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The Philosopher and Her Camera

Ava DuVernay made history with Selma. Now, in two new films, she’s taking on America’s prison system—and tesseracting through the universe.

Ava DuVernay, director of the Oscar-nominated Selma, asked me to meet her at a vegetarian restaurant near her editing facility in Studio City. She has long been an impressive filmmaker, but her prodigiousness is now undeniable. If you are a black artist who dares to deal with the past, it is not uncommon for others to question your dexterity and your authority. Her new documentary The 13th—which opens the New York Film Festival on September 30—traces black America’s dealings with the justice system after emancipation, and the vast political malfeasance that has allowed mass incarceration to thrive in the twenty-first century.

Selma entered DuVernay into the pantheon of important black directors and earned her wide acclaim. Since then, her acuity and influence as a director have only grown deeper with each project. What is increasingly apparent is that DuVernay uses her camera to issue a serious demand to viewers, as consumers and citizens, to look deeply at black life and black representation in American cinema. She is unique not just because of the rarity of her race and her gender in Hollywood, which only reveals her enormous capability not to let the bastards stop her stride, but more so because she refuses to look merely to the past and mine it for easy, stagnant material. Instead, much like Meg Murry, the protagonist of A Wrinkle in Time—the next film she is set to direct—DuVernay works to thread together the past continuous.

DuVernay and I spoke for two hours about prison reform, cinema segregation, and the neighborhood where she grew up.

Let’s talk a little bit about Compton, where you are from. People are actually leaving the South to go there for a better life. As you show in the documentary, they’re fleeing anti-black laws and the indentured servitude of sharecropping that defined the era after Reconstruction, only to have these prejudices catch up with them in the form of housing segregation and tough-on-crime policies. Compton is right there in the middle of all that history.

Compton, Long Beach, South Centralthat whole corridor of blackness. Black neighborhoods just kind of strung together.

Rebellious black neighborhoods. Over-policed neighborhoods. But also black neighborhoods that don’t necessarily take what’s given to them.

Well, what black neighborhood does? I grew up there in the ’90s. It was a time of Rodney King and O.J., a time of tremendous gang presence, of an encroaching police presence. I had a beautiful childhood. I lived on a beautiful street with a beautiful mom and dad. But within a black community there always was a bit of chaosthat’s just a part of the daily fabric of living there. My mom grew up in Compton, my father’s from Montgomery, Alabama. They’re from areas that are hotbeds of black consciousness, but they lived there as people, not as a political statement. My first consciousness came in college, when I went to UCLA.

What happened there for you?

It sharpened my view of what I experienced growing up, and added a political context to it. You start reading the great thinkers. You’re reading Frantz Fanon for the first time. You’re going through your red, black, and green phase.

I remember going through that phase. And I think one reason your documentary is going to be important is because a lot of people don’t like to read, or don’t have the time to do it, so they aren’t familiar with the work that people like Michelle Alexander and Bryan Stevenson are doing around justice and criminal reform.

You can read about these things, but not enough people do. So the hope is that this documentary is a primer about black liberation theory for people who might not have ever heard of some of these ideas before. There is value to having it all in one place, in the documentary. You start to see connections.

In The 13th, DuVernay included voices from across the political spectrum, seeking “a perspective that will speak to everyone.”
Courtesy Netflix

This was two years of work, right? And you wanted to keep it a secret?

Secrecy is overstating it a little bit. Everything doesn’t have to have a Twitter account. I really didn’t know what the film was, what form it was going to take. When it started, it was about incarceration in the present day. Then it became important to provide a historical context for it, a cultural context for it, a political context for it. I wanted to include folks from different parts of the spectrumthe Right on Crime people versus the Black Lives Matter people.

When you watch The 13th, you see how insidious movies have been in terms of fueling the image of “black equals bad.” How do you as a black director enter that conversation? Do you think about how we can correct those representations? Or do you just go about your work?

That’s all I think about. I work in an industry that was founded upon the psychology of The Birth of a Nation. If you are a woman in Hollywood, if you are of color, particularly if you’re black, the founding images of cinema are adverse to your very humanity. And if the images of the medium you work in are adverse to your very humanity, then every action is a reaction. So everything I do tries to provide contrast. I try and pivot from the characterization of what women should be, what black people should be, what black women should be. I try to counter the presentation of black lifewithin Hollywood, within the studio system, within what makes it to theaters.

With Selma, people came at you about historical correctness. I’ve been doing historical research for my book, and when I went to Mount Vernon, the tour guides didn’t even know what Washington’s quarters for his enslaved people looked like, or how their beds were arranged. Everything they’re doing is interpretationthat’s what they call it. It made me realize that it’s all about who has agency to be a storyteller or a historian.

For Selma, I sat down with people in the movement who told me what happened. I read diaries, I read journals. Yet the whole white experience was about people who weren’t there telling me I got it wrong. It’s jaw-dropping to me that people believe their truth is the only truth. It’s become the bedrock of the way that we live: “I am right and you are wrong.” But history is in the eye of the beholder. What I said during the whole promotional campaign for Selma was: “You decide.” I never came in and said, “This is the only way.” The challenge is to try to create a filter of perspective that will speak to everyone, regardless of their point in the spectrum.

What’s the significance of putting out this documentary on prisons right before the election?

I want people to hold our candidates accountable. We need to be asking them what they’re going to do about prison reform. How have you voted on it? Where do you stand? We haven’t asked these questions enough.

Do you really think Bill Clinton didn’t know what his prison policies would lead to? This is something that a lot of my generation feelsthat the Clintons were in on it, and that their commitment to black people is flimsy at best.

