Ava DuVernay is one of the most accomplished and visible filmmakers of her generation. As the director of Selma, she is often celebrated for offering a poignant dramatization of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the SNCC organization’s fight for the Voting Rights Act—a fact that remains a demerit for the Academy Awards which nominated the film for Best Picture but not Best Director. Yet that is not her most popular film. Nor is it the Disney blockbuster she made afterward in A Wrinkle in Time. And when it comes to fielding questions about her work, even New Gods, a DC Comics superhero movie she’s previously been attached to, pales in comparison to her most talked about movie…
If you ask DuVernay, the film she is best known for around the world is the illuminating (and sobering) documentary which premiered for most audiences on Netflix: 13th, a documentary about the use of criminal status to perpetuate systemic racism in America, is the movie she cites as her most renowned. The surprising revelation came up during a Q&A about her work at the Toronto International Festival with moderator Cameron Bailey.
“I made this thinking no one would see it,” DuVernay confessed during the talk. “I mean what are the odds that someone’s going to watch a documentary on criminalization? Literally, I thought [that] as I was making this, and while I was making other things. It was something I would make on the weekends and in the evenings, and I always had my editor on it. But it was never anything [like] ‘this is going to be our big thing.’”
Nevertheless, she believes it turned out to be the movie that has had the most staying power in the culture.
“The fact that it’s been so embraced, that it’s moved around the world. I can go anywhere in the world, talk anywhere in the world, and people lead with 13th, not Selma. Because Selma, A Wrinkle in Time, those films are not widely distributed, right? But 13th and When They See Us in over 200+ countries around the world, in the local language, that’s become what people know me for outside of the United States.”
It’s an unexpected revelation, although perhaps it shouldn’t be when one considers the breadth of Netflix’s reach as the primary streaming service across the globe. It also helps 13th’s timeliness appears to only increase with each passing year. Released in 2016, the documentary offered an extensive look at how the modern prison system began almost immediately after passage of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution permanently ended slavery. And through the decades and centuries that followed, the needs of each era found new ways to legally oppress Black bodies.
In the wake of a new wave of Black Live Matter protests this summer, following the death of George Floyd and other People of Color at the hands of police officers, the film’s prescience is as potent as ever. Consider the film featured a montage of the violent rhetoric embraced by then-presidential candidate Donald Trump and juxtaposed it with the type of violence used against Black Civil Rights protestors during the 1960s.
Den of Geek was at the 13th premiere at the New York Film Festival when DuVernay said, “Will it still be relevant next year when we know which one of the candidates [will be president], is it still going to be relevant 10 years from now?” She suspected it would, and that it will have more historical importance a decade onward “because he’s taking this country to a place that is going to be long-studied, considered for a long time. It’s going to have repercussions past this moment.”
It’s a sentiment DuVernay renewed during her latest TIFF conference in 2020.
“I’m a storyteller who works a lot with historical narrative,” DuVernay said Monday night. “People ask me a lot [about] how does it feel making films about history? And I always feel like we’re in the presence of history and I don’t understand why people don’t see life that way. But this year people understand. Because truly you can feel in the very vibration of the day, one day after the next, that we are in the midst of history, that 2020 will be long remembered. That we will be talking about this year and this time, and remembering how we felt and what we thought, and where we were, and who we were engaged with, for the rest of our lives.”
This is not to say the filmmaker is embracing the familiar narrative of doom surrounding many premature retrospectives on 2020. In fact, DuVernay offers a silver-lining that makes her excited about the future.
“So in that way, history is very present, and it’s kind of living and breathing in our days in ways that are different than the way most people usually engage with it. So for me, it’s been really interesting to have conversations with people about how they feel in knowing that everything we’re doing now is being recorded and is the building blocks of what we do later. What I’m most excited about is to see the art that comes from this time. Not only the art that comes from it, in terms of the way people feel, but the art that will come out about this time. Who will tell our story of this? So these are strange and important times.”
Maybe it’s worth pulling up 13th on Netflix right now?