Ava DuVernay’s 13th Reframes American History

In her new documentary, the filmmaker explores how the Thirteenth Amendment led to an epidemic of mass incarceration in the United States.

Ava DuVernay stands against a white background in a dark blue shirt
Kevork Djansezian / Reuters

Ava DuVernay’s 13th is a documentary about how the Thirteenth Amendment led to mass incarceration in the United States, but it’s also a gorgeous, evocative, and maddening exploration of words: of their power, their roots, their permanence. It’s about those who wield those words and those made to kneel by them. Many Americans by now are familiar with the coded language of the country’s racial hegemony. Some shun certain words while others make anthems out of them.

The film opens with an analysis of the eponymous 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 then spends more than an hour and a half tracing the path from the clause between those two commas to the 2.2 million prisoners in the American justice system.

13th, out Friday on Netflix, compels viewers to sit upright, pay attention, and interrogate words in their most naked form as they’re analyzed and unpacked by DuVernay’s subjects, who include Angela Davis, Charles Rangel, and Henry Louis Gates. Sometimes the film confronts words in seemingly contradictory pairs: person/property, slave/freed person, labor force/prison workers. At other times it wrestles with oxymorons that target black Americans: truth in sentencing, War on Drugs, tough on crime, law and order, minor crimes.

Premised as a historical survey that maps the genetic link between slavery and today’s prison-industrial complex, 13th explodes the “mythology of black criminality,” as The New Yorker’s Jelani Cobb at one point in the film refers to the successive and successful measures undertaken by political authorities to disempower African Americans over the past three centuries. The academic and civil-rights advocate Michelle Alexander unpacks how the rhetorical war started by Richard Nixon and continued by Ronald Reagan escalated into a literal war, a “nearly genocidal” one. The “southern strategy” is unmasked as a political calculation that decimated black neighborhoods but won the southern white vote.

Throughout the film’s continuous reveal, a single word flashes in giant white letters on a black background: CRIMINAL. Is it a condemnation of past deeds or an accusation aimed at everyone who is complicit? Its effect doesn’t numb the viewer. It pricks and prods throughout the documentary’s 100-minute run time.

I talked with DuVernay about her words, about her intent, and about how she came to listen so well and hear so clearly. The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Juleyka Lantigua-Williams: A lot of the film is about questioning definitions of things and questioning the way that things are labeled. What is a person? What is property? What is an enslaved person? Is he really free? What is a minor crime? Listening to it as I’m watching it, I’m hearing emphasis on the duality, on who gets to name things. Were you trying to create that?

DuVernay: Yeah, absolutely. Identification, labels, how those very things have worked against us. Who is the criminal? Why do we think that? Do you understand the architecture around an idea that you hold in your head? The design of it, the very construction of it is most likely not truly yours but something that was given to you. The idea you have in your head was not built by you per se, but built by preconceived notions that were passed down generation after generation. The very ideas that we hold in our head are for someone’s profit and political gain. That stuff really trips me out. It makes me want to really interrogate what I think, read more deeply, understand more deeply. Rethink everything that I think, challenge myself. Do I think that? Or do I think what someone wants me to think of that? That’s what we try to excavate in the doc.

Lantigua-Williams: Let’s put that into political context right now. Three gifted black women gave us three very powerful words: black lives matter. What do you see in these three words? What is their primary role in the tradition that your film traces from slavery to mass incarceration?

DuVernay: The final act of our picture is all about Black Lives Matter, not as some kind of dutiful, “Oh it’s the present moment, we should do something.” Every line, every frame of this film leads you to that place, leads you to the now, leads you to the movement. The whole film is a virtual tour through racism. We’re giving you 150 years of oppression in 100 minutes. The film was 150 years in the making.

Really, it’s to give context to the current moment. The current moment of mass criminalization, of incarceration as an industry, prison as profit, punishment as profit. And the current moment of the declaration that the lives of black people, our very breath, our very dignity, our very humanity, are valuable and matter to the world. The film is designed to get us to that point, and those three words are more than words. They are the very blood that runs within us.

