On Friday, September 30, the New York Film Festival hosted an Opening Night Gala Presentation and World Premiere of 13TH. We attended and chatted with the director of the film Ava DuVernay, CNN News Anchor Don Lemon and others who attended the premiere.
13th, a Netflix original documentary, examines the United States’ status as having the highest rate of incarceration in the world, with the majority of the imprisoned being African-American. The title of DuVernay’s film refers to the 13th Amendment: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States. 13th explores how the second qualifying clause of the amendment evolved to the complex of mass incarceration and the prison industry in the United States.
Attendees at the premiere included director Ava DuVernay, CNN News Anchor Don Lemon, Oprah Winfrey, rapper Common (Selma, The Wiz Live!), Gabourey Sidibe (Empire, Precious), Chloë Sevigny (Bloodline, American Horror Story), Julie Menin (Commissioner, NYC Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment), Lesli Klainberg (FSLC Executive Director), Eugene Hernandez (FSLC Deputy Director), Amy Taubin (Contributing Editor, Film Comment, NYFF Selection Committee), Gavin Smith (NYFF Selection Committee) and Kent Jones (Director of NYFF, Chair of Selection Committee).
Here are some highlights from the premiere.
How did you decide to make this film?
Ava DuVernay: This is a film that I always wanted to make. It was always something that was inside of me
When Netflix said I could make a documentary about whatever I wanted, I knew what I wanted to be, I grew up in Compton around a steady police presence, very, very deep police presence, a lot of interactions with the criminal justice system through neighbors and friends in my community so I’d been formulating and thinking about these things for a long time, so I’d say this is a story that’s been with me for many, many years.
We interrogate and examine how we got here. We need to ask the question: How did we get here?
Kent Jones (NYFF Director): We chose it because it’s a great movie that happens to be a nonfiction film. It’s also a nonfiction film that’s just about something so present, and yet not talked about on a mass level. It’s a tragedy that’s afflicted the country—one wouldn’t even know where to begin.
What do you think the commentary will be in 50-100 years?
Kevin Gannon (History professor): I hope the commentary isn’t “Here we go again, here we go again.” The optimist in me would say eventually we break that pattern, so I hope that 50 years from now we aren’t saying, “Man they had a really good conversation going.”
(Speaking to Harvard Professor Khalil Gibran-Mohammed)
Tell me a little bit about your research and how you go about doing it.
Khalil Gibran-Mohammed: As a historian, I’ve been interested in finding those beginning moments, and one I can tell very briefly is the earliest census to create what we think of as racial disparity knowledge today—oftentimes we say, one in three black boys born today will spend time in prison, for example—or that there are 3 times as many black men in prison than there are in the population. All that began with the 1890 census, and it was the first moment when this conversation began, and in many ways, we’re stuck having the same debate today.
Looking ahead, what can be done?
Khalil Gibran- Mohammed: Works of art, films can in our moment communicate to millions more people than anything I can write in a book. Knowledge is a crucial ingredient to helping people understand how the system and culture is a force to giving people the courage and the will to do something about it. We celebrate this films o people can get off their buts, get off the sidelines, because silence is complicity.
What can we do as members of the media to create awareness?
Don Lemon: Talk about these issues more, but also listen. As journalists, just listen to what people are saying. Have those people on as much as possible, also have people on who can make a difference when it comes to these issues: lawmakers. Get them in a room, or on the same program, with the people who are fighting for it and with the average person who wants change. Get them to listen.
What did you learn while making this movie, including about yourself?
Ava DuVernay: I learned a lot of new information. Being a student of this space, mass incarceration, the prison industrial complex, everyone has a passion and that’s one that I’m very passionate about it. I’ve made films about it prior, there’s a storyline about it in my series that deals with it in an elongated way. My second narrative film Middle of Nowhere was all about this issue and its relation to families.
About myself I learned that I can take a lot, but I don’t know how much more I’m going to take, creating the Bloody Sunday sequence in Selma, having to call action and direct people to beat each other up and be hurt was not an easy thing, and to look through hundreds of hours of footage of violence and prejudice and racism was also a hard thing. I don’t think it’s particularly healthy. I think it was necessary and I’m glad I did it, I don’t know how soon I’ll be doing it again.
So much of this movie is the evolution of racism. After making this movie, where do you see our next chapter going?
Ava DuVernay: It’s up to us, as a country, to decide. My hope is that on Netflix more people would see it than if it was in a theater. It’ll spark conversation, especially as we go into the election, that we interrogate and demand answers of the candidates as to what they’re going to do to assist us.
In order to do that, people need to know what the problem is. I don’t think enough people are aware of the issues, that’s why we try to do a deep dive into it so that you can’t walk out of it saying that you don’t know about it. You know, and now that you know, you are no longer innocent. Silence is consent. So the hope is that folks speak, folks act, and that we can make a change together.
13th premieres on Netflix on October 7.
An after-party followed at Tavern At The Green, where Common performed Academy Award winning song “Glory” and a new original song he wrote with Bilal for the film. Dave Chapelle and Uzo Aduba were also spotted at the bash!