Ava DuVernay’s new project, 13th, illustrates a sad truth many Americans fail to acknowledge: The enslavement of African-Americans didn’t necessarily end in 1865 — it just took on new forms.
From Jim Crow to the ‘War on Drugs’ to police violence against unarmed black citizens, freedom for America’s black population has always been a process of struggle and trauma.
The focus of the project is right in its title — the 13th Amendment. According to advocates and activists interviewed for the project, the historic amendment still permits the enslavement of black people within the literal and legal confinements of the United States prison system.
DuVernay’s film is raw and compelling and laced with disturbing images of black pain and suffering.
One scene depicts a journalist during the Civil Rights Movement being punched, kicked and spat at by an angry mob of white people while trying to cross the street. The journalist later died of his injuries.
DuVernay says the scene still tugs at her heart strings.
“My editor Spencer Averick would get in the editing room and we’d be working on things, and he knew to fast forward through that part just because on different days it would hit me in the gut,” DuVernay confessed at a recent roundtable discussion in New York City. “When you really watch that clip you see the way he walks, the way he dressed… the dignity. I think of my own father, I think of my brothers. It’s too much for me.”
During the documentary, DuVernay incorporates the brutal video footage of the deaths of black men such as Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, and more recently, Philando Castile. And despite the debate about whether or not showing such images is appropriate, DuVernay feels the more we show the killings of black people in America, the greater chance we have of provoking change.
“There needs to be a certain witnessing to the trauma,” DuVernay said, citing Emmett Till’s mother’s decision to have an open casket funeral in 1955 after her son was killed by two white men. “I think people need to be shocked into action now. We are seeing so much with the advent of video, body cameras, surveillance cameras and social media.”
“I had a real emotional reaction when the two latest videotapes came out with the murders, because I had already locked,” she said. “Immediately when I heard about it I started to tear up because I thought those men won’t be in it. But then I realized I’m never going to be caught up.”
DuVernay packs 13th with some historical context around corruption in politics and the ways in which laws and policies have been used to control people of color. The doc addresses the Republican Party’s ‘Southern strategy’ during Richard Nixon’s presidency — an attempt to court Southern white voters by stoking their racial fears and resentment of black people.
That strategy, the doc suggests, gave birth to the criminalization of drugs and ‘blackness’ through association.
The political pushback against drugs and minor crimes in America was only the Pandora’s box for the era of mass incarceration and the criminalization of black people, particularly black men. The ‘law and order’ approach only led to the exacerbation of America’s racial wounds, which have certainly not healed in 2016.
DuVernay juxtaposes images of violent acts committed against black people throughout time with the violent rhetoric of Donald Trump. A scene shows the Republican presidential nominee long for the “good ole days” when law enforcement would send protesters out on “stretchers,” and the implication is clear: Black protesters being hit and harassed at Trump rallies seem eerily similar to the days when police officers and whites assaulted black protesters who simply wanted equal protection under the law.
DuVernay admits that filming 13th has taken its toll on her.
“Doing Selma and this back to back was challenging,” she confessed. “It takes an emotional toll to look through 1,000 hours of violent, racist footage, and to try to figure out what’s too much, what’s enough to share with people to get the point across. You don’t go home skipping and whistling. I take it with me.”
DuVernay says she’s not sure how soon she can again work on a similar project, but admits she wants to continue to do films that speak truth to power about race in America.
“It’s something I want to say, but I do know that I need to practice more self care around it,” DuVernay said. “So I think I’ll probably take a little break.”
The Oscar-nominated director’s new project premieres on Netflix Friday.