“These are dark times for a lot of people who believe differently than our incoming administration, but there’s also joy there, and there’s also something in unifying around the things that we do believe in,” says 13th director Ava DuVernay, speaking about the Age of Donald Trump in the context of her acclaimed Netflix documentary about prejudice in the justice system.
The somewhat optimistic acknowledgement from the Selma helmer comes as the hard-hitting documentary has picked up wins at the Critics’ Choice Awards and from various local critics groups as well as an Independent Spirit Awards nomination. With its unraveling of the realities of constitutionally enforced servitude, the pic, which debuted at the New York Film Festival before launching on the streaming service October 7, has resonated across political divides with the likes of Van Jones and Newt Gingrich among the talking heads sharing the screen.
Of course, DuVernay isn’t exactly taking a break — her OWN drama series Queen Sugar wrapped its first season November 30, and she’s deep in production on Disney’s A Wrinkle In Time. She found time though to speak with me about the new world 13th finds itself in, and breaking a gender barrier with the all-female-directed Queen Sugar executive produced by her and Oprah Winfrey. She also talked about what it’s really like for her to be the first African-American woman to direct a film with a budget of more than $100 million, and what real change looks like for Hollywood’s awards season.
DEADLINE: So let’s address the elephant in the room, or rather the Republican. You made 13th in the Obama era, but we are now about to begin the Age Of Trump, so what does the film say to the America of 2017?
AVA DUVERNAY: Well, huge, huge question, and I honestly don’t know the answer. I know when we were making the film that we knew that there was going to be some kind of radical change coming on the horizon. That’s why it was important for us to get it out before the election.
It was something that I really wanted to do, and I also really wanted it to feel evergreen, so we made a lot of attempts not to bog it down in the campaign fight, even though we were right in the middle of that. I wanted it to be something that could live on and be a conversation piece long after this inauguration, whoever it was going to be. So now, I think there are pieces of the film that are even more emotionally resonant and more vital to talk about than ever.
DEADLINE: Such as?
DUVERNAY: Every single thing we address. I mean, the idea that we criminalize fellow human beings based on optics, based on the need to progress in politics and gain power, and for economic reasons and financial reasons, for financial gains, and we throw out humanization for criminalization. The fact that’s why the prisons and stock in private prisons rose the very day after the election results were announced. The fact that progress that was made for people of color, for women, for LGBTQ people, are all at risk.
The fact that we have people who have headed up oil corporations now assigned to places in cabinet. I mean, we’re a new world and it’s not pretty. It’s going to be for the brave to figure out how to survive in this. These are dark times for a lot of people who believe differently than our incoming administration, but there’s also joy there, and there’s also something in unifying around the things that we do believe in.
I know that sounds a little bit corny, but I’ve found some solace in that. I hope art can continue to do that for people, I really do. I feel mushy these days when I think about art and artists and the work that lies ahead for us. There’s good work to be done and there’s joy to be found in it, I think.
DEADLINE: On that note of good work, we don’t seem to be in a situation where it looks like it’s going to be #OscarsSoWhite again this year. But are the recent changes at the Academy deep and real?
DUVERNAY: I think change is a long game, I really do. True change is a long game, and it remains to be seen if this is change. We’ve had years before where there have been great years for filmmakers and performers of color, LGBTQ filmmakers and performers, women. We haven’t had a lot of years where it was too great for women, but you know what I mean? We’ve had these…
DEADLINE: We haven’t had a lot of years where it’s been great for women, at all…
DUVERNAY: No, we’ve had these bursts of cool years here or there but that’s not change. That’s a trend. You only hope that this could be the beginning of true change. It certainly could be, but time only tells. It’s not for me. Is there deeply embedded change within our industry? And I would say, as a black filmmaker, it’s easy for me to focus my attention on black work, but true change would include brown work, and it would include work by Asian-Americans, and it would include natives, and it would include women, and it would include more LGBTQ voices.
I think when we get to a place that this is not the story, that everyone’s story is a part of the story, then we can say this has changed. Until then, these are steps to change if they’re consistent. I don’t want to say that in a place that’s negative about what the fear is. I just want to be a realist.
DEADLINE: Let me tell you something that’s real. A guy I know who is a Trump supporter heard about 13th, went on to Netflix to watch it that night and told me how outraged he is about the realities of the prison system and justice system — total eye-opener for him. I bring that up because I doubt he ever would have sought the film out if it hadn’t been on Netflix and so accessible. What’s your take on that?
DUVERNAY: First of all, that’s very moving to me to hear, so I’m just processing that, and I think that’s definitely, that’s the highest power of art to change lives, to change the way we feel about something. Also, for far too long, independent voices have been relegated to places where these ideas are not seen on a mass level. I mean, if this wasn’t on Netflix, it would be playing at some lovely art house theater on the West Side once or twice or for a week or maybe two weeks if I was lucky and then it would go away, and I’d be lucky if I could sell the DVDs off my website.
