Ava DuVernay on Hollywood Racism, Modern-Day Slavery, and Why She’s Still an Optimist

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On September 30, for the first time in its 54-year history, the with a documentary film; The 13th, directed by Ava DuVernay, best known for 2014’s , chronicles America’s history of racial subjugation. The movie takes its name from the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which abolished slavery but included a loophole that exempted those guilty of crimes from freedom. The 13th, which will debut in theaters and on Netflix on October 7, uses archival images from before emancipation through the Jim Crow era and the civil-rights movement, as well as contemporary footage of police brutality against black men, and is threaded with interviews with scholars, lawmakers, prison-reform activists, and the formerly incarcerated. Meanwhile, , the television show she co-produced and wrote (which is directed exclusively by women, including DuVernay), has broken viewership records for the Oprah Winfrey Network, OWN. Next up, Winfrey will star as Mrs. Which, along with Reese Witherspoon as Mrs. Whatsit, Mindy Kaling as Mrs. Who, and ’s Storm Reid as Meg Murray in of the childhood classic . That movie, the , will start shooting in November. And on September 24, the Smithsonian’s new will open with another new film by DuVernay, chronicling seismic events that have all taken place on August 28: Emmett Till’s murder, the March on Washington, Hurricane Katrina’s landfall, and Barack Obama’s acceptance of the Democratic nomination. 

Rebecca Traister: This documentary tells the story of African-American history by focusing on how, since emancipation, black men have been criminalized, and thus dehumanized, by American law and practice. People of color are 30 percent of the American population but 60 percent of the prison population. What you do, though, is break down how we as a culture created those conditions. Tell me about your argument.
Ava DuVernay
: There’s a clause in our Constitution that still allows for slavery to exist. Because we don’t live in a “slavery” era, folks don’t embrace imprisonment for what it is. But there’s an exception to the 13th Amendment, which literally permits slavery “as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” And from that criminality clause arose a societal behavior, a collective consciousness about who was a criminal. More often than not, the folks labeled criminal were people of color. In particular, black men. We explore everything from the reasons why the link between race and criminality was manufactured to how it’s used for profit and power and political gain, all the way up until the current day.

This isn’t the first time you’ve made a movie about incarceration. Your second feature, Middle of Nowhere, told the story of a woman coming to grips with her husband’s prison sentence. But what was the point at which you decided, “I’m going to make a documentary about this”?
Netflix asked me what I might be interested in doing a documentary about, and it’s always on my mind. When I got done with Selma, I was behind on reading. I read Michelle Alexander’s . Bryan Stevenson’s . I picked up Howard Zinn’s . It was just a bunch of stuff in my head. I grew up in Compton, and there were two really silly things I’d say when I was a little girl driving around with my mom. The first one was: “If I’m ever homeless, that’s a good place to sleep overnight.” I would do that all the time, just look for a little nook, say under the freeway sign. I guess it just came from seeing people homeless. And I would also always say, “If I’m ever in prison, I’ll miss this …”

Were your friends going to prison? Family members?
No, just in my community. Where I grew up, people are locked up and dealing with incarceration in different ways, including parole or probation. The police presence was really heavy. I used to want to be a lawyer. In the eighth grade, I got a briefcase as my graduation gift, and it was like, It’s all happening to me. A couple more steps and it’s all there.

When did you decide not to do that?
Somewhere along the way, I became fascinated with media. I wanted to produce news and be a war correspondent. I got a really prestigious internship with CBS Evening News with Dan Rather and Connie Chung, and I was like, I’m gonna be producing for Dan Rather, like, tomorrow. Then I got assigned to the O.J. unit and was like, This sucks. This is the worst ever.

What was it that put you off?
They had me digging through trash cans! I was like, “No! Mama didn’t raise me to be digging through nobody’s trash can, no.” I had a little suit on — I mean come on, stop — and we were each assigned a juror. I was camped out outside, waiting for this poor lady to come home. It was trash day, and they were like, “Is there anything there?” I just became disenchanted with it. That’s when things started to change in terms of the tabloidism in what was considered real news. Not to disparage CBS. That was the overall culture.

