery And Mass Incarceration

Movies & TV

There’s a scene in Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th that’s too much for her to bear.

The grainy, black-and-white archival footage DuVernay calls “the man with the hat” is of a tall, dignified, black man wearing a suit and hat trying to cross the street as a mob punches, kicks, hits and spits on him. The man as DuVernay learned was a journalist who later died from injuries sustained from the attack, yet each time his hat fell he picked it up, dusted it off, put it on and continued walking. The emotional clip appears twice in the nearly two hour doc and for DuVernay it’s the moment that stirred up the most emotion for her throughout the transformative film.

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The Selma director teamed up with Netflix to create 13th, (out Oct. 7) a film that masterfully connects the dots between the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery all the way to the modern day big business of mass incarceration. According to statistics, America makes up just 5 percent of the world’s population but has more than 25 percent of the world’s prisoners, and with the help of activist Angela Davis, author Michelle Alexander, Sen. Cory Booker, Professor Jelani Cobb, former New York Mayor David Dinkins and others, DuVernay exposes the link between mass incarceration and free black labor in America.

With the outlaw of slavery, the south was financially bankrupt and to get out of the red, police began arresting newly freed slaves for petty crimes and forced them to work. The film then historically traces the early mentality placed around African-Americans as criminals beginning with the 1915 film release of Birth of A Nation, which doubled as a glorified PSA for the Klu Klux Klan, all the way through the Civil Rights movement to 2016.

At the time of this story, 13 days passed since DuVernay finished the documentary. Although she says it was never her intention to have the doc be released so close to the presidential election, the Queen Sugar director also doesn’t shy away from placing both candidates in the film in less than flattering ways.

“I think what’s interesting in the doc is that the way in which they appear is not in the context of them being candidates. It’s the context of them being public figures who have touched this issues over their time in the public eye,” DuVernay said during a roundtable interview following the film’s screening at the New York Film Festival.

Footage of Trump calling for the death of the Central Park Five, a group of black and brown teens accused of the brutal 1989 rape and beating of a Central Park jogger is placed in the film. The young men, who were no older than 16 at the time, were all later exonerated due to DNA evidence. DuVernay doesn’t let Hillary Clinton off the hook either as she appears in the film while she was the First Lady in 1996 referring to minority youth as “super predators.”

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DuVernay keeps a running tally of inmates throughout the decades, which dramatically increased during Bill Clinton’s administration due to the signing of the 1994 Crime Bill. As it stands today, there are 2.3 million Americans behind bars, and while 1 in 17 white men may go to prison, the chances of a black man being stripped of his freedom is 1 in 3.

DuVernay also doesn’t mince emotions, and in one of the film’s most poignant scenes intercuts Trump’s words with images of black men and women from the Civil Rights era being beaten and harassed as he romanticizes about “the good old days” when “law enforcement acted a lot quicker than this” and people were “carried away on a stretcher.”

“It’s vital to have him in there, because he’s taken this country to a place that is going to be long-studied and have repercussions past this moment, regardless if he’s president or not,” DuVernay explains.

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Aesthetically, 13th proves less is more with many of the interviews having been conducted in abandoned buildings with exposed brick to depict labor. And while the analysts, politicians and historians were all unified on how humanity has been stripped away from African-Americans and replaced with the notion of innate criminality, there was a clear divide on whether or not the public needs to see video of African-Americans being killed by law enforcement to incite change.

DuVernay enlisted her sister Tera to speak with families hit closest by gun violence, and asked their permission to use cell phone footage. Images of Eric Garner, Philando Castille and Tamir Rice’s final moments were all in the film to punctuate America’s deep rooted issue with race, and as many who attended the screening looked away as Garner said “I can’t breathe” DuVernay later admitted she is a proponent for these videos being publicized.

“My opinion of it is, I believe it should be seen in the tradition of Mamie Till and understood that there needs to be a certain witnessing to the trauma in order for that to be an factor in change,” DuVernay explains. “Now with body cameras, dash cam social media it’s more than usual and there’s a real concern about self care, especially for black people there, and it’s a sensitive issue and one that I wanted to explore in the film. I come out on the side of I think we need to see it. If our discomfort with it, the damage that it does to us, I feel is worth it for a greater good if we can push past it so that these murders happen less and less.”

And while 13th is heavy, DuVernay made it a point to end the film with images of black men, women and children smiling, laughing and loving. “Black trauma is not our life,” DuVernay says. “We are survivors, as many different kinds of people are.”

13th hits Netflix Friday, Oct. 7.