Director Ava DuVernay tells Democrats her documentary, ‘13th,’ is ‘not propaganda’


Ava DuVernay’s new Netflix documentary, “13th,” is an indictment of the racially charged way politicians on both sides of the aisle have handled criminal justice issues throughout American history. But when a Democratic National Committee staffer retweeted a montage from the documentary that draws parallels between Donald Trump’s campaign and the country’s racist past, it drew the filmmaker’s ire.

On Thursday, Adam Parkhomenko, national field director for the Democratic National Committee, retweeted a clip from “13th” that intercuts footage of Trump at a rally telling his supporters about the “good old days” when protesters would be “carried out on a stretcher” with black-and-white footage of police brutality against civil rights protesters in the 1960s, including a shot of a protester actually being carried on a stretcher.

“Absolutely devastating” Parkhomenko tweeted of the clip, which was first shared by a private citizen on Oct. 11, and has been reTweeted 160,000 times.

The clip is not an official DNC campaign video, a DNC spokesman said. 

But DuVernay, who also directed the Oscar-winning Martin Luther King Jr. biopic “Selma,” objected to its use. “Sir, The clip you shared unattributed was not made as political propaganda. I invite @TheDemocrats to view @13THFilm fully. Not cherry pick,” she tweeted Thursday  to Parkhomenko, a longtime Hillary Clinton aide.

Although the clip is not being used in any official capacity by the Clinton campaign or the DNC, DuVernay’s objection mirrors the issues some artists have had when their work takes on new meaning during an election. In this cycle, musicians including Adele and the Rolling Stones have asked Trump to stop using their songs at his events. 

In the case of DuVernay, her film tells a more complex story and one that isn’t isn’t entirely flattering to both  the Republicans and the Democrats.

Through statistics, archival footage and interviews with figures like academic Henry Louis Gates Jr. and activist Angela Davis, “13th,” which is named after the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, draws a stark line between the institution of slavery and the high incarceration rate of black men in the U.S. in 2016. The film opened the New York Film Festival last month and premiered on Netflix on Oct. 7 to overwhelmingly positive reviews — The Times’ Kenneth Turan said “13th” makes its point with “undeniable eloquence as well as persuasive force.”

In addition to the pointed Trump montage, “13th” includes interviews with conservatives like Newt Gingrich and Grover Norquist, as well as scenes that reflect poorly on the Democratic presidential nominee’s legacy on the issue of race and crime. Perhaps most damning is a clip from a 1996 speech Hillary Clinton gave in which she used the word “superpredators.”

At the time, Clinton was speaking in support of the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which her husband, President Bill Clinton, had signed in to law. In the years since, many who study criminal justice have blamed the law for sending disproportionate numbers of African Americans to prison. After Black Lives Matter activists confronted Clinton about her use of the word “superpredator” during the contentious Democratic primary campaign in February, she released a statement to the Washington Post apologizing for her word choice.

After his initial tweet of the clip from “13th,” Parkhomenko later tweeted an attribution to DuVernay and her film along with praise, writing, “Thank you for having the courage to make this.”

DuVernay was not immediately available for comment on this story, but when asked about her documentary on a red carpet at Variety’s Power of Women event on Friday, the director told a reporter the Trump footage was “part of an overall tapestry.”

“People are picking that out and it’s a little cherry picking from a documentary that tells the full story of racial oppression in this country. [Trump] is the least of it. Right now a lot of the focus is on him but he’s not what it’s all about it. But certainly he’s a side effect of many, many years of treating a certain group of people less than others.”

Trailer for Netflix's '13th' documentary.

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1:05 p.m. This article has been updated to reflect comments DuVernay made at an event on Friday.

The article was originally published at 12:40 p.m.