I was interning at a soap opera that summer, at CBS in New York, and all the soaps were canceled for O.J. coverage. So I said to myself, “I don’t think soap operas are where it’s at.”
Think of all of the collateral consequences of that time.

When did you start thinking about incarceration as a systemic issue?
At UCLA, I was an African-American studies–English double major. I was very active in black student life. Some people call it a red-black-and-green phase that young black people go through, when they’re learning about the history in a deep way. The red phase is very angry. The black phase is very nationalist. Green is when you begin to reckon with it and have some peace with it all — but it doesn’t go away. Some people stay in one phase or the other, some people go through it all.

What did you think of Bill Clinton in the early ’90s?
That he was a cool dude. I was in college and saw him playing the sax on Arsenio, and that was about it at that point. So much in presidential politics is about the pop-culture presentation of who you are. And Clinton was sold to me as the “first black president.”

When did you rethink that?
I mean, once I saw the impact [of the crime bill]. opened the door for heavy-handed sentencing while adding nearly 100,000 police officers nationwide. Two years later, Hillary Clinton said increased police presence would “prevent petty crimes from turning into something worse,” and infamously referred to In 1994, unless you were reading the fine print and consuming alternative news rather than the hook, line, and sinker of the mainstream press, you did not have a full understanding — as most Americans did not — of the impact of that bill and how it would reshape law enforcement overall. The militarization of police came about because of it, as did destructive laws that really targeted the black and brown communities. But that crime bill was a direct result of the Republican administrations before it. It was overreach triggered by other, previous overreaching. Many of the analysts that we talked to for the documentary pointed out that you couldn’t run without running on crime. And you had to be tougher than the next guy, so you get this bill that the president apologizes for a couple decades later.“I signed a bill that made the problem worse,” Bill Clinton at a 2015 NAACP meeting.

Did it make you look back at that period of your life and feel like you and the rest of America had been duped?
I wouldn’t use those words. I mean, the law is there. If you read it and understood it, you can get the information, I think. I was doing what I vowed not to do and don’t do anymore, which is listen to what everyone’s saying and take it as truth. It’s taught me to read more carefully, understand more carefully, and go beyond the stump speech. That’s what I did for The 13th. I read for myself, I thought for myself, and I found some things that were startling. And folks may watch this documentary and come up with a different conclusion than I did. All good. Just don’t take anything at face value.

Did you see that the Obama administration is challenging the constitutionality of bail when it traps poor defendants in jail?The administration has increased its scrutiny of money-bail systems since the Justice Department’s investigation of Ferguson, Missouri, where many poor people had been overwhelmed by fines for minor offenses. I was so excited when I read about it, and I told my husband, “Look, I can’t believe it!” He’s a public defender in Brooklyn. He was like, “Yeah, it’s bullshit. They’re going to make 14 different exceptions, it won’t apply to anything but low-level misdemeanors,” and it was so deflating. He thinks, If it sounds too good to be true, it’s too good to be true.
I think the interesting thing about these proclamations, though, is that they do something to deteriorate the tightly held ideas about what’s possible. It will eventually lead to a change in public opinion, which is important. As it stands, we all close our eyes and let it happen. Prison is a place where bad people go. It’s over there. As long as I don’t have anyone there, it’s okay. How’d slavery happen? White people think, I could never have owned anyone. Black people say, I could never have worked. I would have run away. But all of it is happening again, and we’re all just sitting here letting it go down.

You have everyone from Angela Davis to Newt Gingrich in the movie. How did you decide whom to interview?
I kept adding people. It was very exploratory. It was kind of like, who can talk about plea bargains? Because this is fucked up, that 97 percent of people in jail have not gone to trial. Is this a real thing? Who can help me talk about ALEC [a coalition of conservative lawmakers and corporate entities, including private prisons]?John Oliver once the American Legislative Exchange Council as “Associate Producer of Creating Horrifying Things for Us to Talk About.” I also wanted to include the voices of formerly incarcerated people, not just have a whole bunch of people talking about them, but to have their voices. And it was important to listen to the right.

