Criminal Justice in America: ‘For Storytellers, It’s Fertile Ground’

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Ava DuVernay has directed such films as “Middle of Nowhere,” “Selma” and “A Wrinkle in Time.” She was Oscar-nominated for her 2016 documentary “13th,” a look at the criminal justice system’s violations of the spirit of the 13th Amendment. Her next project is the Netflix miniseries “Central Park Five,” a look at the 1990 conviction of five teenage boys that is expected next spring. DuVernay spoke with Variety’s Bob Verini.

You’ve been aware of the criminal justice system’s treatment of people of color from a young age. When making “13th,” what came as a surprise?
I wasn’t aware of ALEC [the American Legislative Exchange Council]. Everything else in the documentary are things that I’d been aware of and wanted to make sure other people were aware of. But in the research, learning about ALEC, learning about this shadowy group that was pulling the strings of politicians from the right, was really frightening and enlightening.

What aspects of the problem will get people riled up enough to effect real change?
That’s how “13th” was constructed and designed, in a way — to touch on a sprawling overview of the problem so that folks could identify with what interests them. When we talk about reform and radical change, or even abolition, one challenge is the incorrect assumption that everyone’s going to be passionate about the same things. I think what’s really important is to present an array of ways that people can enter into the problem from where they are … You might be a young person and see the issue in one way. You might be the mother of four kids and see it in another way. You might be black, you might be Latino, Asian, LGBTQ or not. So we wanted to present an array of options that would allow people to feel emotionally connected.

Are there some first steps, or policy issues, that could get enough public support to make a difference?
I got asked this question a lot during the “13th” campaign, and I really tried to present the case for the fact that this is an insidious, systemic issue, and that there’s no easy answer. There’s not a first step because if there was, I would’ve said it in the film, and I would’ve put together a cheat sheet and started a petition … It’s like someone saying, “How do you end racism? How do you end misogyny, sexism, patriarchy, white supremacy?” These are cultural, deeply systemic, emotional, personal, generational problems that plague our society. And so there isn’t an easy answer.

Part of the solution is to educate yourself, so that we have a society that is wisely aware of what the issue is, and what all the nooks and crannies and cracks in the system are. So that you can begin to have a base of knowledge with which to work on solutions — a widespread, varied array of solutions.

Many people working in many different ways on one problem. It’s like a cure for cancer. There’s not just one group working on one way to battle it. If all kinds of people are attacking it, from every direction … It’s very much the same.

For a lot of people, economic concerns tend to overshadow arguments for social justice. Can such people be persuaded that treating the incarcerated more humanely isn’t just good in itself, but is also good business?
Folks who talk about economic arguments for keeping the system the way it is, are not well versed in the economic ramifications of keeping over 2.2 million people incarcerated. The very people who are uninterested in looking at the real issues within the criminal justice system — their inefficiencies, and the way in which they’re draining local, state and federal economies — are the same folks who are complaining about migrant labor and taking American jobs.

There’s a real disconnect between the rhetoric around what is being spent and what is being saved; what incarceration is costing society as a whole, and what the reality is. Rhetoric vs. reality. If you were to really dive into how incarceration is a drain on the American economy, it is getting a very few corporations rich, and literally leaving communities bankrupt. And not just the communities that have people incarcerated, but the communities in which many of these facilities are housed. There’s a big, kind of cyclical, very deeply broad economic drain to American society that is hardly discussed at all. Because it doesn’t serve the political purposes of the people who are benefitting.

What made you so eager to tell the story of the Central Park Five?
I feel like it’s the final part of a triptych that’s dealing with mass incarceration — “Middle of Nowhere” being the first, “13th” being the second — and looking at stories that can deepen our understanding of what it means to be incarcerated. This story focuses on the perspective of the boys who became men while incarcerated for crimes they didn’t commit. And their families. So it looks at the invisible victims … the thread of the disease of incarceration through family and community. It allows us to delve more deeply into what the human cost of incarceration is. I was eager to tell the story, to add another layer to the conversation.

In “13th,” Sen. Cory Booker cites the common misconception that the system is all about judges, juries and trials. How can movies and TV better inform the public about what really moves or slows down the wheels of justice?
I think just more detail, and really getting into the roles that district attorneys play. The roles of community interaction, and police aggression, and the bail system and the parole system and probation, and the costs of incarceration.

There are so many facets of the criminal justice system that don’t make their way into American television and film. For storytellers, they’re fertile ground: deeply emotional, deeply resonant human stories. But I think we get a little lazy. We’re used to the same kind of judge-and-jury, based on the classic narrative “To Kill a Mockingbird,” where you’ve got the lawyers and the jury, and the judge and the jury, and a proper decision is reached. [Instead of] inviting folks to think more deeply about what it really is.

Not to mention the shocking fact that most incarcerees have never had a trial, which “13th” really brings home.
It’s a huge issue in public life that’s little-known. It’s really dastardly. It goes completely against the founding principles of this country. More people should know about it and focus on it.

At the time of “13th,” you sounded optimistic about changes. The past two years have been contentious and polarized. Has your degree of hope changed?
No. To be hopeless is to disregard history. If you have a feeling of hopelessness now, then my goodness, you need to build your emotional muscles! I mean, truly, we have people within our lifetimes who were in concentration camps. People within our lifetimes who experienced genocide in Rwanda and other places. What’s happening in Yemen right now. What happened during the civil rights movement: People are alive who on their way to the polls were hosed down with water hoses, intimidated, shot in front of their homes for encouraging people to vote. I mean, let’s get a grip! It’s not great. It’s really bad, but this is not the worst of us; this is not the worst we’ve seen, even in our own lifetimes. There’s far worse happening in other places in the world, and there’s been a light that has overcome all of it. At every turn.

And so yes, this has been a tough couple of years. And we’re spoiled as Americans, some of us are. You look at the Native American voter suppression. You look at what’s happening to immigrants in this country, or what’s happening to folks who look like immigrants in this country. To the Muslim community. To the black community. To women …. But it’s not the worst that we’ve experienced, and it probably won’t be the worst that it gets.

Hope is required to instigate the action that it’s going to take to overcome it. So hopelessness is just something I don’t wallow in. And if you need any ammunition to get over it: Read your history books. It’s all in there. It’s all being repeated, and the tragedy of it is being repeated, but the triumph of it will be repeated as well. It’s just a question of, how long do we have to go through the same mistakes before we raise our heads and say, “This happened before. We can move a little faster this time.”