We recently had the chance to sit with director Ava DuVernay to discuss her new film 13th, a Netflix original documentary, which examines the United States’ status as having the highest rate of incarceration in the world, with the majority of the imprisoned being African-American. We also had the chance to sit down with Malkia Cyril and Kevin Gannon who are also featured in the film. The film is now streaming on Netflix.
Check it out after the jump:
OJ Williams: For me the film took me on an emotional journey. I can only imagine where it took you. Can you talk about that a little bit?
Ava Duvernay: It was an emotional process, I cried a lot making this movie. We had over a 1000 hours of footage, and most of that footage was violent footage, racist footage, footage that was just disturbing. We were wrestling with a lot of really complex themes and issues. It was hard to sift through and also try to pick and carve and curate and craft what we have to share with audiences. It was an emotional journey.
OJ: What were one of the first initial questions when you were putting together the film that you were asking? What were some of those initial things and thoughts?
Ava: It was really intricate. I have the writing credit on this film with my editor Spencer Averick, because I give a lot of thought to the questions that I would ask, but I tailored it to each individual person, because we have so many brilliant experts in that. One person doesn’t know everything, but all these people know a great deal about a piece of the puzzle. I tried to do the interview in a way that I got all my information, all my questions out about their area of specialty. Then I knew that I was going to be putting that together with other areas. There wasn’t 1 question, it was pretty detailed.
OJ: You mentioned all your different interviewees, what was that process like of selecting them? You had so many brilliant people in the film. How did you go about selecting them?
Ava: I selected them based on their expertise in certain areas. As it related to trying to figure out this puzzle, and present this huge kind of epic subject in a way that was that was digestible. I was trying to find the person who, a. who was the foremost expert in the area. So people who could really speak to it, but would be folks who you want to listen to. There’s a lot of people that are expert and you’re like, “Excuse me, did you say something?” We really needed folks that were dynamic as well, so it was a tall order. I’m really pleased with the folks who appear in it.
OJ: You brilliantly use music to tell your narrative throughout the film, which was amazing. It took us through, I think, there was opera, there was hip-hop. Talk about the musical selection and how you went about that.
Ava: My idea was to amplify the fact that black artists have been trying to speak to this problem, and have been speaking to their people about this problem through music.
OJ: Very true.
Ava: For since the beginning. We have a black opera singer and black pianist, a performer of old negro spiritual. We have Nina Simone. We have Nas. Everyone from Usher to Common to Marvin Gaye, in the piece to really speak to this black musical expression of dissent and protest that’s been long standing.
OJ: In the film we see you from every time period to what’s going on today. Reflect on using your social platform as a way of change, and speaking up for what’s going on today in the world.
Ava: I don’t consider myself an activist because I think that label really belongs to the organizers, and the people doing the tough work on the ground in our communities. I’m an artist, but I think embedded in being an artist there is a kind of innate activism that happens. Artists, as Nina said, “Is someone who speaks to the time.” You have to reflect your times, and these are the times that we’re in. It’s a vibrant time, this is a time that’s going to be studied. This a time that they’re going to be talking about 20 years from now. It is happening right now, we’re here.
We always look back to the 60s and Civil Rights Movement. We look at that and many of us romanticize that. They will do that to this era. The question is what did we do? How did we respond? What did you do? What did you do during this time? How did you answer? How did you change things? Where were you when this thing happened? Where did you stand? It’s happening now and the 13th asks us to ask ourselves that question.
OJ: For those who watch your film and they’re feeling inspired to feeling a change coming, how do you suggest they go about making a difference in the world?
Ava: I suggest that they determine what difference they are going to make on their own, and then find a way to make that difference. There’s no one answer because everyone’s different. Your difference might be volunteering with kids, and trying to make sure that they see a positive role model. Not just see you at a one time thing, but actually becoming embedded in their lives. Make sure that you’re taking kids, so that one kid, it might be just in your family. Changing the way your dynamics are with maybe an incarcerated loved one.
It might be working on legislation. It might be marching and showing dissent in more formal ways. Just hoping that it creates some kind of change. I want this to be not just disposable entertainment, but, like I say, something that sticks to your ribs a little bit.
OJ Williams: Tell me how you both got involved with this project?
Kevin Ganno: For me it was through social media and online writing. Ava found some things I had written online that apparently went across her Twitter feed, and sent a message. We were interested in some of the same questions, and it went from there.
Malkia: For me Ava and I were able to collaborate in the past, through her previous film Middle of Nowhere, to reduce the cost of calls from prison. Through that film and through that collaboration we actually won at the Federal Communications Commission a ruling to actually reduce the cost of those calls.
OJ: Both of your background in civil liberties and civil rights. Talk about today’s injustice and what’s going on in the world, and how we can better help what’s happening.
Kevin: I think two of the things that are sadly lacking in a lot of the ways that we reckon with the current situation, are honesty and empathy. We need to honestly reckon with how we got here. This stuff didn’t just start in 2014 or 2015. This is the latest chapter in a story that’s been going on all too long. In order to be honest we have to be able to empathize. White people have to say, “Just because something doesn’t effect me personally, doesn’t means it’s not effecting other human beings.” Beholden to the hard work that good, honest empathy requires.
Malkia: I think the thing that we can take away from this moment right now, is 1. Just the say way that Jim Crow automated racism in the 19th century, we have technology that’s beginning to automate racism today. I think that from electronic monitors to the use of stingray devices, to the aerial surveillance of Baltimore. I think that all of the issues that Ava talked about in her film, they’re not 17th century, 18th century, 19th century issues only. They’re also 21st century issues, and we need to begin to confront these issues in new ways. For the new time.
OJ: You mentioned technology, and technology has played such a huge role today, in the movement. Talk about the importance of that and why we should continue with that.
Kevin: Technology if used in the right way it’s going to be an enormously democratizing tool. There the danger is, is that you have people say, “Well, today is worse than it has ever been.” No, we just see more of it today that has ever been the case.
Kevin: We need to understand that. The ways in which technology brings more people to the table, opens up the flow of information, allows people to see and to hear and to feel what’s happening. That impact, I don’t think, can be overstated.
Malkia: The reality is that technology is an incredibly democratizing force. To the degree that it is itself democratized.
Malkia: We have issues like big companies fighting against net neutrality. We have issues of it companies using technology to police our communities. In that way it really depends on who’s hand the technologies are in.
Malkia: In that way we have a Jim Crow internet where some people get to pay more for privacy, and some people pay less for less privacy. Those dynamics make the technology just as … Technology today is just as subject to the whims of racism as our main stream media is. We need to control the technology, so that we can deploy it for that democratization.
Kevin: Yeah, it’s a tool.
Malkia: That’s right.
Kevin: Tools can be used in different ways.
OJ: Very true. For people who watch this film and they’re feeling a change and feeling inspired. How do you think they should go about that, once seeing the film?
Kevin: Get involved. Get involved in local level, why not? We focus so much on the Presidential campaign, especially this year at this time The fact of the matter is, is that real change and real political coalitions are done at the grass root level. Get into … What are the social justice groups in your community? Who are the people that are leading the various causes in your community? When are your school board elections? When are your city council elections? It’s that type of hard work of getting involved in coalition building. That’s the way the change is effective. If you look at the right has gotten so powerful over the past several decades. If you look at things like Alec, it was built from the local level on up.
Malkia: That’s right. Black Lives Matter, Black Youth Project, a Million Hoodies Movement for justice, all of these organizations operate in cities across the country, join them.
13th premieres on Netflix on October 7.