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Ava DuVernay on Her Oscar-Nominated Documentary 13th and Resistance Through Art

9 minute read

When the 13th amendment was ratified into law on December 6, 1865, it abolished slavery, with one key caveat: “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” More than 150 years later, that exception has proven much more than a mere footnote to history. More African-American men are incarcerated, or on probation or parole, than were enslaved in 1850, and the United States, which accounts for 5% of the world’s population, counts nearly a quarter of the world’s incarcerated people.

To understand how we got from there to here, look no further than Ava DuVernay’s Oscar-nominated Netflix documentary 13th. Released just a month before the presidential election last fall and nominated for an Oscar at this month’s Academy Awards, the film draws a line from the ratification of its titular amendment to mass incarceration today, making pit stops at significant moments in history, from the depiction of black men as a threat to white women in The Birth of a Nation in 1917 to the thinly-veiled racist appeals of President Reagan’s Southern strategy in the early ‘80s.

The subject is familiar territory for DuVernay, who has also touched upon it in her narrative work. Though she is best known for 2014’s Best Picture-nominated Martin Luther King, Jr. drama Selma, her 2012 Sundance winner Middle of Nowhere concerned a young woman whose husband was serving time, and her Oprah-produced TV series Queen Sugar features a character recently released from prison. And as she told Oprah in an interview that accompanies 13th on Netflix, her interest in the topic was visceral before it was intellectual. As a child growing up in Compton, California, she explained, she learned to see police officers as a symbol of fear rather than one of safety.

DuVernay, who recently finished shooting the movie adaptation of the young adult classic A Wrinkle in Time—a project that makes her the first woman of color to direct a $100-million film—spoke to TIME from Los Angeles about how she made 13th, how it feels to be a part of this year’s more inclusive Academy Awards and how she plans to resist President Trump’s administration: through her art.

TIME: This documentary came out a month before the election, and it includes footage of both Donald Trump and the Clintons talking about incarceration and related subjects. Was your hope that it would influence the conversation about the candidates?

Ava DuVernay: Certainly. It was important for us to make the piece evergreen so it could live beyond the election, but also with hopes that we could contribute more information to the national conversation as people were making their decisions.

The issue of mass incarceration is so interconnected with other issues in America, from education to healthcare to employment. How did you draw the line on what to include?

I gave myself a 100-minute limit. Netflix was very flexible on the format. They just wanted me to tell the story in whatever form fit best. I wanted to be more rigorous than letting it be a free-for-all, told over six or eight episodes, mainly because I didn’t think that people would watch it, and it was important to me that it be seen. It’s hard enough to get a national conversation in America going about race in a meaningful way, that’s not in reaction to something bad happening.

Some viewers might be surprised by some of the people who are interviewed in the film, like famous conservatives Newt Gingrich and Grover Norquist. How did you decide on this particular group of talking heads?

It was important for me to make sure that we included people on both sides of the aisle, so to speak. I know what I think, but I’m interested in knowing what everyone thinks. Everyone who I asked to be in the documentary said yes, and they were included because I wanted to hear their side of the story. I was eager to sit down with them and pick their brains. I spoke with every subject for two hours, and the most intriguing parts of those conversations are in the film.

Did it surprise you when Gingrich admitted to changing his position from what he had believed in in the past?

I knew that he had that position, so it was really just a question of whether or not he would repeat it to me on camera. What surprised me was ALEC [The American Legislative Exchange Council, an organization of conservative legislators and representatives of private companies that has promoted policies that keep prison populations high]. Having been an African-American Studies major at UCLA, a student of black liberation theory and growing up in Compton, I was very familiar with the history that I share in the film, and being a part of the Black Lives Matter movement, I understood that part of it. But I was so shaken up about discovering ALEC that I delved into that research for a good six months so that I could learn it fully enough to share it in the documentary.

You show footage of Trump rallies next to violent footage from the Civil Rights movement. Do you feel like history is repeating itself?

A lot has changed, and a lot has stayed the same. But when you have a divisive figure like Donald Trump instigating violence and prejudice against people at his own rallies as he pursues the presidency, then he takes power as President and continues to perpetuate misogynistic, homophobic, racist points of view, I feel that I have to, as an artist, tell that story as vigorously and passionately as I can. It was very apparent to me, as I was watching, that he was asking his supporters to be aggressive with and violent with people who were expressing dissent. I saw the alignment of what he was asking for and what had happened in the past, and I wanted to make that point in the montage that we crafted in 13th.

You’ve talked about resistance to the new administration. For you, how much of resistance is in your art versus your life outside of your work?

I feel like all art is political. As artists, we’re sharing our point of view, asserting our identity through our work, whether you’re making a romantic comedy or you’re making a documentary about prison. For artists who are seeing the work as art and not as work for hire, it’s saying something about how they feel. All of the work that I’ve done in film and television, even the commercial work, the images that I try to craft are saying something about me. That won’t change.

In a recent interview, your fellow Oscar nominee Raoul Peck, who directed I Am Not Your Negro, said that he refuses to make films that audiences come to consume; he wants them to engage. What’s your take on that?

I don’t make films for audiences. I make films to express myself. Through that, I have confidence that there are people out there—it might be a small audience, it might be a large audience—but there are folks out there that are interested in looking in through the window of the world of my story, in the same way that I enjoy watching films by filmmakers of all kinds, all over the world, from all generations. Raoul Peck is a legend and a master, and I’ve had the pleasure of working with him as his publicist on his landmark film Lulumba. I think his current film is a masterpiece, and I’m proud to share this Oscar category with him. I hope that audiences engage, but I don’t make it for that reason.

What do you make of the fact that three of the five documentary Oscar nominees are about race and civil rights?

The category has five beautiful films by five very different filmmakers. I love the fact that four of the nominees are black, from different parts of the country with different issues. There’s a film in there that touches on themes of immigration, so I think four of the five really deal with matters of race and class, and that’s a beautiful thing. I wish there were more women nominated. And it’s important that when we speak of inclusion, it’s not just black folk. We need Latino filmmakers, we need LGBT filmmakers, we need Native filmmakers, we need Asian and Asian American filmmakers and actors and people below the line, and this is an ongoing issue that needs to be addressed. But this year feels nice to be included in a year that has more inclusion than in the past.

The movie calls out the influence that Hollywood has on public perception and policy, beginning with The Birth of a Nation a hundred years ago. How do you feel about the impact Hollywood is having on conversations about racism and civil rights today?

I don’t know that Hollywood is having an effect on it. I feel like the world is having an effect on Hollywood. It would be disingenuous to say that this conversation wasn’t happening before this film. There are people that have been working vigorously on issues of incarceration, criminalization and prison abolition for decades. Many of them are in the documentary. So this work is just to capture that and share it with a wider audience. I’m grateful to Netflix for making it available in 190 countries, which is pretty stunning. I think that is a misconception, that Hollywood’s leading a conversation. It’s really not. People in the real world are doing work and have been. My job is just to reflect it.

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Write to Eliza Berman at eliza.berman@time.com