Grover Norquist talked to you!
I was surprised, because it’s not like I’m Switzerland. A couple of conservatives walked in and were like, “A lot of black people! What is this?” But my questions were very earnest. I just said, I want to hear your side of it. The whole “Right on Crime” thing was really confusing to me.In recent years, conservatives like Jeb Bush and Rick Perry have started to embrace criminal-justice reforms aimed at reducing incarceration rates. A criminal-justice-reform movement led by Republicans? I genuinely wanted to know: “What is this really about? Did you just all of a sudden want a whole bunch of people out of prison? What do you want out of this?”

In the first two clips of Newt Gingrich, he says there’s no question that crack and cocaine sentencing were racist. And I rewound, like, “Is that Newt Gingrich who said that?”
Yeah, a lot of people are like [makes a double-take face]. He says super-authoritatively, “The bottom line is, if you’re white in America, you have no idea what it’s like to be black.”

Yeah! That surprised me too.
He’s been talking like that for a little bit in smaller circles. I got hooked up with him because of Van Jones [the environmental and social-justice activist]. He and Van Jones have had this bipartisan effort to decarcerate.“I’ve been a huge Newt Gingrich fan since he took over Congress,” Jones told . “When I first met him, I said, ‘I am the only person in the United States, including your wife, who’s read all your books.’ ”

I guess there’s a part of my brain that has blocked out a lot having to do with Newt Gingrich.
It was super-interesting to sit with him. He’ll talk about a mission to treat crack cocaine the same as powder cocaine, and you’re like, Okay! And then he’ll turn around and say something else, and you’re like, “Did you just say … ?” But it taught me a lot. Because I can’t say I know a lot of conservative Republicans.

I want to talk to you about the power of images. After a police officer’s killing of Philando Castile was , there was a lot of discourse around the value of watching these videos. People wonder: Is it wrong? Does it just publicize it in some way? But you also have to weigh it against the power of lynching photos.
It is asking people to bear witness to what has happened. It’s like what Mamie Till said about leaving the casket of her lynched 14-year-old son open at the funeral:Emmett Till was murdered in 1955 in Mississippi for having supposedly flirted with a white woman. “I want them to see what they did to my baby.” We asked the families what they thought about us including these images of their dead. Because these families, they don’t own the photos, they don’t own the videos.

So when you say in the movie, “We had permission,” you’re not talking about legal permission.
It’s all fair use. But I did not include any families in it who did not okay it, out of a human respect for showing the murder of their loved one. It was an emotional permission I felt I had to ask.

I’m always surprised we don’t see the post-death image of Emmett Till more.
I just got word today we can’t use it. We found out we can’t get permission from the owner. I got this email in the middle of a meeting with Disney. I said, “It can’t be. It can’t be. It can’t be. Who do I call? I’ll try every powerful person I know.” We ran into the same thing with a video interview of Kalief Browder, the New York man who was in Rikers for three years without conviction and killed himself at age 22. The only places that had [video] interviews with him were ABC and Huffington Post. I was just like, “Arianna Huffington!” They told me, “Ava, she’s not there anymore.” Finally, I tracked down the woman who’s executive editor of the whole thing there and she pushed it through in two hours. I’m making calls tomorrow about Till. [DuVernay ultimately used a different Emmett Till photograph, from a different angle.]

I was interested in New Yorker writer and historian Jelani Cobb’s comments about the portrayal of black men as rapists, how after emancipation they went from being rendered as kindly Uncle Remuses to rapacious villains. And I was also just reading about how Harry Belafonte is defending Nate ParkerIn 1999, while in college, Nate Parker was accused of rape. Parker was acquitted but his co-defendant, The Birth of a Nation co-writer Jean Celestin, was found guilty of sexual assault. Celestin’s conviction was later overturned because of “ineffective” counsel. against the media’s coverage of his old rape accusations“Is this going to be the price that young black women and men pay for making films of substance?” Belafonte asked the . “Are they going to dig in and get dirt instead of fruit? What are we doing here? And where is the voice that defends him if he in fact is worthy of defending?” … That story is at the crux of so many of these issues: the way that criminalization and imputations of sexual predation have often been aimed at black men who threaten. So I understand why Harry Belafonte can argue that Parker had already faced a judicial system that is not kind to black men. Are you thinking about that story?
No, I haven’t. I know that’s top of mind for everybody, but I’m so intensely busy.

