With ’13th,’ Ava DuVernay Breaks Down the Racism of Mass Incarceration in a Way That Everyone Can Understand

By Sameer Rao Oct 07, 2016

Ava DuVernay‘s comprehensive, damning mass incarceration documentary,"13th," drops today (October 7*) at select theaters and on Netflix. The film breaks down the history, politics and socioeconomic conditions surrounding the sharp expansion of private and public incarceration, a system that has had a devastating impact on communities of color. 

That "13th" features prominent mass incarceration opponents such as "The New Jim Crow" author Michelle Alexander and the Center for Media Justice executive director Malkia Cyril, is no surprise. But the film, which takes its name from a 13th Amendment caveat that strips incarcerated people of basic rights, also includes revealing interviews with previous and current supporters of the of the racist system.

One current proponent, Maryland State Senator Michael Hough, is a member of ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council), the right-wing policy factory with a history of advancing private prison expansion, tougher policing and a host of other policies condemned in “13th.” Without regard to the potentially devastating results, Hough praises ALEC’s new push for the at-home GPS monitoring of juvenile offenders. The idea is "great" he says, because it "forces parents to take responsibility and step up." 

In a brief phone interview with DuVernay hours after "13th’s" premiere at the New York Film Festival, the "Selma" and "Queen Sugar" director discussed the importance of preventing new iterations of mass incarceration, the role streaming services play in distributing important films to the public, Colin Kaepernick and more. Check out her thoughts before you watch "13th," then, as she says, tell a friend. 

“13th” explores a broad constellation of the issues surrounding mass incarceration, including police brutality, private prison growth, chain gangs and criminalization of Black people. Given this broad scope, who is your intended audience for this film? 

I intend for everyone to see it. That’s why Netflix was so important: There’s a cinema segregation in this country where you can’t access certain theaters with certain films if you live in certain places. There’s no arthouse movie theater that will play a small documentary on this in Compton. There’s no movie theater in Compton. You can’t even see “Straight Outta Compton” in Compton. 

You included an interview with Michael Hough, a Republican state senator and member of ALEC, a group that pushed pro-prison legislation with the support of private entities like the Correction Corporation of America. What was it like listening to him state his positions? 

It was fascinating to sit that close to someone who believes what they believe, which is so adverse to what I believe. I was thrilled to have him on record saying, “Yeah, this is what we’re doing, this is what we have planned in the future. GPS? Electronic prison in your home? We think it’s a great idea. We think it’s the future!” Oh really? Tell me more about that! [Laughs.] It wasn’t hard because some of this hasn’t happened yet and we can still do something about it. 

When audiences see this film, regardless of where or when, what do you hope they do afterwards?

I hope they talk about it with whoever they’re with and pick up the phone and tell someone else to watch it so they can talk about it. And I hope they think about the issues, information and history in the film the next day. And really what my goal is [to have them] interrogate how they, individually, interact with this information. Why do you lock your door when you pass a Black man on the corner? Why do you say “tsk tsk” to Black Lives Matter protests? Why do you think what you think about Colin Kaepernick in either direction? Why are we in this place? “The 13th” provides some context to that, [and] maybe gives some answers and [challenges] the very way that we think. Because the only way to progress out of this situation—mass incarceration and criminalization—is a revolution in thought. It is not one law or politician, it is a collective consciousness changing. We know that can happen: the Civil Rights Movement, the Women’s Rights Movement, the LGBT movement. It is possible to change our minds about a thing, to take a poll of an issue in this country one year, to take it again in another year and for there to be progress in a completely different direction. It’s what we do. 

*Post has been updated since publication to correct an editing mistake.