Ava DuVernay found mainstream success with 2014’s Selma, but as she reminded everyone during a recent press conference at the New York Film Festival, she’s been around for a while making documentaries. Her latest is 13th, a film premiering on Netflix this week about the one loophole the 13th Amendment’s guarantee of freedom for all: prison.
Tapping a variety of experts, analysts, activists, and personalities — including Newt Gingrich and Angela Davis — 13th tracks the issue of mass incarceration from the supposed end of slavery to 1915’s Birth of a Nation to the police shootings that sparked Black Lives Matter and the harmful rhetoric of Donald Trump.
The film will probably heighten the discussion on racism in America when it hits Netflix this October 7th (read Chris’s rave review right here). Maybe it’ll even influence the election. We’ll see. But before then, I sat down to discuss 13th with DuVernay, who feels this isn’t her story to tell anymore, but is instead something for people to talk about.
AVA DUVERNAY: Yeah.
And I was at the press screening and you got a standing ovation.
DUVERNAY: Oh that was such a big deal. You were there?
DUVERNAY: That was such a big deal because I’d just flown in on the red eye and never had shown that film to anyone other than [director of the New York Film Festival] Kent Jones, and so I walked — I mean, I’m on the red eye, I’m trying to get my makeup on in my car, literally putting on clothes in the car, and just walked into you guys, and I was stunned by the response.
How was that, and also talking to the press for the first time about this?
DUVERNAY: Yeah. I mean, Friday was a bit of a whirlwind because, again, walked straight out of A Wrinkle in Time production offices in L.A., straight to the red eye while trying to force sleep — and you know, when you force sleep, it doesn’t happen — straight into that response from the press and then into the questions about it, which have been robust and really focused. Folks [are] really specific. People want to know more. It’s been great to talk about this, and I am gonna — I haven’t talked about this with anyone — but I am gonna stop doing press for it as early as the week after it opens. Because I feel, and I had this conversation with Netflix, it’s not my film anymore. It’s not my film to talk about anymore. I don’t wanna be yapping about it. I want other people to talk about it, and when I remove myself, it leaves more room for the conversation. So, yeah, I have one more week of doing some things, and then I let it be in the world and see what happens.
I remember you said during the press conference that you started doing this film while you were making Selma, kind of around there, but do you remember…?
DUVERNAY: Well, after. It was during the awards period, during all that campaigning that they had us doing, and that’s when I was approached by [Netflix’s] Lisa Nishimura, somewhere in there. I finished Selma in November and I think it was somewhere around December or January I heard from her.
And you also said you wanted to focus on mass incarceration, which this documentary does, but it also seamlessly, really, segways into the Black Lives Matter movement and the current election. Can you talk about the evolution of the concept, and did it become a matter of what you found dictated that you should include that?
DUVERNAY: Yeah. I mean, I knew about everything in the doc previously to making it except ALEC [American Legislative Exchange Council]. So, what was pulled in — we start at the core of the prison industrial complex and I was starting around the “incarceration as industry.” When I’m working on that, working on that, “Ah, I’m not gonna be able to tell this part of that unless people know this. I know it, but other people don’t know it, so I have to show that, and then they gotta know this to get to that.” It was like math. I couldn’t get the answer unless I showed the problem, you know, the stepping stones to it.
And then it started to get bigger and bigger and bigger until the point when one day I’m in the editing room with my great friend and editor Spencer Averick, and we were like, “We’re taking on quite a bit here. Do we want to start from the reconstruction era?” And, so, if you start from reconstruction, where do you end? And then if you’re thinking of anything in chronological order, you end with the current moment, and so that dictated a whole other set of analysts and experts. So, the process was very — it evolved based on where the film wanted to be and what it wanted to say, you know? I really believe that. It sounds kind of flighty, filmmaker-y, but I believe films are a piece of art. They are meant to be what they’re meant to be, and sometimes the artist is informed by the film of what it needs to be.
Was it an active decision from you or Netflix to get this movie out before the election?
DUVERNAY: When I first started it, I wasn’t thinking anything about the elections. But around April or so when the candidates started to solidify, who was gonna be each party’s candidate, I thought, “We should probably get this out now.” So then in the spring we started to kind of put it into overdrive and really push to make sure that it was out by fall. I mean, we made the cut off because I said, “Look, if it’s anything less than a month before the elections, I don’t think it’s gonna be effective.” Who knows if it’s gonna be effective at all. I just want people to have a conversation and interrogate and put the candidates for answers on these issues. If it’s us in a month, it’s not gonna work. Literally, we open October 7th, the election’s on November [8th]. It’s an exact month. That’s how tight it was to get it done. We were still working on the film 10 days ago.
