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Documentary '13TH' Argues Mass Incarceration Is An Extension Of Slavery


The awards season is upon us and soon you'll hear all kinds of interviews and talk about films all in search of that elusive Oscar buzz. Well, one film is already generating that buzz and the topic might surprise you. It's called "13TH." It's the latest offering from director Ava DuVernay. You might remember that last year her film "Selma" was nominated for two Academy Awards. Well, "13TH" is different. It is a documentary about the weighty topic of mass incarceration. It was just named to the shortlist for an Oscar in the documentary category. You can see it on Netflix now. And the film makes the case that the American criminal justice system really serves as a strategy to control black and brown people - in essence, slavery by another name.


KEVIN GANNON: The 13th Amendment to the Constitution makes it unconstitutional for someone to be held as a slave. In other words, it grants freedom to all Americans. There are exceptions, including criminals.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: There's a clause, a loophole.

GANNON: If you have that embedded in the structure in this Constitutional language, then it's there to be used as a tool for whichever purposes one wants to use it.

MARTIN: And Ava DuVernay is with us now from member station KQED in San Francisco. Ava DuVernay, thank you so much for speaking with us.

AVA DUVERNAY: Thank you for speaking with me.

MARTIN: You know, your film makes an argument, which will be familiar to some people, but which will be quite provocative to others, that actually the way we use the criminal justice system in this country, particularly the way we use incarceration, is really an extension of slavery, that it's a form of racialized control. And you can see where a lot of people might think, you know, wait a minute, you know, what do you mean? You commit a crime, you go to prison, it doesn't matter what color you are.

DUVERNAY: Yeah, that's why I made this film to answer people who think that. I mean, it's such a complicated answer. The film really unravels the fact that that kind of thinking is too small. That kind of statement really means that you have no context for what you're thinking. And that's not to make anyone feel bad. It's to say we can do better. You can have a more deeply rooted and nuanced knowledge of the fact that, you know, every person who is in prison is not a criminal, that all crimes are not created equal, that all sentences are not equal. And the idea behind "13TH" is to give people that context so that we don't make uninformed statements, that we can all work from a place of knowledge to try to get to a place where we just do better as Americans.

MARTIN: You know, the film really opens with one big idea, which is that 25 percent of the people in the world who are incarcerated are incarcerated in the United States. Was your basic idea here to make people think about this in a new way, or was it that people really don't know the facts and that you're trying to present the facts in a way that would - they would be able to kind of receive it if the way - in the way that perhaps they don't through just reading the paper every day or watching the evening news?

DUVERNAY: Yeah, the documentary was built for two different kinds of audiences - folks out there that know about this and folks out there that have never heard of it. For folks out there that know about it, the feedback that I've got and what my intention was was to put it all in one place because when you see everything lined up, some of the things that we know from various books and documentaries of great thinkers out there, when everything is lined up back to back, it paints a different picture. There's something that's illuminated when you put it all together as a whole. So that was one way that I constructed the documentary. The other way that my editors Spencer Averick and I went about it was to the person that has not heard nothing about this, that thinks that prison is a place where bad people go and that's that, to give them a just a primer to think more deeply about, become more educated about, just have a broader base of knowledge about the criminal justice system as it stands right now and as it has stood for many decades.

MARTIN: I just wondered if you ever felt intimidated, you know, by the subject.

DUVERNAY: Oh, yeah.

MARTIN: It's such a big subject and so many people have written about it, really, through the centuries from all perspectives. And so I just wondered if you ever felt intimidated.

DUVERNAY: I always felt intimidated - intimidated every single day, you know, up until the moment that we first showed it to anyone and still now, you know. I don't feel like it's an end-all-be-all for this topic at all. It's an entry point for a lot of people who just never have been invited to think more deeply about it. Very intimidating, but sometimes you've got to step into the gap and do it anyway.

MARTIN: But it is interesting that Te-Nehisi Coates, for example, the writer whose book "Between The World And Me" made such a splash last year with, you know, National Book Award winner, and now your film taking on issues that, really, frankly, politicians, activists have been talking about for years. But there just seems to be something about the way you've approached it that has allowed people to say, wait a minute, you know, to take a fresh look. I wonder why do you think that is?

DUVERNAY: I don't know, but I'm excited to be a part of this time with Coates, with, you know, Lin-Manuel Miranda, with just artists from all walks of life all different formats and mediums trying to say something about this current moment. And folks are leaning in and listening and maybe consuming it in a way that feels emotional to them. I think a lot of the time we talk about these things in a very unemotional, clinical way, you know, where it feels like study. And I think what some of this new work is done has kind of peeled back that layer of kind of this is mandatory and this might feel like medicine and made it kind of go down a little more comfortably for some people. The good thing is that I think they're all still saying something. And the great thing is, I think, that this artwork allows people to investigate the academic renderings of these ideas more fully with a good base of knowledge, if that makes any sense.


DUVERNAY: They're all just entryways to get people more interested about these things and more passionate about them in their own heart. And that was my goal and, you know, hopefully "13TH" gets people thinking about these issues.

MARTIN: Ava DuVernay is an Oscar-nominated director and screenwriter. Her documentary "13TH," which she also co-wrote is streaming on Netflix now. Ava DuVernay, thank you so much for speaking with us.

DUVERNAY: Thank you for having me, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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