In case you missed it, Ava DuVernay’s latest project, The 13th, opened at the New York Film Festival last week with a bang, confronting the industrial prison complex, which she relates to a form of slavery for the mass incarceration of African-American men. Taking its title from the 13th Amendment (which abolished slavery except as punishment for a crime), DuVernay maintained that modern day enslavement is being exploited for political gain and profit by companies like Victoria’s Secret and J.C. Penny.
In a conversation with the New York Times prior to the film’s release, DuVernay provided a little insight on how she believes prisoners are being enslaved by the masses today.
“I’ve heard really well-meaning white people say, ‘I would never have been one of them.’ And I hear a lot of black people, including myself, saying, ‘I couldn’t have been an enslaved person.’ But when you take apart some of the pieces of what slavery was, you see they are mirroring the current day. We are re-enslaved by the millions. We are turning our eyes away from the horrors of what’s happening inside. We are participating as slave masters because we consume products and elect politicians and are complicit in enabling the system. So it’s not a one-to-one comparison, it’s an emotional comparison,” she said.
The Selma director went on to drop names, saying, “The one that was more disconcerting to me was Victoria’s Secret. They did it until it was made public, and then changed their practices, and so did J.C. Penny. Weapons systems, pieces of missile defense, down to household goods are made by people who are forced to do it because they are imprisoned, and they get paid pennies. These are practices that we would not allow in sweatshops, yet [are] O.K. for folks serving time.”
As for the solution, DuVernay said we need to get the money out of the prisons. “It’s really going to take a revolution in thought from the majority of people in this country, to push politicians to really un-legalize a lot of these practices. I believe it can happen. If you know someone’s making money off punishment — billions of dollars off that guy who got picked up for whatever and is sitting there for longer than he should — if more people knew it, I just have to believe that they’d want to do something about it.” Of course, DuVernay’s film is just the beginning of a long conversation.
In the meantime, the Long Beach native, 44, is working on a slew of other projects, including “Queen Sugar,” which broke rating records during its premiere on the Oprah Winfrey Network, early September and Disney’s A Wrinkle in Time, which she will be directing.