I remember back when there were reports coming out that you were in talks to maybe do Marvel’s Black Panther movie, and you cited creative differences for why you didn’t ultimately that job. So, I’m curious how the creative process and collaboration has been like with Netflix, which is another big, massive giant.
DUVERNAY: Oh, gosh. It couldn’t be anything opposite — anything more opposite than the other. Completely hands off. What do you need? As much time as you need. Need a few more bucks? Sure. This was the kicker with Netflix. Maybe in the last month of finishing, Lisa Nishimura, fantastic lady at Netflix, said, “What do you think you need a little more of?” I said, “You know what, I would have loved a little more sound design, but I think it’s fine.” And she’s like, “Huh.” I just said that offhandedly at a session where we’re offline, and literally the next day my office got a call and said she’d set up like five sound design sessions for me. Like, so great that they’re giving me things I didn’t even ask for, and so at the end there was some footage that I wanted that I couldn’t get within the budget that they gave me. All of a sudden it turned up extra budget. “Hey, we know you want that. You should go out and get it.” I mean, really? You’re just giving me before I even ask? Really artist friendly, and really passionate about this subject matter. Who gets that?
When did they come into the picture, and did they actively chase you or did you actively chase them?
DUVERNAY: No, she called me. It was very direct. I knew her [Lisa] from around the industry, not very well. But she called me directly and then, you know, “I head up docs, and just wanted to know if you’d be interested in making a doc with us.”
I saw reports recently — and it’s kind of a bummer — about the decline of ticket sales for indie movies in the theater. But then when you think about streaming, do you think it’s sort of becoming this new breeding ground for indie filmmakers?
DUVERNAY: I think so. For me, it’s really about access. I just remember not having access to films as a young person who loved films but living in Compton. In order to see the film, I had to get on the bus and travel quite a ways to get to an arthouse theater — none of which you’re gonna find in black and brown communities — to see anything that was outside of what the studios fed me, and that’s not the case anymore. The kids and anyone can see films from all around the world at the touch of a button.
And, yes, for film, you know, the Tarantinos and Nolans of the world who are very focused on a certain kind of film aesthetic and a certain kind of presentation, to be honest, that comes from a place of privilege. It comes from a place of always having access to such, but when you ain’t never — you can’t see it because you can’t even get to it. Something like Netflix means a lot, and so I’m happy to be a part of it, to be on it.
In the press conference, you talked a little bit about the difficulties of getting archival footage and piecing it all together and keeping a strict narrative. I’m curious, did you have any sort of test screenings for like family or friends?
DUVERNAY: Yeah, no, thanks, I haven’t gotten that question. We were making it so — we locked, I mean, literally we finished this thing 10 days before we came here [to New York]. I did two screenings. I did one in New York, at one point I was here researching another project. Really, really small, maybe like five people just to get some rough feedback, and I did the same thing in L.A. Usually I do that a lot more ‘cause I have more time, but I just picked some really, really specific people and we got amazing feedback. People like one of the Central Park Five, my great friend Andre Holland, who’s an actor. He’s in Moonlight. He was in Selma. Gabrielle Glore, head of The Urban World Film Festival. Roya Rastegar, head of the L.A. Film Festival. Personal friends, who I knew before we were at festivals. My current producer on A Wrinkle in Time, “Come and take a look.” All kinds of people — the filmmaker Victoria Mahoney [Queen Sugar], the producer Berry Welsh. Just folks to get in there, black people, white people, women, men, different ages, different walks of life. What do you see? Does this make sense? I think every filmmaker needs to do that.
Speaking of some of the people that you interviewed, maybe this question speaks to my own ignorance of Newt Gingrich, but I was kind of shocked to see him in there and talking out against [mass incarceration]. Was it difficult to get someone like him, or even some of the more conservative voices that you had in the film?
DUVERNAY: I think the Selma of it all helped a little bit, and I think the folks that we chose are on the record about issues of mass incarceration. So I kind of put it to them as, “Would you like me to just quote or would you like to say it for yourself because I’d like to have you on camera? Can I ask you a few questions about it? I want you to represent yourself, so you’re not misrepresented.” That’s how I posed it, and yeah, everyone we asked came on board.
That is so rare. I love that.
DUVERNAY: Yeah. The hardest interview to get was Angela Davis.
DUVERNAY: As it should be. She’s a queen. You need to ask more than once. [Laughs] She’s fantastic.
Was it mostly she was ambivalent about speaking?
DUVERNAY: No, she wasn’t ambivalent. She just gets requests from around the world.
DUVERNAY: And so I was just in a stack, and so I had to call and call and ask, and it eventually got to her through a former student of hers. But, yeah, when you’re a worldwide legend, you know?
