Ava DuVernay on '13th': How Netflix Jumpstarted the Timeliest Doc of the Year
The incomparable Selma filmmaker shared some of her process at the New York Film Festival.
Journalists rarely have little to say; after all, it’s our job to explain things. But one could hear a pin drop in the moments following the press screening of Ava DuVernay’s new documentary 13th, which had its world premiere at the New York Film Festival. This silence was followed by very loud cheers and a standing ovation.
It took a few moments—even for this large auditorium full of people who make sense of things for a living—to absorb the impact of DuVernay’s eviscerating film. The documentary is a stark reckoning with an American history that is rife with racial injustice. It takes statistics that many of us have heard before—the U.S. holds 5% of the global population, but 25% of the world’s prisoners, for one—and lays them out amidst expert interviews, shocking archival footage and news clips, and a powerful soundtrack, to make a case that the “loophole” in the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that freed slaves has been exploited to create our modern prison industrial complex.
The timely film must be experienced for itself, and can be viewed on Netflix starting October 7. Meanwhile, we learned several interesting bits about how it got made, and how DuVernay made her key creative choices, at a press conference immediately following the screening.
“There were places where I wanted you to sit in for a minute and places where I wanted to just hit you with it.”
1. Netflix started it all
In the making of 13th, DuVernay got a rare opportunity that we all dream of: someone came to her with funding and asked her what she wanted to do with it. She recalled, “I had never experienced anyone calling and wanting to give me money. ‘Would you like some money? Would you like to make something?’ I can't say I would have made this if she hadn't given me that invitation.”
That someone was Lisa Nishimura, Netflix's vice president of original documentary and comedy. Knowing that DuVernay’s first two films were documentaries, Nishimura asked her what she might like to make and, according to DuVernay, "With that invitation to do so, it was an immediate answer: I wanted it to be something around prison. I grew up in an atmosphere where prison was always present...it was just part of the fabric of growing up.” After majoring in African American studies at UCLA, DuVernay realized that there was a lot of historical context for why that might be, and her further investigations eventually led to this film.
"It started as just as an exploration of the prison industrial complex," said DuVernay. "I was always disturbed and fascinated by and furious that more people weren't talking about the fact that multi-billion-dollar companies were profiting off of black bodies and putting people from our community in prison.”
From there, "I just followed my whims in making it, followed my own curiosity,” said DuVernay. She followed the historical moment, recognizing that Black Lives Matter was forcing everyone in this country to wrestle with these issues and “go deeper.” She admitted that the film is really just a “primer,” and that other films can and have more thoroughly covered certain aspects that she touches on, but she also thinks “there's something in having it all strung together. It did something for me to see it back to back. You can see it all much more clearly and feel it much more deeply.”
2. Dealing with archival is ‘the worst’
As with many historical documentaries, one of DuVernay’s biggest challenges was dealing with archival footage—in this case, a little more than a thousand hours of it. It wasn’t just sorting through hours of emotionally charged material, but also finding the right clips to hold the tone and pacing.
DuVernay was “trying to find how much to hold someone's attention, but also there were places where I wanted you to sit in for a minute and places where I wanted to just hit you with it.” She admitted that “finding the footage to shape that was tough.”
The other tough aspect of sorting through so much footage was that it presented so many new ideas. "Part of the process was trying to stay focused on the pieces," she said. "You could order some archival footage for one thing and something else comes in that sparks your imagination and you want to go there." Ultimately, the archival selections that were made from news, testimonies, and other films punctuate the 13th with viscerality.
"These are black human beings—not just prisoners, not just felons. These are people with legacy, with family."
3. The documentary was production designed
Documentaries with “talking head” interviews are often shot wherever the interviewee happens to be—an office, a library, their living rooms. Not so with 13th. DuVernay acknowledged that the film is traditionally made, but she did have a clear vision about interview locations.
"Everything represents labor," she said. "It's brick and stone and glass and steel, and most of the locations were very industrial or about labor, to connect to the idea of the labor that we as black people have given this country." She paused and added, “Not 'given'—the labor that's been stolen from us for centuries."
One of the subjects to whom she gave special consideration was activist and author Angela Davis. “It's freaking Angela Davis,” she remarked. “She's been a prison abolitionist for longer than some people have been [alive] in this room. We just wanted to honor her with a great frame.” The chosen location was an abandoned train station in Oakland, California.
Were the locations all legal? “We're indie filmmakers,” she stated coyly, “we do our thing.” But, of course, she added, they were “legal by the time Netflix found out about it.”
“Can you imagine the last moments of your loved one in such a violent manner and anyone can use it and not even ask your permission?”
4. Graphic footage: to use or not to use?
One of the most powerful segments in the film is a montage of graphic clips depicting recent police murders of unarmed black men. Each of the clips was marked to let the audience know that the videos were used with permission of the victim’s family. The movie also included a range of opinions among some of the subjects about whether or not such clips should be used at all.
In deciding to use them, DuVernay insisted on getting permission from the victims’ families, even though doing so was not legally necessary. She thought of her own father’s passing, which only occurred six months ago. “The deal breaker,” she said, “was to think, what if there was a video of his last moments and I didn't have control over it?... Can you imagine the last moments of your loved one in such a violent manner [existing on video] and anyone can use it and not even ask your permission?”
She enlisted her sister, the chief researcher on the film, to help contact each family. "She's a mother and she was able to have hours and hours on the phone with the folks," said DuVernay. "You can't just call and say what it is. You have to talk to them and listen, so she gave the gift to this production of doing that."
5. She still believes in the possibility of change
DuVernay’s film confronts extremely troubling issues—she even admitted to crying in the edit room when seeing some of the difficult archival material—but she nonetheless believes that change is possible, and that it’s up to all of us.
She recalled researching the civil rights movement for her Oscar-nominated film Selma. "I believe change comes through us, the individual," said DuVernay. "When you look at the civil rights movement, it was a 10-year-long movement, and it was a change that happened in the hearts and minds of people that pushed legislative political change."
"I know that I live differently and move more freely than everyone in my family before me as a black woman filmmaker."
Her optimism also comes from the acknowledgment that her own life is in a positive place. “I can be discerning, I can analyze, I can push, I can be uncompromising in wanting better,” she told the audience, “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 because I am a student of history and I know that not to be true.” She continued, “I know that I live differently and move more freely than everyone in my family before me as a black woman filmmaker.”
DuVernay wants the film to “be a part of educating to the fact that prisoners are people, that these are black human beings—not just prisoners, not just felons—these are people with legacy, with family. This is generational trauma this has gone back a ways."
DuVernay believes that her film can give not just historical context, but also emotional resonance to the ideas that it presents. And if the reaction of the New York Film Festival crowd is any indication, her belief is spot on.