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Interview: Ava DuVernay Talks 13th, Trump, and Her Filmmaking Process

The Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States:
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, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

Ava Duvernay’s 13th chronicles the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment that abolished slavery in America, and examines how the prepositional phrase it includes has been exploited and subverted in the fifteen decades since its initial inception. If incarceration trends continue, every African-American man alive today has a one-in-three chance of being imprisoned in his lifetime, compared to a one-in-seventeen chance for his white counterparts. This is just one of the many saddening and infuriating facts that DuVernay highlights in her superb documentary, drawing a clear and concise line from the Thirteenth Amendment to the pervasive institutional racism in America today and the multitude of injustices that exist because of the phrasing the amendment inadvertently permits.

I caught up with DuVernay recently to talk about her earliest experiences with documentaries, and the reasons why she chose to pursue 13th rather than helm Marvel’s Black Panther. We spoke about the strict time-frame she set for herself to condense 152 years of history down to 100 minutes. “I wanted it to be brisk, I wanted it to be a primer. I wanted it to be something that there was no real excuse not to watch it,” she says of shaping and editing her film.

DuVernay took a moment to talk with us from her home, before going to work on Disney’s A Wrinkle in Time. She is the first female director — and, not incidentally, the first African-American woman — to direct a $100 million dollar film. We briefly talked about her filmmaking process and how she prefers to work with the casts of her movies. “With actors, I rehearse. I don’t rehearse again and again. I like to touch the material, talk about it and make sure we’re on the same page. ‘Kiss it’ is what I call it. We don’t need to get married to it, just give it a kiss and move on.”

13th is now streaming on Netflix.  Hope you enjoy reading our conversation:

Awards Daily: How did you decide that 13th was the next story you wanted to tell?

Ava DuVernay: Well, it was Netflix’s invitation. Lisa Nishimura is a woman there who I always say, “Say her name.” I feel it’s important to name the people who support the work in a certain way. She reached out to me right as the Selma promotional process was dying down. She asked what I was interested in getting back to next and she wanted to know if I was interested in getting back to my roots as a documentarian. The first two films I made were documentaries, I said, yes, it was definitely something I was thinking about. It was right around the same time that I was talking to Marvel about Black Panther.

As I was deciding that Black Panther wasn’t for me and really interrogating what it was that I wanted to say and it how I wanted to say it, Lisa’s offer to come make a documentary was right there, and so I pivoted towards that.

I haven’t really talked about the Black Panther fitting into it before. Those Marvel conversations got me thinking about what I wanted to do, and that really directly led me to 13th.

AD: When you’re making a documentary like this, for something that spans over 150 years, how did you make the decision to condense it to 100 minutes?

ADV: Really challenging. This is the beauty of the editorial relationship to one’s footage. Editing is my favorite part of the process. I love actors, I love production design, I love costumes and all the other parts of the puzzle, but what I really love and look forward to and am excited about each and every time is the editing process, partly because of my collaborator, Spencer Averick, one of my best friends with whom I’ve edited everything I’ve ever made. This was the biggest thing that we’ve ever tackled in terms of the thousand hours of racist, violent footage that we had to look through. Deciding how we’re going to curate that and craft that in a way that was impactful, but not so off-putting that one couldn’t continue through the doc. We wanted something that would resonate and be deeply felt, and something that you could intellectually process. Trying to span that much historical time in a very dense, physical time as far as how long a film can be.

I didn’t want to be luxurious and make it hours long or make it into a mini-series. All of which were options on the table. I think it’s interesting because we have another documentary in the space which is the O.J. doc. It’s beautiful that filmmakers can tackle the medium, and that time can allow for different things.

We set a time constraint on ourselves. I wanted it to be 100 minutes, that was my cutoff. Ezra Edelman was able to say, “I want it to be as long as I want it to be.” Both of those have had a result. Time affected the narrative and the way we shaped it for both of us. I found it fascinating. For me, I wanted it to be brisk, I wanted it to be a primer. I wanted it to be something that there was no real excuse not to watch it because it wasn’t that long. The challenge was could I give, not just the history of incarceration and criminalization, but really a history of racism in this country in that amount of time and connect it to the present day in a way that was emotionally resonant? That was our goal.

AD: I focused on American Studies with my history degree, and have lived here for two years, but even as a viewer, I took away so much. ALEC [the American Legislative Exchange Council] was a huge revelation to me. Was there a major revelation for you?

ADV: It was definitely ALEC. That was really the only thing that I didn’t know. Certainly, footage that I hadn’t seen was startling, and there was a lot of it. There was a lot of footage that was just too violent to share, even as a documentary, that we had to watch and try to figure out what to include and what not to include.

ALEC was the eye opener for me, I had heard about it, but I didn’t know the full extent of the shadowy group of people we don’t know who are influencing and crafting laws that we all have to abide by. That wasn’t something I was truly aware of.

Once I started to dig into it and to get one of the representatives on camera, it became really important that we show that.

AD: There’s a lot of powerful imagery throughout the documentary. How did you get the footage we see at the end? Was that owned by the families? If so, how did you get them to trust you to allow you to show it?

ADV: The sad thing about that footage is that it is not owned by the families. The footage is owned by the police, and by the bystanders who took that footage. Most of the families don’t have a say when it’s used on TV or online. It’s a real tragedy.

