Ava DuVernay’s “13th” opened the 54th New York Film Festival with a jolt of topical urgency, shaking up tradition as the first documentary to kick off the festival and addressing head-on the issue of mass incarceration and its historical roots. The crowd at the premiere screening rose to its feet when the credits rolled — and then did it a couple more times after that: once when the lights came up on the filmmakers, activists and academics involved in the film, and again when DuVernay appeared for a brief talkback after the movie.
Heightened security measures, a reaction to the Sept. 17 bombing in Chelsea, made the opening the first in recent memory to involve bomb-sniffing dogs and security wands. Famous faces including Oprah Winfrey, Common and Don Lemon turned out for the film, which confronts issues at the forefront of the current political conversation: race, inequality, the fallout of slavery, police brutality and Black Lives Matter.
“This moment, this Black Lives Matter moment, it’s not a moment. It’s a movement,” said DuVernay on the red carpet before the film’s world premiere (in words she would later echo when she addressed the crowd in the theater). “People thought, ‘Oh, will it last?’ Well, it has lasted. It’s changed things. It’s forced candidates to talk about things that they did not talk about in previous elections. It’s opened people’s minds. It’s changed art-making. It’s changed music. People are seeing things through a different filter now.”
In another mark of the movie’s topicality, both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump make appearances. “It’s fitting that this film is opening up the film festival, and I wish it would close it as well,” said CNN anchor Lemon. “Because these are the issues that are going to help decide this election. The next leader of the free world, this will be at the top of their list.”
After the premiere, Common, who wrote an original song for “13th” (and won an Oscar for the song he co-wrote for “Selma”), performed a set onstage at the afterparty at Tavern on the Green, where the outdoor spaces were tented to shield partygoers from the rain, and a familiar crowd of producers, critics and publicists stayed past 1:00 a.m.