I think people are obsessed with it because it gets to the question of who the judicial system doesn’t work for: black men. But it also doesn’t always work for women in rape cases. And because of this tangle of competing inequities, a lot of people don’t know what they’re supposed to think, especially about someone who’s created this powerful piece of work [].Parker’s narrative film on the Nat Turner rebellion comes out October 7. But the way Americans dehumanize those they perceive as threatening to them by criminalizing them is something I’ve also been thinking about with regard to the “Lock her up” stuff about Hillary.
“Lock her up”?

This is what people are chanting at Hillary, some saying “Hillary for prison,” that she needs to be “shot for treason.”
What? That is crazy.

It is crazy. But I was thinking about how the use of perceived criminality in your movie translates to gender as well, in different ways. At the Republican convention, Chris Christie led a chant: “Guilty or not guilty?” And the convention crowd yelled, “Guilty!” What’s your political investment at this point?
Making sure Trump’s not elected, by any means necessary.

Were you a Bernie person?
No. These are the two we have. And there’s a lot at stake.

You’re somebody who’s not by trade a historian; you’re a filmmaker. As a journalist who finds myself writing about history constantly, as in —
Hey, I could have been in that book!

— Some of us people who are not historians are suddenly realizing that what we do ties to the history of the country. You see Ta-Nehisi Coates doing this, too.
I’ve always been fascinated by the idea that history is only perception. Everyone can say that I was wrong about LBJ,DuVernay was criticized for her depiction of President Johnson for being at odds with Martin Luther King Jr. and opposed to the Selma march. Shortly before the film’s release, the director of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum wrote that Selma would “bastardize one of the most hallowed chapters in the Civil-Rights Movement.” but to a whole bunch of other people it sounded exactly right. You put the title “history” on it and it’s supposed to be cemented. I’ve wanted to get in and deconstruct that. It’s about peeling back the layer from the mythology, whether the mythology is about patriarchy or [white] supremacy, or whether it’s about the fantasyland that many want to believe was the civil-rights movement. The actual movement was fractured, tense, multitiered, messy. It wasn’t everyone in lockstep marching and singing “We Shall Overcome.” And what they accomplished is more extraordinary than if they’d all gotten along. It’s a homogenization of radical black-liberation theology when you just say, “Oh, you know, he had a dream!” That’s horrible. It’s a vanilla-ing.

Did the pushback against your take on LBJ make you waver in your belief that you’d gotten him right?
Absolutely not. It made me feel even more solid and confident. I mean, the audacity of the LBJ library to try and say what he did and didn’t do, what he meant to people and didn’t mean to people, was kind of jaw-dropping. People were beaten on that bridge because it was not stopped — and it could have been. Google the N-word and LBJ and see what comes up, then tell me that the history is pristine.

Until recently, the kind of people who wanted to use history to reveal something crucial about inequities and injustices hadn’t been in the position to make the movies or write the stories. I think part of why there’s such a national freakout is because suddenly there are new people in these positions of narrative power.
You can’t lock it away in a history book anymore.

What are the chief differences in going about that work of challenging that history and encouraging independent thought when you’re making a narrative film versus a documentary?
The first time I ever picked up a camera was for a documentary about my community, South Central L.A. It’s called This Is the Life, and I made it check to check. I’d work, I’d get paid, I’d put it toward the film. The second film I made, the first time anyone ever gave me money, was for a documentary — it was BET for a film chronicling the role of women in hip-hop. That’s what felt most organic to me. Not trying to create truth but just pointing a camera at it. The muscle that had to be tested the most was the narrative. But I can see some trace of that documentary thinking in the narrative filmmaking, whether it be my first feature or the second one, I Will Follow,DuVernay’s feature about a successful artist grieving the death of her aunt. or Middle of Nowhere, both of which are very observational, or Selma, which really as well.

Do you imagine yourself always returning to both forms?
I feel really free to move across mediums. And I know that it’s something that’s quite rare and is a privilege that was not afforded to the women who came before. But I feel that I can go across not only mediums but genres, the styles, the form. I can make a short for a fashion brand, I can make a commercial for Apple. And within all those I can try to find a story to tell that feels connected to what I want to say. I’m doing my first installation, this piece that’s going to be at the Smithsonian. Which is even a different form.