My hope is that this film has much of the beautiful art that’s coming out at this time, speaks to that in a way that is powerful, in a way that we can look back on and say this is how we felt. I’m honored to be making art during this time. I believe it’s happening in theater. It’s happening in film. It’s happening in television. It’s happening in music. Just this weekend, [13th debuted at the New York Film Festival on September 30]; you have Solange Knowles’ new album, which is a protest album expressing dissent. You have Luke Cage, another television piece on Netflix. On one day, across multiple platforms, you have black artists declaring our humanity, our dignity, essentially through all of these pieces, saying that black lives matter. So it is a real movement. It hits the political spectrum, the cultural spectrum. It all is one thing to me.

Lantigua-Williams: What words would you give your viewers and the people who follow your work, to get through this moment? What words would you give them to replace some of those very hurtful words that you’ve chronicled in your film?

DuVernay: I believe in fortification and I believe that at this time, we should be fortifying ourselves through knowledge, through self-care, through community. All of these speak through art. It’s really about rallying around this moment and taking in a totality of what it is, and making it internal in whatever way that means to you. If you know all this stuff, great. Pass it on. If you don’t know it, know it. You need to know it. Because at this point, after you see 13th, silence in this case is consent. You know all of this. You’re a forward-thinking person, you care about it. You can’t just walk out into the night after you see the movie or put down your iPad after you see it on Netflix and do nothing about it.

I’m not saying you have to join a march. I’m not saying you have to push for legislation. I’m saying what this film talks about is the very way that we deal with each other in the everyday. It’s about our relationship to each other as it deals with race. So there’s a lot there to be done. I’m stepping out of the conversation as it relates to this film. I’m doing two weekends talking to people and kind of giving birth to it and putting it out into the world. And then I’m going away because it’s not mine anymore. This is out in the world. I don’t want my voice clouding the conversation. I want people to be having their own conversation about it. That’s my great hope.

Lantigua-Williams: Before the movie, what was your general sense of the relationship between slavery and criminal justice and mass incarceration?

DuVernay: I knew a lot of it. I grew up in Compton. There was a heavy police presence growing up in the ’80s, ’90s in Compton. I’d see a cop and I didn’t think safety, like my counterpart who didn’t grow up in Compton. I’d think, “Oh boy, what are they coming for? And who are they coming after?” Definitely a lot of touching the criminal-justice system through interacting with people on probation and parole. Families of imprisoned people. Asking someone, “What are you doing this weekend?” “Oh, I’m going to see my father. He’s locked up.” Asking, “Hey, where’s Derrick who lives up the street? I haven’t seen him in a while.” “Oh, he got locked up.” Police officers coming to people’s houses on my block. Cruisers going up the street, ghetto birds overhead. That’s where I grew up.

So the idea that I could place all that in historical and cultural context when I got to UCLA as an African Studies major, it all solidified in my head. I was always very, very interested in reading about and staying connected to this issue. My second narrative film, Middle of Nowhere, is about a woman whose husband is currently incarcerated, and the life that families live as invisible prisoners. It’s always been something on my mind. It’s a story that I’ve held for a long time. So I knew everything that’s in the doc except the stuff about ALEC. I did not know about that. But this is not an investigation, right? All this information you can find in about seven amazing docs that tell different parts of the story. About 10 great books, right, that we could list for people. But this is the primary source for people that will not read and go see those films.

Also, I think there’s something to seeing it all together in one place. You can see the color red by itself, right? But when you put it next to other colors, it creates a different picture. I think we can talk about plea bargains by themselves. We can talk about the black codes and Reconstruction by itself. We can talk about Jim Crow by itself. But when you line them up and put them all side by side, that’s what the film does, and you think, “Lord, have mercy. Look at this picture. Look where we are.”