The 54th New York Film Festival kicked off Friday evening with the premiere of Ava DuVernay‘s powerful and timely documentary “13th,” a trenchant and chilling chronicle of racism in the United States.
Archival images of people beaten and arrested flashing across the gigantic Alice Tully screen is not the usual opening night selection for the glamorous festival, which has never opened with a documentary before. The “13th,” which is sure to be an Oscar contender, received standing ovations at all three screenings.
The film focuses on the legacy of slavery, moves to the civil rights movement and then to the Presidents’ – Nixon and Reagan – fight on crime and drugs, which resulted in greater police presence and longer jail sentences. The film shows how for the same crime whites would get a slap on the wrist while blacks would get onerously long sentences. The movie covers a lot of historical ground, and much of it is shameful to witness.
The “13th” refers to the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1865, which abolished slavery “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted,” which meant that as the South’s economy was in tatters after the Civil War, blacks were arrested for minor infractions like vagrancy and loitering. They filled the prisons where they were forced to work hard labor virtually for free. “Once you have been convicted with a crime you are treated like a slave,” says a historian in the film.
The film opens with the image of President Obama, who was the first president to visit and speak to the prison population. We hear distressing facts, including that the U.S. has five percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of the world’s prisons. This film by the director of “Selma” notes that 30 percent of the black male population in Alabama has lost the right to vote.
“Prisons have become heavily monetized,” says a Buzzfeed reporter. Prisons have become big business and like a beast that needs to be fed, says Angela Davis. They need to be filled with a steady flow of prisoners while corporations and political groups like ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council) profit.
The other impressive and intelligent analysts, activists and experts in the film include Khalil Gibran Muhammad, Kevin Gannon, Malkia Cyril and Jelani Cobb.
At the world premiere, Ms. DuVernay looked elegant in a blue slinky gown and stilettos. Tireless in promoting the film, she took the time to speak to everyone on the red carpet, even though, as she said, “I’m not being a diva but my feet are really killing me and I’m dying to get out of my shoes.”
Nearly at the end of the red carpet, Ms. DuVernay was pulled away to go inside the theater to introduce the film for the early 6 p.m. screening. She promised to come back and she did.
“This is a film that I always wanted to make,” she told reporters. “It was always something that was inside of me. When Netflix offered me the opportunity to make a documentary about whatever I wanted, I knew what I wanted it to be. I grew up in Compton around a steady police presence, a very, very deep police presence, a lot of interactions with the criminal justice system through your neighbors and friends in my community. So I had been formulating and thinking about these things for a long time. I’d say this is a story that’s been with me for many, many years.”
Moments earlier, in her intro to the wildly enthusiastic crowd, she told the packed house, “You’ll think of it what you will. I just ask that you think about it afterwards. Hopefully it’s not disposable entertainment, I hope that it sticks to your ribs. For me, I was off on a tour of two sides of a coin, the struggle and the survival. This is not a documentary that’s all about black tragedy and chaos. It’s about black survival and joy, as well. The fact that we can stand here after that you will see, I think is a mighty, mighty thing so I salute us.”
The after party at Tavern on the Green was a happy mobbed scene. At 1 a.m. Common, who received an Academy Award for his musical contribution to “Selma” and also has a composition in “13th,” performed a terrific set and afterwards posed for photos and selfies with the director.
“13th” debuts on Netflix and opens in limited theaters on October 7.