Do you think other women besides you are experiencing some of the flexibility you are?
Are you asking about what we’re making now or about how women are being received?

Well, maybe both.
There’s something exciting about this era. You know, Jill Soloway makes an independent film that wins Sundance and then she goes on to make a series for a streaming channel and now she’s — Jill Soloway. Issa Rae started making her stuff online, on the web, unaffiliated with anything. Now she’s got a digital empire where she’s empowering all kinds of people to release all kinds of things on her YouTube channel. Plus she’s got her HBO deal, for . ,The comedian whose dramedy recently premiered on FX. Barry Jenkins’s , chronicles the life of a young, gay black man in a tough Miami neighborhood. Ryan Coogler.The director of Creed. Those are people of color and women who are affected by the time. The traditional walls have collapsed. People of color are taking advantage of it, and women are taking advantage of it. Should there be more? Hell, yeah, there should be a lot more. Gatekeepers have a lot less hold. I sit and talk with Julie DashDash’s Daughters of the Dust (1991) was the first film by a female African-American director to get a general theatrical release. or Charles Burnett,In 2011, the Museum of Modern Art honored Burnett with a monthlong retrospective of his work titled “The Power to Endure.” and all these heroes of mine who did the exact same thing that I do — tell stories, really gorgeous stories, far beyond anything that I could ever think of doing. And yet were not able to move freely and easily. You could really only make a film if you were black or a woman if you were also independently wealthy or in school. All those L.A. Rebellion filmmakers — Haile GerimaGerima is known for his 1993 plantation time-travel epic Sankofa. and Burnett and Dash — were at UCLA, that’s how they got the film stock and the film camera, 35-mm. film. Where’s the black Coppola, where’s the black Spielberg? Folks didn’t have access. Now you can use your beautiful iPhone, or you can edit it, and you can not only do that but you can distribute it yourself on the web. You can amplify it yourself.

And you’re finding a huge audience for . Hollywood must be paying attention.
I’m relieved. Erykah Badu has the famous line “I’m an artist, and I’m sensitive about my shit.” Anytime you put something out, you’re worrying, “Will this work?” And for me, the TV thing, it’s new. All you can do is serve your own sensibilities. Am I surprised that folks are clamoring for Donald Glover’s show? Am I surprised that people are falling all over themselves for the new Shonda show?In Still Star-Crossed, the Montagues and Capulets continue to feud after the deaths of Romeo and Juliet. No, because folks want to see themselves. Am I challenged by the fact that there are very few Asian-American shows on television? That there’s almost no Latino-family representation? That really is upsetting to me.

You’ve spoken about and the way that we often conceptualize diversity as a math problem. Does it feel like to some degree Hollywood gets one or two people who are different and decides, “We’re good now, we’ll just have that one person do all the work!” Do you feel any of that? Like, “Why am I the only one here?”
For sure. And that’s why I try to use whatever bandwidth I have to bring more people into the space. To make sure there are all-women directors, a majority-people-of-color writers’ room, majority-women editorial team, very deep bench of crew. Our crew on Queen Sugar was like the United Nations, and it’s the same thing I’m doing on A Wrinkle in Time. It’s like, “All department heads, please, do not bring me the same people you’ve been using the last 20 years.” So I’m constantly pushing — even if the industry is thinking that maybe me or Ryan [Coogler] or the handful of us that are doing it are enough. You know it’s not all about getting in that door and reading in that room. Now there are other rooms, and we can create new spaces.

So can we talk about A Wrinkle in Time?Madeleine L’Engle’s 1962 fantasy novel, about a 13-year-old who sets off to rescue her father, a scientist gone missing while working on a way to “travel through space without having to go the long way around.” You loved it when you were a kid?
Nooo. I never read it when I was a kid.

When did you read it?
Last year. I loved it. The studio reached out to my agent about it, and I was like, I’m sure there’s somebody out there who’s read it who would love it … but it’s just not my thing. But Tendo Nagenda, the highest-ranking black production executive in Hollywood and the executive vice-president of production at Walt Disney, sent me — this is so embarrassing — the graphic novel, like a big picture book. There was something about the way Meg was drawn. I read it that night — the graphic-novel version — then I ordered the real thing to my iPad and stayed up the whole night reading. And I just knew exactly how to make it. Which was not Meg in a sleepy New England town with ladies who look like Mrs. Doubtfire. So I went in to the studio, and I was like, “This is my plan. What do you think?” And they immediately said that’s what we were hoping you would say. Usually I’m working with $2 and a paper clip, and dealing with the whole Disney apparatus, I was like, I don’t know how that’s gonna be … but I love it.

