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From Slavery to Mass Incarceration, Ava DuVernay's Film "13th" Examines Racist U.S. Justice System

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Ava DuVernay’s new documentary chronicles how our justice system has been driven by racism from the days of slavery to today’s era of mass incarceration. The film, "13th," is named for the constitutional amendment that abolished slavery with the exception of punishment for crime. The United States accounts for 5 percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of its prisoners. In 2014, more than 2 million people were incarcerated in the United States—of those, 40 percent were African-American men. According to the Sentencing Project, African-American males born today have a one-in-three chance of going to prison in their lifetimes if incarceration trends continue. We speak to Ava DuVernay. Her previous work includes the hit 2014 film "Selma." With "Selma," DuVernay became the first African-American female director to have a film nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we turn to a brilliant new documentary that chronicles how our justice system has been driven by racism from the days of slavery to today’s era of mass incarceration. The film is directed by Ava DuVernay. It’s called 13th, named for the constitutional amendment that abolished slavery with the exception of punishment for crime. On Friday, the film became the first documentary to ever open the almost six-decade-old New York Film Festival. This is the film’s trailer.

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.

AMY GOODMAN: That was the trailer for Ava DuVernay’s new film, 13th. It will be released by Netflix on Friday.

The United States accounts for 5 percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of its prisoners. In 2014, more than 2 million people were incarcerated in the United States—of those, 40 percent were African-American men. According to the Sentencing Project, African-American males born today have a one-in-three chance of going to prison in their lifetimes if incarceration trends continue.

Well, on Saturday, I had a chance to sit down with the acclaimed director Ava DuVernay after the Friday night premiere of her new documentary, 13th—again, the first time a documentary opened the New York Film Festival. 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, Ava DuVernay became the first African-American woman director to have a film nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. As we sat down together on Saturday, I began by asking Ava DuVernay about the significance of the film’s title, 13th.

AVA DUVERNAY: 13th is the jumping-off point for a conversation, a wide-ranging conversation, that gives you a tour through the history of racism, oppression and subjugation in this country of black people as it relates to the criminal justice system. 13th is speaking about the 13th Amendment, specifically the criminality clause, which states that slavery is abolished in this country, except if we decide that you’re a criminal.

AMY GOODMAN: And what does that mean, from 1865, when the 13th Amendment was passed, to today?

AVA DUVERNAY: Well, that’s what 13th explores. We take you from 1865 and the abolition of slavery and the enactment of the 13th Amendment all the way to now and this Black Lives Matter movement. And we trace, decade by decade, generation by generation, politician by politician, president by president, each decision and how it has led to this moment. And we try to give, you know, gosh, some historical context to what is happening now. And I think people get in this present moment, and they start to forget that we’re a part of a legacy. And this legacy is rich, but it’s also very violent. And so, we try to kind of get into the deep layers in this film.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to a clip of 13th.

KEVIN GANNON: The 13th Amendment to the Constitution makes it unconstitutional for someone to be held as a slave. In other words, it grants freedom to all Americans. There are exceptions, including criminals. There’s a clause, a loophole. If you have that embedded in the structure, in this constitutional language, then it’s there to be used as a tool for whichever purposes one wants to use it.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s a clip from 13th, Ava DuVernay’s film. How did you go from Selma, the blockbuster feature film, to choosing to make this documentary, which opened the New York Film Festival—first time ever a documentary opened this film festival in over what? Half a century.

AVA DUVERNAY: Yeah, yeah. You know, I—it’s not the typical decision that you would make after Selma, but I don’t have any precedent. There’s no black woman I can ask about "What’s the right decision here, because you’ve done it before, in terms of being a black woman filmmaker?" So, I’m kind of trying to create my own path there. A lot of beautiful black women filmmakers, but none that have been in the position where, unfortunately, they’ve had to kind of decide what to do next after a film that got as much attention as Selma. And so, for me, I thought there can’t be a wrong decision. I’m not going to do what my white male counterparts might do; I’m going to do what feels right to me. And so, when Netflix said, "Would you like to make a documentary about anything? We’ll pay for it," I always knew that I wanted to explore this issue, and so it seemed like a perfect time.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, the power of this film, and you go from president to president. I remember seeing you at Sundance, when you talked about—you talked about showing the film to the first African-American president in the White House, a hundred years after another president viewed a film there, and that film is in this film.

