NYFF: Ava DuVernay, with assists from Van Jones and others, makes a potential prison game-changer

In just a short while, the press screening for the opening-night film of the 2016 New York Film Festival will begin. Members of the media will see “13th,” the Ava DuVernay documentary about mass incarceration that was shot stealthily over the last year or so for Netflix.

The movie brings a different feel to the annual gathering, which usually opens with a high-profile awards contender like “Captain Phillips” or “Life of Pi.” “13th” traces the post-slavery history of African Americans in the United States, up to and including  the corporatization of the prison industry that, the film argues, has had as many devastating effects on the black community and the country’s moral fabric as slavery itself. (The title, a reference to the amendment that abolished slavery, is a pointed one.)

It also marks a switch for DuVernay, who in films such as “Middle of Nowhere” and “Selma,” has been exploring minority discrimination from the other side of the feature-doc divide.

“It’s always something on my mind,” DuVernay said Thursday in an interview from the set of her new movie “A Wrinkle in Time,” noting earlier films and characters, such as Ralph Bordelon and Too Sweet in her OWN series “Queen Sugar,” that address the human side of imprisonment. “The ‘why now’ is that it’s a story I’ve been telling and talking about for a while.”

“13th” charts a world in which the prison population has soared over 2 million after decades of staying relatively constant under 500,000 even well into the 1970s. The growth is a function of mandatory minimum sentencing, three-strikes policy and the holding of poor defendants who may well be innocent — all disproportionally affecting African American males (and far less interested, the film argues, in rehabilitation than it should be).

Audiences who see “13th” at the festival — it will be at the center of a gala opening Friday night — and on Netflix beginning next month will experience a movie that radically asks to reinterpret how we view criminal justice and law-and-order politician claims going back to President Nixon. Far from keeping us safe, the doc submits, such assertions are meant to prey on white fears and suppress black achievement.

“You cannot put a price tag on wasted genius,” the activist and CNN commentator Van Jones, one of the many personalities appearing in the film, told The Times. “We do not know how many inventions, cures and great works of art are unavailable to humanity because the people that could have created them are locked up for dumb stuff that most people did in college."

Jones is one of dozens of experts woven through “13th” offering both a history of the prison system and a critique of it. He became involved because he and DuVernay, both active on Twitter, began communicating via social media during the anniversary of the Selma marches in early 2015. He, like others, eventually decided to be a part of the documentary. Much of the cultural conversation of the moment centers on the Black Lives Matter movement, rarely going to more fundamental institutional and economic reasons for the inequities — and certainly not doing so with more than a passing glance.

“In the daily news cycle you’re just skipping the stone across the surface of the water,” Jones said. “This was a chance to let that stone sink and go deeper.”

One way it does that is by its investigation of the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, a private conservative group that has written many of the current criminal justice laws. The exposure of this little-publicized group will be a jolt to many viewers; DuVernay said she was startled by some of the discoveries and struggled most with how to handle them in the film. (Maybe even more startling is the appearance of Newt Gingrich, who comes off as one of the politicians most sensitive to the film’s issues.)

"13th" seeks to achieve its ends with a kind of subversiveness, taking the form of a seemingly conventional talking-head film that, far from dispassionate recollection, winds up making a profound moral and philosophical case.

“This could have been the dutiful, Learning Channel version of a film about the subject,” said Kent Jones, the New York Film Festival director who spearheaded the decision to open with the movie. “Instead Ava DuVernay has made the bold version.”

The movie paints a picture of  people of color, particularly men, locked up for years for low-level offenses they’re not guilty of. The prison system, "13th" posits, is a beast — employing thousands of guards, enriching scores of entrepreneurs and requiring millions of inmates for cheap industrial labor — and poor black men are the nutrients that feed it.

Whether the documentary will change what, bias aside, is by some estimates a $75-billion industry remains to be seen. Viewers may be left feeling pessimistic about the hurdles, if slightly buoyed by a feeling that a new order may be coming. In 2012 mass incarceration wasn’t even part of the Democratic platform. The Black Lives Matter movement has shined a light that now makes reform a regular part of the electoral discourse.

DuVernay said the very act of the discussion is meaningful. “The first step toward consciousness is awareness,” she said. “A lot of what we believe has been manufactured by larger interests. This film I hope opens people eyes.”

Or as Van Jones said in the interview. “We are closer than ever to solving the problem of mass incarceration. And we’re still very far away.”

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