Ava DuVernay on the legacy of slavery: ‘The sad truth is that some minds will not be changed’

DuVernay’s last film, Selma, was overlooked at the Oscars. Her documentary 13th, which links Trump-era America to its racist past, is a hot favourite to win an award

By John Patterson / The Guardian / Monday 6 February 2017 14.34 EST

Donald Trump makes his first appearance in Ava DuVernay’s Oscar-nominated documentary 13th around the halfway mark, as he posts his notorious full-page ad in the New York Times calling for the death penalty for the Central Park Five in 1989. But he comes back with a bang at the end of the film, which was released in October 2016, at a time when Trump was widely thought to have blown his presidential bid. “In the good old days,” he roars to his all-white crowd, as DuVernay builds a montage of civil rights workers being fire-hosed and black men being beaten in the streets, “they would have carried ’em out on a stretcher!”

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13th review: Ava DuVernay documentary shows prisons are the new plantations.  DuVernay’s incendiary film, which premieres at the New York film festival, is a wake up call that steers clear of broad brush Michael Moorisms to offer a brutal analysis of race and the law in the US  READ MORE


Cutting back and forth from historical footage of lynchings, Emmett Till’s brutally beaten face and 1980s drug raids to images of punch-ups and racial taunting at Trump rallies, DuVernay links our dire present to America’s racist past. It vividly demonstrates that history can go backwards as well as forwards. “That is a big statement,” she says, “but I’d also say that there’s something possible here in terms of empathy that is beautiful and that might not have been there before. All of a sudden you have all this marching – huge airport demonstrations, the Women’s March – and it’s an activation for a whole lot of people who weren’t affected by this before, because none of it touched their lives, they’d never felt any kind of oppression or threat to their humanity.”

DuVernay is always on the lookout for hope, even in times as dark as ours. Serious as she is about her subject, in person she exudes endless warmth and good humour. Her documentary takes a single clause in the 13th amendment to the US constitution – the one that freed the slaves – and detects therein a template for all future oppression of America’s black and brown peoples. The amendment’s first section reads: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”


Donald Trump during a campaign rally in Warren, Michigan, March 2016

Donald Trump during a campaign rally in Warren, Michigan, March 2016. Photograph: Carlos Barria/Reuters


That bulky midsection became the basis for the new slavery of post-reconstruction Jim Crow laws. Slavery was at heart an economic, labour-centric phenomenon, so, once it was abolished, the midsection offered a get-out clause that was eagerly embraced by mostly southern states in need of cheap labour. It’s simple: shift the laws to make more criminals, then make them work for free as prisoners. Slavery resurrected under another name. As prison reform activist and ex-con Glenn E Martin tells DuVernay: “Every time you give me liberty, the handcuffs come out right after.” It this sounds arcane, note that Victoria’s Secretwas only recently shamed out of using prison labour to make its products.


Political activist and academic Angela Davis in a scene from 13th.

Political activist and academic Angela Davis in a scene from 13th. Photograph: Netflix/AP


The film really gains steam during the post-civil rights era, as it shows successive presidents – Nixon, Reagan, Clinton – making seismic adjustments in crime and punishment (and in public perceptions) that substantially affect African-American lives. J Edgar Hoover criminalising black dissent, and even, in the case of people such as Angela Davis, criminalising black intellectual thought; the shifting of legal goalposts in Reagan’s war on drugs through to California’s three-strikes law and Clinton’s 1994 federal crime bill, which together quadrupled the national prison population and started a massive privatised prison-building programme (raising the need for more prisoners to make more profit). And from Trayvon Mar