AVA DUVERNAY: Right, D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation is a great, I don’t know, jumping-off point to talk about the immersion that we, as Americans, have had with images that show black men, black people as criminals, because it really and truly started with that film, started with that film in a way that it was using the power of the cinematic image to subjugate, to turn the tide, to change opinion. You know, D.W. Griffith was a masterful filmmaker. He used a lot of techniques that we still use today. He innovated them, he invented them. Too bad he was a racist, because all of those tools that he was using was used to make people think that people like—other people think that people like me are less than they are.

AMY GOODMAN: And President Wilson’s response?

AVA DUVERNAY: That the film was history written in lightning.

AMY GOODMAN: That there was nothing more true.

AVA DUVERNAY: That’s right.

AMY GOODMAN: 1915.

AVA DUVERNAY: That’s right.

AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s talk about the presidential candidates of today. Your film does not start and end with these candidates, but it does refer to them. Talk about Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

AVA DUVERNAY: Well, it’s interesting that they—that the two candidates are in the film, but not really specifically about their candidacy. Oddly enough, both of these public figures have touched on this issue in their public life. And so we basically are illuminating that. Donald Trump and his comments and his call for the—for death of the Central Park Five, taking out an ad, really being on the forefront of that issue, fits into a section where we talk about media imagery and the insidious nature of the slanted media imagery, and then Mrs. Clinton, with comments that she made about superpredators, comments that she’s made about reversing at her husband’s legislation in the 1994 crime bill, her support of that at the time. So, they are embedded in the documentary in a historical context, not even speaking of them as candidates.

We do have a section where we show Mr. Trump and some of his rallies, and we put imagery that I believe he is evoking against his words in the rallies. So, in one of the rallies, he talks about the good old days, when people were ripped from their seats and taken out in stretchers. And then we show you images of the "good old days," when black people sitting at lunch counters, trying to desegregate, were ripped from their seats and taken out in stretchers. And so, they’re both there. And hopefully people can interrogate the candidates more deeply than I think we as a—not your viewers, but most of the public is really giving us a—giving them a pass, because we’re so embroiled in Twitter beefs and nonsense and not asking about the issues.

AMY GOODMAN: And this film, 13th, coming out in this pivotal election season, how do you hope it will affect the election?

AVA DUVERNAY: I hope that people demand answers, demand some strategy, demand a plan. Neither one of them has really talked in great detail, or enough detail for me, as to what their feelings are about this issue in a way that is going to make long-term change. There’s a lot of cosmetic talk, but I’m really interested in a full commitment to making change. And that can only happen if people demand it.

AMY GOODMAN: And your, finally, focus on the many different people you interview, a centerpiece is Michelle Alexander.

AVA DUVERNAY: Oh, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about her significance and Angela Davis’s, in this last minute.

AVA DUVERNAY: Well, you know, Queen Angela Davis, to be able to sit down with her, you know, one of the architects of the prison abolitionist movement, you know, one of the first people to really found the term "prison-industrial complex," all her work in this space, long before it became the issue of this moment—and so, to sit down with her and have a wide-ranging conversation is elevating in every sense. And so she’s a big part of the fabric of the documentary.

Michelle Alexander, her work so foundational to a lot of our thinking about this now, and really trying to take a lot of what she educates and opens eyes to, and take it further in the documentary. And so she was gracious—not further in a negative way, but just to continue with that line of thought. And so she was gracious enough to sit down and give us a wonderful interview. I flew out to see her where she teaches, and it was—she’s a big, big part, a big voice in this doc, as is Bryan Stevenson and Khalil Muhammad and Kevin Gannon and Malkia Cyril—a lot of really, really wonderful people who are just sharing their hearts in this. And hopefully, people will feel that.

AMY GOODMAN: Ava, finally, what gives you hope?

AVA DUVERNAY: Oh, gosh, the faces of black people, whenever I come—whenever I see them, because there’s black joy amidst all of the black trauma. You know, all of the years of violence and oppression, subjugation, prejudice, all of the years of not being able to live fully free in this country as full citizens with all the rights and freedoms, it is—there’s still joy there. There’s a survival there that still allows for there to be a light, and that is such a strength, that is such a beauty, that whenever I see black people gathered, more than one, gives me hope.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Ava DuVernay, director of the new documentary, 13th. Again, it’s the first documentary ever to open the New York Film Festival—to rave reviews and standing ovations.

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