Director Ava DuVernay rose to prominence in 2014 with Selma, a stirring biopic about Martin Luther King Jr.’s push for equal voting rights and famous march on Washington D.C. However, her feature-length directorial debut was a 2009 documentary called This is the Life, chronicling the 1990s alternative hip-hop movement in Los Angeles. She also directed docs like 2010’s My Mic Sounds Nice: The Truth About Women in Hip Hop and 2013’s Nine for IX about stories of women in sports.
DuVernay is currently signed on to next direct a film adaptation of the novel A Wrinkle In Time for Walt Disney Pictures. Even with her recent foray into fictional-narrative filmmaking, DuVernay has also been hard at work on her new documentary 13th, which just released the first trailer to give a glimpse at the hard-hitting, timely topics the doc promises to cover.
Netflix release the trailer for the film (see above) and describes 13th, alternately titled as The 13th, as “extraordinary and galvanizing.” The documentary, named after and centering on the 13th amendment of the U.S. Constitution, focuses on the way the U.S. prison system has evolved and exploited the language of the document. The 13th amendment abolished slavery in the United States “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” The description on YouTube reads:
“The progression from that second qualifying clause to the horrors of mass criminalization and the sprawling American prison industry is laid out by DuVernay with bracing lucidity. With a potent mixture of archival footage and testimony from a dazzling array of activists, politicians, historians, and formerly incarcerated women and men, DuVernay creates a work of grand historical synthesis.”
“One out of four human beings with their hands on bars shackled, in the world, are locked up here in the land of the free,” says author & political activist Van Jones at the start of the documentary, setting a tone for the chronicling to come of a broken prison system and a United States wracked by racial tension and inequality. The documentary appears to tell both intimate stories of young African-Americans unfairly punished and exploited by the prison system and big-picture issues surrounding crime and incarceration in America. Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich appears in the documentary, describing laws concerning privatized prisons and mass incarceration as “an enormous burden on the black community” that “violated a sense of core fairness.”
The trailer depicts archival footage of former U.S. presidents Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, and Ronald Reagan, as well as 2016 presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Set to open the New York Film Festival at the end of the month and debuting at a time when tension between U.S. law enforcement and African-American citizens is reaching all-time highs,, 13th aims to spark further dialogue on the U.S. prison system and how it has affected communities at large.
A documentary as politically and emotionally charged as 13th will inevitably spark controversy and debate. Despite the important conversations the doc aims to spark, those with inherent biases may not change their minds after seeing the documentary. Whatever direction the debate takes after 13th makes its debut, the documentary will certainly have people talking.
13th premieres at the New York Film Festival on Sept. 30 and debuts exclusively on Netflix on Oct. 7.