I recently lost my father, and I imagined someone having the last few minutes of his life on tape and showing that whenever they wanted without asking me, without caring how that affected me or my family. Although the families in the film don’t own that footage, I asked for their permission to even broadcast it. We went to each family and asked how they felt about inclusion in the movie. We asked if they wanted it to happen or not, and a couple of families said, “If you’re giving us the choice, we’d rather not.” The ones did allow us to are in the documentary, and I respect those decisions. It wasn’t anything we had to do legally, but it was something I had to do as a human being.

AD: What was it like for you to watch this? As a viewer, so many moments struck hard and nearly reduced me to tears. Was there any particular moment that had that effect on you?

ADV: Oh yes, there was a lot of stuff that was tough to deal with. We had to take breaks because it was a tough editing process. I really am grateful for Spencer for being by my side through that whole process. He saw even more than I did because it’s rough.

There’s one piece of footage with the journalist, Alex Wilson. He’s the tall, elegant man in a suit. He’s trying to pick up his hat and walk across the street and he’s being attacked by a racist mob. I show that footage twice in the film. First, at the very top when we’re setting up the Jim Crow section, and again towards the end, in juxtaposition to the current-day mood around Donald Trump. Whenever I saw that footage, the full tape is quite graphic and disturbing, I don’t show it all. That man eventually died from repercussions from injuries he sustained that day. He was a journalist for a black newspaper. The Chicago Defender was covering the Civil Rights activity that was happening in that city.

I don’t know why it was particularly painful for me, but it reminded me of men in my family, and men that I know who want the dignity of being able to wear a suit, put on your hat, and walk across the street. But the very presence of your dignity and your blackness was offensive to those who have no dignity themselves. It was difficult to watch and it’d bring me to tears. I just felt it so deeply.

AD: How do you feel the election of Trump is going to affect movements such as Black Lives Matter, police brutality, and minorities?

ADV: There’s a lot of work to do, and I believe that a very strong resistance is going to rise up — as it has been — to these ideas of exclusion and this racism. There’s no “alt-right.” It’s just you are a racist.

I have more respect for a racist who says they are a racist, rather than all these pseudonyms for all these things where you are a white supremacist. You feel like your very presence is supreme over others. You feel like you are dominant over others and you will do whatever you need to do to promote that and sustain that at the detriment of other human beings. That’s what we’re seeing, I believe that’s what he stands for.

I also know that this is not a new thing, that this is ongoing throughout history. That his presence has risen up, but a more powerful presence of resistance, of unity, and of positivity, and true humanism can prevail if we all pay attention and work at it.

I have no optimism around him. I have no interest in giving him a chance. I only have faith in forward-thinking people not tolerating the intolerable.

AD: The other day the #morethantime hashtag was fascinating to follow. What have people said to you about the impact 13th has had on their lives?

ADV: I’m most proud of hearing back from 4 million previously incarcerated and currently incarcerated men and women talking about the context that we give to their current or former incarnation. Thanking us for including the voices. It would have been easy to make this and just be talking about them and not allow them to speak for themselves.

The other thing is people saying, “I knew nothing about this.” They were completely unaware. And once you’re aware, you can’t be unaware. Once you see it, you make the choice. You ignore it, or you change yourself in the way you think, the way you react when you hear the words “law and order,” the way you react when you read something and you see someone get called a criminal. Do you second guess that? Do you think again? Do you think about media imagery? Do you investigate for yourself? How do you think about people in the inner city? Do you see them the same now that you understand the systemic nature of general human resources and such that have been withheld? Do you think of prison the same way? Do you think of the formerly incarcerated the same way? If that kind of work can be done on an individual level then eventually this is the kind of thing that if everyone changes the way they think about it there’s generational change. That’s why we didn’t put a 1-800 number at the end and send you to a website. That’s very transitory and that’s temporary. What we’re trying to do is have people be deeply moved and think about these issues.

AD: I just want to talk quickly about your work as a filmmaker and your process. I’m behind on Queen Sugar and I need to catch up. How do you work as a director? Do you storyboard? How do you work with your actors?

ADV: I hardly ever get asked that. I have not typically storyboarded. There was an attempt to storyboard Selma which I quickly abandoned because the process just didn’t work very well for me. But, I did storyboard extensively Wrinkle In Time, which I’m doing now, and I found it helpful. So that’s a new tool that I’m adding to the mix that I hadn’t really embraced before.

With actors, I rehearse. I don’t rehearse again and again. I like to touch the material, talk about it and make sure we’re on the same page. “Kiss it” is what I call it. We don’t need to get married to it, just give it a kiss and move on.

I think you have to have some sort of agreement as to which direction you’re going in before you hit the floor so to speak. I always have some kind of rehearsal. The work with the actors is intuitive and individual for each actor. Everyone is different. It’s just the way we have our relationships. I consider it a relationship, so I have different relationships with different people in my life, as we all do, and that includes the directorial relationship to actors.

AD: You’re having an amazing 2016. Are you taking time out to breathe between 13th, Queen Sugar, and Wrinkle in Time?

ADV: I’m not. I’m on my third seven-day week without a day off. I’m very much looking forward to the holidays. I’m living my dream and having great fun every day. I’m not complaining. I’m looking forward to a little time off after I wrap before I get into the edit.

AD: You’re an inspiration to speak to because there are not enough female filmmakers out there.

ADV: It’s a small but mighty tribe.