Yeah. Now, we a film like this, I mean it’s obviously very culturally significant. But how do you as a filmmaker — or maybe a better question is can you as a filmmaker detach yourself and have a more critical eye on something that’s so emotional and so significant?
DUVERNAY: You mean, detached, you say as a filmmaker. So, setting craft aside? Is that what it is?
Well, looking at such human stories and such emotional stories that apply to so many people. How do you step outside of that and say, “Okay, I need to put on my director’s cap”?
DUVERNAY: Oh, gosh.
Or can you?
DUVERNAY: Yeah, I do. That’s why it’s a really interesting question because I do it and I don’t really think about it. I feel like part of what a filmmaker who’s doing this kind of work, or what many documentarians do is you care about the subject and you’re engaging with it in a human way and you know you’re the delivery person of it to the world, so you feel responsible for making that delivery, and part of that delivery is you have to think about how to deliver, and so you have to put on the other hat, but it serves the human side of it, so it doesn’t feel like two different things. It feels like I’m responsible for the story. I’ve gotta tell it and make sure that they hear it. So that’s a little of how I feel about it.
That’s a very journalistic approach to it, also.
DUVERNAY: Is it?
Yeah, I love it.
DUVERNAY: Yeah. Interesting.
One thing, too, I wanted to mention because in the press conference you were talking about the differences between being a director for indie films and being a director for studio films, and you mention that you would love to bring your voice to something with a studio budget — which you are with A Wrinkle in Time. So, I’m curious if you could talk about a little bit, whatever you can, about what you would like to bring a studio film like this.
DUVERNAY: Gosh. I can’t talk a lot about it. You know what, I’m bringing myself to it and I know that who I am has not been brought to studio films before of this size because no one’s done it who looks like me, who is like me, who has my perspective as a black woman filmmaker. Whatever filmmaker you wanna name. I’ll name my good friend J.J. Abrams. The way he’s gonna shoot the very same script and I’m gonna shoot the script are gonna be different because we come from different places and we’re interested in maybe in the same thing but our eyes are different. Our memories in our own head are different, and so, I think it’s fantastic to have a different set of eyes on this stuff, and I just want there to be more and more and more. Don’t we want different kinds of films? Don’t we wanna see them from different angles?
I love the fact that Ryan Coogler’s doing Black Panther. I wanna see one of those Marvel movies from his mind. Right? I wanna see [The Flash director] Rick Famuyiwa make one of those DC Comics, but I also wanna see [Belle director] Amma Asante tackle a big, sweeping historical drama. And so it’s just about getting more kinds, colors, and creeds of people in there. You get better stories. Not better stories — more.
Now, I don’t know if you could speak about this, so just tell me to shut up if you can’t, but I remember when you were first deciding whether to do Wrinkle in Time there were also reports that you may be doing Intelligent Life with Lupita Nyong’o, and I was wondering what made that decision for me.
DUVERNAY: Oh. They were going at the same time. A Wrinkle in Time and Intelligent Life, they were both — preproduction had to start at the same time. They were just on top of each other. I thought they were gonna be staggered.
So, you were attached to Wrinkle in Time before Intelligent Life discussions?
DUVERNAY: I was attached to them both at the same time. I was attached to both, but one was supposed to go before the other, then they started to go at the same time. So, one had to be chosen because I can’t split myself in half. So, yeah, I chose Wrinkle. It’s a great script by Colin Trevorrow [for Intelligent Life].
What about the story of A Wrinkle in Time made you wanna tackle it?
DUVERNAY: You know, it’s just a classic story, the kind of legacy of the book, and fans who love it and when you hear about why for such personal reasons. It’s a story with a girl at the center — a girl who time travels, travels the universe in search of someone she loves, her father, and in the process she finds herself. Kids fly and to ask Disney, “Could these be brown kids?” and for them to say yes I was like, “Let’s do it.” There are creatures, there are different planets. To think about, “Wow, I could design those planets, what those planets look like. I get to do that?” That stuff is rare air, and so all that stuff immediately I was like, “I’m in. I’m so in.” And it’s fun every single day.
Since Selma has hit theaters, you’ve become this cultural icon, really, and you’ve become a voice and you’re giving these stories to people who don’t always get their stories told, and I’m wondering what that’s been like for you since the film hit theaters. Has that really affected your day to day at all?
DUVERNAY: No. You know why? Because I’m always working, so I don’t really feel that. I mean, I feel it because maybe more people will say hello in the grocery store, but I don’t really feel it like that. When you say cultural icon, I scrunch my nose. Uh, not really. You know what it is? It’s really the film geeks like you and me. [Laughs] Nobody else knows what we’re doing. [Laughs] It’s true. Black girls with vision boards and film geeks like you and me are the only people who have any idea what I do, but I love it and I’m down with that. [Laughs]