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.

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“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.

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