Really?
I love independent film. I don’t need permission — that’s my thing! How I ended up here with a major studio, I can’t tell you. Somehow I got into it with people who really want me to do my thing.

They just announced the casting for Meg today. I retweeted a couple of things. One woman said something really touching, that when she grew up, she knew that Meg looked like her, like the book says. And she’s so happy that other girls will be able to watch it and feel like Meg looks like them. I know whenever I read a book, I always put myself in it. And whenever I’m watching a movie, I put myself in it. Like, “I am Jason Bourne! I’m kicking ass.”

And you didn’t write the screenplay?
No, it’s my first time working with a screenwriter. I was worried. But she’s a freaking genius: Jennifer Lee, who wrote Frozen. We have all these ideas about these worlds that they go to and how they should reflect a universe that’s beyond our narrow American sensibility.

So are you taking it out of America?
No, I’m saying there’s an American view of what other worlds are like, which is just like: more America. This really is thinking about these worlds in a way that brings in textures and colors and terrain that are different from what we know here. I’m trying to think in new ways. I had a two-week brainstorm concept previsualization with illustrators about flight. Deconstructing all the ways people fly in movies: on the back of somebody, on the back of some thing, held by somebody. Or you’re like in a spaceship or in a suit floating. And it was like: What hasn’t been done in that regard? I was talking to Alan Horn, head honcho at Disney, and I told him what I’m going to do for flight. He said, “Oh, huh, never seen that before.” I was like, Yes!

I’m so interested right now in people returning to white spaces or male spaces — like Ghostbusters or Ocean’s 11 — and saying, “Hey, here’s an idea. What if everything wasn’t male and/or white?” Like Hamilton
I think for so many artists it’s “Before Hamilton and After Hamilton.” It’s important that Hamilton came at this moment, this Black Lives Matter moment, this moment where we’re interrogating issues around identity, gender identity.

For me, it’s also about Obama and Hillary. Talk about a space that has historically only been white and male, and suddenly we’re like, Let’s take this job that has only been held by one kind of person … and let’s reimagine it as being able to be done by a different kind of person and see how that goes.
Yes, it’s huge.

But that’s also why we have Donald Trump, this is why we have people posting horrible screeds, and abusive messages at Ghostbusters star Leslie Jones.Trolls bombarded Jones on Twitter with vitriol, porn, and racist memes. “Ok I have been called Apes, sent pics of their asses, even got a pic with semen on my face. I’m tryin to figure out what human means. I’m out,” Jones tweeted.
A lot of people are angry about it. But even folks who may be affected positively by this kind of revolution are interested in it as far as it concerns them, and still don’t go past it beyond that to think about other kinds of people who aren’t them. To me, it’s really disingenuous to be sitting with women who are not of color talking about women’s issues, and they can’t wrap their minds around transgender issues, Black Lives Matter issues, civil-rights issues, immigration issues, Muslim tragedies that are happening. They don’t see the parallel in terms of underrepresentation. They aren’t able to extend that thought.

This is the story, though, not only of the women’s movement and its blind spots but also of the antiwar movement, the civil-rights movement. Part of the women’s movement grows out of those other progressive movements that couldn’t extend themselves to think about women’s inequities.
But when you put black women in that category, you get the double bind.

Given all that, do you view yourself as an optimist about the direction we’re going in?
It’s a great time for people of color making art. The architecture around the art and the commodification of the art and the industry authenticating that art is a different thing than the art-making. I’m excited about the art coming out of this time; culture and class and gender and race and all of that is being interrogated in a way that is, for many of us, like an open wound. And there are artists trying to heal it. You look from Ferguson to now, you see all kinds of art, from television to film to theater to fine art, music. I’m more excited about that than Hollywood’s treatment of it.

*This article appears in the September 19, 2016, issue of New York Magazine.

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