Ava DuVernay’s new documentary 13TH, which screened for press this morning at the New York Film Festival, takes a hard, historical look at mass incarceration at America. It includes a devastating sequence that intersperses footage of Donald Trump supporters hounding black protesters at rallies with archival imagery of a man being harassed, highlighting just how insidious his praise for the “good old days” really is. After the credits rolled, DuVernay was met with a standing ovation when she took the stage for a press conference. During that Q&A, she explained why Trump ended up in the final cut, even as she strove to to make a film that would remain “evergreen.”
DuVernay got some laughs when she responded, jokingly “I am?” to the inquiring reporter’s assertion that she’s “evidently anti-Trump,” but did get serious. “I think it’s vital to have him in there, because he’s taking this country to a place that is going to be long studied, considered for a long time,” she explained. “It’s going to have repercussions past this moment regardless of whether he’s the president or not—gosh, I can’t believe I said those words.” DuVernay said that it wasn’t a given he would be featured, however. “It was a question that we had,” she said. “We played with, ‘Take him out, leave him in. No, he doesn’t deserve a place in this thing, such and such.’ But you’ve got to show that stuff because it’s too important and it can’t be forgotten.”
13TH traces the history of incarceration since the end of slavery, proving how it replaced its predecessor as a form of oppression and examining how it’s been used for both political and economic gain. When it comes to the Republican nominee for president, it highlights Trump’s vicious response to the wrongly-accused Central Park Five, and parallels his current calls for “law and order” with Richard Nixon’s. And this isn’t to say that it lets Trump’s opponent across the political aisle and her husband off the hook, showing Hillary using the term “superpredators,” and condemning Bill’s 1994 crime bill. (Both Clintons have more recently expressed contrition for these comments and actions.)
Ultimately, though, 13TH is not just about this election. It’s an expansive and damning look at how the prison system is rooted in oppression and prejudice. As DuVernay noted: Topics within its greater narrative could serve as fodder for documentaries unto themselves. “This is the primer for folks that won’t read Michelle Alexander’s [The] New Jim Crow, who won’t read Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy,” she said. “But I also think there’s something to having it all strung together, that did something for me. To see it back to back and see it lined up and you can see it all much more clearly, and feel it more deeply.” 13TH premieres on Netflix October 7.