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Ava DuVernay's latest film '13th' - Deconstruction of the 13th Amendment

Los Angeles, Oct. 17, 2012: Ava DuVernay, writer/director of the film
Los Angeles, Oct. 17, 2012: Ava DuVernay, writer/director of the film "Middle of Nowhere"
Chris Pizzello

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She was the first African-American woman to win Best Director at Sundance in 2012, for “Middle of Nowhere.” Her work in “Selma” was nominated for best picture at the Oscars in 2014. And now Ava DuVernay is getting raves for “13th,” which is up for an Oscar this year.

The documentary's name is a reference to the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution. Ratified in 1865, the amendment abolished slavery and involuntary servitude in this country with one exception –  "as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.”


The documentary traces how that amendment has influenced the modern day prison system - a system currently home to 2.2 million people. “13th” also examines the often contentious relationship between cops and communities nationwide.

KPCC's Alex Cohen spoke with Ava DuVernay to talk "13th." Here are the highlights:

Why DuVernay believes this exception in the 13th amendment has affected the perception of black identity in society: 

“The systems of oppression have made black people terrified of their own selves is one of the saddest statements in the film.  It is true, it is devastating, and it is the biggest weapon that racism has had – is to turn people against themselves to make people believe that they don’t have value.  This is one of the things we have to do as image-makers, storytellers, activists, and forward thinking people is to reverse that narrative, and it’s not only done through films – it is done through the ways that we treat each other.”

The documentary includes graphic footage of lethal interactions between police and African American men like Oscar Grant, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, and Philando Castile, and she made sure the families gave permission.

“The families that allowed us to show the footage I am forever indebted to because I think that the sequence is powerful. It really connects the dots between a harmless clause in the 13th amendment, and not only the 2.5 million people behind bars, but the general myth of criminalization. The idea that black men, black woman, people of color in general on site are guilty of something. That sequence goes a long way to telling the story we wanted to tell here.”

DuVernay is also in the midst of directing "A Wrinkle In Time" for Disney. She will be the first black female director to work on a film with a budget of $100 million dollars. What it means to break that glass ceiling in Hollywood:   

“That’s the burden of being a woman filmmaker – of being a person of color filmmaker; you are carrying the hopes and dreams of so many people with you. Because the industry would see any kind of failure as a failure for people who had nothing to do with the film…  With that said I am very good at compartmentalizing. I have put that aside in a box at the back of the room in my head where that deserves to be… It’s a ridiculous notion that Hollywood has perpetuated and will perpetuate.

Click the audio above to hear the entire interview with Ava DuVernay, including a story of her earliest experiences with the police as a girl growing up in Compton.