Ava DuVernay’s latest film, the Oscar-nominated documentary “13TH,” was always meant to be readily available to a large section of movie lovers, thanks to the filmmaker’s free-wheeling production and distribution deal with streaming giant Netflix. Billed as something as a “secret” film, the Netflix deal allowed the “Selma” helmer to make her feature-length look at the American prison system with minimal intrusion over the course of nearly two years.
The documentary, which succinctly explains the links between systematic racism and America’s swelling prison system, was kept mostly under wraps until it was announced as the opening night film at the 2016 New York Film Festival, making it the first documentary to ever earn the distinction.
Just three months after that splashy bow, “13TH” is an Oscar nominee for best documentary feature and, yes, is currently streaming on Netflix. But DuVernay and Netflix’s unique partnership has not stopped there, as the streaming service recently debuted a special supplement to the feature, “13TH: A Conversation With Oprah Winfrey and Ava DuVernay,” a 36-minute chat exactly as advertised. Featuring DuVernay and her “Selma” supporting star Winfrey (who will next appear in her “Wrinkle in Time”), the conversation is a free-flowing affair that functions as an essential companion to DuVernay’s eye-opening feature. It’s the best post-screening Q&A you could hope for.
“It’s a long time coming for me, just being really affected by police interactions,” DuVernay explains to Winfrey early in the special.
As the filmmaker goes on to detail some of her formative experiences with both the police and prison system — a childhood memory of her innocent father being tackled in his own backyard after he was wrongly believed to be a suspect in a crime is particularly striking — it becomes clear just how personal a crusade the film was for her. That these kind of details are not explicitly included in the documentary is a credit to DuVernay, who abstains from inserting herself in the narrative in service to a better story.
The film is DuVernay’s latest documentary, and she and Winfrey take the time to explore the challenges that came along with switching storytelling styles. For DuVernay, that involved a lot of flexibility on her part, noting that making a documentary is “a thinking process, the film wants to be what it wants to be.” DuVernay also recognizes the educational opportunities of a film like “13TH,” saying that “there’s something about seeing it all strung together, in a sort of primer, which is what I wanted to do.”
While DuVernay’s film does not provide a roadmap for prison reform, it is awash in interviews with luminaries from both sides of the debate (including, somehow, both activist Angela Davis and Newt Gingrich, who admits some hard truths about his role in increased sentencing for drug dealers) who bring their own ideas to the table. With Winfrey, however, DuVernay gets down to business about her ideas for how the prison-industrial complex can be changed — not just “reformed,” but wholly overhauled. DuVernay considers herself a prison abolitionist — “that doesn’t mean let everyone out!” — a process through which the current model would be totally dismantled and reconstructed.
“13TH” makes a clear case for institutional changes, and so does DuVernay and Winfrey’s conversation, which allows the filmmaker a different kind of platform to express her personal views without impinging on the documentary itself.
“13TH” already proved timely enough when it launched last fall, in the midst of the most contentious presidential race in our nation’s history, and that feeling has only increased in the interim. DuVernay’s film includes material from Donald Trump’s campaign, including his admiration for “the good old days” when protestors would be “carried out on a stretcher,” all interspersed with archival footage of civil rights protestors being beaten and bruised. It was jarring when the film first debuted, but it’s positively haunting now.
DuVernay makes it clear that she views current political events as “beyond troubling” and she makes no bones about her stance against the current administration — she doesn’t support anything about it — but she’s also hopeful about the possibility of change. The filmmaker encourages her viewers to update their vocabulary around incarceration and the prison-industrial complex, a practice best put into use through clear-headed and passionate discourse. That’s exactly what’s served up in the Netflix special.
If “13TH” is a rallying cry for change — educated, passionate, considered change – this new conversation is just one worthy amplification of that cry.