More people have seen 13th on Netflix than have seen all my films put together between the Sundance winners and Selma, and the whole international distribution of film. Netflix represents, as well as all the streaming services, something that I’ve been talking about being so important to inclusive voices around films. The traditional walls are collapsing. The traditional ways to make a film, the traditional ways to share a film, have all collapsed. There are no gatekeepers, per se, any more, and anything can be done. Truly, I feel that.
DEADLINE: On platforms like that, documentaries like this, at least to me, still seem to come together as much in the edit suite as they do when you are shooting. Was that the case here?
DUVERNAY: Oh, a lot of work was done with one of my best friends and editor, Spencer Averick, who’s edited everything I’ve ever made from the very, very first documentaries; the very, very first films I made were docs, so we learned the form together. When I went out to shoot for the first time, I thought this was going to be about the prison industrial complex, purely about prison for profit and the ways in which there’s an industry making money and profiting off punishment.
DEADLINE: And that changed in the making?
DUVERNAY: God, yeah. I soon found I could not talk about that in a vacuum without understanding the historical, cultural, political context, and giving it some legacy and some roots, and so then it just started to have tentacles that just spread out in all these places, and already a vicious project became pretty overwhelming in scope, and so it was a lot of diligent, day-to-day fighting with the footage, trying to get it down to a place where it was manageable and emotional.
Folks can look at this issue and read it and it can feel like medicine, it can feel epidemic. We wanted this to hit people in their gut, and the hope is that by doing that, we can get more people to think more deeply about these issues.
DEADLINE: The outgoing administration continued a lot of the policies that brought us to this place, but ex-Attorney General Eric Holder and President Obama also seem to seek a third way where the system could begin to circumvent things like mandatory sentencing, and the President commuted a lot of drug-related sentences. Do you feel that such measures will have a sustained impact on the incarceration crisis?
DUVERNAY: I feel like it had an impact, in that it started the attention that has been paid to what was happening. It started to get us into this whole conversation about prison reform, the whole bipartisan dialogue that’s been happening over the past five, six years about this, where you have a Van Jones and a Newt Gingrich, and you have the Rick Perrys and so forth getting up and talking about the need to reform.
What we tried to do in 13th was get to the bottom of that. What were they motivated by? But certainly the attention that the Attorney General’s office paid to it allowed for there to be some dialogue across the aisle that I think were the first steps then in change. Now, unfortunately, I think that will be cut off at the knees, and so the question is how will the people demand change, because it won’t come from the inside anymore.
DEADLINE: Changing mediums for a minute, change did come from the inside on Queen Sugar – women directed the entire first season of the OWN show EP’d by you and Oprah Winfrey. Was that hard to actually do?
DUVERNAY: If you have the ability to do something, you should do it. I think there are a lot of people in this industry that have the ability, that have the position, they have the opportunity, they have the privilege to call the shots and could do it too. On this show, on my very first show, my partners in it, Oprah Winfrey and her network, and studio, Warner Horizon, who doesn’t get enough credit, said, “Lady, we’re going to let you call the shots the way you want to.”
DEADLINE: The result?
DUVERNAY: We had a beautiful season with all of these women voices. We’ll continue that in the second season. There’ll be another all-women director season. It’s 100 percent women to just really highlight the fact that if Game Of Thrones can have 100 percent men for multiple seasons, we can have 100 percent women for multiple seasons and what does that look like? It looks like a show that did well in ratings, got strong reviews, and that people are enjoying, and it’s possible.
There’s no reason not to employ, seek out and take a chance on a woman filmmaker that you might not have been looking at her direction. She’s not done it before because you’ve not given her the opportunity to do it before, and I’m just happy that folks like Jessica Jones’ Melissa Rosenberg and folks like Ryan Murphy are also embracing this idea.
DEADLINE: Are you going to be directing some of Queen Sugar Season 2 like you did Season 1?
DUVERNAY: Probably not for Season 2. I’m excited to do the finale, but it does clash with Wrinkle, so hopefully I’ll be back directing for Season 3. But I have been working closely with the writers room and we’ve got some juicy stuff coming up.
DEADLINE: Speaking of Wrinkle, what has that been like for you, now with the added title of the first African-American woman to direct a more than $100 million movie on your CV?
DUVERNAY: (Laughs) It’s an adventure every day. I feel very comfortable. I love it. I’m having a ball. There’s nothing difficult about it.
It’s funny. People ask me, how are you doing? How are you managing? Patting me on the shoulder like I’m going to break in half. I’m like, what’re you talking about? This is awesome! It’s fantastic! I mean, I know how to make films and now I’m able to make films with the resources and the tools that match my imagination, and what filmmaker doesn’t want to do that? I feel very fortunate to have that. I don’t take it for granted. I’m not to say that my male counterparts do, but certainly, it feels very special to me because I know that so few women have had the opportunity to do what I’m doing, so I’m thrilled by it every day.