13th Trailer: Ava DuVernay Examines the Evolution of Slavery in America

By  · Published on September 26th, 2016

The documentary opens the 54th New York Film Festival.

After posting a teaser yesterday, the trailer for Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th has finally dropped. The film is set to open the 54th New York Film Festival this Friday, and it will be a historic premiere as this is the first nonfiction film and the first film directed by an African-American to open the festival. 13th’s powerful trailer proves it also stands a chance at becoming one of the boldest and most important movies of the year.

As we mentioned awhile back, DuVernay is basically owning 2016. Queen Sugar, a television series she co-produced and wrote for the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN), recently premiered to stellar reviews and high viewership records for the network. She is also prepping to shoot Disney’s adaptation of “A Wrinkle in Time” starring Oprah Winfrey, Mindy Kaling, Reese Witherspoon, and 12 Years a Slave’s Storm Reid. On top of it all, The Smithsonian’s new National Museum of African American History and Culture opened last week with the DuVernay-helmed August 28: A Day In The Life Of A People, a short film chronicling significant events in African-American history that occurred on that date.

13th is arguably DuVernay’s most controversial and socially relevant work so far, as it delves deep into the history of racism and mass incarceration in the United States. The title refers to the 13th Amendment to the Constitution which abolished slavery except in the case of criminal punishment. Activist-attorney Van Jones’ statement at the beginning of the trailer sets the movie’s tone with a staggering statistic:

“One out of four human beings with their hands on bars, shackled, in the world are locked up here in ‘the land of the free.’”

The film dubs itself as “150 years in the making” as it aims to examine the evolution of slavery in America’s modern criminal justice system through the lens of its racist backstory. Another powerful statement in the piece comes from US Senator Cory Booker:

“There are more African-Americans under criminal supervision than all the slaves in the 1850s.”

Just let that sink in for a minute. Connecting slavery in the 1850s to the present-day prison system is not a large leap when you think about it.

By taking a historical approach to a contemporary issue, the film aims to shed light on events we know all too well like the Civil War and Civil Rights Movement, as well as dissect events and issues we may not know enough about, such as the individual experiences of incarcerated black men and the monetization of the American prison system.

The film features archival footage from silent films depicting black men as criminals, to modern news clips of political figures such as Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. It also includes testimonies from leading voices – activists, politicians, historians, and formerly incarcerated women and men including Jones, Booker, Newt Gingrich, Michelle Alexander, Bryan Stevenson, Angela Davis, Grover Norquist, Khalil Muhammad, Craig DeRoche, Shaka Senghor, Malkia Cyril, and Henry Louis Gates Jr.

The inclusion of footage featuring contemporary political figures like the current US presidential candidates is no coincidence. DuVernay is an experienced marketer, after all, so she is well versed on strategic PR. By including the presidential candidates in this, she encourages us to become aware of the issue of mass incarceration and race as we approach the election and even tonight’s debates. Basically, DuVernay means business, and she is not sparing anyone or anything in this important discussion.

Race has always been controversial in America and the issue has grown even more divided in the age of #BlackLivesMatter. And DuVernay is challenging us to tackle it head on in 13th. By opening the film at a prestigious venue like the New York Film Festival and releasing it on a worldwide platform such as Netflix, she has the chance to bring an important social issue to the forefront. One can only hope that the film delivers on its message to show the historical evolution of a deeply rooted social problem, and that people pay attention and participate.

To quote another film, 13th is simply asking us to, “Waaaaaaake up.” So open your eyes and mark your calendars, folks. 13th streams worldwide on Netflix on October 7th.

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Writer. Audio/Creative Producer. Columnist, Film School Rejects.