While it’s usually reserved for the day after Thanksgiving, on the surface, Friday, Oct. 7, 2016, looks to give new meaning to Black Friday. Two thought-provoking, soul-stirring films are to be unveiled to the public that day, with the objective being to spark real dialogue through untold, ugly truths.
The first of these projects is the Nate Parker-helmed highly anticipated “The Birth of a Nation.” The second came with little fanfare. It was announced in July that the film, a documentary at that, would open the prestigious New York Film Festival, held this past week. Until then, it was pretty much a covert operation. That’s a testament to the fact that Ava DuVernay is on a roll, and her latest work, “13th,” gives notice once more that we as African-Americans needn’t worry about cultural misrepresentation when she’s at the helm.
The title of the film “13th” is derived from the 13th Amendment to the Constitution—“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 …”—and how that clause has evolved into a penal system that produces the highest rate of incarceration in the world, with guess who leading the prison population rate. As a follow-up to her Oscar-nominated “Selma,” the project came at a cost.
“I’ll be honest doing ‘Selma’ and this project back to back was problematic,” said DuVernay. “It takes an emotional toll to tell a crew to keep, spit, punch or shoot people, or to look through a thousand hours of racist violent footage and trying to weed out what to keep, and how much to share. I can’t leave those images with a smile. I take them with me, so it might be a while before I do a project like this again.”
Despite her challenges, the execution, subject matter and timing are all impeccable, especially with the presidential election weeks away. In fact, she shared that up until the release of the film she’d been working, stopping 10 days before this interview. But it wasn’t by grand design.
“I started to make the film right after ‘Selma,’” DuVernay said, “We thought it could be done in one year, but it ended up being two. As we got closer to the election we tightened the screws, trying to at least get it out for the election, but it wasn’t in the cards. I think what’s interesting in the doc is that the way in which they appear is not in the context of presidential candidates, but the context of figures that have touched this issue during their time in the public eye, with Trump calling for the death penalty of Black and Brown boys in the Central Park 5 case and Mrs. Clinton talking about super predators and supporting her husband’s 1994 crime bill. I tried to update where they are currently and we were tempted to add a debate type convo in there but we wanted it to be evergreen and last way past November.”
Buoying the potent mixture of archival footage are testimonies from a dazzling array of activists, politicians, historians and formerly incarcerated women and men, from which DuVernay creates a work of grand historical synthesis. Kevin Gannon, professor of history at Grandview University, shared his take on why he was drawn to the project and what he hopes will follow. “I focus on the intersection of race in U.S. history so this was a way to mobilize my scholarship and teachings into broader action,” he said. “I tell my students when they ask why do I have to study this, that history is important. It’s not just some set of disembodied facts that happened in the past, it’s what shaped us. We are a product of that history. So for 2016, we got here not by accident, but by a process and a set of structures. The Constitution helped shape that structure. When you have language in a place like the Constitution that has become a sacred text in American society, and you have this language that explicitly refers to criminalization and it becomes the lever for this historical process to unfold where many of the features of slavery that people thought ended in 1865 are still carried forth. Now they’re under the guise of criminality. So when we talk of groups of people as criminals, when we talk of super predators, those words become symbols, they become reflections, they become the way that white society now sees people of color. Through the lens of these larger terms. As a result, it shapes political discourse, it shapes elections, it shapes the media and, fundamentally, it shapes the way we see other people. So what I hope the film does is make people angry, I hope it affects people in a very powerful and visceral way and I hope it motivates the political will. Solutions are out there but if you’re going to deal with structural problems, you have to think in terms of structural solutions and that’s a big ask. It requires a sustained commitment and sustained conversation and sustained political will. And those things often come in short supply.”
Malkia Cyril, executive director of The Center for Media Justice, Media Imagery & Racial Injustice, Black Lives Matter/LGBT, offered, “With my mother as a Black Panther Party member, I learned there was a reason why they adopted a certain look and attire. They wanted to demonstrate that Black people no longer needed to be victims of white supremacy. That we can take agency and take action to protect our bodies and our lives. It’s the same reason today that Black people are saying, ‘Black Lives Matter.’ The fact that we today have to use those words to proclaim that our humanity is intact, to proclaim that we have the right to walk about the Earth and to have that concept is under attack shows how important the narrative is. That’s why this film is a masterpiece. It’s a poem. It’s a narrative that has not been told. I just hope that if people leave with one thing from the film, it’s that Black lives matter. We will win and nothing is going to stop that.”
Nuff said! Over and out. Holla next week. Til then, enjoy the nightlife.