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Ava DuVernay’s Activism Takes a Step Forward in the Awards Campaign for ‘13th’

In a new conversation with Oprah Winfrey on Netflix, the director of Selma shares six insights about activist documentary filmmaking.
In 13th, conservative Republican Newt Gingrich expresses regret for his previous tough-on-crime policies.

In 13th, conservative Republican Newt Gingrich expresses regret for his previous tough-on-crime policies.

In a notoriously closed-off industry, director Ava DuVernay has stood as a staunch directorial advocate for females and people of color in Hollywood. In 1999, DuVernay founded her own marketing agency to focus on films by and about people of color. Her distribution company, ARRAY, has sought to distribute films by women and people of color since its founding six years ago. More recently, on her OWN Network show Queen Sugar, DuVernay hired only female directors for the show’s first season. So it’s no surprise that, even when campaigning for an Oscar win, DuVernay has used the opportunity to highlight the hurdles women and people of color must jump over to get a film made.

Last week, the Academy Awards announced that the Selma director’s Netflix film 13th, tracing mass incarceration in America (which predominantly affects black men) to roots in slavery, had been one of five films nominated for best documentary. On Tuesday, she thanked the Academy “for amplifying the injustices of mass criminalization and mass incarceration’” and also for being “nominated in a year that truly embraces and celebrates inclusion within our creative community”—a nod to the fact that four out of five nominees in the category were helmed by directors of color. And in Netflix’s first major act of Academy campaigning, a 40-minute conversation between OWN CEO Oprah Winfrey and DuVernay released last Thursday, she shared some of the thinking (and strategizing) it took to gather the film’s sources, shape its core structure, and formulate an ending that would inspire viewers to feel some responsibility for changing America’s prison system.

To be sure, it’s not atypical for documentary filmmakers to make awards campaigns about larger issues than their prowess behind the camera; but it is notable for a filmmaker to be so open with viewers on how she crafted a film as a woman of color, with a diverse crew, about a tough, racially charged subject. In a 2016 interview with Pacific Standard’s Kathleen Sharp, DuVernay touched on her belief that “if some people are rendered as caricatures or as less than human [in images], that… impacts policy and politics, culture.” Below, we’ve rounded up some highlights from that piece that offer more of DuVernay’s insights into how documentary filmmaking can both reach greater audiences through online streaming and encourage viewers to feel energized to resist social inequity in their own way.

“I Came With the Point of View of Curiosity.”

DuVernay estimated about 40 percent of her interview subjects for 13th, including libertarian lobbyist Grover Norquist and Republican Newt Gingrich,would fall on the conservative end of the spectrum. Their remarks are surprisingly candid in 13th: Gingrich, who in the 1990s helped the Clinton administration advocate for tougher sentencing laws, admits wrongdoing. “We absolutely should have treated crack and cocaine as exactly the same thing,” he said. “I think it was an enormous burden on the black community, but it also fundamentally violated a sense of core fairness.” (Gingrich is now the face of a conservative movement advocating for prison reform.)

In order to get these candid responses, DuVernay said in the Netflix special that she first asked interview subjects to define terms like “mass incarceration” and “prison-industrial complex,” to help her understand their point of view before posing questions to them. She said the standardized two-hour interview format also helped: “That’s a long time to keep your guard up… at some point, if you’re talking to someone who’s authentically interested, which I was, that’s why I was talking to them, you’re going to say what you mean,” she said.

“What Is This Again?”

Nevertheless, DuVernay added that some conservative subjects were initially taken aback by her diverse crew: “A couple of the conservatives, when they walked into the room, they were like, ‘Oh. What is this again?” which she attributed to her predominantly black crew.

“Hundreds of Hours Ended Up on the Cutting Room Floor.”

Though she amassed enough footage to create four or five episodes, DuVernay decided to keep her documentary short in order not to punish the viewer. “For me, I don’t think people would want to tackle this subject matter week after week or episode after episode, I think it’s hard enough to get people to watch 100 minutes, so that was my cut-off.”

“She’s in an Abandoned Train Station in Oakland, California.”

When Oprah admired the setting for activist and author Angela Davis’ interview in 13th, DuVernay revealed that she sought settings that came with associations of America’s major prison-labor industry. “The way that I went at production design was that all the spaces denote labor—so steel, brick, concrete, slate, and glass.” (Pacific Standard has recently written about Whole Foods’ previous association with prison labor; prison labor at slaughterhouses; and incarcerated firefighters.)

“It’s Very Difficult to Have These Films Be Seen.”

Though teachers brought whole classes to Selma screenings in 2014, DuVernay has said that 13th is her most widely distributed film ever because it’s streaming on Netflix—and with Oprah, she explained why online streaming matters for diverse filmmakers. The director recalled that she started by distributing her films by hand then founded ARRAY to get movies by women and people of color in front of more eyes. “I know what that distribution process is, it’s very difficult for these films to be seen,” she said. “For this film to be so widely available in 190 countries, I didn’t understand what the power of that would be. My Twitter timeline is in shambles.”

“I Didn’t Want It to Be a Light Ending.”

Though many films with activist causes promote studio-affiliated foundations, fundraising efforts (Lion, He Named Me Malala, for example), DuVernay said she purposely didn’t want her ending to leave viewers feeling satisfied with ongoing activist efforts. She designed the ending to ask viewers to do something on their own instead: “I wanted it to be something where you felt like, ‘I must do something,’” she said. She ends the film on joyous images of people of color in everyday moments — at a graduation, a basketball game, a barbecue—to show “their lives mattering.”