Photo by Amanda Demme

by Rebecca Traister

On September 30, for the first time in its 54-year history, the New York Film Festival will kick off with a documentary film; The 13th, directed by Ava DuVernay, best known for 2014’s Selma, chronicles America’s history of racial subjugation. The movie takes its name from the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which abolished slavery but included a loophole that exempted those guilty of crimes from freedom. The 13th, which will debut in theaters and on Netflix on October 7, uses archival images from before emancipation through the Jim Crow era and the civil-rights movement, as well as contemporary footage of police brutality against black men, and is threaded with interviews with scholars, lawmakers, prison-reform activists, and the formerly incarcerated. Meanwhile, Queen Sugar, the television show she co-produced and wrote (which is directed exclusively by women, including DuVernay), has broken viewership records for the Oprah Winfrey Network, OWN. Next up, Winfrey will star as Mrs. Which, along with Reese Witherspoon as Mrs. Whatsit, Mindy Kaling as Mrs. Who, and 12 Years a Slave’s Storm Reid as Meg Murray in DuVernay’s adaptation of the childhood classic A Wrinkle in Time. That movie, the first $100 million film to be directed by a black woman, will start shooting in November. And on September 24, the Smithsonian’s new National Museum of African American History and Culture will open with another new film by DuVernay, chronicling seismic events that have all taken place on August 28: Emmett Till’s murder, the March on Washington, Hurricane Katrina’s landfall, and Barack Obama’s acceptance of the Democratic nomination. 

Rebecca Traister: This documentary tells the story of African-American history by focusing on how, since emancipation, black men have been criminalized, and thus dehumanized, by American law and practice. People of color are 30 percent of the American population but 60 percent of the prison population. What you do, though, is break down how we as a culture created those conditions. Tell me about your argument.
Ava DuVernay
: There’s a clause in our Constitution that still allows for slavery to exist. Because we don’t live in a “slavery” era, folks don’t embrace imprisonment for what it is. But there’s an exception to the 13th Amendment, which literally permits slavery “as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” And from that criminality clause arose a societal behavior, a collective consciousness about who was a criminal. More often than not, the folks labeled criminal were people of color. In particular, black men. We explore everything from the reasons why the link between race and criminality was manufactured to how it’s used for profit and power and political gain, all the way up until the current day.

This isn’t the first time you’ve made a movie about incarceration. Your second feature, Middle of Nowhere, told the story of a woman coming to grips with her husband’s prison sentence. But what was the point at which you decided, “I’m going to make a documentary about this”?
Netflix asked me what I might be interested in doing a documentary about, and it’s always on my mind. When I got done with Selma, I was behind on reading. I read Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim CrowBryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. I picked up Howard Zinn’s People’s History. It was just a bunch of stuff in my head. I grew up in Compton, and there were two really silly things I’d say when I was a little girl driving around with my mom. The first one was: “If I’m ever homeless, that’s a good place to sleep overnight.” I would do that all the time, just look for a little nook, say under the freeway sign. I guess it just came from seeing people homeless. And I would also always say, “If I’m ever in prison, I’ll miss this …”

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