×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Playback: Ava DuVernay on ‘13th,’ Donald Trump and a Weakened Democratic Party

Welcome to “Playback,” a Variety podcast bringing you exclusive conversations with the talents behind many of today’s hottest films.

On today’s show, Jenelle Riley and I are fresh off the Palm Springs Film Festival, where many of the season’s contenders were honored and Variety held its annual Creative Impact Awards brunch. We also weigh the recent Writers Guild nominations, which featured the surprise inclusion of “Deadpool” in the adapted category. And with Academy voters receiving ballots today, we offer up a few last-minute suggestions for nominations.

Later on (22:21), I’m talking to director Ava DuVernay, whose documentary “13th” is one of the best films of the year. When she first got a call from Netflix asking if she’d be interested in making a documentary, she was eager, but as ever, very indie-minded about it. So things started small, then started to balloon.

For more, listen to the latest episode of “Playback” below. Check back next week for a new episode, and be sure to subscribe!

Click here for more episodes of “Playback.”

“My pitch was to do a piece about the prison industrial complex, mostly the money that is being made off punishment and that process and the power all tied up into that,” she says. “But as I got into it, I realized you couldn’t really tell that story and talk about the prison labor that JCPenney or Victoria’s Secret was practicing without people understanding the black codes and reconstruction and prison labor during that time. But you’re not going to understand that unless you know the context of the times, so I have to get into slavery. OK, if I’m in slavery, I might as well tell you, ‘Did you know about the 13th amendment?’ So the pieces started to fit together where it became a lot bigger than I originally bit off, but I think that’s the beautiful thing about a doc is it takes you where it wants to go.”

Formally speaking, DuVernay had a very specific vision for how she would capture her interview subjects and tell the story visually.

“I wanted all the spaces they were in to denote labor, so a lot of steel, brick, slate, glass, stone,” she says. “The space where we interview Angela Davis, for example, was an old abandoned train station in Oakland so that you can see the decay on the walls, the concrete falling off. That was the big idea, and then within that, [I wanted] a camera that was wide, so we could have these spaces — which is what prison is; it’s a space that you’re captured within — to kind of give a feel of captivity, that they were caught in my frame and unable to move.”

As DuVernay made the film, inevitably, the zeitgeist began to swirl around it. One clip in particular took off virally in October, with Donald Trump preaching about “the good old days,” when protesters would be treated “very, very rough.” It wasn’t the first time the modern context seemed to be reflected in DuVernay’s work. As she finished “Selma” in 2014, voting rights were again under fire and Ferguson unrest was all over the news. How does it feel when you’re essentially being handed that kind of material as an artist?

“We were determined not to cut ‘Selma’ differently than we had already planned, even though we were going home at night and seeing images that were bouncing off what we had just cut,” DuVernay says. “And we were determined in this, very much so, not to become engulfed in all this election rhetoric. It could have been really easy to dedicate a section to that fight, but then what would it be in December or January when you watch it? It would have been tagged as something of that time, and all of the information that had nothing to do with those two candidates would be lost in it. So we wanted to keep an eye on making it evergreen. I’ve been satisfied with going back and watching the doc after the election. It resonates in a different way, but it doesn’t feel dated, because we didn’t indulge in the low-hanging fruit.”

And finally, we talk about the weakness of the current Democratic party and the depression and apathy going around in the wake of Trump’s election. What’s the next step?

“The power of the image is one that we all know as people who know film and practice film,” DuVernay says. “It’s a striking, emotional thing. And when he lifts his hand, puts his hand on that Bible and takes the oath, when we see the image, I pray that that is the thing that shakes us out of the stupor. Because then it’s done. I’m dreading the image. But it’s coming. It is real.”

Other topics covered include DuVernay’s current work on Disney’s “A Wrinkle in Time” (the first time a female director has been given a budget exceeding $100 million), reconciling the Newt Gingrich of “13th” with the Newt Gingrich parroting Donald Trump’s rhetoric today as well as the rising star of commentator Van Jones. Hear about all of that and a whole lot more in the streaming link above.

Subscribe to “Playback” at iTunes.

More Film

  • 76th ANNUAL GOLDEN GLOBE AWARDS --

    Film News Roundup: Glenn Close Selected for Oscar Wilde Award

    In today’s film news roundup, Glenn Close gets an honor, AFI names its Directing Workshop for Women participants and Teri Polo gets cast in a Christmas drama. CLOSE HONOR Glenn Close will be honored on Feb. 21 by the US-Ireland Alliance at the 14th Annual Oscar Wilde Awards, held at J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot in [...]

  • Jason Reitman Ghostbusters

    Jason Reitman to Direct Secret 'Ghostbusters' Movie

    Sony Pictures is getting the wheels in motion for the next installment in the “Ghostbusters” franchise, and it knows who it’s going to call to direct: Jason Reitman. Sources tell Variety that Reitman, whose father, Ivan, directed the first two “Ghostbusters” movies, will direct the latest pic in the famous franchise. Reitman has also co-written a [...]

  • L.A. Teachers' Strike: Hollywood Studios, Unions

    Hollywood Studios, Unions Support Parents and Educators as L.A. Teachers' Strike Rages

    Hollywood unions and entertainment companies have stepped up to support the 31,000 Los Angeles teachers in the second day of a massive strike that’s affected nearly half a million students. More than 50 SAG-AFTRA members picketed at a Tuesday afternoon rally in the driving rain next to the Hollywood & Highland Center with secretary-treasurer Jane [...]

  • SAMUEL L. JACKSON in Glass. M.

    ‘Glass’ Again Tops Studios’ TV Ad Spending

    In this week’s edition of the Variety Movie Commercial Tracker, powered by the TV advertising attention analytics company iSpot.tv, Universal Pictures claims the top spot in spending for the second week in a row with “Glass.” Ads placed for the superhero thriller had an estimated media value of $9.89 million through Sunday for 1,183 national [...]

  • Danny Glover

    Danny Glover Joins 'Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle' Sequel

    Danny Glover has joined the cast of Sony’s “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” sequel. His role is being kept under wraps, as is the storyline. Glover will star opposite Dwayne Johnson, Jack Black, Kevin Hart, and Karen Gillan, all of whom are set to return. Awkwafina is in final negotiations for a significant part in [...]

  • DJ Khaled Bad Boys

    DJ Khaled Joins 'Bad Boys' Sequel (EXCLUSIVE)

    DJ Khaled has rounded out the cast of Sony’s upcoming “Bad Boys” sequel “Bad Boys for Life,” joining returning stars Will Smith and Martin Lawrence. Khaled will also join series newcomers Vanessa Hudgens, Alexander Ludwig, Charles Melton, Jacob Scipio, and Paola Nuñez. Joe Pantoliano is on board to return as Captain Howard. Production is currently [...]

  • SAMUEL L. JACKSON in Glass. M.

    M. Night Shyamalan's 'Glass' to Break January's Slow Box Office Streak

    No plot twist here: M. Night Shyamalan’s thriller “Glass” will dominate the domestic box office. As this weekend’s lone wide release, “Glass” looks to be the de facto choice for moviegoers during the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. Now the only question is: how big of an opening can “Glass” pull off? Mediocre reviews don’t [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content