Ava DuVernay’s Mass Incarceration Documentary to Become First Nonfiction Film to Open NYFF


The New York Film Festival has just announced its precedent-setting 2016 Opening Night film selection: Ava DuVernay’s documentary The 13th, which will become the first nonfiction film to ever open the festival on September 30. (It’s set to be officially released on Netflix on October 7, when it’ll also start its limited theatrical run.)

The film’s title refers to the 13th Amendment — “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…” — and the documentary examines the amendment’s failed promises, given the country’s world-record rate of incarceration (our country comprises only 4.4% of the world’s population, yet you can also find 22% of the world’s prisoners here) and the fact that there are nearly 1 million African Americans in prison in the states, while the number of incarcerated individuals is around 2.3 million. (That’s nearly half — and black people make up only 13.3% of the American population.)

According to a press release, the film covers key parts of 20th/21st century American history catalyzing or pertaining to the overwhelming persecution of black people. Its historical explorations range “from D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) and the rebirth of the KKK to the Civil Rights Movement, the 1994 Crime Bill, the rise of ALEC, and the Black Lives Matter movement.”

Kent Jones, NYFF Director and Selection Committee Chair, said of the film:

While I was watching The 13th, the distinction between documentary and fiction gave way and I felt like I was experiencing something so rare: direct contact between the artist and right now, this very moment. In fact, Ava is actually trying to redefine the terms on which we discuss where we’re at, how we got here, and where we’re going. The 13th is a great film. It’s also an act of true patriotism.

And DuVernay also gave a statement regarding news of the NYFF debut:

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. I thank Kent Jones and the selection committee for inviting me to share what I’ve learned.

She said in a just-published interview with the New York Times:

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… 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.

Past notable NYFF opening night films included Gone Girl, The Social Network, Dancer in the Dark, All About My Mother, Pulp Fiction, Ran, Small Change, Alphaville and The Exterminating Angel.