Ava DuVernay Documentary to Open New York Film Festival This Fall


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Ava DuVernay in 2014.

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Kevork Djansezian/Reuters

A documentary by Ava DuVernay about the United States’ sky-high incarceration rate will open the New York Film Festival in the fall, the first time a nonfiction film will kick off the event in its 50-plus years.

Named after the constitutional amendment abolishing slavery, “The 13th” threads together archival footage with modern-day commentary, and focuses on the ramifications of the amendment and its clause: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States.”

“A certain part of our population has been demonized for the benefit of private industry and politicians, and a lot of forces that have nothing to do with, quote, ‘keeping people safe,’” Ms. DuVernay said in a phone interview. “Once you know why we’re here and how we got here, we’re on more solid footing to walk ourselves out of this deep valley that we found ourselves in. That’s the hope.”

“The 13th” is Ms. DuVernay’s first directing effort since “Selma” (2014), which starred David Oyelowo as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and received an Academy Award nomination for best picture.

In “The 13th,” Ms. DuVernay weaves together footage of the civil rights movement, the Ku Klux Klan and Black Lives Matter activists, and interviews with figures as varied as the Republican and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, the political commentator and activist Van Jones, and Michelle Alexander, the author of “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” (2010).

The United States’ high incarceration rate has become a cause for concern on both sides of the political aisle. Though the country accounts for about 4.4 percent of the world’s population, it houses nearly 22 percent of the world’s prisoners. A disproportionate amount of those prisoners are black men.

While opening with a documentary represents a departure for the festival, which in recent years has opted for more commercial fare like “The Walk” and “Gone Girl,” Kent Jones, the festival’s director, said this year’s selection was determined by the work’s storytelling strengths. “There’s no other answer besides the fact that it’s a great film,” he said.

“It meets the moment head on,” he added. “She’s redefining what the national conversation is, and doing it in a very powerful way.”

Now in its 54th year, the New York Film Festival, which is presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center, will run from Sept. 30 to Oct. 16. After its premiere, “The 13th” will appear in theaters and on Netflix on Oct. 7.

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