Ava DuVernay’s documentary “The 13th,” on mass incarceration and its deep, historical roots in America, has been welling up in her a long time.
The film, which DuVernay secretly worked on the last few years, is her third major work to deal with the subject. Her second feature, “Middle of Nowhere,” is about a woman coping with her husband’s imprisonment. Her recently debuted OWN series, “Queen Sugar,” features a character six months out of jail. But DuVernay traces the film’s origin back further, to when she was a child in Compton.
“Even as a little girl, I’d always tell my mom two things,” DuVernay said in a recent interview. “Sometimes we’d pass by a place around the neighborhood and I’d say, ‘If I’m ever homeless, I’m going to put my sleeping bag and shopping cart there,’ like under the freeway pass. And I’d say if I ever go to jail, I’m going to try to bring this one thing.
“I saw homeless people and I saw people going to jail,” she says. “So it’s always been on my mind.”
DuVernay’s feature film follow-up to her acclaimed, Oscar-nominated (and famously Oscar-snubbed) civil rights epic “Selma,” isn’t an awards-friendly period drama or some other predictable next step, but a powerfully holistic documentary about race and imprisonment.
Debuting in theaters and via Netflix on Oct. 7, “The 13th” takes its name from the amendment that abolished slavery “except as a punishment for crime.” In the film, criminalization — from Reconstruction-era to modern day police brutality — is subjugation by other means.
Mass incarceration (the U.S. makes up 25 percent of the world’s prisoners despite being 5 percent of its population) has emerged as a rare bipartisan issue in recent years. But “The 13th,” the first documentary to ever open the New York Film Festival, seeks to put the problem in a broader social and racial context that dates back to slavery.
“There are some real clear-cut, widely known, academically vetted cultural seeds that were planted way back that are blossoming now,” DuVernay says. “We can no longer say that prison is a place bad people go because it’s much more complicated than that.”
The two years between “Selma” and “The 13th” bracket considerable turmoil for both race in America and equality in Hollywood. The perceived snub of David Oyelowo for “Selma” helped kick off the “OscarsSoWhite” backlash that drove the Academy of Motion Pictures to diversify its membership. DuVernay was involved in that effort, as well as others to make the movie business more inclusive.
But the Oscars, she says, are no longer on her mind.
“Since ‘Selma,’ I think about it hardly ever,” says DuVernay, a publicist before she was a filmmaker. “I don’t know if it’s been being supremely and incredibly busy or if it’s just been: ‘Did it, saw what it is and I’m good.’ There are other ways to measure achievement in my mind these days.”
DuVernay is currently in preproduction on Disney’s “A Wrinkle in Time,” an adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s 1963 fantasy classic. She earlier flirted with directing Marvel’s “Black Panther” before ultimately passing.
“At times, things have come up that on the surface looked attractive,” she says. “To me, I always try to think about my day. Life is short. That’s kind of how I looked at it, from a very personal place as opposed to a strategic, professional, this-will-get-me-further-on-the-board place.”
Having come out of independent film, where her biggest budget was $20 million for “Selma,” DuVernay is relishing her Disney experience. “There are parts of filmmaking that I never even knew existed,” she says laughing. The film is the first $100 million-plus movie to be directed by a woman of color.
“Those things — first black woman at Sundance, Golden Globes, Oscar best-picture — don’t really get my blood up just because it’s bittersweet,” DuVernay says. “It’s ridiculous these things are happening in 2016 when there have been so many talented women not given the opportunity. It’s not about my achievement, it’s because someone decided it was the time and I was there.”
DuVernay grants that releasing “The 13th” in an election year is “purposeful.” Donald Trump is shown in the film, pledging that he’s the “law and order” candidate, the kind of language, the film argues, that has long been a kind of code.
“What I hope it does is just change people’s minds,” says DuVernay. “If we all start to think about a social ill differently, it can change. And I know that to be true from the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, the LGBT movement.