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Ava DuVernay
Ava DuVernay | Paula Schwartz Photo

In a break from tradition, the New York Film Festival will kick off for the first time with a documentary. “The 13th,” directed by Ava DuVernay, will make its world premiere at the 54th New York Film Festival, which will take place September 30 – October 16 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. The documentary will also debut on Netflix and open in a limited theatrical run on October 7.

According to the press release, the film chronicles the history of racial inequality in the United States, focusing on the fact that the U.S. has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, with the majority being African-American.

From the press release, the title of DuVernay’s “extraordinary and galvanizing film refers to 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 … The progression from that second qualifying clause to the horrors of mass incarceration and the prison industry in the U.S. is laid out by DuVernay with bracing lucidity.”

Michael Kenneth Williams
Michael Kenneth Williams | Paula Schwartz Photo

The movie also centers on major touchstones from D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) and the rebirth of the KKK to the Civil Rights Movement, the 1994 Crime Bill, and the Black Lives Matter movement. The movie is comprised of archival footage and testimonies from leading voices, including Newt Gingrich, Angela Davis, Senator Cory Booker, Shaka Senghor, Malkia Cyril, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and a number of activists, politicians, historians, and formerly incarcerated women and men.

“It is a true honor for me and my collaborators to premiere The 13th as the opening night selection of the New York Film Festival,” said DuVernay. “This film was made as an answer to my own questions about how and why we have become the most incarcerated nation in the world, how and why we regard some of our citizens as innately criminal, and how and why good people allow this injustice to happen generation after generation. I thank Kent Jones and the selection committee for inviting me to share what I’ve learned.”

Back in December 2014 when Ava DuVernay was promoting “Selma” in New York at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Columbus Circle, protesters were right outside in the street protesting the recent deaths of unarmed black men by police. Some of the actors from the film who participated in the junket wore t-shirts that said “I can’t breath.” This was the beginning of the “Black Lives Matter” movement.

At the junket, DuVernay spoke about the issues that galvanized people to march in Selma in 1965, and how they intersected with the tragic events in Ferguson and Staten Island. “We’re sitting here in this hotel doing interviews about how these marches changed the nation, while I hear people marching outside,” she said.

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