“I cried a lot making this film,” Ava DuVernay says about “13th.” The director didn’t have much time between making “Selma,” her Oscar-nominated movie about Martin Luther King Jr., and the new doc, which traces the evolution of racism in America since the Civil War’s end, right up to, essentially, a few weeks ago. That meant DuVernay was watching 1,000 hours of violent, racist archival footage soon after directing recreations of black activists in 1964 being beaten and even killed.
“I’m in a self-care moment right now,” she adds. “I’m not sure when I’ll do this again.”
But “13th” was important enough for her to face the pain. Her film — which this year became the first documentary to ever open the New York Film Festival, and which hits Netflix Instant Friday — covers a lot of ground. It traces the rise of the prison system and how it targets African Americans and destroys low-income neighborhoods. It shows the militarization of police. It shows the demonization of black people, in D. W. Griffith's “The Birth of a Nation” and today’s TV coverage. DuVernay even gets Newt Gingrich to admit that disproportionately punishing cocaine and crack possession was unfair. It’s tightly focused and merciless. And it’s perfect to watch before Election Day.
“If you change how people think, then we have societal change,” DuVernay tells a room of journalists the day after its premiere.
The filmmaker compares shedding light on such issues with the growing awareness of transgender rights. She admits, even two years ago, she knew little about their struggle. “I was in a vacuum. I knew about them; I was a forward-thinking person. I thought, ‘That’s cool, whatever you want to do.’ But that’s not enough. The idea that people are becoming aware of transgender issues affects how we allow legislation to go down, for and against them.”
She sees “13th” as part of a similar struggle. “If we can change minds, make them aware of what happens in prisons and police departments, there will be a cultural shift,” she says. But she argues that one shouldn’t come away from her film thinking there’s a single solution. “There’s not one thing that’s going to fix this. The only solution is if we all start to think differently.”