What I try to do is show how in each administration, what the president wanted to achieve was for his own political gain, and the weapon by which they do that against their political opponent was the black body. It’s been ongoing knowledge that the black body triggers fear, it triggers opposition, it triggers the standard tropes of protection and defense and all those things that allow a politician to do whatever they’re going to do. The through line is simply, “Oh, the blackswe’ll get what we need from them, whether it’s in the cotton field or in creating fear.”

Were you surprised by the forms that this maneuvering and fearmongering took?

As someone who thinks deeply about these issues, and who for a long time thought it was all made by Republicans, it was striking to really break it down and to look at the Democrats’ part in this. In general, the master plan has been: “This is how you get what you want.” It has been applied and used by every different kind of non-black person throughout the generations. That’s why it’s important to have a timelineso we see how we’ve been used over the centuries for political gain, for financial gain, for cultural gain.

I was gutted by the clips you show of Eric Garner. One of the questions you bring up in the documentary is: Should we be watching these videos of police violence that have gone viral? What do you think about the use of cameras to log how we are treated?

It’s important for us to talk about the ways in which black people have asked the wider world to bear witness to their pain over time. So much of the civil rights movement was orchestrated for newspapers, for cameras. The reason Selma popped the way it did was because it invaded American televisions for the first time. That image was powerful, and we’re in this current moment because of images. There is no tape of Trayvon Martin, there is no tape of Michael Brown, of the actual acts against them. All you have are images of the bodies, prone and gone. But it’s not just the bodyit’s the life taken from the body. So those images need to be balanced with images of black humanity not in distress and chaos.

Did you get scared with this documentary at any point?

Scared? No, not scared. I cried a lot.

You did?

There are a couple sections in there that break me every time I look at them. Many people behind bars never had a trial. That’s one of the things most viewers are stunned aboutstunned about how much money is being made from prisons, stunned at laws that are written by folks who are not lawmakers, stunned about where the whole idea of criminality and black men and white women and all that stuff comes from.

Do you think we should be optimistic about prison reform?

At one point I thought, “Should we be more hopeful?” So I included a sequence of everyone who’s in the documentary saying who they are and what they do. But I took it out, because I felt like I was saying, “Here’s the problem, but don’t worry, these people are working on it.” It was too hopeful. Viewers should be uncomfortable and walk out of there thinking, “Fuck, I gotta do something.”

How did you become a director? You were at UCLA, but you weren’t a film student.

I wrote for the black student newspaper called NOMMO, and was involved in black student politics, and rapped at the Good Life Café on Crenshaw.

You rapped?

Oh yeah.

Were you good?

What MC doesn’t say they’re good? If you don’t say you’re good, then you’re not a dope MC. One of my first films, This Is the Life, was about the artists who were rhyming at the Good Life. It was very famousan underground thing, known around the worldand it stood in opposition to the gangsta rap that was coming out at the time. So that’s what I was doing while I was in college. I was learning about the world and my place in it.

What films were you watching at the time?

In Westwood, they have these great, single-house movie theaters that play only one movie, and they would show independent films. I remember seeing Ruby in Paradise. It had a pace I felt an affection for, a pace that was luxurious, that really allowed me to live in someone else’s shoes. The films I might have been interested in as a young person didn’t play near me, because there’s no movie theater in Compton. You can’t see Straight Outta Compton in Compton. You can’t see Selma in Selma. It’s cinema segregation. Even if I was interested in independent films at that time, I would’ve had to get on a bus to take me across town, which is not possible. I’m not getting from Lynwood to Westwood. It only happened when I went to UCLA. And how many of us went to UCLA?

What made you want to make A Wrinkle in Time? Did you like the book?

I never read the book. I knew it was a kind of classic.

Like, a really dorky classic.

It was a black executive at Disney, Tendo Nagenda, and another executive, Sean Bailey, an independent producer turned studio head. They pushed me to read it. I was like, “I’m busy. I already know I’m not gonna want to do it.” So they send me the graphic novelnot the book. One night it’s late, and I pick it up and end up reading into the middle of the night. At 3 a.m. I buy the book online and spend the rest of the night reading. I fell in love with it instantly. I felt like it was mine.

That book grew me. Meg Murry is every smart girl. She embodies the smart-girl struggle of being perceived as both stupid and weird.

One of the things that really interested me about the story is that it centers on a girl, and it deals with technology and science and love and darkness and light and time travel and breaking time and space, all these concepts. But what was really interesting to me was: What if these were brown kids traveling through the universe?

Waitso Meg is gonna be a black girl? And her brother Charles Wallace is a black boy? That brings tears to my eyes. I can’t even imagine it. It really is an abolitionist story, a black story.

I won’t give too much away, but yesthey’re biracial. Their father is white and their mother is black.

I brought my copy of A Wrinkle in Time with me today. I used to write my name all over it. We dorky black girls were never presented with visions of ourselves in the media. We had Denise Huxtable, I guess, but it helps to be a dork if you’re absolutely conventionally stunning. Thislike, wow, this is progress.

It’s funny that you thought Meg Murry was going to be a white girl.

I did. I thought, “How is this gonna work?” But it seems like things are slowly starting to change in Hollywood. Now there’s the “DuVernay Test”the idea proposed by Manohla Dargis that African Americans should live fully realized lives in films, rather than serving as props in white stories. Did you think that was cool?

I did. That kind of thing is important. I liked what it was saying, and it was flattering.

You’ve achieved an enormous amount in a short time. It is incredible.

I feel like I have a short window, to be honest with you. I feel like I have to make the most of this time, because there’s not anyone I can look to who’s had a long window who’s a woman, period. A black person, period. I don’t know what’s there beyond four films, because none of us have done it. There is no black woman who’s made seven films. So for me it feels like a window that could close at any time. It doesn’t feel fast like, “Wow, this happened fast.” It feels fast like, “Better get it in.” Before it closes.