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Thursday, July 21, 2016

How Will the Opening Film for the New York Film Festival Influence How We Handle the Issue of Mass Incarceration?

If you've been following this blog, you know that I have what you might call a complicated relationship with filmmaker Ava Duvernay's work. I love her for what she stands to her legions of fans on social media--diversity, inclusion, film activism. It's so important, so topical, and so necessary. But when it comes to her films, I tend to have lukewarm to cold feelings about them.

Regardless, Duvernay has made black film a trending topic on social media, an urgent demand for representation on film, and will hopefully continue to bring attention to the wide canon of black films from a variety of great black filmmakers--both women and men--still struggling just to be seen. But something she hasn't been able to accomplish--though not a mandate as a filmmaker-- is getting more moviegoers (particularly non-black audiences) to care enough about the issues she explores in her films enough to want to do something about them. This represents where we are as a society--sympathetic yet complacent, enraged yet crippled by helplessness, or simply too terrified to react. 

I thought of this after receiving the press release from Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York announcing that Duvernay's new film, THE 13TH, will open the New York Film Festival (September 30 – October 16)--their first documentary opener ever. The film features interviews with prominent civil rights figures like Angela Davis, Senator Cory Booker, and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and examines the criminalization of African Americans in the United States--provoked by a pattern of fear and division. 

“It is a true honor for me and my collaborators to premiere The 13th as the opening night selection of the New York Film Festival,” said DuVernay. “This film was made as an answer to my own questions about how and why we have become the most incarcerated nation in the world, how and why we regard some of our citizens as innately criminal, and how and why good people allow this injustice to happen generation after generation."
THE 13TH will be distributed by Netflix, who has proven that they are a force to be reckoned with in the Hollywood game--marked by their 54 Emmy nominations and consistent ability to spark conversation inspired by their original content. But with the network's universality and the prestige that comes with opening the New York Film Festival, will the film serve as a catalyst to a much needed national conversation about the state of mass incarceration among black people in the U.S. that affects actual change?

Again, this is not really the responsibility of the filmmaker to move us into action when it comes to this issue. For what it's worth, Duvernay has done everything she can to present these issues in a way that would motivate us--and our government--to want to do something about it. But meanwhile, more African-American lives are seized unjustly and ending too soon.

Are we finally ready to recognize the issue of mass incarceration of African Americans as not simply a "black issue" but a national crisis? 

THE 13TH will debut on Netflix and open in limited release on October 7.


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